Revisiting The Hobbit movie (yes – as one movie not three)

Having recently re-read The Lord of the Rings trilogy (see my earlier post) and realizing that Peter Jackson had changed more in the movie versions than I had realized, I decided to rewatch the three Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies for the third time, but this time in the Extended Edition, which I’ve never seen. I purchased a copy of that, which has just arrived. But I have been pondering whether to watch the Hobbit movies before watching LOTR.  I really disliked Peter Jackson’s padding out the story with made-up elements that were not in the book, and spinning it out to three overblown movies. There were some aspects I enjoyed, but I just could not bring myself to watch them again, let alone in the extended editions.

Then I stumbled across a “fan edit” of the Hobbit movies to make a single movie (of length just under 4 hours) which is reasonable faithful to the book, removes excess material and the more ridiculous action sequences. This fan edit, called “The Hobbit – The Cardinal Cut” is described here and can be downloaded or watched on Youtube.

I had not heard of “fan edits” and discovered that there are at least half a dozen that are publicly available. Most of these have had similar aims in editing the movies down to a single movie around four hours long.  A reddit post that lists them and discusses them can be found here. Apparently, it is not illegal or a breach of copyright to make such an edit if you have purchased the original movies. You can download and watch it legally, if you have purchased the original movies.

I have now watched The Cardinal Cut, and I have to say I quite enjoyed it, and much more than the originals. There are still problems with the CGI and the overall look, and that some of the over-the-top stuff is still in important scenes so impossible to remove. Also there are a few continuity problems. For example, the movie skips almost directly from the troll encounter to entering Rivendell. But the experience was much more enjoyable, and closer to Tolkien’s vision.

There are some inherent problems with The Hobbit that make it harder to film than the LOTR. The Fellowship in LOTR contains 9 distinct characters with very different personalities and characteristics. We get to know them all individually and all are played by actors who really are perfect representations of my imagined characters. In contrast, the group of 13 dwarves are mostly indistinguishable. Apart from Thorin and 2 or 3 others, by the end of the movie I was still unable to put names to most of them, and certainly had no real sense of their personalities. Makes it harder to engage with the group.

Also, many of the other actors did not fit very well the characters I imagined. That includes many of the dwarves, who simply didn’t look dwarf-like enough, just shrunken men, unlike Gimli in LOTR. I must admit I was quite surprised to find out that Billy Connolly played Dain Ironfoot. The Big Yin was shrunk for the movie! So the actual production values of the original movies limit what can be done with a fan edit.

I’ve now read a little more about the making of The Hobbit and watched some interviews with Peter Jackson. For the LOTR movies, he had a three and a half year pre-production period in which every aspect of the movie was developed and lovingly worked over, including design and artwork, production of weapons and other props, the detailed story line, casting etc. Peter Jackson, the cast and crew, all paid a huge amount of attention to the detail and the feel of Middle Earth.

In contrast, Jackson was parachuted in as Director of The Hobbit at the last minute, to replace the original director, Guillermo del Toro, who had intended to split The Hobbit into two movies. Jackson added a third after taking over, turning a single, modestly-sized novel into 3 lengthy movies. He only had two months of preparation before starting filming and is on record as saying that he “winged it”, and started each day’s filming with little pre-planning, often asking his cast to take long lunch breaks so he could plan the afternoon’s shooting. This shows. Additionally, there was much more reliance on CGI than in LOTR, for which much of New Zealand’s population had been stuffed into rubber orc costumes, etc. That gave the LOTR a much more “real” feeling.

Filming the Hobbit in the same style as the Lord of the Rings was guaranteed to do violence to the book. Tolkien himself tried to rewrite the Hobbit in the Lord of the Rings style, but gave up quite early on, acknowledging that it was just a different kind of story. In bloating one book, written as a simple adventure story focused on Bilbo, and in a tone directed to children, Jackson introduced new characters and extraneous material, as well as very extended battle, chase and fight sequences. Some of the most egregious of these include the whole Dol Goldur section, where Gandalf meets up with Galadriel, Saruman and Radagast to battle the Necromancer, and the love triangle between one of the dwarves, Legolas and Tauriel, a kick-ass female elf made up by Peter Jackson. Evangeline Lily, who played Tauriel, and admittedly did a good job of it, said that when she took the role she asked them to guarantee there will be no love triangle, and they said there wasn’t.  However, they called her back for re-shoots the next year and added the love triangle.

Jackson has the excuse he was parachuted in with no real time for developing the story properly, but overall, he is still to blame for the decision to make three movies out of one book, to go so over the top with ridiculous action and fight sequences, and to add some quite egregious extraneous material. To give him his due, I have to say that the casting of Thranduil was a piece of genius. I can never take my eyes off him when he is on the screen. Amazing charisma and great characterization. And one of the very few instances where the back story made up by Peter Jackson actually works well.

The Cardinal Cut is not quite the perfect cut of the movie for me. I would like a little of Tauriel included (despite wanting to stick closer to the book), minus love triangle and cartoon fighting style, a little more of the backstory of Thranduil, and some more attention to continuity and flow. The best of the other fan edits might achieve this, or simply give a somewhat different take.  I think I will watch the best of the other fan edits, before turning to the LOTR Extended Edition. The only remaining question is whether to watch the entire LOTR trilogy in one hit, just over 12 hours of viewing including the credits. Or to watch one movie per evening, and spend additional time on the Appendices (with total run time of around 12 hours also).

How long ago were the events of The Lord of the Rings?

As I discussed in my previous post, Tolkien set out to create a mythology for the English in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR), the Silmarillion and related writings on Middle-earth. He presented himself not as the author of LOTR, but as the translator of various histories written by Bilbo, Frodo and others in the Third and Fourth Age of Middle-earth. This makes Tolkien quite unusual among modern writers of fantasy in presenting it as set in the real work but in an imagined prehistory. What happened in that period before the Earth’s actual recorded history is otherwise remembered down through the generations as folk myths and legends, especially among the Old English. Tolkien’s life work was an attempt to reconstruct our prehistory, and more specifically the prehistory of the English. Critics Lee and Solopova commented that “Only by understanding this can we fully realize the true scale of his project and comprehend how enormous his achievement was” [1].

Tolkien described the region in which the Hobbits lived as “the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea” in LOTR, ie. essentially Europe (including Britain). However, as he noted in a letter [2], the geographies do not match, and he did not consciously make them match when he was writing. In another letter [3] he became much more specific, saying “If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.” In the Prologue to LOTR, Tolkien also notes that “Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed…”

Fascinated by the detailed chronologies and calendars set out in the Appendices to LOTR and elsewhere, I have naturally wondered how long ago from now the events of LOTR took place. About 15 years ago, I came across an article in the Journal of the Tolkien Society [4¡ which deduced that the Fourth Age began on Wednesday 18 March 3,102 BCE.  The events of LOTR took place during the preceding year.  Despite the bizarre exactness of this, I was quite impressed by the argument, which I summarize here briefly.

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On re-reading the Lord of the Rings 50 years later

My first encounter with Middle Earth was when I came across The Hobbit in my first year of high school. The Hobbit gave me the same sense of the numinous and of “Northerness” as earlier had C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I had borrowed it from the local library, did not remember the name of the author and only several years later as a teenager did I discover the Lord of the Rings (LOTR).  It was originally published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955, 18 years after the Hobbit was published in 1937. The Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s with the publication of the Ballantine paperback editions, and in North America, the publication of the Ace pirated edition.  I first read it in 1969, when I purchased the 1968 first edition of the George Allen and Unwin one volume paperback with cover illustrations by Pauline Baynes:

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Zen lineages and “transmission outside the scriptures”

I’ve mainly been doing shikantaza “just sitting” during the pandemic, but I recently started re-reading “Zen Koans: learning the language of dragons” by James Ishmael Ford. This is an excellent general introduction to Zen, the range of Zen methods of meditation, and particularly working with koans. Ford was given dharma transmission by my first Zen teacher, John Tarrant, who was the first Australian authorized to teach Zen.

Ford discusses the concept of Zen lineages in his book (pages 28-30) and this reminded me that I had collected information on the lineages of the teachers I have worked with, and inspired me to update it and turn it into a set of charts. These trace the transmission of Zen from India to China to Japan and then to my Western teachers. I’ve updated these and posted them below.

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Prevalence of pre-modern values across the world

In a previous post, I described my use of the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) to develop a measure of pre-modern religious values (approximately corresponding to “fundamentalism”). I have used this to calculate the prevalence of pre-modern religious values using data from waves 5-7 of the surveys, covering the period 2005-2020, but with most results relating to the recent decade 2010-2020. I somewhat arbitrarily chose a cutpoint of 6.45 on the religious values scale to classify people as having pre-modern values (<6.45) versus modern values (>=6.45). The value 6.45 was chosen as the point where the distribution of scores for individuals 2 and 3 (described in the  previous post) crossed over.

The following graph shows the prevalence of pre-modern values (as % of adult population) for countries in waves 5-7, ranked from lowest (Denmark at 13% and Sweden at 14%) to highest (Bangladesh, Myanmar and Qatar at 100%).

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Pre-modern values, religion and culture

Many people outside the USA have watched with astonishment as fundamentalist Christians have aligned themselves with a serial adulterer and sexual assaulter who lost the recent election and is now seeking to undermine democracy in order to stay in power. Since first elected, Trump has worked hard to equate disagreement with treason. He has banished loyal opposition, sacked people for doing their jobs and called for the criminal investigation of ordinary opponents. But this alignment is not as bizarre as it seems on the surface. Fundamentalists share the value of demonizing and seeking to punish those they see as “other”, one of the key characteristics of fascism, as I discussed in my previous post. This applies to Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists alike, as evidenced by the recent murders in France and Austria by Muslim terrorists angered by cartoons.

What is fundamentalism?

So I have extended my analysis of the the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) (see earlier post here) to see what it has to say about the extent of religious fundamentalism in the world today. Most religions developed in the pre-modern era and their sacred texts and teachings incorporate pre-modern culture and values to varying extents. Peter Herriot has written extensively on fundamentalist religious beliefs, characterized these movements as attempts to return to the pre-modern origins of their faith as prescribed by their sacred books [1]. He identifies five main general characteristics of fundamentalist religious movements:

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Trump’s threat to democracy: an attempted fascist coup?

Over recent months, there has been a steady stream of commentary in the Australian and European media arguing that the Trump program is fascist. Based on a couple of discussions with people who know much more than me about 20th century European fascism, I thought these claims were overblown, and that Trump’s program lacked a defining feature of fascism, the co-opting of industry of industry and the economy for ultra-nationalist goals. I’ve since realized this is too narrow a view of fascism, and that its expression is quite dependent on history, culture and period and may take a different form in different places and times. Mark Twain expressed this well when he said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the debate around definitions of fascism. But I was most struck by some of its quotations from various historians who have specialized in studying 20th century fascism (Wikipedia gives references):

Robert Paxton: Fascism is a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

James Gregor: Fascism is ultimately centered around a mythos of national rebirth from decadence.

Roger Griffin describes fascism has three core components: “(i) the rebirth myth, (ii) populist ultra-nationalism, and (iii) the myth of decadence”.

Jason Stanley: “The leader proposes that only he can solve it and all of his political opponents are enemies or traitors.”

Cas Mudde: While fascism uses populist means, it is ultimately an elitist ideology which exalts the Leader, the race, and the state, rather than the people (who are generally treated with contempt as tools for the enrichment of those in power).

Well, this is more than rhyming. These are all spot on descriptions of the Trump program and its supporters. Trump’s America with a defining slogan “Make America Great Again” and apparently no real policies other than keep out non-whites, own the libs and reverse all efforts to reduce discrimination and dissent fits the descriptions of fascism above. Of course, it doesn’t look exactly like Nazi fascism and is very much shaped by the US social and political context, with its long history of racism, institutionalized discrimination, militarized police forces and more recent history of conflict with Muslim extremists. Trump has been explicitly defining those who do not support him as un-American and that politicians who oppose him should imprisoned or “go back to where they came from”.

Now three days after the election, Trump and Republican officials are openly seeking to stop valid votes being counted and attempting to derail the electoral process. As the election hangs on a knife edge, he is falsely telling the American people that votes counted after polling day are not valid votes, though they are, and that there has been massive voter fraud (the only two known cases are both Republican voters who tried to vote for someone else as well). Trump’s insistence that he won the election, and his efforts to halt counting in states where he is ahead while supporting the continuation of counting in states where he is behind, has to be a clear line for anyone professing to support democracy. There are a handful of Republican officials who are repudiating this behaviour, but the vast majority of Trump supporters are apparently fine with anti-democratic behaviour and refusal to accept the result of the election. This is a defining moment for Trump supporters: either they support democracy and free and fair elections, or they don’t.

And whether Trump wins the election or loses, America has a very serious problem. Almost half the American voting public and one of its two major political parties appear to support a system which will disallow their political enemies from winning government. American democracy is in serious trouble, and may not be far away from having elections like those of Russia and other autocracies/kleptocracies in which its mostly only votes for the government that get counted.

And this is not just about Trump, not much is likely to change if he drops out of politics. The Republican drive to maintain power despite an electorate which is becoming younger and less white or conservative has motivated a long-term systematic program of voter suppression via the purging of rolls, legal restrictions on voting, closing of polling booths and campaigns to deter turnout. Outright refusal to accept the legitimate results of elections, however, marks a step into clear fascism.

An Australian commentator, Bernard Keane, wrote yesterday that the fundamental question for Trump supporters is “Do you actually believe in democracy, or only when your own side wins? Is trashing democracy OK because in the broader scheme of things it’s more important that the “right” candidate wins?”

Why do people treat others with such inhumanity?

One of the key values of the Western Enlightenment that underlie the rise of science and our understanding of ourselves and the natural world is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is under attack from the right and the left and from religious extremists. Last week, a French history teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by an Islamic extremist after a lesson about free speech being a fundamental value of the French republic. And other extremists have attacked and killed people in France and Australia in the last week. Police forces and right-wing extremists in the USA have attacked Americans protesting against the extra-judicial murder of black Americans by police. And both the right and left are “cancelling” people whose views they disapprove of and in some cases making sure they lose their job or are boycotted.

Amara Green, a teenage girl who was hit in the face at close range by a deliberately aimed rubber bullet in Minneapolis, is facing months of reconstructive surgery

How can people treat others with such inhumanity?  And its not an insignificant proportionof the population. Despite horrifically cruel actions, such as separating babies and young children from their parents, locking them up, and not keeping any information that would allow the return of these children to their parents, a fairly stable 40% of Americans approve of these actions or simply don’t care all that much about them.  Evidence is now emerging of the extreme and unprovoked violence unleashed by police on peaceful protesters in the USA. There are now a number of documented cases of police vehicles being driven at speed into crowds. The same tactic that has been used with success by Islamic extremists in Europe. And clear evidence that so-called “non-lethal munitions” have been fired at point blank range at people, sometimes causing death, blindness or severe injury.

The same question has been examined in depth and debated at length regarding the role of the German people in the holocaust.  Why did ordinary Germans take part in large numbers in the rounding up and killing of Jews? This has been a question that I’ve thought a lot about, and found three books in particular to be very relevant.  I have been rereading these books over the last couple of months, as they examine these questions in depth and reach somewhat different conclusions from each other.

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