31 December 2012


For me, the modern movie-going experience is hideous so it’s quite the occasion when I visit my neighborhood theater. In this case a number of factors conspired to bring it about. First, of course, it’s The Hobbit. I’ve been a Tolkien fan for 35+ years, since my father bought The Two Towers for me one weekend. (I was a bit clueless at the time so hadn’t realized that the book was the second in a trilogy. The opening threw me for a bit until I realized my mistake, which was soon rectified.) By the time I was 11, I had read The Silmarillion and now I have a bookshelf dedicated to Tolkieniana – including at least seven volumes of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth. Second, I had a free-movie pass (no expiration date) that a friend had given me several years ago. Third, my theater is only two blocks north of where I live. Fourth, I’ve been on vacation for the last week and so had copious free time on my hands and could go to the matinee. And, fifth, a friend had gone to see the film and e-mailed me with his impressions about it.

My going was inevitable.

Overall, I would give Jackson’s Hobbit a moderately positive thumb’s up.

Among the good points:

  1. Without a doubt, the best thing about the movie was the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Once you’ve seen him acting, you realize that there could have been no other actor to play the part.
  2. The Dwarves. I was impressed that Jackson managed to make many of Thorin’s Company reasonably distinct. I can’t claim to be able to identify all thirteen but I did know who Fili, Kili, Balin, Dwalin and Bofur were by the end of the film. (I exclude Thorin, for obvious reasons, and Bombur, since he’s always been “the fat one.”)
  3. I liked the fact that Jackson was able to shoehorn “Blunt the Knives” and the lament for lost Erebor into the “Unexpected Party” scenes. But I was disappointed that he didn’t include the Elvish ditty “Down in the Valley” when the Dwarves reach Rivendell. Though considering how the Elves are presented here and in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, I can see why he didn’t (I’ll have more about my dissatisfaction with Jackson’s Elves in the “bad points” section of this review below).
  4. I liked the Troll scene. Again, there was a certain amount of disappointment that Jackson excised the part where Gandalf bamboozles them with ventriloquism but his solution – Bilbo distracting them until morning – was OK.
  5. I wasn’t bothered by the Thorin/Azog thread Jackson introduced since there is some basis for it in the books. Azog does kill Thror and mutilate the body; however, that sets off the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs, it doesn’t happen at the final battle. Azog is killed at the final battle (by Dain, not Thorin) and it’s his son, Bolg, who leads the Goblin army at the end of the novel. But that may be too complicated for movie-going audiences to follow, so I’m OK with streamlining it.
  6. I interpret the character and appearance of the Great Goblin as an homage to the character and appearance of same in the Rankin/Bass animated version from 1977. Now, if only Jackson could have shoehorned the “Down, down to Goblin Town” song into that scene.
  7. The riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum is terrific. Not much more to say, except that it captures what happens in the book perfectly.
  8. There’s a scene when the Dwarves have escaped from Goblin Town and Bilbo has caught up with them (having eluded Gollum). Thorin asks Bilbo why he came back since he has a home to return to and no reason to continue on with the quest, and Bilbo says (I paraphrase): “I have a home where – indeed – I should be; but you don’t, and I would be a poor Hobbit if I didn’t help you recover yours.” It’s not from the book but it’s certainly Tolkien, and whichever scriptwriter is responsible for it deserves kudos.
Among the bad points:

  1. Radagast. This was probably the biggest mistake of the entire film – at least as far as characterizations go. He’s not made up out of whole cloth. Radagast does make a brief appearance in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as the unwitting messenger of Saruman to Gandalf. Even in that fleeting encounter, however, the reader can see that this is a real person with real wisdom. In Jackson’s hands, he becomes a cartoonish caricature covered in bird shit. It’s similar to what he did to Denethor’s character in LotR, who was so much more believable and complex in Tolkien’s hands.
  2. Elves. Elves are not metrosexual vegetarians. Somehow, in the years since Tolkien wrote, vulgar fandom, most role-playing games and now Jackson have turned the Professor’s complex and unique creatures into sexless, tee-totaling, arrogant, obnoxious jerks. Elves, like Men and Dwarves, are not just creatures of spirit but of flesh and they are capable of all the desires and evils the latter two races exhibit. In The Silmarillion they’re rapists (Eöl/Aredhel), attempted rapists (Celegorm/Luthien), murderers (the sons of Fëanor), and – yes – even hunters (Beleg Strongbow), i.e., people who kill animals for food. And in Tolkien’s Hobbit, Bilbo manages to free the Dwarves from the Wood-elf king’s dungeons because the wardens get drunk! Here and in LotR, Jackson mischaracterizes them shamefully.
  3. The fight scenes. This may be a paradox, but the fight scenes needed to be more realistic. It was better in LotR, but every fight in this movie lasts too long and is so over the top as to descend into the realms of the cartoon or the wuxia flick. In the latter genres, the viewer expects to see outrageous feats of derring-do and utterly unbelievable fighting but that style just doesn’t work in this genre. It’s a tired cliché, but in this case “less is more.”
There’ve been discussions on the internets about the “padding” Jackson has resorted to, to make a three-film epic. Based on this first film, I found the extras and the background info reasonable. It didn’t detract from the story too much, and it’s probably necessary to make sure non-Tolkien geeks can follow what’s going on. I reserve final judgment until I see what Jackson does with the rest of the series.

So, I imagine that – in the end – my relationship to Jackson’s Hobbit will mirror that of my relationship with his Lord of the Rings – A love/hate situation. There’s so much Jackson can get right in translating Tolkien to the screen but – oh, boy – when he gets it wrong (which he does often enough), he really gets it wrong.

Books: The Year in Review

I have been unforgivably negligent in maintaining my nearly-a-traditional mid-year and end-of-year “best of” book surveys but I am atoning with the following:
Overall, my impression is that 2012 was a relatively disappointing year in books for me. I didn’t find as many new and/or interesting works and authors as in the past. Part of that, is that 2012 was a year of rereading. I found myself harking back to a lot of authors who I hadn’t read in years.

But here’s my list of the books and/or authors who really made an impression on me (in the order read):

Religion in Human Evolution by Robert Bellah: This is a fascinating look at religion as it relates to human biological and cultural evolution. Bellah dismisses the idea that there is a “religion” gene or congeries of genes but he does postulate that there are biologically based behaviors that express themselves in the cultural meme of “religion.” I should have written a review for my GoodReads account but I had notes for nearly every page (of an 800+ page book) and the task was too daunting. This was, however, most assuredly a four-stars-out-of-five book and strongly recommended.

Erasure and Assumption by Percival Everett. Here is my opening from the GoodRead’s review: “If Erasure is about anything, it’s about identity. Ones we invent for ourselves, ones we invent for others, ones that are forced on us, and ones that we lose.

Assumption is a very different novel in style, voice and ostensible subject than Erasure. But it is at least as good, if not better, in my opinion. It's made up of three novella-length stories tied together by the character of Ogden Walker, a deputy sheriff in a rural New Mexico county, and the problem of finding out who we are.

Everett is a welcome new find this year.

Ragnarök by A.S. Byatt. I thoroughly enjoyed this retelling of the Norse apocalypse, not least because she stripped it of its Christian accretions.

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. I finally got around to reading this SF classic and was well rewarded. The final book, Titus Alone, wasn’t as good as the first two but overall the trilogy deserves its reputation.

Medea and Cassandra by Christa Wolf. These were a couple of the rereads I mentioned above but it had been nearly 20 years since I had originally read them so it was as if I were discovering Wolf for the first time. Again from my GoodReads review of the first book: “It’s a critique of modern, capitalist (and, yes, male-dominated) culture, and – on a personal and the more important level – it’s an argument for the importance of retaining one’s integrity as a person in the face of enormous pressure to conform and submit. And that’s why I’ve revised my rating to four stars – it spoke to me more powerfully now than it did 15 years ago when I was – unfortunately – a less discerning reader.

Red Emma Speaks, ed. by Alix Kates Shulman. This is a collection of some of Emma Goldman’s more famous writings. It too is a reread and it further solidified my admiration for this woman and her philosophy.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. This is a post-apocalyptic novel that deals with themes raised by authors like Walter Miller in A Canticle for Leibowitz or Edgar Pangborn in Davy and Still I Persist in Wondering – Is there an essential core of goodness in humanity? Are we condemned to repeat our follies? The struggle to remain an individual against the pressures to conform and obey.

Waiting for the Barbarians by Daniel Mendelsohn. This is the second collection of his reviews I’ve read (the first was How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken) and it is just as good as that first one. He covers low- and high-brow culture in its many forms and does it with an extraordinary insight that consistently amazes me.

And that’s about it for 2012, though I will make four honorable mentions:

Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha series – God’s War, Infidel, Rapture. (Technically, I haven’t read Rapture yet but I include it in anticipation.) Hurley is a new voice in the SF field and I am looking forward to reading more of her stuff.

Lindsey Davis’ Falco series. This is a mystery series set in Vespasian’s Rome. I’m enjoying it because Vespasian is one of my favorite Roman emperors; the series has a Rockford Files vibe, one of my favorite TV shows; and Davis writes well.

Iain Bank’s Hydrogen Sonata. This is the latest Culture novel and it’s the best one he’s written in years though it still can’t compare to the first three – Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons and Player of Games.

Based on an essay in the Mendelsohn book mentioned above, I picked up a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of the Iliad. I had hoped to finish it before the New Year but have only made it to Book 19 (as of the 31st). It is everything Mendelsohn promised and I would recommend it both to people who have read other translations and as a good place to start if you would like to read it but have been agonizing over whose version to attempt (assuming you weren’t going to go with the original Homeric Greek).

Happy reading in 2013!

28 December 2012

Dianne Feinstein is an idiot!

I know that it's not kosher to call someone an idiot but you must forgive me a moment of sophomoric ill manners.

For the past few days I've been listening to stories about Senate Democrats' efforts to amend the unconstitutional FISA Act, which will extend the government's claim to unlimited powers to spy on its citizens into the indefinite future (efforts which have failed miserably - the Senate voted to extend the act without amendment 73-23). In her response to efforts to hold the government to even a fig leaf of due process, Ms. Feinstein claimed that we need not fear that the government would abuse its police powers and that we shouldn't concern ourselves with the patent loss of our civil rights.


Because, you know, our police forces have never - never - abused their authority.

And that's just from the last week.

This is why I wrote that I loathed this woman in my last post.