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peter jacksonThere must be something about New Zealand that brings out the megalomania in movie makers. It recently was announced that James Cameron, that titan of trite who brought us the “morality tale” of Titanic (with rich people falsely portrayed as scrambling for other people’s places on life boats, as if to say all rich people, except James Cameron, are craven cowards with entitlement complexes) has decided to make three sequels to Avatar in New Zealand. One Avatar, with its infantile pseudo-moralizing and overdone special effects, was more than enough, thank you very much. But people have shown time and again that Cameron, despite his distinctly limited talents as a filmmaker, can bring in the cash because he knows something about spectacle.

Peter Jackson also knows something about spectacle. A native of New Zealand, he likes making movies there. And his Lord of the Rings trilogy is epic filmmaking on a massive scale. In these movies, and in The Hobbit, Middle Earth comes alive, especially in the architectural detail brought to most every scene. Mention of these Tolkien titles brings up the other thing Jackson has: (which Cameron lacks) namely, good material. Well, actually, some of the best “material” ever written. Unfortunately, after showing decent respect to that material in The Lord of the Rings, Jackson has returned to Middle Earth with less respect and more smugness. The results are rather awful.

Tolkien’s magnificent story and Jackson’s modicum of self-restraint made The Lord of the Rings trilogy work on every level. Its massive length was called for in doing justice to its material, even as most of Jackson’s alterations (e.g., relegating Merry and Pippin, tough guys in the books, to the role of comic relief and slicing off the intentionally anti-climactic conclusion to Tolkien’s work) ended up “working;” that is, Jackson’s changes generally made the movie effective as cinema while remaining true to the overall spirit of the books. The one massive error he and his co-writers almost made, inserting a “warrior maiden” into the battle at Helm’s Deep, was one from which they wisely stepped back.

There is no such holding back in The Hobbit. In hindsight, this was predictable, perhaps even inevitable, from the moment Jackson decided one movie would not be enough. Tolkien’s Hobbit is not an epic. It is a tale. This introduction to The Lord of the Rings was intended to be a lighter piece, bringing people into the world of Middle Earth with as much charm as danger, as much humor as pathos, and at a rather quick pace (indeed, lightning quick, for Tolkien). It is grand, wonderful stuff. It is not the stuff of trilogies.

That said, it is understandable that, after filming the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson would be hesitant to leave The Hobbit as the tale it was intended to be. One can understand the desire to make another multi-film—and multi-billion dollar profit-making—epic to match The Lord of the Rings’ success even as the new movies introduce the stories that come after them in Tolkien’s world. And Jackson might be forgiven his central conceit, namely mining the ultimate prequel, Tolkien’s Silmarillion, for material. That volume is, in essence, Tolkien’s notes on the history and theology of Middle Earth. It is filled with half-finished stories and sketches for works Tolkien never intended to complete but rather used to orient his own mind for the story of The Lord of the Rings. With restraint and good judgment, Jackson might even have pulled off his elaboration of the suggestion Tolkien gives of a Necromancer, using him as a kind of foreshadowing of Sauron. Alas, Jackson makes too much of Tolkien’s hints, and ties them too closely to his project of making The Hobbit into an epic prequel; the result is both overblown and almost Cameron-like in its triteness.

But what really makes The Hobbit into a kind of senile version of The Lord of the Rings—tired, overdone, and stretched thin—is less grand, and more insidious. What makes both Hobbit movies released so far fail, and seems destined to have the same impact on the third installment, is the constant, small-minded niggling and unneeded, overblown elaboration.

For the overblown, we may look to the scene, from the first installment, inside the Goblin King’s lair, and even to the confrontation between the Dwarves and Smaug in the second installment; both are simply too long. Beautiful as the sets are, well done as the special effects and costumes are, these scenes provide too much of a good thing—spectacular action—to the point where one is almost numbed. Jackson at times seems desperate to outdo himself, to make the action sequences as over-the-top as possible, giving us, for example, the rather ridiculous falling bridge in the Goblin Lair.

Then there are the political conceits. Examples are both large and small. On the small side there is the insulting tokenism of repeated shots in one Lake-Town scene of two black people and the muttering about stupid poor people, elections and “enemies of the state” from Lake-Town’s ruler. For large, indeed mammoth instances of conceit, there is Tauriel. The character of Tauriel the warrior female elf was created out of whole cloth by Jackson and his co-writers, seeking to “correct” Tolkien’s failure to provide enough “female role models” who would appeal to feminist values. Not content with creating an Elven female who kills with abandon, the writers use her as an integral part of another conceit—a cross-species romance I am sure we will see more of in the third film. A double victory for the smug crowd, Tauriel “transgresses” both sex roles and cross species taboos. I doubt it has occurred to Jackson that he has given the world perhaps the most ridiculous cross-species romance since that between Roger and Jessica Rabbit—only without the (intentional) laughs. Tauriel is a character of whom Jackson surely is proud; she is progress incarnate in a medieval fantasy. Anachronistic much? Perhaps just a wee bit distracting from Tolkien’s story line and its larger purpose?

I will, of course, be watching the final installment of The Hobbit when it comes out. The chance to see one of my favorite books on the big screen, particularly given the miraculous work done by the set designers, has proven too good to pass up, as it has, no doubt, for many, many others. But it remains the case that Jackson, after doing an admirable job with The Lord of the Rings, has fallen into shallow, overblown self-indulgence, squandering the opportunity to make another great film (and perhaps others more clearly his own, even focusing on that Necromancer). Perhaps the next Jackson/Hobbit film could be called The Desolation of Smug.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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16 replies to this post
  1. Great piece, Bruce. I consider myself a Tolkien “purist,” as I assume you do. Yet I, again like you, love Jackson’s LOTR. I find that many self-proclaimed “purists” are in truth snobs who want to prove their superior devotion to the books by disparaging the movies. Movies are different beasts and should not be word-by-word recreations of the books on which they are based. As you indicate, Jackson remained faithful to Tolkien’s spirit when making LOTR. I for one don’t mind the changes in regard to the characterizations of Pippin, Merry (both of whom display tough qualities when it counts in Jackson’s LOTR), and even Faramir. I have only seen the first “Hobbit” film and apparently liked it a little more than you. Based on what you write here, I am already wary of this second installment, which should be the end of the tale; how Jackson is stretching the material to three movies is beyond me!

  2. Inserting more than fleeting romances into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings violates what is almost certainly a conscious choice made by Tolkien. It’s potentially as bad as turning Romeo and Juliet into a Monty Python-like comedy.

    You can see that if you read the two William Morris’t tales that Tolkien said heavily influenced his writing, The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. Both are marvelous tales that need to be more often read by Tolkien fans. But in both, the central dilemma the hero faces is the conflict between his loyalty to his people and his love for a woman. All other issues get overwhelmed by that conflict. Apply that to LOTR, and Frodo would need a love interest back in the Shire, and Sam would only leave on the quest after a long struggle with Rose over whether he loved Frodo more than he did her. That’d reduce a grand epic to a domestic squabble.

    And yes, it is true that Peter Jackson resolves this issue by making his leading women, Arwen and now Tauriel, act in ways that fit better with an epic plot–warrior princesses. I’ve not seen the second film yet, but I suspect it does so by reducing romance to something less than grand. In Tolkien, both themes are so sweeping, that both can’t be onstage at the same time. In LOTR romance has to wait in the wings while the warrior epic plays out.

    For those who’re interested, I combined Morris’ warrior tales into one inexpensive book, More to William Morris. And I’ve combined his more purely romance and quest tales, The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End, into a single book: On the Lines of Morris’ Romances. Both have Tolkien-related commentary and I’m in partially done with creating ebook versions of each of them.

    Morris’ two romances have an abundance of guy-girl romance. His heroes, it seems, cannot enter a wood (typically enchanted) without encountering at least one lovely maiden and sometimes two. Given that both tales involve quest journeys, the presence of a companion aids rather than hinders the tale.

    All four Morris tales are so visually rich and emotionally satisfying, I can’t understand why no one has turned them into films. Perhaps someone should suggest that to Peter Jackson.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  3. Thanks for the response, Steve. I actually didn’t mind the first installment. I was willing, at the time, to go along with the whole “necromancer” subplot, really just thought it was a bit overblown and, well, long–a problem I did NOT find in the no-less-long installments of LOTR. I really think it was the determination to turn this into a trilogy to “match” LOTR that caused it to go off the rails. Jackson is no longer content doing what a movie maker needs to do to bring a great story to life (as you say, it’s not about word-by-word recreations, after all, “purity” can be the enemy of, well, life). Instead, he is “fixing” Tolkien to make him a 21st century lib, and also “fixing” the story line to make it something it was never meant to be. Great sets, though. . .

  4. Kudos to Micheal W. Perry for bringing back for public consumption the lost classics of William Morris. In fact, it was in a series by that name that I first read Morris’ tales. I still remember the chills that went up my spine when, as a teen, I reached the stunning, and perfect, ending of Morris’ Golden Wings. Sadly, I rather doubt anyone in Hollywood is up to the task of understanding Morris’ medievalist prose, let alone “translating” it for the screen. More’s the pity as several of his stories would make for lovely films, and The House of the Wolflings would itself make a fine epic series.

  5. Great analysis.

    I think I am a little harder on H1 and a little easier on H2, than you are. But your thesis of directorial smugness is well couched in your praise for LOTR, whose length/tempo you justify very prettily. Especially in contrast.

    Indeed, I rewatched the trilogy over Christmas…extended versions…WITH commentary by PJ…and I kept thinking, where did THIS sort of devotion to Tolkien go!? What do you suppose happened? What about Phillippa Boyens and Fran Walsh?

  6. I’m rather confused by the charges against Tauriel, who seems to me a pretty clear amalgamation of Tolkien’s own Arwen and Eowyn (and their hackneyed love triangles in “Lord of the Rings”). Based on your interpretation of Tauriel’s “progressive cross-species romance” I take it Tolkien was even more progressive sixty years ago when he had Arwen “transgress” her species to marry a human?

    And considering that Tolkien didn’t include *any* women in “The Hobbit” I’m not sure how you could fault Jackson for “seeking to ‘correct’ Tolkien’s failure to provide enough ‘female role models’…” Enough? Forget role models — if going from zero to one woman even existing as a character in a story now counts as liberal smugness, I’d hate to know what the alternatives are. Tauriel’s inclusion seems perfectly reasonable, and at worst should be considered a smart business move — not the political sledgehammer suggested here.

  7. Josh, why is it necessary for there to be women in the story? Liberal smugness does include the constant necessity to express what, in the current cant term, is called diversity. The BBC, for example, has a constant need to depict various minorities in any show it produces or pays for. So, you randomly see black or asian individuals appearing in English medieval or early modern settings.

  8. I think in part the criticism here is overdone. Being a purist to the point that you only include what Tolkien included is largely missing the point of good fiction: to bring someone into your universe and to allow them to partially make it their own. I don’t think Tolkien would care much whether or not some of his ideas were fleshed out a bit, or even altered slightly. I think he would respect the fact that people read his materiel, loved it, and it inspired thoughts and dreams that were similar to, but not the same, as his. He also had intentions of rewriting the hobbit, having never believed the whole thing was ever going to go as far as it did, and regretting that the introduction to the series wasn’t as in depth as the rest of it, and was written as a children’s story. Using the Silmarillion is brilliant and welcome to this critic, because it allows us to dream a little farther back and to see the full vision Tolkien had and to make it our own and expand our minds and hearts around it. To dream of new characters like Tauriel, whatever the reason for them might be. I think we should be able to dream of other heroes and Villains in the world of Tolkien. I think that is the magic of great writers like Tolkien, they get us to dream something and add to it in our own little worlds.

  9. Wessexman, no one said it was necessary, but it takes an unusual amount of political skittishness to see the addition of a female hero as some kind of liberal hubris. Women aren’t even a minority, so the comparison to ethnic diversity is tenuous at best. And even if the BBC’s color blind casting policy can sometimes lead to anachronisms, I don’t see conservatives complaining whenever Jesus is erroneously depicted as a tall caucasian. Is that a liberal conspiracy too?

    Peter Jackson is helming a $600 million film trilogy here. Surely, he might have other reasons for including a couple of women characters in his story, besides some sort of progressive agenda? Must we jump at every shadow we see?

    • By initially branding other views as ‘skittishness’ and falling back on the ‘jump[ing] at every shadow’ argument, Josh, you avoid addressing the central issue. That is the ubiquitous need in modern drama (film or tv) to tick inclusiveness boxes, regardless of original material, plot necessities or appropriateness.

      The latest example of this in the UK is the inclusion of Sherlock Holmes’ “gay” kiss with Moriarty. It has absolutely no right to be there other than attempting to normalise such an event which was alien to Victorian Britain. It is an attempt to rewrite history to push a modern agenda. It will later be used by homosexual apologists to reinforce their ‘normal’ message, and there are many naive viewers who will believe it.

      So, is the “inclusion” argument worth the inaccurate and sometimes downright insidious editing of history? If you reckon this is an example too far, then who becomes arbiter of ‘how much?’ and where is the line? And which societies/regimes in history also used such tools to promote an agenda? Do you really want to carry on down this road?

  10. I fear, Josh, that you are a bit confused, here. This is not fear, but contempt. I do not fear that amazons will take over the nation because of Peter Jackson’s movie. The danger is much more a direct result of the smugness, actually. For example, the military recently announced that, because fewer than half its female marine recruits can do three pull ups, they will not require their female marine recruits to do pull ups. This to keep the integration of women into combat roles “on-track.” A weaker military, more casualties (especially women) and a further breakdown of civility. No bang, just whimpers. No jumping at shadows, just recognizing arrogant fools and the damage they do to the social fabric.

  11. I live about ten minutes in the car from Peter Jackson and about forty five minutes away from James Cameron’s New Zealand property. As a fourth generation New Zealander, and a follower of Christ, I have to say I haven’t found any of Jackson’s movies entertaining. Lots of action and thin on storyline, seems to be his style.

    However, I am grateful for the thousands of jobs that these movies have provided for many creative people in this country.

    A Simple Kiwi Girl

  12. Josh, you ignore the cental point – motive, or the ideological motivation of liberals.

    It is not the desire to include women per se that is being objected to, but the liberal ideological need to always include or focus on minorities (and for this purpose women are included) because they are oppressed, neglected, and so forth (you know the perspective I’m talking about; I don’t need to go into any depth about it).

    The same is true for white, European Jesus versus the anarchorisms of the BBC: the latter are motivated by the liberal, politically correct ideology.

    It is this context which must be kept in mind.

  13. The Problem with Peter Jackson is that he has no idea of Medieval (and by extension, both Ancient and Christian) philosophy. He just doesn’t “get” Tolkien. So he can never make a true adaption; even if he can make a good film. Now I doubt if he can even make a good film…

    <>

    Needless to say, I am a bit ticked off. Thankfully, The Hobbit: Two Towers– I mean, The Hobbit: Goldbath of Cumberbatch– oh, whatever– the new film just goes to show that, once Jackson totally spurns Tolkien’s writing, he not only makes a bad adaption, but just plain artistic failures – full of idiotic characters, plot inconsistencies, and overblown self-importance that leave the films (especially the second one) not as an epic quest or even engaging action, but as buffoonery to be laughed at.

    In his film adaptions, particularly in the Hobbit, PJ shows that he has no idea what he’s doing. Well, except showing us the wonderful nature of New Zealand. Otherwise? All he does is to try and remove anything like Tolkien from Middle Earth.

    PS – ALSO, because I’m a purist, I must point out that the LOTR is the SEQUEL to the Hobbit. The Hobbit was not written (though it was slightly retcon-ed) with LOTR in mind. The basis of the Silmarillion predates both.

  14. I’m intrigued by the repetition amongst the comments of the liberal drive to always represent the under-represented. I personally wouldn’t mind if more movies with that liberal drive chose to champion the unborn! (Though not in a schmaltzy way like this movie does with Tauriel.) Truly, they’re missing out on a diverse group.

    Anyway, I liked LotR. I’m not so fond of the Hobbit. That last thing we need on the big screen is yet another artificial love triangle. Spare me! Eowyn is the warrior-princess. She was enough for me, and I loved her when I was a young girl.

    I got bored. At least the first Hobbit had more of Bilbo’s charm, but the second one got lost in special effects. And that unconvincing love triangle. I thought the most interesting parts were the spiritual angles behind Gandalf’s “exorcism” of Dol Guldur.

  15. I’m a girl, and a Catholic, and a RInger. I loved the first three movies- I thought the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. While it was different from Tolkien it was like pretty worthy ‘fan’ adaptation. I agree with you about ‘The Hobbit’ etc., though. I don’t care for it and it wanders far afield of what could have been a great movie based on a wonderful book.

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