By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published February 14, 2013
“All things come to an end,” reports the narrator in “The Hobbit,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved children’s book, “even this story.”
I have rarely been so grateful to reach the end of any story as I was at the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s recent film “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Of course, the conclusion of Jackson’s film isn’t really an ending. It is merely the beginning of what will be a three-year onslaught of merchandising, marketing and—yes—movies. Jackson has confirmed that his cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s book will indeed stretch over three very long films. We’ve happily got “An Unexpected Journey” behind us. Looming ahead, like the Lonely Mountain itself, are the second and third installments, “The Desolation of Smaug” and “There and Back Again.” In the interim, we are assured that DVD and blu-ray versions, replete with heaps of additional unseen footage, will be available in a variety of deluxe editions. This all smacks of a terrible hypocrisy, for at the core of “The Hobbit” is a dire warning about the consequences of avarice, the perils of greed.
Like Bilbo Baggins himself, I’ve had enough. Of adventures, Bilbo has no use for them. They are “nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” I feel the same way about the most recent addition to the Tolkien media empire.
J.R.R. Tolkien could only have barely imagined what has become of his beloved Middle Earth. Though its creation and design became an obsession for him, it all began innocently enough. In 1932 Tolkien finished the manuscript that had its genesis on a sheet of examination paper. Bored while grading exams, Tolkien turned away from his drudgery to write one of the most famous opening lines of 20th century children’s literature: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Intrigued, Tolkien pursued the story to its end, and shared it, as he did most of his work, with his children and close friends. And then, like the One Ring that Bilbo finds in the book, the story stayed essentially hidden. In a series of serendipitous events, however, the manuscript found its way into the offices of British publishers Allen and Unwin. Unwin let his 10-year-old son read the book, and upon the boy’s favorable recommendation, the story was published in 1937. It became a sensation in Britain and the United States and led to the even greater success of the epic “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien was besieged for the rest of his life by fan mail and fan visits to his Oxford home, and by the late 1960s, the inevitable had happened—the filmmakers came calling.
Tolkien successfully thwarted attempts to adapt his books for the screen, largely because he believed no one understood his vision. Were the books allegorical? Absolutely not, according to Tolkien. Were they reflective of the violence and unrest of the 20th century—the wars, the political fanatics, the counter-culture? Not at all, replied Tolkien. Were they fantasy? Not really, at least not in the sense that most people understand the term. No, for Tolkien, the books represented an opportunity to merge his greatest loves—language, mythology and his Catholic faith—in a unified narrative. A few people, Tolkien’s friends W.H. Auden and C.S. Lewis among them, understood this aim, but most missed it. In rejecting another screenplay proposal, for example, Tolkien complained “yet one more scene of screams and rather meaningless slashings.”
Yet by 1968, five years before his death, Tolkien relented. He sold the film rights to United Artists, and how we got from there to Jackson’s most recent film is a saga as convoluted as Tolkien’s notes on the evolution of Middle Earth.
Still, like Bilbo, we are here whether or not we want to be. Yet there is much to protest.
For one thing, “The Hobbit” probably should not have been made into a film at all, though it has been adapted before. Some readers may remember, for example, the enjoyable animated feature made by Rankin and Bass in 1977—John Huston’s voicing of Gandalf is wonderful. Indeed, Jackson himself said of “The Hobbit” that “it’s relatively lightweight compared to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’” He is right. The story is a wonderful children’s book, one of the best of the brilliant children’s novels to come out of Britain in the 20th century. But it is the work of a new writer essentially writing to please himself and his children. It lacks the often profound depth of its more mature successor.
Guillermo del Toro, who at one time was considered to direct “The Hobbit,” confirmed Jackson’s sentiment, saying, “‘The Hobbit’ is better contained in a single film and kept brisk and fluid.”
The film I saw in December is hardly brisk and fluid. I found it a ponderous bore, from its awkwardly handled frame narrative through its incessant series of beatings and bludgeonings. And, like many others have criticized, I did not like its look, shot as it was with the famous digital RED cameras and filmed at 48 frames per second instead of the standard 24. For nearly three hours, the viewer is assaulted by a cavalcade of CGI digital effects, so that the human scale of conventional cinema is completely lost. This sense of the human, even though we are dealing with hobbits and dwarves and wizards and goblins, is crucial to Tolkien’s verisimilitude and worldview. To lose that sense of warmth in favor of outlandish special effects is a mistake. Tolkien was an accomplished illustrator; indeed, he contributed a number of drawings, paintings and maps to early editions of “The Hobbit.” His own visual sense, though it obviously informed Jackson’s work on “The Lord of the Rings,” seems overpowered here by the manner in which the film was shot.
But there are other mistakes that are even more profound. Most lacking in Jackson’s adaptation seems a sense of quest. To be fair, there are two more films to come, and it remains to be seen what will emerge from those installments. The first film represents neither an archetypal quest nor journey, and it certainly fails to understand a sense of pilgrimage. It is simply a chase movie. There is a great difference between a quest and a chase. The chase may embody adventure, but it doesn’t capture the sense of emotional and spiritual development Tolkien intends.
Further, Jackson embellishes the violence in Tolkien’s book to the point where battle seems glorified rather than realistically depicted. Tolkien was no stranger to violence. He served in the First World War, saw vicious combat, and remarked that after the war almost all of his friends were dead. He would cringe at the “screams and meaningless slashings” that threaten to overwhelm the essence of the story.
What I most missed in Jackson’s adaptation is a sense of the spiritual and an evocation of childhood innocence. Tolkien was a devout Catholic. Almost everything he wrote was informed by his faith. And yet that faith is never explicitly evident. As Tolkien said of “The Lord of the Rings,” “the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” In short, the religious element is the essence of the story, even when it seems to be absent. Jackson does not understand this phenomenon of presence in absence. Indeed, one of his complaints about the book is that Gandalf frequently disappears for no reason. Yet Gandalf’s comings and goings are what add to the mystery and religious element of both “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” The reader senses that Gandalf is always present because he is always hoped for, but Jackson doesn’t seem to grasp this element of faith.
In praising the book upon its publication, C.S. Lewis remarked that one of the most notable achievements of “The Hobbit” was its “understanding of children.” I read “The Hobbit” as an adult for the same reason I still read Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” or Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio”: These are books that remind me of childhood, not just its innocence, but also its wisdom. “The Hobbit” is fundamentally and intentionally a book for children. An adaptation that neither appreciates nor captures this essential truth is a failure.
Still, like Bilbo, I am only “quite a little fellow in a wide world,” and as “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has a worldwide gross approaching a billion dollars, I suppose we are all at the mercy of Jackson and company who, like the dwarves, “are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money.”