The Disappointment of Smaug

I’m sorry, but this post will have spoilers. If you haven’t read Lord of the Rings by now, I can’t be held accountable. They are public domain now, metaphorically, and I will talk about them freely. We all know Darth Vader is Luke’s father, we all know King Kong dies at the end, and we all know Frodo takes the ring to Mordor.

I haven’t been able to put my finger on it for a long time, but there’s something that has disappointed me about The Hobbit’s movie interpretation, under Peter Jackson. This isn’t the “it’s not the book, so I don’t like it” mindset. I know what that’s like. Tolkien and his work were defining, both to the genre and to my young mind. When Lord of the Rings came out, everything about it disappointed me: the exception of Tom Bombadil and Saruman’s scenes in the Shire, the changes to the gates of Moria scene, and so on. Even when the  movie perfectly mirrored the book for the first 10 minutes, I held it up only as a sign that I was about to be disappointed.

But I enjoyed the movies. I never once was at any threat of falling asleep. When Legolas stabbed an orc with an arrow, sure, part of my brain said “you can’t stab an orc with an arrow”, but most of it said “DUDE, DID YOU SEE LEGOLAS STAB THAT ORC WITH AN ARROW?” When Gandalf stood up to confront the Balrog, my heart rose up into my throat with suspense: would he survive? When Frodo was seemingly killed by a troll, my pulse jumped, even though I knew the mithril reveal was coming. When Boromir was shot full of arrows, my internal monologue screamed: no Boromir! Get up! You can do it! I could literally do this all day, because Lord of the Rings was a well designed movie. It had drama, it had pacing, it had a tone, and it was real. Did I like everything about it? No. Was I disappointed with my vision of the book as a rubric? Yes. But it was good.

The Hobbit has none of these.  The Hobbit is a different book than Lord of the Rings. While The Lord of the Rings was inspired by Tolkien’s experience in World War I, and you can see it everywhere. Ultimately, Lord of the Rings is about the suffering that war brings on all people, but especially on those who are not the heroes. The commonfolk, the hobbits, have to simply soldier on in the face of insurmountable forces. It is epic and serious and grim. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is a children’s adventure book, with a lighter tone, more whimsical enemies, and a very fantastic, simplistic quest: find the dragon’s treasure. There are no earthshaking consequences, just an adventure.

In the very first chapter of The Hobbit, Bilbo begins worrying about the dwarves in his house: not why they are there, not about his potential adventure, not even about the dragon, but whether or not they will chip his plates. To one who is familiar with fantasy, this may seem a silly worry, but this is the tone of The Hobbit. Bilbo literally cannot comprehend the idea of his adventure, and so he focuses on what is real to him, the plates. Many viewers have fixed on this particular scene from The Hobbit as something they particularly hate:

But it is exactly this scene which sets the tone for his adventure. Bilbo is a reluctant adventurer, and what he brings to the adventure — the very reason why Gandalf wants him on the adventure — is his sense of quiet responsibility and attention to details and consequences. On the other hand, the dwarves are basically mocking him for focusing on something so unimportant given the context.

A scene later and we have the famous troll scene, with dwarves tied up and who has to save them? Why, who else could keep the trolls distracted until sunrise but Gand — Bilbo? It is here where we first see Peter Jackson’s inability to understand the themes of The Hobbit — although it’s not the first time he’s committed this crime of stealing Gandalf’s credit and giving it to a hobbit; he had Frodo solve the gate of Moria riddle as well — Bilbo at this point is not an agent in his own adventure, but rather an experiencer.

After their capture by and escape from the goblins, when Bilbo emerges from the Misty Mountains with the ring, the dwarves — in the book — are considering leaving him, whilst in the movie they are mourning him. Yet again, this sets the tone difference. Bilbo is not a protagonist, at least not yet. They continue running — as a group — from the goblins until the giant Eagles rescue them.

And there you have it: that’s the whole of movie #1 of The Hobbit. No need for Ratagast scenes to sec the background, no need to actually foreshadow Sauron, no need for any of the epic backdrop that Peter Jackson attempts to instill upon The Hobbit. This is precisely the cause of the 3-part nature of The Hobbit movies: the attempt to make something epic out of something that is simply put, just an adventure. The dwarves cannot simply float into Laketown, they must be brought in by the descendant of the archer who is destined to kill Smaug, while simultaneously being oppressed by an evil king. The Dwarves can’t be looking for gold, but instead, just the Arkenstone (although it should be noted in the book that Thorin is fixated on the Arkenstone in a way that the three Hobbits are fixated on The Ring, a clear sign for Tolkien’s belief that power corrupts).

It is all this that made The Hobbit so much more interesting than other fantasy novels: it was never about destiny, or only one person. It was about small, unimportant people making brave choices. Thorin is not the hero because he is the descendant of the king, but instead, Bilbo is the hero by his choices. Bard doesn’t need to be the descendant of a legendary archer, he is just simple captain of the guard, and so on. Peter Jackon’s rendition loses this low-born, everyman’s quality to The Hobbit, and replaces it with an overly epic interpretation.

But the overly epic also overcomes the very tone of the novel. The Hobbit is a children’s book, with bad jokes, silly villains, and is essentially a kid’s adventure. There are moments where this childlike comedy pops through, such as the video above, the barrel scene, the trolls and goblin’s nature, and so on, but then it is immediately replaced with an epic and serious scene that leaves you wondering which tone is out of place.

Overall, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit fails to deliver a coherent movie in tone, and imposes themes onto the book that were never present, leaving an all-around awkward patchwork. This, combined with his penchant for drawing every scene out 30 minutes longer than it ever need to be, makes The Hobbit a movie to be slogged through, not enjoyed.


The Duke’s Men: A DungeonWorld Adventure

A few days ago, I ran a game of DungeonWorld for two of my friends.  It went so well, and ended up feeling so much like a classic Dungeons & Dragons adventure, that I thought I would share the basics of the game with you.  It’s somewhere between an actual play and a scenario description.  I’ll put up an honest-to-goodness Dungeon-starter soon, and with a little creativity you should have an easy time converting it into your own single- or double-episode game.

We didn’t look too closely at the backstories of our heroes, but please allow me to introduce you to the adventures of Kate the thief and Jonah the ranger (and Jonah’s wolfhound, Erasmus), the loyal representatives of Duke Blackforest.  What follows should allow you to live out their adventures for yourself, or change things slightly and experience the adventure anew with other people.

Continue reading

1636: Seas of Fortune, by Iver Cooper

I read this book in halting installments; not because I couldn’t get through it quickly, but because I read each section as it became available, starting two months before its ostensible publishing date.  I don’t know whether that says more about the book or about my love for the series started by Eric Flint‘s 1632.  I can say that I would certainly recommend this one to anyone else who has enjoyed the previous books in the series.  Read on past the break to find my more nuanced thoughts on Iver Cooper‘s 1636: Seas of Fortune.

Continue reading

The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of K.I.S.S.


This past week I saw The Hobbit: The desolation of Smaug (hereto referred to as Hobbit 2), and upon exiting the theater I am sad to say that my response wasn’t even a resounding “meh.”  In fact, I didn’t much enjoy a great deal of it.  This saddened me as I enjoyed all three of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and even enjoyed the first Hobbit film where some others did not.  But Hobbit 2 suffered some key problems which borked the overall experience for me.  There were bits which I enjoyed immensely, but overall I must give the film a rather low rating, and the reasoning can mostly be summed up with K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid).

Continue reading

Your Enjoyment (Mostly) Guaranteed


Have you seen this movie?  No?  You may wish to reconsider your life choices.  At least insofar as they involve watching or not watching Safety Not Guaranteed.

How would you react to someone who told you that they could and had built a time machine?  What if they told you that they had used one once before?

That’s what this movie is all about.  It tells the story of a young woman working as an intern at a Seattle magazine; it follows her travails as she tries to learn just how crazy the person who posted the above classified ad actually is.  And somehow, in the course of a wandering storyline that nearly lost me at a few points, Safety Not Guaranteed absolutely stole my heart.  It’s been about a year since I watched it, and the movie still sticks with me as an excellent example of how you can make a great movie with a fairly low budget and a healthy dose of creativity.

Continue reading

More Pretty Pictures: Kyle Perler’s Photos


We interrupt our normal programming to bring you more news of pretty things that my friends are making.  My sometime-housemate Kyle Perler is an awesome photographer, and he has recently created a Kickstarter project to fund a photo-trip to Africa.  He’s aiming to make a book from the photos that he takes on this trip, focusing on the landscape and wildlife of Africa, but the really cool thing that he’s offering is access to a travel blog with all the pictures that he takes.

He’s planning to, amongst other things, go on safari and go bird-watching.  He’s already been catching photos like this one:


If you like pretty pictures, or just really awesome photos, check out his project.  You might also look up some of his other work.  I strongly recommend looking through some of his galleries there, especially the “Fine Art” one.  His portraits are also totally worth a look.  It’s great having talented friends.

La Not-So-Petite Morte: Jennifer’s Body

Jennifer’s Body deserves more attention.  You should definitely watch Jennifer’s Body.  I give up: there’s almost no way that I can talk about this movie without sounding like a creeper.  Watching Jennifer’s Body is a refreshing experience, as the movie takes a jaunty and semi-upbeat stroll through the teenage monster movie genre.  Though the movies are quite different, I wasn’t that surprised to learn that Jennifer’s Body was made by the same crew that made Juno.  Rather than dealing with teenage pregnancy, this movie tells the story of two best friends, and the bloody end of their friendship; we’re given a front row seat to the narrator’s transformation from a sweet, self-assured, but largely unassuming young woman into someone driven to extremes by violence, danger, necessity, and isolation, certain of the importance of her actions despite knowing that no one will believe her.  Contrary to the claims of most critics (and even some audiences, since the movie was panned by Rottentomatoes and IMDb), I think the film is quite good.  Perhaps you’d care to find out why?

Continue reading

The Given Sacrifice, by S.M. Stirling

I love S.M. Stirling‘s Change series.  I enjoyed the first trilogy, seeing people pulling together despite incredible adversity after the collapse of civilization as we know it, and I enjoyed the later transition to a more classical epic and mystical fantasy adventure with post-apocalyptic trappings.  But I did not like how slowly the story moved along in the later books.  I’ll do my best not to spoil anything, but once you get close to the end of the second Change series you’ll understand what I mean; Stirling’s story doesn’t move quite as slowly or impenetrably as Jordan‘s Wheel of Time once did, but the comparison of pace is almost appropriate.  Despite the trudging sense of gradual story progress, I still really liked the story that was being told.  And I’ll freely admit that Stirling at least made good use of the pace to lay the foundation for elaborate and interesting future story developments and character interactions.

All of this is meant by way of comparison: after the previous few books in the series, The Given Sacrifice moves like lightning.  The characters forge ahead at full speed, even as nearly all of their previous adventures are called back to our attention in a rapid-fire barrage that just helps to anchor our sense of the heroes’ earlier accomplishments.  And the second half of the book seems to move faster than that, if that’s even possible.  I almost felt as though I’d gotten plot-whiplash.  It was actually rather refreshing to find things moving so quickly, though what I’d like most is if Stirling could perhaps find some sort of middle ground in his next few books.  In the end, despite the sudden change of pace, I have to say that this was a fitting and good finish to its section of the series.  More on why after the break.

Continue reading

A Time For Giving: Charities

While we should be nice and altruistic all the time, we are now hitting the Season of Giving (I don’t care that this comes from Western tradition.  Anything that advocates charity is a good thing, so let’s just leave it be.)  Since this here is a nerdy media blog I thought I’d give you all a hand and share some amazing game-related charities that are floating around.  There are definitely some which I have missed as well as non-game charities which are amazing.  But if you would like to give and have no idea where to throw your dollar, then here at least you can find a short list worthy of your consideration. (you can choose for your money to go fully to charity, fully to game developers, or customize the spread yourself) Who are currently linked to a cool game bundle:

Dominions 3, God of Time-Consumption, Awaits You

Remember how I mentioned that I would tell you about Dominions 3?  Today is your lucky day.  First off, here is what I said last time:

Dominions 3 looks like someone fell in love with Master of Magic and then decided that it wasn’t nearly complex enough.  And that it needed more gods, wars, and magic.  At a glance, it looks like something that will most appeal to a certain core of strategy lovers, but the concept is absolutely wonderful regardless of your interest in the genre.  You play a god rushing to fill the gap left by the disappearance / death of The Old God, and you must expand to outdo all the other pretenders and secure your own position.  It has territory based command and control, resource management, spell research, a military focus, and more numbers than you can shake a stick at.  Several of my friends are very excited about it, and I’ll let you know more when I’ve played it for a bit.  If it is more accessible than I anticipate, I will do my best to proselytize and spread the good word of the new god, Dominions 3.

That sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it.

Continue reading