The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit is a pretty good film but there are lots of little things that keep it from being a great film.  Having been written and produced by the same people who did Lord of the Rings, one would think The Hobbit would, at the very least, stand on its own merits as a successful movie.  One would think those writers, editors and directors would not make such a dull, prodding film.  The Hobbit suffers from pacing and structure issues that make a viewer’s return to Middle-earth a difficult experience.  Recently, I posted several changes over the course of a trilogy that made no sense…what follows are a list of questions (listed in bold) and a general critique that prevented me from enjoying The Hobbit.

For starters, why are there three opening acts?  Actually, a better question would be why they were edited to not segue into each other?  The film begins with Bilbo narrating the history of Erebor and Dale until Smaug the Dragon destroys both.  Then the movie cuts to Bilbo having a nice chat with Frodo about the book he is writing about his adventure and the upcoming birthday party shown in Fellowship of the Ring.  Finally, we go to Bilbo 60 years prior where he meets Gandalf, the dwarves and is recruited into their company.

If that sounds confusing, watch the sequence play out on screen.  It’s a giant mess that can easily be solved by editing.  Put the Bilbo/Frodo conversation at the beginning and then have him narrate about Erebor, Dale and Smaug.  Or have the movie start off with just Bilbo writing, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”  Then the exposition about the Lonely Mountain can be given when the dwarves and Gandalf are gathered around the dinner table.  Either is more preferable to the zig-zagging the film does.

Why is Azog alive?  And why does he look like Kratos?  In the books, Azog dies at the Battle of Azanulbizar (the big battle outside the east gate of Moria).  In the movie, they change it so that Thorin only chops off his arm.  Somehow, this orc doesn’t die of infection (commendable for a guy who leads a race that is not known for their hygienical practices) and manages to live another 142 years to inconvenience Thorin.  Why not just have Azog’s son (or great grandson) hold a grudge against the dwarves?  Fellowship of the Ring was particularly awesome at creating a big bad Orc chief that was eventually slain in the film’s climax.  The Hobbit film copies so many other aspects from Fellowship, why not this too?

Speaking of copying from Fellowship, look at the similarities The Hobbit shares with it:  Both films begin in The Shire and within the first half-hour, a party takes place there that lays the groundwork for the plot.  A Hobbit then heads east towards Rivendell, where the enemy’s minions harass him and his companions every step of the way.  The party recuperates in the House of Elrond where a council is held to set in motion the rest of the plot.  The group attempts to cross the Misty Mountains but are foiled, forcing them to navigate through the mountain’s interior which is infested with goblins.  Once they exit, the film’s climax takes place within a forest east of the mountains.  Is this simplified plot describing The Fellowship of the Ring or The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey?  This is not necessarily horrible but it invites comparisons to Lord of the Rings, a standard which The Hobbit has no chance of living up to.

Some of these similarities aren’t bad and are to be expected.  Of course the score for The Shire and Rivendell are going to be the same as they were in Lord of the Rings.  Galadriel and Saruman appearing?  They’re both members of the White Council and they did meet that year, so it makes sense for them to appear.  The orcs convening at Weathertop to plan their next move against Thorin’s company?  Blatant fan service for the sake of it and a poor geographical choice for the orcs to boot (it’s farther away from not only their home in the Misty Mountains but the Trollshaws where Thorin’s dwarves are!).

Next question:  How does Gandalf not know about Dol Guldur?  This might be a question answered in the later films but right now, it’s a fair to ask.  In the books, Gandalf knows Dol Guldur is inhabited by The Necromancer who is actually Sauron.  It’s where he finds Thorin’s dad, who gives him the map and key to Erebor.  The only reason the White Council doesn’t kick Sauron’s ass is because Saruman is the leader and refuses to take action.  The trailers for the film showed Gandalf walking in a sinister area that fit Dol Guldur’s description, so why does he look bewildered when Radagast tells him of Dol Guldur when they meet?  The movies also imply that the darkness in Mirkwood is a recent phenomenon, as it starts during Bilbo and the dwarves’ adventure.  Why change this from the books, where Greenwood has been under encroaching shadow since Sauron took up residence in Dol Guldur?  For a story that desperately needs to stretch itself to fill a trilogy, this change makes no sense.  At the very least, if the darkness in Mirkwood has to be changed, why not have it start around the time Smaug destroys the mountain?

Much criticism has been made of The Hobbit being adapted into a trilogy.  After watching the first act, this criticism is warranted.  It’s hard to believe the same people who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing are responsible for the plodding mess that is the first half of this movie.  There’s an unnecessary chase sequence between the orcs and Thorin’s company that stretches believability.  How do the warg-riding orcs not catch a group of dwarves, a Hobbit and an old man who are traveling on foot?  Axe that whole sequence and have Elrond’s elves find them after the scene with the trolls…problem solved.  It’s even worse if you count the entire Rivendell sequence and realize Bilbo Baggins, the movie’s main protagonist (i.e. The Hobbit of The Hobbit), has dropped out of the movie’s focus for the entire middle portion.

And what does this non-Bilbo time provide the audience?  A sequence to see the White Council convene and decide…nothing.  In the books, they decide to attack the fortress of Dol Guldur.  Even Saruman agrees, if only to keep Sauron from searching the Anduin for the Ring.  In the movies, the Council disbelieves Gandalf’s warnings that Sauron has taken shape there.  They cite a 400 year peace as proof, which is silly because of how old they are (400 years would be a footnote to an elf and wizard) and of prior history in Middle-earth (think how long Sauron terrorized Middle-earth in the Second Age…).  Also, the sword of the Witch-King should be pretty damning proof but instead Saruman brushes it off and Elrond says/does nothing.  Why not cut and/or edit some of those establishing walking scenes and build on why Elrond doesn’t think Thorin’s quest is a wise idea?

Last question:  Why does Galadriel refuse to openly take Gandalf’s side during the White Council?  Elrond seems to hold her in high esteem (he tells Thorin or Gandalf it’s the Lady’s favor they’ll have to earn to continue on their quest…despite the fact that her jurisdiction is nowhere near the Great East-West Road).  She has great respect for Gandalf and supports his decisions every other time…why not the time he needs it most when he’s opposed by Saruman and Elrond?  She even plays along with Gandalf’s plan to keep Elrond and Saruman from noticing Thorin and company from leaving Rivendell (the consequences for which are not shown, so it must not have been a major issue…in which case, it was a waste of screen time).  If that’s the answer, then we have to ask…If Elrond is against Thorin continuing on with his quest, why does he not have his elves watching to make sure the dwarves don’t leave without his notice?

These questions made the film’s first two acts really tough to enjoy because they were always on my mind.  It wasn’t until Thorin’s company are captured by the goblins that the film finally comes into its own.  Goblin-town and its inhabitants look unique from the Moria goblins.  Gollum appears but his interactions with Bilbo during the game of riddles have him come across as a completely different character.  The action sequence that starts with the party’s escape from the mountain and ends in the film’s climax is fun (if over the top) and enjoyable.  The actor performances are amazing and Martin Freeman in particular stands out.  With a better editor, this film would have been enjoyable on its own merits.  Instead, The Hobbit sticks too closely to Lord of the Rings to really flesh itself out and ends up feeling rather like a letdown.

But it was still better than The Dark Knight Rises

d20 Lord of the Rings: Woodland Realm of Greenwood

Currently gearing up for my first ever dungeon, a module that will have lots of branching paths and interactivity.  At least, that’s the plan.  It’s a return to Middle-earth as the PCs help the Dwarves under Durin VII retake Moria!  One of my players is playing Wood Elf and asked how this campaign would relate with canon.  Rather than post a rather lengthy message on Skype, I decided to answer his question here.

There’s little definitive written about the Fourth Age other than the ascension of Men and their dominance of Middle-earth.  This allows for more creative freedom and one of the reasons I GM’d a Fourth Age setting before.  How I went about designing what happens was based on (1) Tolkien’s limited writings, (2) various fan works including the Rome:  Total War mod called The Fourth Age:  Total War, (3) my own roleplaying experiences in Middle-earth, (4) actual ancient history since Middle-earth is suggested to be a precursor to modern Earth and (5) my own personal conjectures of how things should have progressed with the major theme being the world becoming more mundane and less magical.

A Character is Born

A definitive post concerning all the events would take ages to write so we’ll just limit ourselves to the Wood Elves of Greenwood.  Let’s start with when the character would be born and what historical events he may have witnessed.  As someone who has not read The Silmarillion well enough to understand it and knowing that the player has not done so either, we’ll limit his earliest birth date to no earlier than the beginning of the Second Age (SA).

The Second Age:  No specific date is given but it was at that time that Oropher, father of Thranduil, established the Woodland Realm of Greenwood.  Dwarves began to populate Moria in greater numbers around the year 40 SA, their encroachment causing the elves to move north.  This movement was helped along by Sauron establishing Barad-dur in Mordor, work he started on in the year 1,000 SA.  The elves would eventually settle permanently in the north.  The earliest possible age for this character is thus 7,322 years old (2,441 SA + 3,021 TA + 900 FA).

The Last Alliance:  Despite the lengthy time period, nothing of note happens in Greenwood for much of the Second Age.   The Silvan elves are aware of the events going on but stay reclusive until they are called upon to join the Last Alliance.  The elves here would have taken part in the Battle of Dagorlad.  While the battle was a victory for the Alliance, the Wood Elves suffered heavy losses.  Nearly 2/3 of the army was killed, including their king Oropher (their corpses would eventually compose much of the Dead Marshes).  Oropher’s son, Thranduil, would succeed him.  He would lead the remaining elves and take part in the victory against Sauron.  The character may be someone who survived that campaign and took part in the victory against Sauron.

Early Third Age:  Thranduil would also rule Greenwood upon his return and for the next 1,000 years, all was quiet.  Post-war years usually see a baby boom so this is a good interval to place a birth date.  Anytime before the year 1050 Third Age (TA), when Sauron’s shadow fell upon Greenwood, works best.  After Sauron established Dol Guldur, Greenwood becomes known as Mirkwood and it’s a foul evil place.

Middle Third Age:  The wood elves once more relocate themselves north, seeking to escape the shadow of Sauron.  The dwarves of Moria awaken Durin’s Bane and those that survive eventually claim the Lonely Mountain of Erebor.  In 1999 TA, Thrain I founds the Kingdom Under the Mountain and trade relations blossom between the Free Peoples of Rhovanion.  The Kingdom Under the Mountain, the Men of Dale and the Woodland Realm prosper despite Sauron’s power growing.  A character could be born in this wary yet peaceful time.  The peace ends in 2770 TA with the arrival of Smaug the Dragon.  The Dragon descends upon the Lonely Mountain and destroys Dale.  The wood elves’ two major trading partners are now devastated, Smaug occasionally rampages through the forest and with the encroaching shadow of Sauron threatening to overtake them…Thranduil’s people become more reclusive than before.

Later Third Age:  Sauron would be driven from Mirkwood in 2941 TA, an eventful year that also saw Smaug vanquished from the Lonely Mountain.  The wood elves were one of the major players at the Battle of Five Armies.  Thranduil’s people suffered losses but rekindled their relationship with the dwarves of Erebor.  The Men of Dale also rebuild their lands under a new king, bolstering trade relations.  The PC may have fought in the Battle of Five Armies and heard the prophecy foretelling the birth of Durin VII, who would return the dwarves to Moria.  If a younger age for the character is desired, anytime after 2941 TA is a good time to be born.  The shadow has not been cleansed from Mirkwood but it is a happier time than most.

The Shadow Persists:  It also provides the character enough time to have matured before the War of the Ring.  While Sauron may have been driven physically from Dol Guldur, he quickly reclaims his stronghold with the help of his Nazgul.  Only a decade after Smaug’s defeat, Sauron’s prescence is re-established.  The Nazgul begin to amass an army of orcs and goblins to besiege not only the wood elves of Mirkwood but Lothlorien, Dale and Erebor.

Gollum’s Escape:  In June 3018 TA, orcs attack the Woodland Realm.  The assault is driven back but Sauron’s goal was not one of conquest.  Instead, the attack provides the creature Gollum a chance to escape the care of his wood elf captives.  Gollum had left his Misty Mountain home to hunt for Bilbo, a hunt that eventually got him captured by Sauron.  After being tortured there, he was set loose and eventually captured by Aragorn in the Dead Marshes.  From there, he’s brought to Thranduil’s hall and interrogated by Gandalf.  He is then left in the care of the wood elves until he escapes during the battle.  This character could have been one of Gollum’s guards subordinate to the watch leader.

The Battle under the Trees:  The next year, while the orcs of Mordor besiege Minas Tirith, the armies of Sauron and Thranduil clash under the trees of Mirkwood.  The wood elves win convincingly and use the momentum of victory to clear the forest of evil.  With assistance from the elves of Lothlorien and the wood men, Sauron’s taint is finally purged from Mirkwood.  It’s a pivotal battle that the PC may have fought in.

End of the Third Age:  Lord Celeborn of Lothlorien meets with Thranduil a month after the Battle under the Trees and the forest is renamed Eryn Lasgalen, Wood of Greenleaves.  The boundaries established during this battle set the story for the Fourth Age.  The forest north of the mountains belongs to Thranduil’s Woodland Realm.  The section south of the Narrows around Dol Guldur becomes East Lorien.  Everything in between belongs to the wood men and the Beornings.

The Fourth Age

As a new age begins, the Woodland Realm is much the same as it always was.  While they have plenty of trade partners and it is a prosperous time of peace, the elves mainly stay to themselves.  The wood elves are content to leave the world alone to enjoy the natural beauty of the restored Greenwood.  The only exceptions are those in the small group who leave with Legolas to colonize Ithilien.

While the Woodland Realm is rather passive in regards to Middle-earth’s events, they are the most powerful elf nation by default.  Elrond and Galadriel have departed for the west.  Lothlorien is now an empty wood where the golden mallorn trees no longer shine.  Lord Celeborn has left East Lorien to reside with the sons of Elrond in Rivendell.  Lord Seron now oversees the elves of East Lorien and his son rules the Ithilien colony.  Both, however, are very active in Middle-earth’s affairs, particularly in fighting the raiding Easterling warbands.  While elves are very skilled at warfare, their numbers are not replenishing their losses…

The immortality of the elves is well known.  Unless they die of battle or grief, elves live in Middle-earth until they tire of it and choose to sail west for Valinor.  Unfortunately, the wood elves never crossed the Misty Mountains and chose instead to enjoy the world’s natural beauty.  They do not possess the longing of the sea as their other kin do.  With the destruction of the One Ring, the power of the elves has faded and in the case of some older wood elves, that fading is quite literal.

The reason behind elf immortality is because their soul supersedes the body.  As a result, they are creatures resilient to Middle-earth’s physical woes but less so against emotional ones.  Eventually, if an elf does not sail to Valinor, their physical form will fade away entirely.  In the body’s stead is left a rustic wood spirit.  This change is subtle and can go unnoticed by neighboring elves (think Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense).  Such spirits range from all manner of benevolent, apathetic and antagonistic.

Outside of their decline, the wood elves occasionally deal with raiding orc/goblin parties from the Grey Mountains or Gundabad.  These foul creatures are descendents of those who died at the Battle of Five Armies.  The raids are enough to cause a fuss but are a far cry away from the troubling times of the Third Age.  Rumors of dragons in the mountains persist but none have been seen since Smaug.

Politically, Thranduil’s people keep their closest ties with the dwarves of Erebor, the Men of Dale and the Men of Greenwood.  One member of Thranduil’s court, the woman warrior Ariel, has caught the eye of several of Middle-earth’s most prominent men (and elves).  Among their number includes Eir the Champion of Dorwinion, Lord Seron of East Lorien and King Minasdir of Angmar.  Marriage between elves and men often has a powerful influence on Middle-earth so whoever wins her hand can strengthen their nation (not to mention all the boons that come with finding a true love).