JANUARY 1, 2013
HOW KIND OF Peter Jackson: for the price of one movie, he gave us two. One of these movies is about a heroic warrior prince fighting for his lost homeland, and some political intrigue with elves and wizards; the other, much shorter, movie concerns a hobbit.
Written by J.R.R. Tolkien as a book for children, The Hobbit is widely regarded as a prelude to the darker and more complex Lord of the Rings trilogy. The One Ring that is the focus of The Lord of the Rings, and which threatens to destroy Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, is first discovered in The Hobbit by the protagonist Bilbo Baggins. The true nature of the ring is never revealed in The Hobbit — it is depicted simply as a magic ring that conveniently endows Bilbo with the ability to become invisible.
In contrast to The Lord of the Rings, where nothing less than the fate of the world hangs in the balance, the central quest of The Hobbit is almost quaintly small-scale — to defeat the dragon Smaug and regain the stolen treasure that is the birthright of the dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield. The book’s protagonist is correspondingly small in scale: Bilbo is a hobbit, which in Tolkien’s world is a humanlike creature about the size of a child, hesitant to enter into any conflict or unfamiliar circumstance, and extremely fond of food. When Bilbo joins the dwarves in a quest to regain their treasure, it is largely because he is tricked into it by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, who has decided that Bilbo has more mettle in him than the ordinary hobbit. The book continues in this sort of charming, low-stakes vein almost until the end: the sense one has of the dwarves’ quest is that of a tiny thread amid the vastness of Tolkien’s universe. For the purposes of the story, this quest mainly exists to force Bilbo out into the world to discover depths in himself that he never knew he possessed.
The moment news came that The Hobbit was going to be stretched into an immense movie trilogy, the outcome should have been obvious, but I still allowed myself to hope. After all, somehow Pride and Prejudice made an excellent six-part TV series for the BBC, ensuring that all future film adaptations would seem rushed in comparison. With a lavish attention to the details of Tolkien’s world, I reasoned, perhaps three movies would afford the filmmakers an opportunity to do justice to the richness of Middle Earth. But in that reasoning I was optimistically overlooking evidence from the Lord of the Rings movies that when it comes to the director’s take on Tolkien’s world, a better title for all the above movies would be The Battle Fantasies of Peter Jackson. Battles that are mere paragraphs or chapters in The Lord of the Rings books are the centerpieces of Jackson’s films. For this director, Tolkien’s stories often seem little more than backdrops for cinematic experiments with CGI and catapults (or CGI catapults).
But that isn’t fair, some would argue. The saga of Thorin’s family background and Gandalf’s concerns about a rising evil do exist, in the notes where Tolkien recorded an enormous amount of information that never made it into The Hobbit or the subsequent trilogy. (Some of these apocryphal notes are included as appendices to The Lord of the Rings; others have since been collected in numerous volumes published by the author’s son Christopher Tolkien and are generally only read by the most diehard fans.) And Gandalf’s meetings in the film with the animal-loving wizard Radagast the Brown, and with the elves Galadriel and Elrond, really do happen, just behind the scenes. We’re now getting all this background stuff that was originally scribbled in Tolkien’s notes someplace. We even get Cate Blanchett again as Galadriel, which would not have been the case in a faithful adaptation. Just how lucky are we?
But let’s look at the book for a moment. It’s a strange book, true, by the standards of today: seemingly lighthearted throughout, The Hobbit suddenly takes a dark turn at the end with betrayal, war, and ultimately the deaths of major characters. The contrast between the book as a whole and its ending can be jarring; as an eleven-year-old reading it for the first time, I was shocked that some adorably-named dwarves were suddenly killed in a very real battle, after blithely surviving numerous dangers in the woods and mountains.
It’s likely that no publisher would allow the publication of such a book today. So it’s reasonable to expect that in a Hollywood movie, aimed at a mass audience, this “flaw” of Tolkien’s — whether it is a flaw or not — would be corrected, and a greater sense of menace built up from the beginning and maintained throughout, so that the ending seems like a logical culmination rather than a shock to the viewer.
But that’s not exactly what Peter Jackson is attempting to do here — instead he is trying to inflate what was originally the story of the transformation of Bilbo Baggins into a sweeping battle-epic in which Bilbo only figures incidentally. Since there isn’t much basis for such an epic in the actual book, in the film it all boils down to a dramatic confrontation between Thorin and a cheesy white orc nemesis called the “Defiler,” a ridiculous CGI creation that my husband spontaneously dubbed Whitey the Torturer. Richard Armitage as Thorin is very handsome and, for a dwarf, oddly tall, as befits the standard movie hero. That’s what this movie is about — not Bilbo, but rather the noble Thorin facing off against this pale and by the way very boring foe that he ought to have killed earlier while he was lopping off its arm.
The Hobbit film thus perpetuates the Hollywood definition of fantasy as ruggedly handsome men with British accents waving swords and shouting about courage and hope. I guess this is what the entertainment industry thinks Americans want their fantasies to look like. And perhaps they are right.
So finding the moments in The Hobbit film that are actually adapted from Tolkien’s book can start to resemble a Where’s Waldo exercise. I’d argue it’s no coincidence that these rare moments, when they happen, are by far the strongest in the film. Certainly the fateful meeting of Bilbo and Gollum, and the theft of the Ring, is the most potent scene and the one most true to Tolkien. It may be the only scene in which Martin Freeman is given a chance to demonstrate how ably he would have handled the lead role in a film in which Bilbo was the lead. The suffering of Gollum is genuinely poignant. The riddle-game that Bilbo and Gollum play for Bilbo’s life — simultaneously comic and deadly — underscores the subtle humor that is an oft-overlooked hallmark of Tolkien’s work.
The very beginning of the film, before Bilbo sets out on his journey, briefly pays tribute to Tolkien’s inimitable tone as well. Only Tolkien would have written such lines as those of Gandalf when, at the start of both the book and film, Bilbo wishes the wizard a polite good morning: “‘What do you mean?’ [Gandalf] said. ‘Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?’”
Strange as it might be considered by today’s standards of commercial fiction, the enduring enchantment of Tolkien’s book is contained in the smallest things — the richness of detail, the gentle absurdities. A meal in a woodland hall may be rendered with as much specificity as a great battle, and perhaps more. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien wrote, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”
In his loving evocation of these simplest of things, Tolkien hints that Bilbo’s rational world of comfort and practicality overlies something deeper, wilder, and ultimately unfathomable. The magic of the book lies in these glimmers of the unknown beyond — or interlaced with — the ordinary. By dragging out every possible note from Tolkien’s appendices, chasing away every shadow with the camera’s light, Jackson dispels Tolkien’s enchantments. What is unknown becomes known and therefore as banal as a rugged man with a British accent yelling about courage for the thousandth time.
Another famous fantasy writer, E. Nesbit, had her own way of describing the wonder at the heart of the genre: “There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real.”
That curtain is best left in place.