On (Not) Keeping the Faith in Five Armies

via FanPop

via FanPop

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies was not great. It was fun, but it was not great. I enjoyed the film, but not that much. It even brought me to serious emotional responses, but left me ultimately unmoved. There are parts of the film that are excellent, like Thorin’s magical mystery tour on a gold-plated ice rink, courtesy of dragon sickness, or the stellar work of the Committee to Evict All Servants of Morgoth. Other parts are middling to good, like the combat sequences, or anything with Lee Pace’s eyebrows. Other parts just suck.

Stephen Fry is funny, but a waste of my time and yours. Tauriel-Kili-Legolas is also a waste of time. My goal here, however, is not to review the film; this has already been done, and ably so. In the wake of the film, I have been subject to so many opinions on it, many of which take the form of “It was obvious that Tauriel’s presence in the films was going to detract from the plot/message/cohesiveness/whatever, she’s not in the books.” This notion is one of my biggest pet peeves about how people consume art: the predilection to judge a work of art as a reflection of its source material.

It supports the quintessential comment for a stodgy fan of any book or comic that has been made into a movie. “Well, in the comics, Earth-1610 Steve Rogers would never have allowed that.” “Peter Dinklage is a good actor, but his casting was a mistake because he’s far too handsome and the Imp of the books is supposed to be repulsive.” Et cetera, et cetera. These are perhaps legitimate complaints, but I’d like to make a bold suggestion: we evaluate each work of art as its own work. Not that any piece of artwork should be above comparison—art being subjective, this is impossible—or that it somehow robs one work to be mentioned in the same breath as its source, but simply that there are better methods to go about determining the quality of art than fidelity. A work’s ability to keep faith with another is a sign only of mastery in reproduction, nothing else.

I can think of several arenas in which this talent is valuable, art restoration being one. Anaplastology, the branch of medicine dealing with prosthetics, is another, but even there, some of the most interesting work does not simply recreate a limb, but makes an artistic transformation. Perhaps that is to the point. The best recreations and derivative works are actually transformative of their source material, acknowledging that sameness is impossible and making intentional changes to a given effect. The Battle of Five Armies actually presents some great object lessons in this, despite the film’s many frustrations.

As I mentioned earlier, Tauriel’s presence has been the subject of some objection, but if we assume that her character’s presence is the film was intended to transform, her utility becomes clear. Consider that Legolas, also unmentioned in the text of The Hobbit, must make the emotional journey from Thranduil’s icy superiority toward dwarves (and everyone else) to the potential for sympathy and affection toward them. His example in this is Tauriel.

Now, Tauriel’s place in the film was troubling, but not because she is a strange thematic interlopers forced on the films by an unfaithful hand. Her dialogue isn’t great and she’s the point of a awkward love triangle. Her presence, and Legolas’s and Kili’s, in Five Armies is most obnoxious when they are negotiating their overwrought feelings for one another. Why so? Because love triangles suck. They are trite, awful, tired, and insipid. They follow a bizarre logic that involves at least one character pining perpetually for those they can’t have or force a character to appeal fickle, faithless, or stupid. The films’ failing her is no argument against her inclusion, it’s an argument against love triangles. Which is correct, because love triangles are bad.

We should also consider the gender breakdown of the Hobbit films. Tauriel is a woman, and a badass, in a story that would otherwise be devoid of meaningful female characters. I won’t give into tokenism and concede that her mere presence is a victory, but inclusion is an obviously noble goal. Furthermore, it’s good practice. Arwen is crucial in the Lord of the Rings, and the choice to to use her in place of Glorfindel is one with obvious benefits to the film. Frankly, I could care less about who does the magicking at the Ford of Bruinen, in and of itself, and it being Arwen establishes her as kind of a badass. In a story where the ability to fight, endure, and survive lends credibility to all the characters we give a damn about, it makes Arwen less of a lonely Elvish flower and more of, you know, a character.

Positioning a movie or television show as slave to a source material reflects a weak sense of imagination, and steals from the work the possibility to make a different choice than its predecessor. More often than not, this positioning is a method by which ugly prejudices are justified, dressed up as allegiance to an author and their original work, or tradition, or some other thing that belongs in a museum. Think on the number of claims against inclusion re: race, gender, sexuality, etc., that are based in the tired assertion that a character is a certain race in the source material, or in a three thousand year old myth (as with Heimdall).

Barthes, via Wikipedia

Barthes, via Wikipedia

Barthes’s 1967 essay The Death of the Author suggests that the common assumption that the author “maintains with his work the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child” is and should be passing out of fashion. It forces a tyranny of interpretation in which the author’s intent must be surmised and imprinted on each of their words, which ultimately does not clarify, but only limits the work. To put it another way, and by someone not a cigar-smoking French intellectual, we have Joss Whedon:

All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.

This could not be more plainly true, and must be even clearer to a community that plays derivative roleplaying games and writes fanfiction. Consider that a movie, or TV show, is one step further removed the author and their ever more irrelevant intent. It follows naturally that they should be even freer from such a tyranny of interpretation.

My point is that we should evaluate works of art on where they stand, however good, bad, compelling, or insipid they are, and what they improve upon. How progressive or regressive it is; not how well it represents every petty detail of another. There’s a graphical element to film, especially big cinematic epics like the Tolkien films, and so the films achieve different things. For one, they bring a visual truth to Thorin’s characterization, his journey from leader of a lost people to a mad isolated king, in a way that Tolkien’s prose simply does not, golden skating rink be damned. We should remain open to these kinds of differences because of that potential. This approach leaves us with broader possibilities for future works of art. Unless you believe that the book has already been closed on art, a stance which you will have to explain to me; surely broader possibilities are desirable to you.

That brings me to another point, with which I will close. I actually enjoyed the movies of The Lord of the Rings better than the books. Why? How? Simply, it’s because Tolkien writes like a slightly more imaginative version of Herman MelvilleHis ideas are brilliant, his dedication to the whole world of a story and his capacity for worldbuilding are impressive, to say the least. The whole of western high fantasy owes a debt to Tolkien for creating a world at once historical and mythological in an era where this kind of epic was going out of style. But C.S Lewis was a better writer, and no doubt could have brought a more readable quality to Tolkien’s work. I say that with some irony, since Lewis recommended Tolkien to the Nobel committee, only for them to say that Tolkien’s prose “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality”.

Fidelity is a poor measure of quality, and to use it as such gives undue power to tradition, often at the expense of relevance or meaning. Movies and television shows are unavoidably different mediums than pen and paper, with different constraints, possibilities, and audiences. To ignore this is tunnel vision of the worst kind, and serves neither art nor artist.

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