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Feb 122014

Part Three ~ The Dark Forest of Mirkwood

In this portion of the Mordor Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we’ll explore the Shadow of Mirkwood.

In Part One of Mordor’s Review of The Hobbit: DoS, I gave a brief overview of the film. I touched on many areas of The Hobbit: DoS where I feel it shined and other areas was where I feel it failed. In Part Three of this review we are going to explore the deep dark secrets of the ancient forest of Mirkwood and it’s ever growing evil.

Please go HERE to our Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review Page for all nine parts of the Mordor Review!

Let’s begin Part Three of our review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with a look at the Elven Entrance into the dark forest.

Before I start, I’s like to remind the reader that I stated in Part One of this review, that I’m of two minds when it comes to this film… as such I will often be giving a positive review on a particular scene or plot point and then may turn right around and offer up a negative thought about it… or vise-versa. Please bear with me it’s all about Tolkien Shock!

Now we come before the Elven Gate into the Dark Forest of Mirkwood

As the dwarves make their way to the edge of the forest, moving quickly for fear of pursuing orcs, the first scenes after leaving Beorn’s House show the beautiful New Zealand landscape with the dwarves riding upon his black and white ponies. We then cut to a weak CG shot of the ponies as they ride up to the Elven Gate, that took me right out of the story. Unfortunately, there are quite a few such moments like this in the film. I think that Peter Jackson wanted to top what he had done before in Middle-earth. I feel like this has led to an over reliance on CGI effects vs the use of practical effects, which in turn leads to more unbelievable CGI shots that have not been given the time needed to make then appear fully real. There is more spectacle and less realism in these films. This saddens me, because it was the balanced mix of realism and fantasy in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that made them so believable.

Now back to the story…

As the company reaches the eves of the forest, they proclaim their luck at having made it thus far without getting attached by the pursing Orcs, but Gandalf looks off in the distance and sees Beorn-bear following them. He knows the real reason why they’ve been saved from attack by Azog and his wargs.

Just after Gandalf tells the dwarves he is leaving them, there is a nice moment, between  Bilbo and Gandalf.  Bilbo almost tells the wizard about finding the Ring in the Goblin Tunnels. However, as we know… he does not. You can hear the deep base notes, that we have come to associate with the Ring exerting it’s power. Bilbo slips it back into his pocket and Gandalf who once more senses something amiss… let’s it go, because his errand to discover who the Necromancer truly is, takes precedence.

The Evil Eye and the Elven Queen

Now… speaking of magical rings, lets discuss the three Elven Rings of Power. We know that Galadriel, Elrond and Ciriden held the three Rings until the coming of Gandalf in 1000 TA. Narya, was known as the ring of fire and was set with a red ruby. Círdan kept Narya until the arrival of the Wizards to Middle-earth in about the year III 1000, when he chose to surrender it to Gandalf the Grey. Gandalf bore the Ring in secret throughout the rest of the Third Age, and when the Three Rings lost their power at the end of that Age, he carried it back across the Great Sea aboard the White Ship along with the rest of the Ring bearers.

Now… does this explain the sort of secret communication that Gandalf has with Galadriel that we see in the White Council scene in An Unexpected Journey? They are able to talk with each other telepathically. We see a similar communication between Elrond and Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings film The Two Towers. They seem to be able to communicate with each other across great distances. We never see Saruman or Radagast exhibiting this ability, so it seems to me, that it is through the power of the Elven Rings that Gandalf is able to speak in secret to Galadriel. However, we never see Gandalf and Elrond communicating in this way. Tolkien does say, that each of the ring bearers was able to use the power of the Rings in different ways. Perhaps is was only the power of the ring held by Galadriel, that allowed for this form of communication.

The reason I bring this up is because of the way the scene at the Elven Gate of Mirkwood unfolds. Gandalf has a moment of revelation when he uncovers the Red Eye painted on the elven statue. We hear the voice of Galadriel.  Now… is this a secret communication between the two of them or is it just Gandalf recalling a conversation he had with the Elven Queen after the White Council meeting in Rivendell? If it is a ‘mind to mind’ communication, why is Gandalf unable to do this at other times of need… such as in Dol Guldur or when he meets the Balrog in Moria? I hope this is explained in more detail in the final film. I expect that we will see Galadriel and an army of Elves come to the rescue of Gandalf in the last film. Perhaps this will be given further explanation at that time.

As a plot device, I think this works well. There needs to be a stronger explanation for Gandalf’s departure from Bilbo and the dwarves. How can he leave them in such dire circumstances as we see in the film version? In the book of course, the entrance into Mirkwood is just another leg of the adventure, while in the films the threat of pursuing orcs and the growing evil in Dol Guldur makes the stakes much higher for the company. Gandalf is forced to choose between the greater of two evils.

The Dwarves enter Greenwood the Great… now known as Mirkwood

Before we enter the dark forest… I want like to take a moment to comment on the time-frames in which events occur in Peter Jackson’s films vs in Tolkien’s writings. As we know from the Lord of the Rings films, the events leading up to Frodo’s journey and Bilbo’s adventures in The Hobbit films move along much faster than they do in the books. Tolkien took his time (it took him seventeen years to write the Lord of the Rings by the way!) with the events in his vision of Middle-earth. His historical time-line unfolds over decades, centuries and even millenium.

Peter Jackson does not have the luxury of so much time, he has to speed these events up in order to create s sense of urgency in his films. This can be seen most keenly in The Hobbit Trilogy. For example, Greenwood the Great’s transition into Mirkwood occurred over many centuries in the books. However, Peter Jackson needed to move things along at a much quicker pace in order to show how the works of The Necromancer are effecting the wooded realm. This creates a sense of urgency and danger that we can see as an audience watching these films. In the language of film narrative, it’s important to see the events unfold through the eyes of our characters, rather telling this part of the story through endless prologues, exposition and flashbacks told as visual history. I can understand why this needs to be done, however it does make Middle-earth seem a little smaller as a result.

Mirkwood looms large over the Dwarves

As I stated in Part One of this Review, I was simply not a fan of Mirkwood on my first viewing of the film. For me, the segment seems too short and the whole concept about the spores making everyone hallucinate just didn’t sit well with me. However, in my second viewing of the film I liked it much better, as I got used to the concept. It’s still not may favorite part of the film, which was disappointing to me, because the Mirkwood chapter is one of my favorites in the book.

For me what is lacking is the sense danger about traveling in the wild. The forest is dangerous, simply because it’s so large and getting through to the other side is an arduous task. In Peter Jackson films, the rising threat is always coming from The Necromancer. Whether it takes the form of pursing orcs, giant spiders or hallucinogenic spoors, the source of evil and peril always comes from one place. Dol Guldur. In carving out a narrative that works on film, I can see the necessity of doing this, but as I stated before this has a way of minimizing the world that Tolkien created.

The Mirkwood chapter ‘Flies and Spiders’ is one of the longer ones in The Hobbit. The real danger was not pursing orcs or even the spiders, but rather getting lost and starving to death. The company was in the woods for weeks, if not months trying to get to the other side, I realise this is unrealistic in terms of creating a narrative for the film, but in PJs films it always feels like things were moving too fast. The way this film is edited, it seems as though they are on in the forest for only a few days. One of the things I liked about the Lord of the Rings films, was the fact the you could imagine some of the things left out of the films, might have indeed happened off camera. The Hobbit films don’t allow for this nearly as much.

From the time Bilbo leaves his front door until he gets to the secret door in the Lonely Mountain, nearly six months passed in the book. In the time-line of The Hobbit films, it seem like it’s only taken a few weeks. This has the effect of downsizing the breath and scale of Middle-earth in my opionion. I’m hoping we will see a longer sequence in Mirkwood in the Extended Edition that will give more satisfaction to the fans of the book. I remember seeing shots of the enchanted river and Bombur being carried by the company after falling in and going to sleep! Looking forward to that!

As the dwarves enter the forest, it at first seems claustrophobic and confining, much like the famous illustration by Alan Lee. As the company moves further into the woods, we begin to see how immense Mirkwood really is. There are several long shots in this sequence that are reminiscent of the jungle on Skull Island in Peter jackson’s King Kong. The dwarves appear as tiny explorers in a forest so vast, that you might well expect to see a giant ape come swinging out of the trees. Luckily that didn’t happen! LOL!

One of the nice touches I saw was the use of the vines with spiky thorns that appears to wrap around the trees much like the ones in Dol Guldur. This is a great way to explain how the forest has become thicker, denser, darker and more evil  in such a short time period. I can just imagine The Necromancer sending forth these evil vines to fill up the forest.

Now, lets talk about the mind altering spoors in Mirkwood

This is not explicitly shown in the film, though it is implied. Soon after the Dwarves enter the forest they come upon strange looking mushrooms and spoor like vegetation, Bilbo and the dwarves begin to act strangely. They seem disoriented, listless and are overcome with a kind of sickness of the mind. There is one scene where Bilbo sees himself walking backwards and upside down.

In my first viewing of the film this was so different from what I had expected, that it threw me for a loop. It seemed to be a plot element that didn’t make sense and didn’t fit into my vision of Middle-earth. However, upon reflection it does work well into Peter Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s world. PJ has had some fun with ‘Old Toby’ in the Lord of the Rings films and has  carried it forward into The Hobbit films in the scene with Radagast, when he first meets up with Gandalf and the Dwarves. He gets a ‘hit’ of Old Toby to calm his nerves, which he comically exhales out through his ears! Every time I watched this scene in the theater it got laughs.

This idea about the Long Bottom Leaf harkens back to the Hippie era in the  late 1960s, who were the first to rally around Tolkien as a die hard fan base. My oldest brother was 18 years old in 1968. He had long hair and went to Woodstock for a weekend of Peace, Love and Music! He not only introduced me to Tolkien, but as I grew older he also turned me on to the joys of Old Toby! If you know what I mean! Ah… wayward youth! So the idea that mushrooms (also consumed by Radagast, much to the disdain of Saruman) might be infected with dark hallucinogenic properties, seems to fit snugly into Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth. The more I thought about it as a plot device the more I liked it.

This bit of narrative surrounding mushrooms also leads to the dwarves becoming lost in Mirkwood, when they they lose their way on the path. I have to say I really loved the scene when dwarves first realize they are lost. The camera pans upward away from the dwarves and then shows us the cobblestoned Elven Path winding off in a totally different direction. It reminded me of the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz as Dorothy and friends enter the dark forest. Lions, and Tigers and Spiders… Oh MY! I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it was a nice visual homage for me.

The chilling and creepy Spiders of Mirkwood

The impact of the hallucinogenic mushrooms also explains how the dwarves… good fighters all, were so quickly and easily captured by the spiders. Bilbo has a moment of clear headed revelation when he looks up and sees the barest glimmer of light peeking through the dense foliage above. He tries to tell the dwarves he is climbing up, but they are all lost in their own world.

Bilbo climbs to the very top of the trees and is greeted not only by warm sunshine and blue skies, but also by indigo butterflies circling about his head. Just as in the book, this scene shows a nice moment of light and joy that creates contrast to the dark and foreboding interior of Mirkwood below.  In the book, Bilbo mistakenly thinks they have many endless miles to go, because he has climbed a tree that sits at the bottom of a bowl shaped dell and can only view leaves in all directions. In the film, Bilbo sees the Long Lake stretched out before him and then he turns to see the Lonely Mountain! Bilbo yells down telling the dwarves what he has seen, but he gets no answer. Then he sees movement in the trees ahead as something unseen crawls under the cover of the leaves. Bilbo senses something bad is coming and quickly descends to warn his friends.

This change in the story doesn’t bother me and helps solidify the idea that Bilbo is transitioning into the hero of the group. I also thoroughly enjoyed the meanincing scene of the spiders coming unseen through the foliage. A nice moment that foreshadows the trouble brewing below the surface.

Now, before delve fully into the spider attack, I want to mention the moment early on when Bilbo “twangs” the string of spider webbing. Some have said that this moment is reminiscent of the scene with Pippin in the Mines of Moria. In the scene in Balin’s Tomb, he touches the dwarvish skeleton, which then falls crashing into the well, alerting the orcs to the presence of the Fellowship of the Ring in Moria!

I don’t see it that way. I can see why some might feel that Bilbo alerted the spiders to their presence with this act, but it could easily have been any of the others as they walked haphazardly through the forest. I saw this scene more as an alert to the audience, that we were soon going to be encountering spiders in Mirkwood. You can agree or not, but I don’t see this as another example of the repetitive elements that people have say harken back to the Lord of the Rings films. Just my opinion!

Now on to the evil Spiders

Other then the appearance of Smaug and The Necromancer in this film, the spider sequence in Mirkwood was one of my most anticipated scenes. Peter Jackson and his creative team did not disappoint. The spiders are deliciously sinister and downright spine-chilling! My favorite aspect of the spiders is the sound effects used to create them. You could almost feel the clicking of their teeth and the snap, crackle, pop of their many jointed legs. They gave me the willies! They were different from Shelob in all the right ways. Where she was huge, bulbous, and fat, they were smaller, spindly and deadly fast. Both Shelob and the Spiders of Mirkwood are filled with intelligence and a palpable malice, the makes them deadly adversaries. The webbing looks much better in this film, over what we saw in the scenes with Shelob and Frodo in the Return of the King. The movement and sounds the spiders make are excellent, including their voices when Bilbo puts on the Ring.

The spiders words sound both familiar and alien in the same breath. The words they use could have come right out of Mordor, or in this case Dol Guldur! The spiders dialogue was both convincing and appropriate to these villainous creatures. Well Done!

The Problem with the Naming of Sting

This of course brings me to the question that every Tolkien fan is asking. Why does Bilbo hear the words of the spider, after he takes off the Ring? I loved the idea of that wearing the Ring makes the evil spiders voices understandable to Bilbo. This was a pure stroke of genius in storytelling, and shows how Sauron was able to use the Ring to control the Dark Servants of Shadow. So why didn’t they stick to this idea?

I want to know why Bilbo takes off the Ring in the first place, before killing the spider attacking him? That seems like a risky move to me. Secondly, and most importantly, how can Bilbo understand the words of the spider after he takes off the Ring? It makes no logical sense. The spider screams “It stings!” which of course gives Bilbo the name of his sword. Now, you could say that the power of the One Ring has given Bilbo the ability to understand the speech of spiders, and so that he can now understand their language, with or without the Ring. Once he understands their speech, he no longer needs the Ring to hear their words. But… this feels like a reach to me… a way to rationalize what on it’s face, simply makes no sense. I will be interested to hear what PJ and company have to say about this as we learn more about the making of this film.

I hope this issue comes up in the Appendices about the creation of the spiders in the DoS Extended Edition! I would like to hear from the creators of the film why they made this choice.

Now we come to Bilbo and the Ring

After cutting the dwarves loose, Bilbo is attached by another spider and interestingly enough, we hear no more words spoken by the arachnids for the duration of the spider scenes. Hmmm! Anyway, Bilbo kills the spider and falls to the ground far below the dwarves. Then he sees the Ring where it has fallen after he dropped it. Another even creepier underground spider pops out of the ground. I have to say, this spider sequences reminds me of the pit scene in King Kong. This spider is all white and exhibits almost crab-like movements, looks at Bilbo with tiny white eyes… oh… gave me the shivers! Ugggg!

The little spider moves toward Bilbo, looking decidedly hungry and accidentally touches the Ring. This sends Bilbo into a rage and he slaughters the spider. Bilbo raises up the Ring and says “Mine!” the only thing missing here is the word “Precious” which is strongly implied. For a moment Bilbo holds the Ring up in triumph and then he sort of melts down as he fully realizes for the first time the strong effect the Ring is having over him. As we know from the books, the Ring didn’t have such deep an effect on Bilbo so quickly, however in Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth this is a perfectly natural scene, that is not only ‘right,’ but necessary to the larger story in this Hobbit trilogy. It is a scene that ties these films to the LOTR trilogy of films. I thought this scene was acted and edited perfectly. Well done!

A final note on the spiders. Much like the Orcs and the Wargs in The Hobbit trilogy, the spiders are big bad monsters that seem to be too easily dispatched by Bilbo, the dwarves and the elves. No one on the ‘good side’ is either badly hurt or killed in these first two films and it makes you begin to feel like there’s no real danger to the protagonists in these films. A couple of flicks with a sword or shots from a bow and all the bad guys are killed. This is a problem with the tone of this trilogy that will only be addressed in the final film, where a lot of folks will die. I will address this more fully in Part Five of this Review ~ The Mysteries of Azog and Bolg

I also wanted to mention briefly the coming of the Elves.  Does anyone else think that Legolas looks strange? More details on that in my next Review Part Four ~ The Kingdom of Thranduil which will take a closer look at the elvish realm, the imprisonment of the dwarves, the barrel ride and of course the controversial threesome of Legolas, Tauriel and Kili!

I will close this review of Mirkwood by saying how much I enjoyed seeing Martin Freeman continue to build the character of Bilbo, as both diminutive hero and bearer of the Ring. He is a wonder to watch. I just wish there was more of Bilbo in this film. When he is on screen, I can really believe in The Hobbit!

However… I do feel that Bilbo’s transition from frightened Hobbit into bold hero is stymied a bit by the films need to exert the authority and leadership of Thorin. In the book, Bilbo single handedly saves the dwarves from the spiders all on his own. I understand that the script writers had to figure out an alternative way for the Dwarves to be captured by the Elves, but it would have been nice to show the spiders led away by Bilbo only for him to return and find the Dwarves captured by the Elves.

The other point, I want to note is that the dwarves never listen to Bilbo without first looking to Thorin. This undermines Bilbo’s emerging leadership in the group. This occurs several time after the attack by the spiders. In The Hobbit book, by this point in the story the entire group of dwarves now looks to Bilbo for leadership to get them out of danger. I’m not sure if this will change as we enter the third film, but something tells me not. I feel that Bilbo’s story and his character development are being sacrificed for the larger story and the development of the other characters. This is a criticism I also hold for the Lord of the Rings films and how Frodo’s character was handled in the first titlogy. He came off as much weaker to me then he does in Tolkien’s writing. I’m holding out hope, that this may change by the end of the third film.

We will just have to wait and see! I just hope the filmmakers don’t forget that it’s Bilbo who is the hero of this story!


 February 12, 2014  Posted by at 7:56 pm
  • Random Musings

    A couple of people have mentioned the Galadriel/Gandalf mind link. I simply saw it as a flash back from Rivendell as you suggest. I’m also looking forward to Bombur’s ‘swim’ in the river but never linked Bilbo’s actions with Pippin’s from FOTR. That is a stretch to say the least.
    I’m most happy that my fav scene from the book, Bilbo on the forest canopy had such a prominent role. I feared it might be held for the EE.

  • The butterflies were a nice touch!

  • Bagronk

    “I want to know why Bilbo takes off the Ring in the first place, before killing the spider attacking him?”

    I don’t think the honest answer will be too thrilling. I’m willing to bet it’s a “for the audience” type answer without much other reasoning behind. When I was 18, I once asked the creator of a show called “Gargoyles” if the clan of gargoyles spoke Old English or Gaelic in 994, how they could have suddenly learned Modern English when they awoke in 1994. “It was magic,” he said, meaning “leave me alone” in real English :p

    Interesting you bring up Bilbo’s development. I love Martin Freeman in this movie and was sad that Biblbo, kind of maybe, disappeared just a little bit from the movie. Given all the work they had to do with introducing new characters and such, I can see why they had to take some time away from him, but he really is an enjoyable actor.

    Mirkwood I loved. Both times that I saw the film I jumped when the spider bolts out from under the branch to try to snatch Bilbo. I think Jackson was tapping into his horror days for this scene. But due to the rushed nature of the film, the “grandeur” was lost. Mirkwood, I think, has a rep, and we only got a taste of it. I didn’t feel from the movie that Mirkwood was truly sinister, whereas I did from the book. It almost seems like the spiders and spores make Mirkwood a bad place, but….I dunno. Maybe I’m not too clear with myself in what I mean.

    Legolas looked way too clean. I think he got “Bloom-screened” with this character. Way too much computer work. I don’t know how I feel about elves kind of becoming ninjas in this film. For sure in LOTR they were fast, lethal and precise, but in DoS they’re almost ninjas with all the leaping and aerial attacks and acrobatics. If this were something like Forgotten Realms I could maybe buy into it, but I don’t see it happening in Middle-Earth.

  • Good points Bagronk! I swear I laughed out loud at this… “It was magic,” he said, meaning “leave me alone” LOL There are a lot of problems with The Hobbit films that I suppose get answered in the same way. I think the biggest problem with these films is that Peter Jackson and his team wasn’t able to spend enough time in pre-production the way they did with the LOTR. It shows in the writing and in final visual results. It’s a shame, because these films could have been great, rather than just good.

  • Random Musings

    PJ actually mentions during the EE director’s commentary that they cheated with Bilbo still understanding what the spiders are saying after he takes the ring off. I rationalise that maybe the effect wears of gradually.