On Food and Cheer and Song

I was having a (civil) discussion on Reddit (I know, right? Looking for civil discussions on Reddit can feel like looking for hen’s teeth.) about TH trilogy of films. The topic interested me enough I thought I’d write up my thoughts here as well.

Someone posted this image depicting Thorin’s last lines to Bilbo from the films. Of course the book line is,

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, XVIII, ‘The Return Journey’

I admit a certain bias, since the line is one of my favourites in the whole of the legendarium (as it is no doubt for many readers). But since I do think that the line is beautiful and perfect as-written by JRRT, and since I can see no benefit or improvement to the film in changing it, I commented that I wished they had not felt the need to change it. I may have also been a bit snide in stating that ‘apparently’ the script-writers knew better than the good Professor.

This prompted someone to comment (again, civilly!) that the line as-written by JRRT would’ve felt ‘stilted and out of place given the circumstances of the film’. This is a viewpoint I still don’t understand but, hey-ho. Each to their own.

I was careful to point out that I’m not against change in an adaptation ‘in principle’. For example, I am quite willing to admit that, much as I adore him and his chapters, Bombadil would probably make an odd addition to a film targeted towards a mass audience largely comprised of people who’ve not read the source material. At the same time, if you try to tell me that the treatment of Faramir in TTT was a reasonable change I will argue with you. Choose your weapon!

I used to try to defend TH films when they first came out. Particularly with the first outing, I found merit in them. I still find the Unexpected Party to be a rather enjoyable affair, all things considered. And while I think the concept of the dwarves trying to use hot metal to kill a dragon capable of breathing fire is idiotic, I did find the image of ‘Smaug the literally Golden’ to be amusing on some level.

After re-watches of AUJ and TDoS (I have as-yet only seen BotFA once), my arguments in favour of the trilogy all but ceased. The few nuggets of value I could find were so overwhelmed by what was remaining that they no longer felt justified. I was mistaken. I did not like these films.

Back to the original point of Thorin’s farewell, I feel that the change not only was unnecessary and pointless, but that it is symptomatic of a larger problem within PJ & Co’s TH trilogy. I believe Alan & Sean over at the Prancing Pony Podcast have had similar sentiments (and probably much more eloquently stated) … that Bilbo is largely lost as a character, or he tends to take a back seat (in my opinion). The story is supposed to be about him. It should be about his struggle with being out of his comfort-zone. It should be about his growth as a person and acceptance of his more adventurous “Tookish” nature. The dwarvish adventure is merely a delivery mechanism for this story-arc.

In the book, Bilbo’s struggle with the difficulties he finds himself in is regularly brought to the fore through his (generally humorous) reflections on the simpler things in life: his hole, his food, etc., and these always come at times when he is least comfortable. Thorin scoffs at Bilbo’s lack of understanding of ‘higher matters’ (my words, not his) such as war. Yet in the end Thorin realises that although he’d considered Bilbo’s views to be narrow, had he himself spent more time focusing on such matters he perhaps wouldn’t find himself dying on a battlefield. And indeed, if the rest of the world could do likewise, everyone would be better off.

Instead, the films focuses largely on Thorin’s struggle to regain his kingdom which, while an important aspect of the book, it certainly isn’t the chief element.

Whereas our orders of priority should be:

  • Bilbo
  • Thorin/dwarves
  • ring

I often feel like what we are presented with instead is:

  • Thorin
  • Ring/Necromancer
  • Bilbo/dwarves

I feel that a bit more time focusing on Bilbo would’ve served the film well. We needed more of Bilbo focusing on bacon and eggs (a bit more Pippin Took, if you please, Mr. Jackson). And we needed Bilbo to become the de-facto leader of the company by the end. We needed less about the necromancer and the ring. We needed less about Thorin’s moodiness and need to prove himself by attacking a dragon (and the world) head-on.

And, I think, we needed Bilbo separated from Thorin for some hours (as in the book) before they have their final meeting on Thorin’s deathbed. Such a shift of focus and a passage of time would’ve made the original line as-written show that Thorin gave focused thought to the various elements which Bilbo found so important in life. This line, gasped out in a rattling, choking breath, perhaps with tears rolling down Thorin’s cheeks, wouldn’t have felt stilted. It would’ve felt meaningful and important: the final shift in Thorin’s character back to the great King he could’ve been (alas). As it was, the line felt rushed and fairly hollow; a mere nod in the right direction, but sped up for the sake of…what, exactly?

My fellow debater suggested that if a person likes Thorin more than Bilbo, then all of this is not really a problem. Perhaps. But I don’t know that it helps me very much. I do like Thorin. I do not know that it’s a matter of looking him more or less than Bilbo, though. For me, the problem is (as stated above) that it’s Bilbo’s story. The book is, after all, The Hobbit, and not The Dwarf-King.

Titles are more of a marketing element (a “brand”) than they are a pertinent comment on the content of the film. I’m quite certain that The Silence of the Lambs isn’t about Lambs. Heck, The Lord of the Rings isn’t about Sauron, although the title would seem to suggest otherwise.

Bilbo’s story is just another Hero’s Journey: the one we’ve seen time and again in these kinds of tentpole franchise blockbusters: We’ve seen in the later Harry Potter films, in every Star Wars film, in The Lord of the Rings. What makes Bilbo even worst is that, unlike most of those protagonists, he has very little in the way of personal stakes in the story: reclaiming Erebor or taking vengenance against Smaug isn’t personal to him.
If it really bugs you, think about this trilogy as “Durin’s Folk” or “The Quest of Erebor”. [sic]

via Reddit user Chen_Geller

This argument is not without merit. PJ & Co clearly were not telling us the story of The Hobbit. So should I be judging it by a standard founded in TH? Indeed, even Tolkien tells us:

In Dasent’s words I would say: ‘We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.’ … By ‘the soup’ I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by ‘the bones’ its sources or material — even when (by rare luck) those can with certainty be discovered. But I do not, of course, forbid criticism of the soup as soup.

J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

Certainly, there is scope to add more ‘meat’ to the bones of the story (the other characters, story threads, etc.). And maybe the film trilogy we got is closer to The Quest of Erebor than it is to The Hobbit. But even then it does (for me) an inadequate job. Rather than the perhaps more sober and somber QoE approach as is hinted in the Appendices and Tolkien’s attempted re-write of TH in the ‘style’ of LotR (see John D. Rateliff’s The History of ‘The Hobbit’), what we are given on-screen runs from the ridiculous and the sublime.

The trouble is that the ridiculous is so over-the top (that barrel-ride) and the sublime is often so poorly executed as to blend with the ridiculous anyway (case in point, that idiotic golden dragon scene). Throw in an elf-maiden? Sure. Make her a warrior? Great. Give her a dwarven-romance? You’ve lost me, because that’s not how it works. You’re now ignoring the source material and writing the worst can-fic for the sake of getting more ticket sales from those seeking a romance film.

Maybe I’m just getting old. But I suppose for me it’s just not the film I set out to see. What I did see just didn’t feel very good. And that makes moments like Thorin’s farewell, moments which mean so much to me and which should have been such easy victories for the script-writers, all the harder to swallow when they’re altered with no discernible benefit or reason behind them.

2 thoughts on “On Food and Cheer and Song

Add yours

  1. I have to say I ABSOLUTELY agree with you, and that line change has been a sore point the entire time. I don’t think I have mentioned it because I have a hard time feeling objective about it. It was refreshing to see that someone else felt the same.

    Your listing of he primary focus of the films vs the books was perfect in my opinion as well. I think, though, that the focus on Thorin getting to his homeland makes the line change even less understandable. ALL Thorin wanted was to get home. ALL he valued was home, sometimes above the safety of his companions. What did he mean “if more people valued home”?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Milthaliel! And that’s a really good point about Thorin and “home”. TH trilogy was truly a rush-job. The thought and care of LotR was missing (this is well-documented by PJ himself) and it shows.

      Like

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