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Adapting The Hobbit 27 August 2009

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hobbit

As in the run up to the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the trickle of information flowing through on Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit in recent months has inspired me to revisit J.R.R Tolkein’s source text, a novel which I last read almost fifteen years ago and one which still managed to inspire that child-like sense of wonder in me all these years later.

This particular post isn’t going to be a review of The Hobbit, however, as anyone who hasn’t read it by now clearly has no intention to and anyone who has doesn’t need me to tell them how wonderful it is. Instead I will dedicate this space to a few thoughts on how Del Toro and his writing partners – Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens – might realise Tolkein’s most focused yarn on the big screen.

For starters it’s important to note that Del Toro’s Hobbit will be split into two parts (and possibly and third film bridging the gap between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, though this is a rumour that seems to pop up every so often and then quickly gets quashed). This presents a problem as the logical place to end the first film on a high, the battle with the goblins/wargs after Bilbo, Gandlaf, Thorin and the rest escape from the Misty Mountains, probably occurs too early for there to be an even split. They may also choose to leave the first installment on a cliffhanger, ending in the Forest of Mirkwood when things look bleakest for our intrepid adventurers – either after the dwarves are captured by the giant spiders or the Wood-Elves.

The other major problem with the two film structure of course is that you are building to a confrontation with Smaug the Dragon throughout the first film with no payoff until the second. It seems unlikely Del Toro, Jackson, Boyens and Walsh will play around with the timeline much after their faithful adaptation of the Rings trilogy but a Battle of Dagorlad-esque flashback isn’t out of the question.

On the surface The Hobbit feels like it should be a relatively straightforward adaptation as it’s linear, focused, set-piece driven plot leaves little room to wander, but there are a couple of problem areas. Dialogue heavy sections are always an issue in adapting from book to film, but with them so few and far between in The Hobbit I expect this will be much less of an issue than with the Rings trilogy. Only the Beorn section could pose a particular problem – not least of which is how to realise this mythical creature visually.

Another major problem (and a slight issue I have with the book) is that the ending contains not one but two anti-climaxes. Firstly the slaying of Smaug by Bard the Bowman – a man we are introduced to mere moments before – not Bilbo or the Dwarves, and secondly the Battle of the Five Armies – which readers hear next to nothing about after Bilbo is knocked unconscious early on. I’ve always wondered why Tolkein chose to end his tale in this way and it will be interesting to see if Del Toro et al. are willing to make such a radical change to the story to satisfy modern audiences.

The rest of the book however just got me excited. It’s full of electric moments that I can’t wait to see realised through Del Toro’s twisted fantasy filter. Encountering Gollum in the Misty Mountains, Bilbo proving his worth against the giant spiders in Mirkwood Forest, escaping from the dungeons of the Wood-Elves and of course the confrontation with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain. Quite how they’ll handle a talking dragon and fourteen central characters you’re supposed to empathise with I’m not sure, but with two films they’ve got the luxury of space many adaptations don’t.

When good directors go bad: John Carpenter 10 July 2009

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One hit wonders are not uncommon in any art form: JD Salinger wrote nothing of note after Catcher in the Rye and who would have thought the Baha Men didn’t have any more hits in them after Who Let the Dogs Out? Less common is the artist who produces classic after classic in their field for years only to lose it, often without any obvious reason at the height of their fame, and never return to previous form.

This can certainly be said for horror maestro John Carpenter, and while watching his 1982 masterclass in paranoia The Thingon Blu-ray last night it got me thinking: when exactly did John Carpenter go off the rails?

In the 12 years between his ultra low-budget and brilliantly imaginative debut Dark Star in 1974 and action/comedy-fu mash up Big Trouble in Little China in 1986 Carpenter hardly put a foot wrong, directing at least five of the most highly revered and influential genre films of all time. Assault on Precinct 13, a thinly-veiled remake of Howard Hawks’ siege western Rio Bravo,bursts from its exploitation cinema shackles during Carpenter’s synth-scored opening title card. Edgy and tense, with a sizzling script and one of the best Carpenter double acts, Assault is Carpenter the director perfecting his craft and was to provide the blue print for many of his films over the next decade.

Halloweenis perhaps what he will be best remembered for. Far and away the best slasher film ever made, not just because it is the original but because of its winning mix of a truly memorable Carpenter score, one of the most iconic villains of all time in Michael Myers (who works better here than in any of the sequels as the enigma – the shape), a likeable lead and its wicked sense of morals. The Fog and Christine, while a step down from Carpenter’s best in my eyes are a cut above any of his output since the late-1980s. Escape From New York has dated perhaps more than any other Carpenter film on this list, but still holds up today as one of the best examples of an exploitation techno-thriller, with a central character just as iconic as Michale Myers in Snake Plissken (so much so that the entire Metal Gear Solid franchise is built around effectively the same character with a different name). Starman meanwhile is a bit of an anomaly in Carpenter’s CV an alien love story with not a drop of horror and very little suspense, but is still tremendous and proves Carpenter does have a heart.

“In 12 years Carpenter hardly put a foot wrong, directing at least five of the most highly revered and influential genre films of all time”

The problems start with Prince of Darkness. While Big Trouble in Little China didn’t exactly receive the best critical reception at the time it’s since gone on to be recognised as the very definition of a cult classic, with yet another iconic Kurt Russel lead and a quirky sense of style which Carpenter has never done better. Prince of Darknesscertainly isn’t unwatchable like most of Carpenter’s 1990s output and it does have a fanbase out there, but it’s frankly rubbish premise about a bunch of scientists, students and religious types trying to prove the existence of the devil is made worse by the scientific mumbo-jumbo dialogue and needlessly confusing conclusion. It succeeds in being somewhat unsettling but was the start of a slippery slope. They Live likewise has a fervent fanbase out there but wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper is no Kurt Russel, the aliens look awful (even for the 1980s) and the satirical humour is too heavy handed to deliver the laughs in the same way as Big Trouble in Little China. Having said that though it does contain some fantastic cheesy dialogue (“Brother, life’s a bitch… and she’s back in heat.”) and the 10-minute brawl has to be seen to be believed.

But from then Carpenter’s output can be described as nothing more than tragic. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A. (why?), Vampires, Ghosts of Mars and both of his Masters of Horror episodes – all  just dire. Any sense of creativity seems to have truly disappeared from this list made up entirely of remakes, sequels and re-imaginings of the siege scenario that has run through many of his best works. He is a film-maker who has lost his edge, with the emphasis on the paycheck rather than his art. It seems unlikely Carpenter will ever return to previous form, but with two movies in pre-production (The Ward and Riot) and another two announced (L.A. Gothic and The Prince) we can always hope he has at least one classic left in him, however unrealistic that may be.