Hobbit Changes Part One: In Defense of Tauriel

Well, it is done. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies are out. Love them or hate them: the journey is over. Now comes the time for internet reflection. As with any hyped production, there were a lot of gut reactions to The Hobbit. One casting decision in particular appeared to irk some fans. In 2011, Evangeline Lilly was announced as Tauriel, a wood elf of Mirkwood. To say that the majority of people reacted with a “hmmm, that’s interesting, let’s wait and see” attitude would be a bit of an overstatement. The immediate reaction came more in the form of comments like these. There was even a wonderful little song put together, have a look:

Fun fact: that video was published on December 15th of 2013, just two days after The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug was released. Either these artists were very moved to write, shoot, edit, and release a song in two days or… it was made before any of them had even seen the film. For the record, there is nothing innately wrong with this. People are allowed to have opinions and reactions of any kind to fictional characters – there are bigger problems in the world to deal with.

One of the many more important problems gripping our world.
One of the many more important problems gripping our world.

But that said, there is also an innate problem of jumping to conclusions and facing new material with a closed mind. Also I titled this blog post with “in Defense of Tauriel” so I am going to defend her inclusion in this Hobbit trilogy. While Tauriel “may not be in the book,” she brings many improvements to the story of The Hobbit. First and most obvious is the addition of a woman in a world where vaginas are more mythical than dragons.

Eowyn is great but it is nice to see that there was more than one active woman in Middle Earth.
Eowyn is great but it is nice to see that there was more than one active woman in Middle Earth.

Now that I got my cleverness out-of-the-way, let’s dive into the more substantial contributions. When Tolkien wrote the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings did not exist. In short: the Hobbit was written in a vacuum that has not existed since (and never will again). As with any simple story that was later expanded into a full universe, there are inconsistencies. For starters, let’s talk about those wood elves: what a bunch of dicks.

Seriously, how are these people good guys? When reading the Hobbit, the wood elves are terrible. The are greedy, selfish, and imprison the dwarves for basically no reason (starving dwarves stole food, can you believe their nerve?). Sure they don’t want to directly kill them like the goblins do, but is rotting in a cell really that much of an upgrade over a quick death? And once the dragon is dead and the dwarves and men are having a stupid (but kinda legitimate) battle over the treasure, the elves show up and pretty much declare it is theirs because….

They’re assholes.

"I'm sorry, I can't hear you over how pretty I am."
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over how pretty I am.”

As much as some people like to claim that the Hobbit is a perfect book and that all problems came from Satan (Peter Jackson), the reality is that this was one of the biggest problems in the story. If we are to believe that the elves are good guys (and Lord of the Rings seems to say so) then they cannot be so easily compared to the bad guys.

A good way to do this while staying true to the book is to keep Thranduil a jerk while adding two elf protagonists who are a bit more relatable. Enter Legolas and Tauriel:

People can make jokes but this is the scene of the movie that argues that the elves should actually you know, do something positive.
People can make jokes but this is the scene of the movie that argues that the elves should actually you know, do something positive.

Sure, neither one is in the book but where else (as prince of the Mirkwood elves) would Legolas be and again, it is nice to have a character calling the elves out on their hypocrisy.

The other great contribution that Tauriel makes is Kíli . Now, I say this as a huge Tolkien fan and as someone who loved the book: I never gave a sh*t when Fíli and Kíli died. I know I know, burn me at the stake. The Hobbit was a book about Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and twelve other dwarves with different names who were all basically also Thorin. There was no real difference between them. Yes, some were fatter and some were taller and some were older but really: who cared. It is a mark of poor storytelling to have so many named characters with so little character between them. Yes, I just criticized Tolkien: deal with it.

Even with three movies, can you name all the dwarves?
Even with three movies, can you name all the dwarves?

When I saw the Battle of the Five Armies in theaters, I heard something I did not expect. Gasping. People gasped when Kíli died. Now, people who read the book would not gasp since they would know it was coming. Generally also, people do not gasp at the deaths of characters they do not care about. What then could be the reason?

Tauriel made people care. The love story made people care. Was it a perfect love story? Not by any stretch, but it was better than Twilight and it worked the way that Jackson had designed it to. By including a new character, he was able to add to the character of the dwarves.

Okay... I will give you that. The dialogue in this scene sounded right out of high school.
Okay… I will give you that. The dialogue in this scene sounded right out of high school.

So while she was a lady, Tauriel was added for more than just her gender difference. She improves upon weak areas of the book and allowed for people who have never read the Hobbit as children to care a little bit more about this Middle Earth journey. Was the addition a successful one? Maybe or maybe not (that’s a matter of opinion), but it was a defensible one.

Part Two here.

Marketing Method: "Based on a True Story"

As audiences, we see these words a lot. Recently, I was at the cinema seeing The Imitation Game and these were the first words to greet me on the screen. It gave everything in the film a sense of gravity and added weight. I was not watching fanciful creations but someone’s actual life, dramatized because of its significance… or so I thought. Afterwards, I immediately inquired further into the validity of The Imitation Game‘s information. There were inconsistencies to say the least. This is not to say anything negative against the movie as a film, or to single it out as the only culprit when it comes to twisting reality. This happens a lot. Books, movies, even video games all love to use the tagline: based on a true story. Well cool – what’s it mean?

Very little.

For those who do not know, Fatal Frame is a game where you take pictures of ghosts with a camera... yeah, cause that totally happens.
For those who do not know, Fatal Frame is a game where you take pictures of ghosts with a camera… yeah, cause that totally happens.

After some digging, I was able to find a legal definition in regards to the phrases “based on a true story” and “inspired by a true story.” Keep in mind, this is in regards to literature (although safe bet that similar stature exists for the other media types):

No difference of any legal consequence between ‘based on’ and ‘inspired by.’ Each of them suggests that there is a core of truth to the story but that you are embellishing or going beyond the factual record. This is something we call ‘faction,’ a conflation of fact and fiction and it can under some circumstances give rise to libel claims, but not if the story is about animals.

“A core of truth” does not go far to keep a story grounded in reality. Essentially, what that means is that one significant aspect of the story must be true. If one is making a film about a real life killer for instance – a killer will be in the movie. Does the movie killer have to be related to the actual killer? Look no further than Ed Gein vs. Leatherface for the answer to that one.

As the definition suggests, legal trouble can also arise from uses of the term. Families and living relatives often take issue with film portrayals of their ancestors (let’s use The Imitation Game again as an example). In the case of the atrocious film, The Fourth Kindmany newspapers and an entire city were angered over the film’s liberal use of “based on a true story.” Argo might hold some kind of record since it angered the majority of Canada by downplaying the country’s role in the “true” events depicted on-screen.

Remember that gay player from Remember the Titans? Not gay at all in real life. How would you feel about seeing an onscreen representation of yourself with a different sexuality?
Remember that gay player from Remember the Titans? Never happened in real life. How would you feel about seeing an onscreen representation of yourself with a different sexuality?

So, with all the trouble that can come of “based on a true story,” why do they use it?

Because we love it.

In many cases, this phrase appears associated with either drama or horror, leveraging that all important aspect of audience relatability. What could be scarier or more moving than something that actually happened? The chills of a “real-life” psychopath will get the adrenaline flowing better than any fictional boogeyman. Anyone experiencing either the rush or low of a relationship will take solace in knowing there are other people out there who went through similar situations.

The use of real life characters adds more weight to certain genres of storytelling.
The use of real life characters adds more weight to certain genres of storytelling.

Is it real… well does it need to be? “Based on a true story” is used to heighten emotional reaction. The upside is, this technique clearly works as more and more films adapt it into their hits. The (potential) downside: some people actually believe it while it further increases the cynicism of others.

The Internet: proof that some people will believe anything.
The Internet: proof that some people will believe anything.

So who is responsible? While some blame Hollywood and publishers for their overzealous use of phrase, I believe that it is the audience’s responsibility to be informed. It is a lazy mind that takes everything it sees or reads at face value. That is not to say that they have the right to lie or slander individuals at will. Let’s keep those laws we have working for us.

If anything, “based on a true story” should be taken as an invitation to do some research. Heck, if you already thought the subject was interesting, why not look into it a little more?