Friday, January 10, 2020

The Hobbit Autopsy by Lindsay Ellis

In the last few days, I had the pleasure of watching Lindsay Ellis' Hugo-nominated video essay on the making of Peter Jackson The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014). Watch it here.

Here's a commentary on that. Lindsay largely frames her essay as "I deeply loved the LOTR movies, but then I was a kid; the Hobbit movies leave me cold, maybe that's because I was an adult when I saw them". (She was 17 when the first LOTR movie was released, 28 for the first Hobbit movie.)

My reply is: "No, it's not you, it's them."

Here's a few examples from personal experience for comparison, which I hope gives a helpful perspective. I was turning a teenager when the original Star Wars movies came out and I was crazy for them. (I can still remember heatedly debating plot points with friends between those movie releases.) Twenty years later, the prequels start coming out, and my girlfriend got tickets on opening night to Ep. 1; I was so excited. That wound up being one of the most embarrassing disappointments of my life. I didn't see either of the follow-ups.

Now, a common argument at the time was, "Star Wars are fantasy movies are for kids; if you're not a kid then you're not the target audience; and you can't possibly appreciate them." But this was contemporaneous with Peter Jackson's LOTR movies coming out -- and I loved those to death. I saw them multiple times in the theaters. Persuaded friends I don't usually go to movies with to join me. This being when I was an adult -- and someone who hadn't read the novels, either (so not intimately pre-invested in the franchise).


Fast forward another ten years and you start getting the Hobbit movies, as a prequel trilogy to LOTR. Based on advance reviews, I skipped the whole series. I later saw most of the third movie on TV in a hotel and I was like, yuck, what a loud, empty not-much.

But in the meantime I'm also wildly fond of many of the Marvel movies, and likewise I've seen several of those multiple times in theaters, and have very fond memories of them. In particular, I think the last Thor movie, Infinity War, and Endgame are pretty much genius works. As an adult.

In June of 1999 (in the early web days) I wrote a short essay called, "Star Wars Episode I: 20 Criticisms". Among my complaints were things such as: lack of character chemistry, cannibalizing the material of the previous films, having old characters reappear for bad reasons, repeating plot structure, the climactic fight being uncompelling, etc. Those are all rather uncannily similar to Lindsay's criticism of the Hobbit movies. (And check this out: on The Wrap, by Phil Owen and Ross Lincoln, "The 23 Worst Parts of ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’", which kind of says the same thing all over again about the 2019 film.) 

Looking up comparative critical ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, we see:
  • Original Star Wars Trilogy -- 93%, 94%, 82%.
  • Prequel Star Wars Trilogy -- 53%, 65%, 80%.
  • Original LOTR Trilogy -- 91%, 95%, 93%.
  • Prequel Hobbit Trilogy -- 64%, 74%, 59%.
  • Thor 3, Infinity War, Endgame -- 93%, 85%, 94%.

So the point is, there are pretty objectively good movies and bad movies in the world, and generally we know which is which (if we're honest about our internal experience of a thing). In my experience, I've grown surprised at how consistent my emotional perceptions of things are. I can become flush with excitement and fantasy at any age, if the work is essentially good.

Also: Prequels suck!

23 comments:

  1. Regarding the Hobbit movies, I'll say this: watch one of the fan edits that cuts it down to a single movie. I tried the following one a few years ago, and it's so much better than the actual movies. Cuts out all the extraneous BS, focuses on the scenes from the book, and miraculously doesn't feel like anything is missing at all.

    http://www.maple-films.com/downloads.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I did hear about that the other day, makes sense to me, honestly. I'll put that on my watch list!

      Delete
    2. Agreed. I did one myself for my kids, who I had read The Hobbit to. They asked what they were missing, and when I explained, they were like "That's DUMB. Why would anyone think adding that stuff is a good idea?!"

      There's a good movie in there, but you have to strip out all the stuff that they added thinking their fanfic deserved equal place with Tolkien. It doesn't.

      Delete
    3. LOL, that's awesome. "From the mouths of babes come ostentatious franknesses."

      Delete
  2. I think the two recent unnumbered Star Wars movies are an interesting case study in prequels. The first, Rogue One, is mostly concerned with exploring the state of the Galaxy before Star Wars began, and is successful, only really stumbling (in my estimation) when it tries to address criticism of the Death Star plot. Solo, on the other hand, was met largely with apathy, and it focuses on two characters whom we already know a lot about.

    I suspect that, for a prequel to be successful, it is best served in fleshing out the status quo that the heroes of the original work changed. I find that New Hope feels fresh after watching Rogue One, because I'm more aware of the dangers that are faced, and it makes Luke and Han's mix of skill, luck and destiny that much more exciting. I can't think of another prequel that really enhances the original movie.

    In conclusion, it is possible for prequels not to suck, but boy oh boy do most of them just suck.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's interesting. Admittedly my current policy led me to not watch either of those. I know a lot of people really appreciated Rogue One.

      Delete
    2. Rogue One is excellent and definitely worth checking out.

      Delete
    3. Rogue One is a minor key masterpiece compared to the EP 1-3 prequels.

      Delete
  3. I have never seen the Hobbit movies, but for a far different, and more personal reason.

    My childhood/pre-teen years, I grew up in Milford Ohio, which was just on the outside of the border of Ohio/Kentucky/West Virgina northern Appalachian area. At the time, it was a small town, not yet considered a suburb of Cincinnati. As such, the library was an important part of life there, as it was a source of entertainment and life in the 70s.

    When I was close to ten years old, I was already reading at an adult level, so my Dad accompanied me to the library where I was able to get an adult card with his permission and pick out some books. The librarian recommended that I try "The Hobbit." It was the version with the trees/mountains in blue/green/white.

    I took that book home and devoured it. I am a natural speed reader and I must've read through that book a few dozen times before having to return it. About every year or so, I will sit down for a read through of it again, but I read it much slower now, each word is a treasure. So many scenes still dance in my head like they did for that young boy who read these books and desperately longed to be Bilbo himself.

    I also used to do the same for the LotR trilogy - read it yearly. However, Jackson's wonderful movies have had a side effect on me... I no longer "see" the books like my pre-teen self did when I read them. I "see" the movies in my head. I'm not saying that is a bad thing, but ... I don't want the same thing to happen to the Hobbit.

    It was the source of a bit of a rub between my wife and myself! She loved the movies, and she (gently) teases me about being a grognard about the Hobbit, but I'm perfectly happy with the visions of the ten year old me staying in my head of my memories of a singular hobbit and his companions on a quest.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a great story! I totally get that. My first brush with the Hobbit was in 6th grade when our teacher read it to us over I-don't-know how many days. I have this sense memory of other kids sleeping around me, and me being electrified.

      For me my top re-read is White's The Once and Future King, which I'm on schedule to re-read about every 10 years or so (starting at 10). Kind of get a different texture every time. (And similar starts-fanciful-initial-volume and then gets dark later kind of arc, now that I think of it.)

      Delete
  4. I'll second the praise for the Hobbit Fan Edits, though I do find the first film decent enough.
    There is also a nice Prequel fan edit "Last turn to the Dark Side" or something like that shows the potential of the prequel story.
    The Sequels just have no reason to exist.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I commiserate with you. I agree that prequels (and sequels) are often bad. I am a passionate fan of Middle Earth, having discovered the world in elementary school. I read those four books annually, studied them in college. Went to see Fellowship as if it were a religious experience. Ultimately I had some issues with the LOTR trilogy of movies, but overall it was a positive. (BTW, interesting observation about how we visualize books, and how that can be tainted by a film.) But that first Hobbit film left me physically ill. I, too, eventually watched a fan wdie, but found it to be without any redeeming features. Wish I could get it out of my memory!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting! When you say "physically ill", do you mean overall artistry, or the unique resolution/frame speed? (or both)

      Delete
    2. I'd actually forgotten the technical issue there! But no, I was sick over watching how PJ smeared offal all over my childhood.

      Delete
    3. I was kind of guessing it was that. :-/

      Delete
  6. Not a movie buff by any means, but I think the problem with the Star Wars prequels/sequels was that they feel like they're retreading the same ground over and over again. When I watched The Last Jedi, I was left feeling like there was nothing in there that I hadn't seen before in the original trilogy, just the names on the roles were shifted around.

    Also, Infinity War left a really bad taste in my mouth. I hate it when a movie feels incomplete because it's just setting up for you to see the next one (same reason why I swore off reading Brandon Sanderson books after the 1200 page trailer that was The Way of Kings).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Re: Star Wars, absolutely, the retreading plots and characters is my top gripe. I came out of Ep. 7 saying it was aggressively, even brazenly derivative.

      I've got to admit I really liked Infinity War ending with an all-out traumatizing win for the bad guy (I didn't think a big-budget hero movie could have the courage to commit to that). Admittedly I knew all along there was a two-movie story planned. I do have a bit more tolerance for connected cliffhangers than other people; e.g., I think the similar connection from Empire to Return of the Jedi makes it very memorable.

      Delete
    2. I'm fine with downer endings or with teasers for a planned sequel. What irritates me is when I'm left feeling like I watched/read something incomplete. Empire Strikes Back had a clear set-up for a sequel, but it could also stand on its own as a full story (admittedly, I haven't watched it in over a decade, so my memory may be faulty). The ending for Infinity War left me feeling like I'd just watched the first 2 acts of a 3 act plot.

      Delete
  7. Kept most of my thoughts on my own blog, but I'll say a few things here, too.

    (1) Saw the first Hobbit movie, I think I liked it, but not strongly. As a result, never got around to watching the rest.
    (2) Pretty much felt the same way about Star Wars. Didn't feel strongly about the first movie, so I don't really try that hard to keep up to date. Still, I don't see most of the follow-ups as being all that different in quality.
    (3) Agree with Ash about retreads and repeated elements in general. Mass media, including Hollywood film, finds a formula and tries to repeat as many things as they think will sell. The Hobbit gets extra material to remind people about LotR, every Star Wars movie gets a Yoda and a Chewbacca, the first Ghostbusters movie had slime, so GB 2 had even more slime, etc. I think this is really what is ticking people off about their fandoms, but there's really no way around it: if you want more Star Wars, that's what you're going to get, not something completely novel and yet somehow still Star Wars.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really agree with so much of that. Spectacular point on GB2; GB1 was at one point my favorite movie and I watched it with a friend about monthly for a few years in high school. We literally could not believe it when people told us BG2 was bad, but so it was.

      I haven't seen it, but some people are really liking that Mandalorian SW TV show (which, ok, has a Yoda, but other than that new characters). Someone in the industry on Twitter said they really hoped future SW stuff was episodic TV and not feature films. Likewise it seemed like GB had so many different things they could have followed up on -- like following the RPG that was out at the time with franchises around the country with other people. Picaresques?

      Delete
    2. Another parallel with GB2 is that it resets the characters' state in an unconvincing way back to scrappy-underdog-barely-hanging-on, following their prior epic success and celebration. So the director can repeat the same tone and dynamics as in the earlier film. This article makes the same point about the recent Star Wars trilogy:

      It Was a Total Lack of Planning That Killed Star Wars

      Delete
  8. I don't know which started first: my love for the OSR or my fandom of Lindsay, but this meeting of the two is messing with my head...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that's very cool. I've been binging on her stuff over dinners and such the past few days. Did not expect to get sucked into Transformers, Phantom of the Opera, history of musicals, etc., but now that's happened.

      Delete