Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (dir. Peter Jackson, 2013)

One preliminary flashback aside, this second chunk of Hobbit-story runs in a straight line from Beorn to Bilbo stealing the cup (except that Beorn is apparently not Scandinavian, but rather, judging by his accent, either Polish or Ukrainian; and except that Bilbo steals no cup in this film). Since we all know what's going to happen in this instalment, Jackson seems to have made the brave, or bonkers, decision to jettison conventional 'narrative suspense' and replace it with the more meta 'in what ways and with what catastrophic results are the film-makers going to stray from the novel?' suspense. To that end we get no magic Mirkwood stream, no sleeping Bombur, no talking birds, no cup-stealing; but we do get (a) a whole new character, Poutie the Elf, played by Lost's Evangeline Lilly. This comely green-tight-clad maiden is loved by Legolas; but the Elf King has forbidden her to reciprocate, on some kind of flimsy 'for he is an Elf Prince and you are merely the Pig Scratcher's Daughter' pretext. So, obediently, she falls in love with one of the dwarfs instead. I'm not sure exactly which one. Perhaps this guy:

Also added are: (b) a whole lot of Bard backstory, although at no point did Jackson avail himself of the opportunity of having this character attempt to enter a Laketown hostelry only to be told, 'Nah, you're BARD'; (c) alas, more Radagast with bird-shit in his hair, and (d) a whole extra storyline about Gandalf deciding, rashly, to attack a castle full of warrior orcs, wargs and Sauron himself, single handedly. Indeed, 'rashly' hardly does justice to this insane, kamikaze narrative diversion. It is a sequence that depends upon Gandalf acting wholly out of character, without point or hope of success. On the plus side, it did result in a nice bit of magical combat, and a neat moment where the pupil of Sauron's Great Eye turned into that marching feller from the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" video.

In sum: as pretty much everybody has been saying, this second film was quite a bit better than the first film in the trilogy, although too long and with too high a quotient of Silly. I enjoyed it, mind.

One thing struck me with great force; and it is a matter I have not seen discussed in any of the reviews or other accounts of the movie. It was the sheer quantity of gold stored under Erebor. Really, there was loads, not least in the form of gigantic slag-heaps of coins and cups, millions of cubic metres of the stuff:

(For comparison: the Giza pyramid, 140m high, constitutes a structure of 2.5 million cubic metres. This heap is surely at least as high as that, but much wider and more extensive). In addition to this quantity of gold there are also vast amounts of the metal lying ready in quick-start smelting furnaces: enough to supply large rivers of molten gold flowing for thousands of yards, and to construct an (apparently) solid gold 'dwarf king' statue larger even than Smaug. Millions more tonnes of the stuff! A couple of things occurred to me regarding all this. One is that, although the coins on the top of the heap would indeed be loose, as the film shows, the weight of the gold itself would have long since pressed the bottom of the heap into a solid mass, rendering it impossible of portage. But more to the point, it has implications for the economy of Middle Earth. Gold in our world is valuable because of its scarcity: all the gold ever mined in human history amounts to 165,000 tonnes, with perhaps another 100,000 tonnes still to be dug out of the earth. Middle Earth is (a) clearly much, much more liberally supplied with the metal, and (b) considerably less densely populated than our world. The unavoidable implication is that gold would be all but worthless in such a place. 'Unless,' I pondered, thinking again, 'unless gold is scarce in Middle Earth, but only because so much of the stuff is locked inaccessibly away in Smaug's lair. If that's the case, then Smaug is actually doing the world a favour, and "liberating" all that gold would disastrously deflate all Middle Earth currencies, causing decades of economic depression and collapse.'

One more worry. A metre of gold weighs something like 20,000 kg. Middle Earth, since it pulls the same gravity as Earth, must have a mass of 5.97219 × 1024 kgs.* 5 million cubic metres of gold all in one place, would represent approximately 1010 kgs. Such a hugely disproportionate concentration of weight would surely throw off the orbit of the world! What would happen to our world if some magical force suddenly dumped 1010 kgs at one point on its surface? It's an xkcd sort of question. I'm guessing the answer is: nothing good. [Update: I am corrected on this point in the comments below].

* It occurs to me that the ease with which e.g. Legolas is able to leap from pinnacle to pinnacle, slide down the trunks of elephants and to fire arrows whilst standing on the heads of dwarfs inside bobbing barrels etc. implies that gravity may be less on Middle Earth than our Earth. If so, that only makes the extraordinary concentration of mass represented by Erebor even more orbitally disruptive.


  1. What do you mean "not Scandinavian"? That's Gunvald you're talking about, man!

  2. It's a Swedish actor, you're right! Mikael Persbrandt, Wikipedia tells me. But in that case, why does he deliver his lines in a Polish or Ukrainian accent? Shouldn't he sound more like this?

  3. The rest of Swedes can (and do) sound like The Chef, but Persbrandt is Gunvald. From Sjöwall & Wahlöö's Beck novels. Persbrandt's portrayal of the said police turns Gunvald into some kind Swedish Chuck Norris. Tough - and then some.

    I felt somewhat the same about Hobbit2. Far too much fanfic, but more entertaining than the first one and while I dread the final installment (what's left of the book, three fight sequences?), Peter Jackson can still make Silmarillion, if he so chooses.

  4. Your point about the ridiculous quantities of treasure are well taken, but there are some mistakes in your analysis of the consequences:

    1. The release of Smaug's gold onto the market would cause inflation, not deflation. These words are normally used with respect to prices of goods, which would be expected to go up if there was a sudden increase in money/gold available to pay for them. The corresponding event in our world was the great price revolution of 16th century Europe, a prolonged period of inflation caused by the influx of gold and silver from the Spanish empire in the Americas.

    2. "Middle Earth, since it pulls the same gravity as Earth, must have a mass of X". The conclusion does not follow from the premises. Certainly, if Middle-earth (or rather, Arda) had the same density and surface gravity as Earth, it would have the same mass. But it could also have the same surface gravity as Earth if it was less massive but more dense, or more massive but less dense. (For example, a planet half the mass of Earth but 1.4 times as dense would have the same surface gravity.) Of course, the real reason why we imagine that Arda has the same size and mass as Earth is that Arda is a mythological past of the Earth.

    3. "Such a hugely disproportionate concentration of weight would surely throw off the orbit of the world!" This isn't the case: 10^10 kg is only a fraction of the mass of something like Mount Everest, which is around 10^12 kg to 10^13 kg, depending on how much you count. Since big mountains don't "throw off" the orbit of the world, you can't expect much smaller objects to do so. But why would you expect a big mass to "throw off" an orbit anyway? To a first approximation, a solid body orbits like a point mass at its centre of mass, so the exact distribution of mass has only a second-order effect. The only "global" effect of moving moderate amounts of mass (like piles of gold coins) around the surface of a planet that I can think of is that if you move mass towards the equator this slows the planet's revolution, and if you move mass away from the equator this speeds it up. But the effect sizes are tiny: 10^10 kg is about as massive as 20 fully-loaded oil tankers, and we don't have to adjust our clocks every time there's a delivery to Milford Haven.

  5. Gareth -- in order: no; yes; you're quite right. (a) currency deflation and price inflation are two ways of talking about the same thing; you get less for your money. (b) you're spot on about the mass/density thing; and also that there is clearly a close imaginative relationship in Tolkien's mind between Middle Earth and Earth. There's also the map, which is a Europe-sized landscape, although we don't know how much isn't shown. (c) quite right! And silly of me ... I think the truth is I unthinkingly fell into a schoolboy error of perspective. It may look like 10^8 is twice as big a number as 10^4, but of course it's not; it's 10^4 times as big.

  6. I have a vague recollection of a discussion of the inflationary effect of releasing Smaug's hoard when the first film came out, but I can't remember where I saw it. At Crooked Timber, perhaps?

    I'm on record as liking the new elf character, which is mildly embarrassing as she (and her love triangle) were obviously introduced to appeal to the ladies. But, I think she does two things that manage, briefly, to elevate the film above detailed and painstakingly made Tolkien fanfic. First, Jackson seems to have developed an odd aversion to developing his characters through interaction, and Tauriel is one of only a few people in the film who gets to have conversations (with Legolas, Thranduil, and Kili). Second, Jackson has dumped an entire second plotline into this trilogy about the buildup to Sauron's return in The Lord of the Rings, and barring the stuff with Bilbo and ring it's all been terribly schematic. For all their loudly expressed foreboding and dread characters like Gandalf, Galadriel, and even bloody Radagast are just going through the motions to bring about a story that has already been told. Tauriel feels more like an actual person who sees that her world is changing for the worst and is trying to do whatever she can to stop it - which will not only not be enough but, since she doesn't appear in the LOTR films, will probably end up costing her life.

    1. " Tauriel feels more like an actual person ..." Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose she might have struck me as more of an actual person if she weren't so hyperbolically dishy, not to mention so ridiculously skilled at killing orcs.

      And actually, your '... the story having already been told ...' objection is more telling, I think. Because that's how I felt with Tauriel: even though she's an entirely new narrative element it's clear how things will pan out: she will pair off with her dwarf bf, by way of balancing out the Too Too Tragic death of Thorin and leaving the audience with some sweetness in their aftertaste. In fact, I thought the way this film clunked in its narrative foretelling (the huge crossbow on top of the tower, the one last remaining huge crossbow bolt, the missing scale on Smaug's underbelly ...) was offputtingly clumsy throughout.

      My friend Bob made a good point about the fighting sequences on fb. He notes that where we once might have gone to teh cinema to watch physical grace manifested via (say) dancing -- Fred Astaire, Gene Kelley -- now we get that same function through these extended balletic fight sequences. The fighting it not especially tense, or visceral or even scary; it's there to showcase CGI-aided grace and motion. Odd, that.

    2. she will pair off with her dwarf bf, by way of balancing out the Too Too Tragic death of Thorin and leaving the audience with some sweetness in their aftertaste

      As I say, though, I'm assuming the opposite. After all, Kili (and Fili) die alongside Thorin in the book, and given that Tauriel doesn't appear in the LOTR films her future doesn't seem very promising either. So I actually find her one of the few sources of tension in the film. Is Jackson going to, as you suggest, change Kili's fate in order to counteract the tragedy of Thorin's death, and give him and Tauriel a happy ending? Will she and Kili die together? Will he die and she go into the West in heartbreak? Where does Legolas fit in?

      As you say in the review, much of the tension of the story in these films has been replaced with the tension of working out how Jackson is going to change the story. So when you've got a plot strand where that tension actually works alongside the character work rather than against it, it seems churlish to complain.

      I take the point about balletic fight scenes having replaced actual ballet. I couldn't help but compare the Hobbit films' fight scenes to the ones in the LOTR films, which emphasized the destructive weight of every blow (consider Boromir's last stand, for example, and the arrows thunking into his chest with horrible finality). The Hobbit feels like Jackson took Legolas's shield-surfing scene from The Return of the King and extended it over twelve hours of film, and I can't for the life of me work out why he'd do that.

    3. Well that's really interesting. I assumed that Poutie the Elf is how Jackson and his scriptwriters are going to write Kili out of the dwarf lineage, so that the throne can pass to whoever inherits in the book (Dain, is it?) Kili will be given the chance to rule, and offered the Arkenstone, but will decline its corruptive power in favour of a quiet life married to an elf with massive post-traumatic stress disorder. (Not those last five words, obviously). But you could be right!

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