Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Underground Railroad


Anyone paying attention to my weekly reading rundowns of late will know that October and November weren’t exactly stellar reading months. I can’t even remember when I started The Underground Railroad but it was at least the beginning of October. I only finished it last week. Admittedly, I took a quick beak in between so I could read And Then There Were None but still. It took me fucking ages. Not because I didn’t enjoy the book but because I’m such a terrible reader. It’s been a couple of months of work madness and illness. The kind of nights when I’d settle down to read only for my eyes to immediately start to droop. I genuinely never thought I was going to get through it. But I persevered. I mean I had to. This was ‘THE’ book of 2016 and we’re nearing the end of 2017. I couldn’t leave it any longer. Although, having still not read loads of my most anticipated reads of the last 2 years, I could have guessed it was going to be a struggle. One day I’ll learn how real book bloggers do it and get through multiple books a week. Though, I suspect to do that I’d have to give up work. Although, after the day I’ve had, I wouldn’t be dead against that idea.

I’ve not read anything by Colson Whitehead before so I wasn’t really sure what to expect here. I mean I’d heard nothing but amazing things from it and it was near the top of basically every best books list of 2016. Plus, any book that was endorsed by Barack Obama is probably going to be worth checking out, right? It also sounded really amazing; a strange mix of history and fantasy/science fiction that is based on the abolition of slavery. Surely if there was any book that was going to grab someone’s attention then it’s that. Whitehead takes the narrative that we all know and gives it a new spin. The underground railroad was, as we all know, a metaphor for the network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape their captivity. In The Underground Railroad that concept becomes a fully-fledged network of rail tracks that span for miles deep underground. It is both a simple and brilliant idea that manages to bring a sense of wonder and magic to such a harrowing subject.

We are taken on our underground journey along with slave Cora who is encouraged to escape from her vicious owner by a fellow slave, Caesar. The pair find themselves running for their lives and placing their safety in the hands of strangers. After a tense wait, they are quickly ferried away in a rickety old boxcar to start their new lives. The train leaves intermittently so any fleeing slaves are forced to wait and see what their future holds. As they travel between new communities and try to forget the past, the pair are being pursued by a ruthless slave catcher, Ridgeway, who has a personal vendetta with Cora. Or, at least, her mother. Years earlier Cora was abandoned when her mother, Mabel, escaped from the same plantation. Ridgeway was unable to track her down and it is a failure that has haunted him ever since. He vows to make amends by capturing her daughter and returning her to her rightful owner. There is an unending sense of doom throughout this novel even as Cora steams ahead on her journey. It always seems highly unlikely that she will ever be free.

Despite how long it took me, The Underground Railroad was a fantastic read. Whitehead’s prose is beautiful and his descriptions of the railroad itself are spectacular. He has a rare ability to mix fact with fiction without ever ruining the sense of realism. You know there is a lot of artistic license at play here but there is such a strong undercurrent of fact that it always feels possible. The novel isn’t so much of an exploration of slavery and American history as it is a way to recapture the history of slavery. One of the key ideas within the novel is how people remember certain events or, in most cases, remember incorrectly. The topic of black history is so often taken over by white people. It is their description of events that make up the foundation of the past. Whitehead is taking back the history of the black American struggle not by faithfully reconstructing it but by representing it incorrectly. And it is all the more effective and memorable.

My only issue, if I had to admit to one, isn’t actually one to do with the novel itself. I’ve read a lot of reviews praising Colson Whitehead for not holding back. As one review describes he “opens his eyes where the rest of us would look away”. I guess he does but I can’t say that I really found the things he was saying that different to any other slave narratives; I mean aside from the fantastical elements. The novel does a great job of highlighting the plight of the slave and the danger of escaping the clutches of an evil plantation owner. However, it isn’t breaking new ground. Whilst I was studying for my Postgraduate degree I did a module on empire and race in the Romantic period so I had to read a fair few first hand accounts of people who were kidnapped and sold as slaves. The Underground Railroad is, for the most part, just another account like this but, really, less realistic. A lot of people I’ve seen on Instagram have said this was a difficult read because it was so harrowing: I have to disagree. I think, for the most part, the violence is underplayed or glossed over.

I’m not saying it’s a bad novel or not worth reading but I can’t agree with the people who believe it is breaking down boundaries. It’s not the happiest read but it’s also not the most gratuitous. Not that I’d want it to be torture porn or anything. It handles the conditions of slavery with a deft hand and that’s a good thing. However, it is in no way a comparison to the real-life accounts you could read. What Whitehead does it open a dialogue about slavery and the the reaction to race in the modern world. His themes are all very relevant today and throughout history. You can see it in the way he alludes to classic literature and modern events. He uses the backdrop of slavery and one young woman’s situation to show us a deeper truth. But it’s not a truth about slavery. That’s been available to see for years… just not written inside a novel.

The Bees By Laline Paull‎

The Bees By Laline Paull‎

We’re into the third month of the year and I’m still incredibly far behind my Penguinspiration target of 30. Although, I have just got through 2 more and am well on the way with a third so I might actually get there by 2017 or something. Recently, despite all my best efforts, I caved and bought a handful of the Penguin Little Black Classics because they cost 80 fucking pence each. They’re all pretty tiny so I’m hoping I can cheat a little and count them as 1 each. Anyway, as I mentioned, I’ve just finished a couple of books and, with the announcement regarding the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist recently I was overjoyed to discover that one of the books was on it. I’m never this ahead of the times. I feel quite proud. So I thought I’d talk about it.

Nowadays, I do most of my reading on my lunch-break from work, which clearly explains why I’m doing such a tiny fucking amount. As I’m sure my fellow readers will know from first-hand experience, this means I’m constantly being interrupted by people asking me what I’m reading. Whilst this is one of the most irritating things known to mankind, I’m never one to miss the chance to talk about books. When trying to describe Laline Paull’s The Bees I was met with much mocking and it was nothing to do with Nicolas Cage for once. It was because every time I tried to describe it I’d make it sound like a fucking children’s book.
As the title suggests, this is a book about bees: one specific bee really, Flora 717. She is supposedly meaningless sanitation worker; the lowest of the low. However, Flora 717 stands out in more ways than one. She’s bigger than her sisters and is the only worker of her class to be able to talk. One of the mysterious Sage priestesses spots Flora’s potential and sees that she is reassigned to help feed the newborns. It is the first step on a never-seen-before rise through the ranks that leads the poor bee to discover things both great and world-shattering.
Despite the titular bees having an unusual predisposition to communicate in English, Paull’s novel starts off with a very strong and scientific feel about it. I enjoyed the initial pages describing Flora’s birth and introduction to hive life; they didn’t feel too gimmicky or Beatrix Potter-y. Slowly things start to get weirder and the anthropomorphising gets a little more serious. When the bees are described as eating pastries and pitchers of nectar then it started to feel a little silly and harder to justify to my sceptical co-workers.
It’s a tiny but infuriating thing about this book: everything is so close to being perfect. There are just odd little moments or occurrences that just stand out. The supposedly insignificant human embellishments on hive society that stick out like a fucking sore thumb. I’d have been much happier if Paull had stuck to her more factual descriptions. It’s clear that a lot of research went into the novel and it seems fucking stupid to dilute all that with a load of twee descriptions of bees acting like human beings.
These slight misses can be seen throughout the book: with similar lapses being visible in the plot and characterisation. There are so many random events and unusual decisions made just so Flora can get to where she needs to be for the narrative to work. For the first half of the book at least, Flora feels less like a character and more like a vapid narrative tool. Everything is circumstantial and the narrative is annoyingly episodic rather than flowing.
However, Paull’s writing is fucking beautiful regardless of this. The prose envelops your senses in much the same way as the Queen’s Love hypnotises her loyal daughters. The description of Flora’s first few flights in her new role as forager are, frankly, breathtaking. From the second Flora gains her freedom we start to see her fleshing out. The scenes within the Dance Hall where she communicates direction and key foraging spots are full of joy. She finally has purpose and desires.
The second half of the book is almost at odds with the first and becomes more akin to the publisher’s desire to create “Watership Down for the Hunger Games generation”. With her newly found independence from the hive mind kicking in, Flora is able to see beyond the Queen’s Love and uncover a disastrous secret. The Beessuddenly becomes Watership Downmeets fucking John LeCare or some shit.
However, there are still unanswered questions here: the plot still feels fractured and unsure of itself. The political thriller at the centre of Flora’s story is less clear than the spotlight Paull places on social and racial difference. There are so many oddities that are just unexplained: why is Flora so special for fuck’s sake? It leaves the reader a little bewildered and attempts to compensate by mixing them up in too much drama and action to notice.
I don’t wish to give the impression that I disliked The Bees because I didn’t: I fucking loved it. I loved it from the moment I read the plot summary on the dust jacket. As a debut, it paves the way for a strong future and, despite it’s insect-based setting, speaks to its audience on many familiar levels. It’s hardly necessary to point out that the strict class system, scenes of unadulterated violence and the devotion to an almost unseen ruler all reflect real-world totalitarian states. Nor does it seem worthy to waste time commenting on the importance of gender within the narrative, the book has often been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale for good reason.

Despite all of this good stuff, I can’t help but wish it had been better: perhaps shorter, less playful in areas and more defined in terms of plot. It didn’t blight my enjoyment per se but I found my attention drifting through parts and waiting for the action to pick up again. Although, it did increase my fascination for bees: they sound fucking awesome. 
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Watching The Hobbit trilogy has felt a bit like Christmas dinner. The first course is absolutely delicious and you come away satisfied and hungry for more. By the time the second one gets under way, you realise you’re getting fuller and could probably made do with some smaller portions. Then comes the dreaded final course. After the first two you’ve had so much fucking food you might burst but then someone brings out the Christmas pudding. You know you don’t need it but you eat your portion anyway and spend the rest of the day, uncomfortably full, half regretting you’re decision. It’s all lovely in itself but together it’s just too much.

Since the release of the first Hobbit film in 2012 I have defended Peter Jackson’s decision to drag the short children’s novel out to make three films. I argued that this relaxed and time consuming process worked well with the style Tolkein played up in his LOTR trilogy. However, upon finally sitting down to watch the final instalment at the beginning of January, I suddenly found myself wavering. Having lived with the Smaug-shaped cliffhanger for 12 months I was excited to finally see the great dragon wreak some havoc. What I got for my year long wait was 10 minutes of confusing CGI smashing and a weird, human bow and arrow. Yes, for all that waiting, Jackson only goes and kills Smaug off even quicker than you can finish your popcorn. What was the fucking point?
There is a lot to enjoy about The Battle of the Five Armiesbut I couldn’t help finding it all a bit unnecessary. I admit that I sat there in a bit of a strop because it had become painfully clear that Jackson was stretching this as thin as possible. So little happens in this film and what does happen is just not interesting enough to cover up that fact. There aren’t as many fun, geeky references for die-hard fans to pick up here and Bilbo becomes much less prevalent in all the chaos. The titular Hobbit who has so far guided us on this journey is thrown into the background as other, less interesting characters, take centre stage.
Having finally ended their journey and watching some other schmuck deal with their annoying dragon, the dwarves have everything they’ve ever wanted. Now they just have to keep hold of it. As it turns out, a fucking massive, unguarded pile of gold and jewels is something everybody is willing to kill for. Having spent the last two films building up the bravery of this ragtag band of brothers, The Five Armies shows them hiding from much of the conflict they have helped create. It’s fucking inspiring stuff.
Meanwhile, a weakened Gandalf is still trapped in Orc-ville desperately waiting to tie-up any remaining lose ends, no matter how unnecessary, with Jackson’s previous trilogy. Now the Necromancer has been unmasked, it’ll take some of the most powerful actors from LOTRto draw him back into that dark corner of Middle Earth. In scenes never before associated with The Hobbit, Galadriel, Saruman and Elrond help him escape by battling the dark forces only for Gandalf can go and situate himself in the middle of another fight he isn’t ready for.
There are obviously several stand-out moments that are incredibly exciting: I’m mainly thinking of the time when, thanks to a little outside help, the 92 year old Christopher Lee kicks orc ass. Part of me feels that that alone makes the film worth it. There are several shining lights within the cast; notably Luke Evans and Evangeline Lily as The Bard and the Jackson original, Tauriel. These two still manage to bring a refreshing and emotional performance in the midst of the tired appearances from Jackson regulars and the floundering of great actors lost in a CGI world.
For someone who created some excellent battle scenes in both The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Jackson has a great deal of difficulty keeping track of his five armies. The main part of this film I taken from such a small section of the book that there was a great deal of potential for greatness. Instead of the well choreographed and exciting battles we’re used to seeing, the Battle of the Five Armies is a complete clusterfuck of fantasy creatures fighting over some gold, complete with Billy Connolly on a boar.
Let’s be honest though, this battle was never really going to work, was it? After all, a massive, confusing battle over evil is one thing but a massive, confusing battle over money is just… confusing. I sat through the hour or so of fighting in this film wondering one thing: why should we care? The various races of Middle Earth coming together to fight for power and wealth? It’s fucking Victorian!
By this point there are just too many characters to keep track of and too many campaigns to follow. Everyone, Jackson included, just gets lost in the fray. For something that doesn’t take up much room in the book, the battle of the five armies truly outgrows its cinematic surroundings and becomes as Falstaffian as a battle is ever likely to get. It’s a shame that such brilliant actors and characters aren’t given enough time to develop. The director really struck gold getting Richard Armitage on board as Thorin but he has never really let the actor stand out. This final instalment was the perfect chance for him to shine but he was relegated to hamming it up as the fucking mad dwarf king. This whole “dragon sickness” plot is pushed a little too close to soap opera territory.
The Battle of the Five Armies isn’t a mitigating disaster but neither is it the film we hoped it would be. Of course, you will read plenty on the internet about the amount of the plot that is either a figment of Jackon’s imagination or out-of sync with Tolkein’s timeline. By this point, that’s just to be expected I’m afraid. It was always going to be a fucking stretch and you’re fighting a losing battle if you do anything but accept things for the way they are. Yes, Thraduil mentions the Ranger Strider despite the fact that Aragorn would only have been a boy at this point. Calm the fuck down. It’s Jackson’s lead up to The Fellowship of the Ring, he had to get a mention of the eventual King in there somewhere. This trilogy is Jackson’s gateway drug to the harder stuff on offer in LOTR. If you must get angry, this is the internet after all, then get angry about how fucking stupid it is to signpost the audience’s way into a story they’ve all seen more times than they can remember. It’s like that moment in Revenge of the Sith when Lucas emphasises the names of Padme’s children as if anyone watching is still fucking surprised.
Like the Star Wars prequels themselves, The Battle of the Five Armiesbecomes a bit of a showcase for all of Jackson’s worst qualities. The battle scenes drag on for fucking years, stories are resolved in whichever way allowed the writers to finish quickest, the romance is completely overblown, and the signposting to his later story is just fucking laughable at this point. Like Revenge of the Sithis for the Star Wars saga, The Five Armies is both the best of the LOTR‘prequels’ and the stupidest. It is as technically astounding as it should be but none of this matters when you’re just watching Jackson continually flogging a dead horse before your very eyes.

I guess I didn’t hate it but it was the first time during these trilogies that I was disappointed with the director’s approach. Non-stop action and tireless entertainment are one thing but I value necessity and validity of existence above all else. Plus, I guess I just find it fucking hard to swallow the “money is evil” message when it comes from the mouth of a man who stretched out a fairly short children’s book into a 9+ hour film going experience.  
Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

On one of my random lunchtime bookshop trips I found this beauty on sale for half price and decided to pick up a copy. I thought I’d heard about it from someone on YouTube but, after some research, I’m pretty sure that I was mistaking it for another book. Nevertheless, I found myself at the starting point of a few uninspiring novels and, after being excited by the writing in the final sentence of the first page, I started my journey.

Half a King is fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie’s first foray in the ever growing world of Young Adult Fantasy. It is the first in the Shattered Sea trilogy and Abercrombie introduces us to Yarvi, Prince of Gettland, who, thanks to a disability since birth, has remained an outsider in a kingdom that values strength over all else. Just as Yarvi is on the cusp of giving up his right to the throne he is informed that both his father and elder brother have been killed, forcing him to take the Black Throne. Before Yarvi is able to get his head around his new position he finds himself betrayed; his chair stolen from under him whilst he is sold into slavery. What follows is his bull-headed quest for freedom and ultimate revenge.
Abercrombie, like many fantasy authors, is clearly trying to build on some of George RR Martin’s success and plays the Tyrion Lannister card with his hero Yarvi. Unable to rely on the physical prowess that both his father and brother have in spades, the young Prince has spent years moulding his mind and training for the Ministry. Yarvi is an interesting character and his growth along his journey is certainly something worth following. He has something of an everyman quality about him and is somebody that readers would definitely sympathise and identify with.
However, I have to question Abercrombie’s inclusion of the disability. For the most part it only figures as a way for the writer to further the plot and create the correct environment for the narrative to work. Throughout his journey Yarvi becomes a stronger and more self-confident leader but there is never any real acceptance of his physical impairment. There is a slight hint that he becomes less bothered by other people’s response to it but he still lets it control his life. I’d much rather there had been a moment of utter acceptance where, like Tyrion Lannister advises in Game of Thrones, Yarvi is able to “wear it like armour”. Instead it becomes nothing more than a dull and unnecessary literary device from a writer unwilling to look deeper to give his main character flaws.
This is a problem I see throughout Half a King: it just doesn’t go far enough. There is very little character development except in the group Yarvi spends the majority of his time. The novel is narrated from Yarvi’s point of view so the only understandings we have of people are the often childish insights he offers us. We learn some of their history but hear nothing of their drive or dreams beyond what they tell Yarvi, which, in order to move the plot forward, is very little. None of these characters really exist in their own right and are only included to move Yarvi’s story forward instead of participate. The desire to keep the plot moving forward has led Abercrombie to ignore any of the pesky but desirable exposition and deeper exploration of the people he is presenting to us.
Now I realise that in terms of good fantasy we have been spoiled by the like of Tolkien and George RR because of their unfailing conviction to the world they create. I mean these writers both immersed themselves, their characters and, most importantly, their readers in a rich and ancient world with its own languages, customs and complicated geography. Abercrombie takes very little time within the novel to develop the ideas of the world he has created. We get a sense of the Viking-like people and their focus on war but, other than the brief stops Yarvi’s ship makes when he is enslaved, we don’t get to see much of the wider world. We get references to the history thanks to the elf-ruins the group come across but, as with so many parts of the story, these are forgotten about as quickly as they are introduced. I can only hope that Abercrombie is opening up the world in his future novels because without any amount of depth there is little to keep the reader engrossed in this setting.
Now I realise this all sounds very negative but I did find myself wanting to finish this book. The reason that so many of these areas are underdeveloped is because Abercrombie is so focused on ensuring that the plot is continually moving forward. I guess that is my one criticism of both Tolkien and George RR: the pair is known to keep their heroes from reaching their destination with whatever distractions that they could find. Half a King is fast-paced and always moving towards its ultimate goal with the same tenacity and blind-sightedness of its main character. It is a positive that means the novel is an easy read that keeps the reader involved.
Abercrombie has a gift for description and some of his imagery is beautiful.  It is also the first time I have experienced such decent action sequences in a written work. As much as I enjoyed the ASOIAFseries so far I have to say that Martin’s skill doesn’t exactly lie in his fight sequences or battles. Half a King doesn’t include a great number of heavy action sequences but those that do arise are handled pretty deftly by the writer. They are drawn with care and attention and are planned out to ensure a lack of confusion for the reader.
Ultimately, Half a King is a good read if a little unadventurous. The novel was just never going to live up to the hype surrounding Abercrombie’s first YA novel. Despite the excellent writing on display, there are obvious flaws. It is annoyingly simplistic, perhaps a consequence of the different audience. I think for most of my reading I imagined Yarvi as a much younger child than he was meant to be because his actions and thoughts seem so childish. If it weren’t for the moments of violence I would have genuinely believed I was reading a book meant for pre-teens. Even the story is less complicated than I think the audience deserved and the so-called ‘surprising’ plot-twist became obvious about half-way into the novel.
Of course this could all just the curse of the first in a series. Without a doubt this is a solid foundation for Abercrombie’s future novels and there are several plot points that were hinted at that could create some exciting work. The slow introduction of Christianity above the multiple ancient Gods is something that was occasionally hinted at so I’m hoping Abercrombie has a plan for this development later. However, there are certain things that he would need to work on whilst continuing. I can only hope that there is more depth to the two further novels of the Shattered Sea series.
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

I first read about this book on Huffington Post months ago and I spent weeks searching every bookshop to track down a copy. Of course I could have just clicked a few buttons on a certain website but I’m trying to avoid it. By the time I actually found a copy IRL I was too far into The First Fifteen Lives of Harry Augustto finally sink my teeth in. Suffice it to say that I powered through that novel in order to finally read the book I’d been desperate to get my hands on. Every day beforehand, I was drawn to the beautiful, metallic cover art and prayed it would be as delightful as it sounded.

Rene Denfeld has spent the majority of her life working with the men convicted of serious crimes. In her first work of fiction, The Enchanted, she draws upon her experiences as a death row investigator to tell the story of a rundown American prison. Narrated by a nameless inmate, it brings together the interweaving stories of the many inmates and employees. The most prominent of these being the connected stories of York, a convict ready to face his fate; the lady, an investigator hired to get him off; and the disgraced priest she is drawn to and who is secretly falling in love with her.

The Enchanted is, without a doubt, a fucking beautifully written book. Denfeld is able to use the English language in such an mind-boggling way that even the horrific events that are being described seem wondrous. There is plenty of room to make comparisons with Alice Sebold and The Lovely Bones and the overall effect of the novel is equally haunting. Denfeld’s lyrical prose is some of the most exciting work I’ve read in a long time. I finished it a matter of days ago and I’ve already lost count of the people I’ve tried to force to read it. Seriously I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m fucking obsessed. 
Our narrator is an avid reader who uses the scant selection of books available to him to escape his current situation and the events that led to his incarceration. He finds the freedom that he both cannot achieve and cannot handle within the work of these author’s. Our convict has further removed himself from the atrocities of prison life by establishing himself in a fantastical world where golden horses run free, small men hammer in the walls and flibber gibbets feed off the warmth of death. Don’t worry if this all sounds a bit Roald Dhal to you: The Enchanted is kind of a mix between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Green Mile.
The narrator uses his deep understanding of human nature and his handy omniscience to analyse the behaviour of the other inhabitants of the prison. Most importantly the convicted killer York who has agreed to give up his fight for reprieve and is ready to die. Unfortunately, the lady has been hired to do exactly the opposite of that. Through her investigation, the lady looks back over both York and her own difficult upbringings and asks the question of what determines the kind of person we will turn out to be. Her personal experiences allow her to see the person behind the horrible crime and understand some of the factors that push people into such despicable acts.
The Enchanted introduces us to that moral grey area between good and bad and asks the reader to decide who they should sympathise with. There is humanity amongst those who are guilt of carrying out the most inhumane acts and, vice versa, those in positions of power are easily corrupted. The Enchanted is dealing with identity and reality: the parts of themselves that people show and the parts that they keep hidden. Both the narrator and the lady have the ability to see beyond an unpleasant exterior and find the story and beauty hidden underneath.
Denfeld introduces us to some contemptible people and holds a mirror up to a corrupt and dangerous world of prison life. However, through her enthralling prose she shows us that there are two sides to every story.  We discover that no matter how clear someone’s tale may seem there is always something lurking beneath the surface to change everything. Nobody’s story is complete. Even stuck in the dark, damp dungeon, our narrator is able to use his imagination to transcend his miserable existence and become part of something exquisite. Once I’d entered the enchanted world I didn’t exactly find myself in a hurry to leave it.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit came out last year amid great despair that it wasn’t a fitting adaptation of Tolkien’s loved children’s fantasy. As you may recall, I loved it and thought the real-time Dwarf dinner would have been exactly how Tolkien would have envisioned a film version of his simple tale. I was filled with excitement for the second instalment as soon as I stepped out of the cinema that first time but, thanks to the pressures of Christmas and a shortage of staff at work, I was left to wait until last week to view it. With the state of mind I was in, Peter Jackson would have had to do something horrific for me not to be even slightly impressed. Particularly when one of my many great loves, Benedict Cumberbatch, was the sexy voice of Smaug the dragon.

Unlike the first film, which many strange people argued was too sedate and slow, the second starts off at breakneck speed. Well after a brief flashback to Gandal (Ian McKellen) and Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) first meeting. Then it jumps right back into the middle of the action where the thirteen dwarves and their two companions are still on the run from the bloodthirsty Orcs on their tale. What follows is a fraught 100 minute long escape from this continued enemy and several new foes, including giant spiders, kick-ass elves and fishy townspeople. It is a relentless race to a seemingly unreachable mountain that never stops throwing menace into the equation.
Jackson’s decision to turn the simple quest into something more exciting with this additional chase still drags down the plot but, once again, allows for some exciting action sequences. As unnecessary as this threat may be, it does allow for Desolation of Smaug’s most outstanding scene: a high-speed, head-spinning river barrel escape. The camera places the audience in the raging waters as Orcs descend upon the unprepared party. It’s the kind of sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in the Lego video game of the film and is as exciting, humorous and well choreographed as we’ve come to expect from Jackson’s Middle Earth.
Undoubtedly though, the biggest moment comes once we are already about 1 hour and 50 minutes into the film in an annoying attempt to keep the audience on tenterhooks. Bilbo takes his first shaky steps into Erebor and shrinks in the middle of a huge pile of gold and jewels. Although, you can’t help but realise that there is one thing missing: we came here looking for a dragon and we’ve been waiting for nearly 5 hours so it needed to be spectacular. Smaug is a revelation of CGI: helped immensely by Benedict Cumberbatch’s spot-on voice and motion-capture performance. Thanks to the same process that brought Gollum to life in a disgusting and creepy manner, we see the Sherlock star’s menacing grin in the face of the monstrous creature. It’s mesmerising. You will most certainly watch on in wonder as he emerges from a pile of coins and slinks around his lonely mountain kingdom with a bellyful of fire ready to be unleashed at any moment.
The face-off scene is no less disappointing and very nearly lives-up to the Hobbit’s previous memorable tête-à-tête with the wretched Gollum. The encounter has everything it needed: humour, tension and genuine threat. After attempting to steal back Thorin’s prized Arkenstone, Bilbo the thief is discovered by the deadly dragon and must appeal to his vanity to save his life. It is a scene that relies on words and cunning and is something that stands out in this otherwise hectic film. However, this reserved but brilliant exchange must inevitably give way to another over-the-top action sequence in which Bilbo and his friends come up with the most complicated escape plan in the history. It is once again a joy to watch but I can’t help wishing things had been a little subtler in terms of moving the plot forwards.
Of course whatever you might think of the narrative on show, Peter Jackson and his team have created another masterpiece. The land of Middle Earth continues to be imagined with mind-blowing detail and care. Thankfully, this instalment offers Jackson and co. the chance to create as yet unseen landscapes instead of just reintroducing the audience to Bag End and Rivendell and it makes all the difference. With the hazy forest of Mirkwood, Thranduil’s woodland kingdom and the vast, glassy lake on which Esgaroth lies, there is a never-ending ocular feast for the audience. Even the already seen Dol Guldur gets a sinister make-over in this second instalment as Jackson highlights the growing darkness that is slowly and silently taking over Middle Earth.
Dol Guldur is the setting for another stand-out sequence and it is one that both delighted and left me in a bit of a quandary. Whilst memorable in its own right, the big moment when Gandalf has his first face-to-face with the illusive Necromancer is also the moment when I really began to agree with the critics who believed Jackson was dragging this out a bit. There is a lot of impressive action and visuals but Sauron still looks a bit too much like the smoke monster from Lost to be really terrifying. Plus, we already know who he is and how the story ends so the dramatic tension of this reveal is weakened.  For the first time I found myself wondering if Jackson had gone too far making this new film an out and out prequel to his incredibly popular trilogy.
Even the comic and joyful tone of the original story is lost thanks to the increasingly sinister tone that is overtaking everything. The Desolation of Smaug is a truly dark film. I lost count of the number of times someone was decapitated or tortured. Now as a stand-alone Peter Jackson film this isn’t a bad thing: after all nobody quite manages to blend dark forces with comic moments and emotional touches in the way that PJ does. However, as an adaptation of The Hobbit it is starting to wear a little thin. Admittedly, Tolkien thought about rewriting his lovely children’s tale to give it a tone more in keeping with the later trilogy but he continually changed his mind. The Lord of the Rings is shrouded under the dark cloud of Sauron whilst The Hobbit is a much lighter and comic tale because that threat doesn’t exist yet. There are some brief glimpses of comedy within the narrative where Martin Freeman gets the chance to show us the kind of character Bilbo could have been. He was born to play younger Bilbo but he simply isn’t being given enough to do. His comic, dramatic and emotional potential is lost in favour of the Dwarf’s greedy quest. Aside from the Smaug face off and a few brief moments with the ring, Bilbo is fast becoming a bit part in his own life story.
Lack of character development is still a problem within the Dwarf party as a whole. Aside from Thorin, there are only a handful that have been properly introduced and only Kili (the pretty one) who is given any real material to work with. This is fine until the party splits in two with Thorin, Bilbo et al. going one way and Killi, Filli, Balfor and the other one staying in Laketown. I have no major issue with this split but, keeping most of your recognisable Dwarfs away from the Misty Mountain did give the impression that the great party that had set out from Bag End had suddenly shrunk down to two Dwarves and a Hobbit. Something that is most disconcerting when loads of them kept popping up in Erebor.
However, there are some more glimmers of hope within the new cast members. Most notably being the elves of Mirkwood. Many die-hard Tolkien fans may object to the return of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas (and I admit I was in two minds about it) but there can be no denying that this is one elf who is too fucking awesome to ignore. He brings some much needed action and general kick-assery to this sequel. Plus, he has
a new companion in the feminine form of Tauriel: a Peter Jackson original character who adds a much needed strong female presence to the proceedings as well as a strange flirtation with Kili. Again, I’m not sure how I feel about this dwarf-elf-elf love-triangle but it wasn’t laid on as thickly as I initially feared. I’ll have to wait and see how it proceeds next time before I decide whether it holds a significant place in the narrative or is simply a chance to allude to the Arwen/Aaragorn/Eowyn romance of the previous films.

The two brightest stars to come out of The Desolation of Smaug (after Dragon breath himself) are Legolas’s father Thranduil (Lee Pace) and Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Thranduil is not your typical Elven king. Everything he says is dripping with potential threat and he constantly looks ready to chop your head off if you say the wrong thing. Lee Pace plays the role perfectly and any time that Thranduil is on screen (not nearly enough if you ask me) he commands your attention. I can’t wait for him to participate in the Battle of the Five Armies. He’ll kick goblin butt. As could Bard who, despite a fairly low-key introduction for him and his foreboding prophecies, will have a great part to play next time around. Luke Evans plays the hero in waiting with all the grim-face Welshness we could have hoped. His inevitable return is certainly something to look forward to.
So to conclude this unstructured and befuddled review I will say this: what Peter Jackson has given us with The Desolation of Smaug is a bloody good prequel to LOTR but a fairly annoying adaptation of The Hobbit. It is a great action adventure with some amazingly memorable sequences and settings. However, it is undeniably bloated and heavy-handed. This film deals with only a handful of chapters and the stretch is beginning to show. Just how many times can the group be captured before escaping in order to get captured again? In some ways it is better than the first (which I still really like) but in others it is disappointing. Sadly, there are a lot of people out there who vehemently disagree with Jackson’s approach with these films and will heap criticism onto a much-loved and talented filmmaker because his vision differs with theirs. I can’t place myself in this camp because, whatever else you think, this has all the trappings of a good Peter Jackson film. My suggestion is take a step back from the book that may or may not have shaped your childhood and just go with it… then go home and reread the book that may or may not have shaped your childhood. 
The Hobbit (2012)

The Hobbit (2012)

(I found it hard to try and maintain an objective view whilst writing this as I openly admit to falling in love with this film (is that possible? Hell if people in Japan can marry video game characters I can love a film) from the opening sequence. Apologies for any gushing praise that may infiltrate this piece… although not really because, as we all know, “love means never having to say you’re sorry”.)

I made a conscious decision to avoid reading any reviews for Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien adaptation until I had seen it. I finally got the chance to see it today. I left the cinema this afternoon feeling all warm and happy inside and so could finally indulge my passion for criticism. Needless to say, my fuzzy feelings quickly disappeared and I found myself despairing at my fellow man. There’s so much hatred for this film out there that I’m starting to believe a load of film writers were actually shown a fake, shit version starring the cast of Hollyoakswearing rubber facemasks. To those criticising the decision to make three films out of the book and declaring it “not very Tolkien” I only have one answer: Tolkien was one of the most sedate writers I can think of and it’s the very reason that I love him. It took me several attempts before I actually managed to get through the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy but by the time I did I adored his lush descriptive passages and constant distractions from the plot. It sort of felt like listening to an elderly relative recount a tale from their past and having to make your way through a multitude of tangents before you reach the climax. If you ask me, Tolkien would have been a fan of this three movies thing and, you know what, had he made them he’d probably have dragged it out even longer.

I haven’t read The Hobbit for a good few years (thanks to spending the last few being forced to read a wide variety of pretentious shit before I was allowed to graduate) but I, like many of you out there, am aware that it begins with the immortal words “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. Peter Jackson made the decision to start in a different way and include some interesting context to the plight of the dwarves that will form such a crucial part of the story (taken from a book published posthumously). This is one of the many things that have outraged a great number of filmy people. How dare Jackson try and give his audience more information relating to the next 9 hours of plot?! The much loved line is included in the film eventually, which I feel is the most important thing, and I have to say that the sequence documenting the fall of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor was a magnificent CGI spectacle.
The action then moves to more familiar territory showing us a brief glimpse of Bag End before the birthday party that kicked off the events of Fellowship. I actually quite liked the scenes with Frodo. I admit it didn’t really need to be there but creating that direct link between the old and the new rounded things off nicely. It’s a useful point for stupid people who may get confused by the similarities between the two sets of films. We kick into action once Bilbo starts to document the adventure that shaped his life: the moment his uncomplicated life is upset after the wizard Gandalf the Grey turns up on his doorstep offering adventure and glory. There was never any doubt that Ian McKellen would be anything other than brilliant when he donned Gandalf’s hat and cloak once more. For his part, McKellen clearly loves the chance to revisit his old friend and explore some his relationship with several familiar characters. He stands out, not just in size, but, thanks to his fun yet stately presence and his knowing smiles and thoughtful facial expressions, manages to capture your attention even in the most dramatic of moments.
Gandalf fills Bilbo’s life and his small home with a ragtag group of Dwarves lead by the gruff warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). The greatest thing about the dwarves is the superb and spot-on casting. Each one of them is played to perfection. Armitage, in particular, is amazing in the role of the emotionally damaged and desperate for revenge dwarf king. I came out of this film without any doubt that Thorin Oakenshield is not only the sexiest of the dwarves but probably also the coolest. As the party boasts a total of 13 of these great warriors it means that many of them fail to get enough of an introduction. The only ones that are given the chance to stand out from the crowd are Ken Stott as the world-weary but loyal Balin; James Nesbitt, looking cooler (and more like Genghis Khan) than he ever has, as the lovable Bofour; and Fili and Kili played by Dean O’Gorman and the beautiful Aidan Turner.

Another popular criticism is that the scenes of the dwarves descending on Bag End go on for too long but, again, I didn’t feel that the film was dragging at this point. I thoroughly enjoyed the initial interactions between Bilbo and the joyful group of bearded men. The scenes where he frets over his crockery as the rabble show off the kind of skills that could easily see them given their own circus act were immensely enjoyable and I was a little disappointed that we got to the nitty-gritty quite so quickly. In an ideal world Fili and Kili would have continued to play keepy-uppy with Bilbo’s plates for at least an hour before anyone could even mention Smaug.

But move on the story does and the party quickly set off on their journey. A journey that places us deep into well-known and unfamiliar parts of Middle Earth so we can once again be treated to the stunning New Zealand landscapes. To be honest, this film was great simply because we were back in that world. Watching a small group of heroes make their way through rocks and caves and over mountains is undeniably compelling thanks to the skill of the people involved. Peter Jackson and his team certainly know how to use what they are given and create an enthrallingly beautiful film. I could have wept at the sight of Rivendell alone.
And we see a variety of familiar faces on our journey with Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman and Gollum all returning for another go. They all fit back into their characters with ease (especially Cate Blanchett who is always elegant and captivating when she is bathed in light as the Lady of Lorien) and it’s nice to see a happier Elrond and an only slightly suspect Saruman. Of course, the stand-out of our old chums is Gollum. Andy Serkis only gets better when it comes to motion-capture and his sadly short scene with Bilbo is undoubtedly the greatest sequence in the entire 170 minutes running time. The Riddles in the Dark encounter is a joy to watch as Serkis owns the role of the disgusting but desolate creature. He has become such a master of mo-cap that nowadays I can’t really take him seriously if I watch him in a film and can recognise his face. There is nothing better than to see him crawl and creep around the screen; it is a thrilling and joyous thing to behold and I wish he could have stayed longer.
This scene is followed by a moment of even greater intensity when an invisible Bilbo stands over Gollum with his sword (a new and shiny Sting) ready to strike. Jackson focuses on the face of each creature and it is here we realise this is not the Martin Freeman we are used to. This is Martin Freeman, showing us an even greater skill and a deep understanding of this key figure. I went into this film worrying that he wouldn’t be able to carry the whole thing or pull of such a great character. Boy did he prove me wrong. Freeman is the perfect person to bring the younger Bilbo to life: he breezes through Middle Earth effortlessly on a wave of understated charm as if he were born for the role. Bilbo is one of this series’ most interesting characters. He is an everyman (neither a hero nor a warrior) who finds an inner strength and quick-wittedness that he never knew he had. Freeman doesn’t make the mistake of making light of the situation and Bilbo takes to his adventure with utter conviction. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film he finally accepts his role after he realises the reason he must endure such hardships: the hobbit who dreams of returning to his home must first help these lost dwarves reclaim theirs. Anybody not close to tears at this concept is a heartless pig. Freeman’s hobbit is the heart of the film and I can’t imagine an audience not welcoming him into their own.
Now I’ve already discussed this film at great length and I could go on – talking about High Frame Rates, Orcs, slightly disappointing CGI (in relation to both Azog and the Great Goblin) and Radagast the Brown and his racing rabbits. I am also intensely aware that I shouldn’t so I won’t. I’ll just offer a vague summing up of events. I’m not foolish enough to suggest that The Hobbit is the greatest film of all time but it does not deserve the reception it has received. It is a triumph of casting, filmmaking and stunning visuals. There are nods to the LOTR that every die-hard fan will enjoy and enough links to Tolkien’s own style to keep it feeling true to his writing. The dramatic battle sequences may not quite live up to those seen in The Two Towers and Return of the King but there are some pretty good moments of exciting action to keep us entertained. Who will forget the daring escape from the goblin hoard and the showdown with the three trolls? Lest we forget, we are dealing with a different time. We aren’t yet in dark, depressing Middle Earth but the sunnier and happier days before the rise of Sauron the Deceiver. We do not have a fixed figure of evil hanging over the the action. There are foes along the way but, without a major dark force to go up against, there is little need for great armies facing off against each other.
Getting to the bare bones of the matter, this film is fun and full of energy and purpose. Despite being just short of three hours long I never found my mind wandering. In fact there was never a moment’s peace where I could collect my thoughts enough to let it wander. I think the criticism of the length of this film says a hell of a lot more about the shorter attention span of modern audiences than it does about Jackon’s desperation to drag out the plot to make more money. (I’m not naive enough to think that wasn’t a major factor though.) Yes the adaptation has grown beyond its original source but so what? It’s not as though it’s overly complicated and there is never the sense that anything has suffered in order to make room for the extra material. Jackson added what he thought would make for a more complete experience for his audience. And if you want any more proof that it doesn’t really matter, take another look at this significant quotation from our very own Gandalf the Grey: “All good stories deserve embellishment”.