Sunday, March 23, 2014

Tale of 3 videos: Hobbit, Bosch, and Sherlock

These past four months I've gotten to see three of my favorite book series I've every read get made into video. As a kid, two of my favorites were Tolkein and Conan Doyle, in particular the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and the Sherlock Holmes series. I don't need to describe why these both are absolutely brilliant.

As an adult, I got hooked my Michael Connelly's series, the most famous Harry Bosch detective novels. These books have a gritty darkness, along with a veracity which is attractive. There's always plot switches at the end, and it's fun trying to anticipate these. I wouldn't put the books on the level of the others, but they're definitely worth reading.

All three of these authors were made into video recently. The first I saw was The Hobbit, the Desolation of Smaug. I'd see the first Peter Jackson Hobbit film when that was released in 2011.

Peter Jackson apologists argue that this should not be judged based on fidelity with Tolkein, that this is an independent, fresh tale. Bullshit. It is obviously presented as the same name as the book, the same ovations as the book, and the same quest as the book. It's not too much to ask to show some respect for the book, one of the masterworks of the genre. Jackson basically guts Tolkein's work, replacing it with his far less refined set of shallow plots and even shallower characters.

These films have gotten criticized as dragging out a single, relatively short book into over seven hours of film. This isn't an issue, in my view: it took me longer than 7 hours to read the Hobbit, and that skims over a lot of action which would be longer in video. A main theme of the book was the long, long journey to Lonely Mountain, including long, difficult treks through the Misty Mountains and the Mirkwood Forest. Then there was an extended series of events when they finally reached Lakewood, and on to Lonely Mountain. There's plenty there for three films.

But Jackson chose instead to invest hundreds of millions in frenetic hyperreal action sequences and tie-ins with characters and even entire species from Lord of the Rings which didn't exist in print. There seems the implicit assumption the target audiences of today enjoy these super-charged over-the-top too-fast-to-follow chase-and-battle scenes. I'm not sure. To me, it causes detachment, any hope of a suspension of disbelief shattered, and I'm simply left to passively stare at flickering graphics without any perception of risk or uncertainty. I'd much rather see the company slowly hiking through the alien environment of the Misty Mountains, with a chance to enjoy the stunning computer graphics. Then the actual danger scenes, as they are in the book, would no longer be diluted into meaninglessness. As it is, it's an insult to viewer intelligence, no matter what the age.

So the Hobbit was a disaster. What I did like about it were the incredible computer graphics, Bilbo, and Smaug. Two of these three turned out to be somewhat ironic.

Next was Bosch, produced by Amazon Video. This pilot was a translation to near-present of some of Connelly's works from decades past, in particular Concrete Blond and City of Bones. The characters were relatively loyal to the book characters, at least on the surface. But the surface is about as deep as they went, and they came across relatively shallow, without any of the depth which makes the books so attractive. I was glad to have watched it, but it felt a bit like eating airline food. And I thought having the main characters in the story smoke, something characteristic of Connelly's books in the 1990's but phased out since, while loyal to the original stories was out of place now that the story was translated 20 years forward.

Then finally, at a coworkers encouragement, I started watching the BBC series Sherlock. I'm up to Season 3 episode 1. The pilot, A Study in Pink, was absolutely brilliant. It's perhaps gotten silly at times since, but for television, my standards are very low, and compared to these the work here is just amazing. I love the way references to the original Conan Doyle stories are subtly inserted, so if you're familiar with the story you catch them, but only if. For example there was a reference to The Valley of Fear, from Series 1 episode 2, where Sherlock is looking for a book which everyone would own to crack a cipher and he grabs but immediately discards as inappropriate a copy of the Bible. In the book the Bible was the book. There's many other such references.

Indeed in many ways the program is more in the spirit of the original stories than versions which place Sherlock in the 1890's, because when the early stories were first published, Holmes was a very modern person. Restoring him to modernity provides a context for viewers much closer to the context experienced by readers of Strand Magazine at the time.

Back to my smoking criticism of Bosch: in Sherlock, the chain-smoking Holmes has become the patch-wearing Sherlock. "A three-pipe problem" becomes a "three-patch problem". Well done, BBC. To lean on tobacco as a character prop is a crutch.

The irony is that the two main characters in this series, Holmes and Watson, are played by the actors who did Smaug and Bilbo in the Jackson Hobbit series. Elijah Wood for Series 4? Who knows...

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