My family and I spent much of the Christmas season this year in Middle Earth—or at any rate Peter Jackson’s version thereof. For a number of years now we have watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy over three days, starting on Christmas Eve. And, of course, the final installment of Mr. Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy came out shortly before Christmas, so we watched the first two on DVD before seeing the last at the theater. A bit much, perhaps? Well, now you know why Mr. Jackson was given his head and allowed to create such a bloated, unbalanced picture of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythical world. There are, for both good and ill, a lot of people out there so hungry to see Tolkien’s work brought to the screen that anyone taking on the task in grand fashion begins with a huge potential audience—and profit. Moreover, references to drug use utterly foreign to Tolkien’s universe, irrelevant talk of bearded dwarf women, and the like show that Mr. Jackson does know how to keep the Dungeons & Dragons crowd, at least, coming back for repeated viewings.
More importantly, Mr. Jackson’s use of stunning scenery and magnificent architectural modeling provide the kind of setting necessary to bring out the scope and depth of Tolkien’s work. And, for the most part, the Lord of the Rings films stand up to repeated viewings. Even the reworked finale, eschewing Tolkien’s return to the Shire, in which Merry and Pippin toss out the diminished but still dangerous Saruman, probably seemed a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, it puts aside Tolkien’s intended portrayal of a return to normalcy and the continuing need for virtue. The gain in emotion and stunning scenery from the extremely long good-bye fades into sentimentality on repeated viewing. Nonetheless, overall the project can only be dubbed a success of very high order.
Unfortunately, where Mr. Jackson and his wife/collaborator adapted The Lord of the Rings with some sense of literary restraint, the very success of those movies contributed to an apparent feeling of mastery and even superiority to Tolkien that mars the Hobbit franchise. Where with The Lord of the Rings films the adapters considered but rejected the idea of a “girl power” addition to the battle at Helm’s Deep, in The Hobbit they gave in to the adolescent urge to “update” Tolkien. The result, most disastrously, is a truly cringe-worthy subplot centered on a female elf warrior and her cross-species romantic desires.
When the second movie was released I criticized the first and second installments for taking scraps of Tolkien’s backstory and combining them according to a mistaken vision of the battle against Sauron as the central event in Middle Earth. Tolkien had other ideas. He was dissuaded by repeated warnings of inevitable failure from pursuing his favored story, which would have related events much earlier in Middle Earth’s history; that vision, and the notes on which Mr. Jackson (loosely) based his “necromancer” sub plot, make clear that the fight against Sauron is an echo of earlier, more specifically theological battles. Mr. Jackson’s sub plot is not badly done, but neither does it add anything necessary for enjoying or understanding The Lord of the Rings. Its main accomplishments (other than adding a strong female character with some actual basis in Tolkien’s work) are to chew up film and unnecessarily distract from what should have been a shorter, lighter movie (two at most) about Bilbo’s journey there and back again.
This is not to say that the third installment of The Hobbit is terrible. It is by far the best of the three films. The Battle of Five Armies has some stunning moments and is, overall, fairly interesting and exciting. Some may not like Mr. Jackson’s almost architectural construction of battle scenes, and his attempts to “push the envelope” in certain action sequences (e.g. Legolas leaping from one falling stone to another) look faintly ridiculous. But the images depicting, for example, the dwarves’ quick construction of a vast shield wall (leapt over by elves as the orcs attack) is visually arresting. And Bilbo, while he is portrayed as a bit stronger than Tolkien’s character (perhaps to make up for the somewhat effeminate portrayal of the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings) is, here, a very likable as well as admirable character.
The essential problem with Mr. Jackson’s Hobbit arises from his refusal to take it as it is, or rather was given to the world by Tolkien. In seeking to make The Lord of the Rings an epic to end all epics, he seeks to transform its introduction into an epic as well—one that might set the stage thematically for the “revolutionary” struggle against Sauron. But Tolkien’s Sauron is not the devil, or even his secular equivalent. Like most evil in this world, Sauron owes his power to deeper, darker forces than himself; forces drawn out in The Silmarillion and other legends and stories Tolkien left (for the most part intentionally) unfinished. One may see in Tolkien’s mythology an equivalent to Ragnarok, but that is not all there is; there also are lighter, more humane stories that are no less worth telling.
More than anything else, what Mr. Jackson’s Hobbit lacks is charm. Its penultimate scene is one of bickering, in which Bag-End’s contents are being auctioned off because Bilbo has been presumed dead. Not entirely inaccurate and perhaps useful in “setting up” events in the next trilogy, Mr. Jackson’s ending completely misses the point of Tolkien’s Hobbit. Mr. Jackson does include much of Tolkien’s original ending at an earlier point. But in the film Gandalf merely chastises Bilbo to remember his littleness, to which Bilbo responds not at all. Tolkien’s version has an ending that is both more cheerful and much deeper in its recognition of the nature of our existence. At the end of their journey, Gandalf and Bilbo are relaxing and talking. Bilbo notes that their adventure seemed to have fulfilled relevant prophecies, in its way. Gandalf responds: “Of course!” Informing Bilbo that his miraculous escapes and successes were neither products of luck nor only for his benefit, Gandalf continues, “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!” Mr. Jackson has Bilbo merely walk away from these lines as he returns to the Shire. Tolkien’s Bilbo has a quite different response to Gandalf: “’Thanks goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.”
Bilbo’s charm is also his virtue. He will show wisdom and courage when called for, but he is “little” and glad of it. We all should be so lucky, and so virtuous—even the moviemakers among us.
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