A Surfeit of Hobbitses

As there is never anything worth watching on TV over the Holidays, I have got into the habit of watching movies instead. For the past few years I have binge-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I still enjoy despite the occasional bits of idiocy, especially where battle scenes are involved. Of course there is now a whole new trilogy to watch, but that’s much less enjoyable. I thought the first Hobbit film was poor, and the second bad. I saw the third one yesterday, and as I rather expected parts of it were absolutely dreadful.

On the other hand, I have bought the Extended Editions of the first two films, and will buy the third. I doubt that I’ll actually watch the movies again, except to listen to the director’s commentary. I didn’t buy them for that, I bought them for the Appendices, and to my mind they are worth every penny.

To start with the Appendices give you some insight into why certain artistic decisions have been made. I might not always like those decisions, but I have to admit that there were problems that needed solving. A fairly obvious one is how to make all 13 dwarves distinct and memorable characters. Of course not all of the problems they set themselves are real. Peter Jackson clearly feels that it is necessary for them to outdo themselves in terms of ever more ridiculous action scenes in each movie. In fact it appears to be one of the parts of making the films that he loves best. *sigh*

The Appendices give you the opportunity to see geniuses like Alan Lee, John Howe and Howard Shore at work. There are also many exceptionally talented people who work behind the scenes on everything from prosthetics to building sets to making weapons and costumes to digital art. You get to meet unheralded stars of the process such as Leith McPherson, the dialect coach, and Terry Notary, the movement coach. The views you get of the sets, and of course of the magnificent New Zealand scenery, are often better than you get in the actual films. I’ve even come to have a lot more respect for Benedict Cumberbatch, though I do wish he’d stick to acting and never go near the F1 podium again and I’m still very nervous about Dr. Strange.

Watching the appendices gives me a much better understanding of the process of making movies. I’ve learned a lot about screenwriting, acting, and just how much hard work goes into it. Just think of the food fight scene in Bag End, for example. Every time the director calls “cut” the table has to be reset exactly as it was, with all of the same food on it. Deborah Logan, the food stylist, made at least 10 identical sets of all of those dishes. They had a potter who made thousands of pieces of crockery.

This brings me to the issue of the three films. Jackson & co clearly didn’t intend to do three films at the start. They don’t clearly explain why they made the change. My guess is that it may have been something to do with the budget, in that the expense of all that worldbuilding is considerable and can be more easily borne by the studio if spread over three films rather than two.

Something else that comes through clearly is the family nature of the production process. These six films have been in production for more than 10 years. The people involved have inevitably got to know each other very well. I’m sure it hasn’t all been sweetness and light, but the team does seem to get on very well. I like the way that Jackson welcomes the children of the team into the process, and the use of Maori ceremonies to make important stages in production.

So all in all, although I really didn’t like the Hobbit movies very much, I have a much better understanding of why they are the way they are, and I have many, many hours of interesting documentary footage to watch. I’m even prepared to admit that, when it comes to getting millions of people to watch your films, Peter Jackson’s artistic judgement may well be far superior to my own.

There’s only one thing about the final Hobbit film that I’m not going to budge on, and sadly it is by no means the only big film this holiday season to have made this mistake. I understand from Twitter that Paddington and Boxtrolls have similar issues. We need to stop making “man-in-a-dress” jokes.

To start with, it is misogynist, because it plays into the whole idea of a woman who wants to be like a man being admirable, but a man who wants to be like a woman is shameful. Do we laugh at Eowyn for dressing like a man? No, of course we don’t. But to illustrate how disgusting and shameful Alfrid is we have him dressing as a woman and we are supposed to laugh at this.

My guess is that most people who make jokes like this are not intending to make fun of trans people. Nevertheless, such jokes do impact us. The “you look like a man in a dress” line is the most common and least imaginative insult thrown at trans women. Fear that we will look like that is one of the main reasons why trans people get rejected by their families.

When I was a kid, it was perfectly acceptable to make racist jokes, often involving blacking up. Thankfully those days are gone. I hope I live to see the day when making man-in-a-dress jokes go the same way.

And please note that I am not calling for an end to drag, which is often very celebratory of femininity.

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