Review: The Hobbit, Part 1. Directed by Peter Jackson.

Review:  The Hobbit, Part 1.  Directed by Peter Jackson.

Reviewed by Donald T. Williams

HobbitCover

I am going to shock everybody and actually try to be fair to Peter Jackson.  (This is coming from someone who has called his movie version of The Lord of the Rings a “betrayal of Tolkien’s vision”—and for good reason, given what Jackson did to some of Tolkien’s characters.)  The first installment of the new Hobbit is not as bad as I feared.  It has Jackson’s virtues as much as it suffers from his weaknesses.  The sum total was a movie I could enjoy if not quite love or fully embrace.

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To the Prancing Pony!

The film is simply gorgeous visually.  When I get the DVD I will be constantly tempted to pause it just so I can savor the landscapes.  And it is not just that they are beautiful—they are appropriate (especially The Shire) to Middle Earth as we have always imagined it, guided by Tolkien’s descriptions.  The costuming is delicious too.  On the other hand, while some of the Dwarves look satisfyingly dwarvish, others (including unfortunately Thorin) inexplicably look more like short humans than dwarves.  If you can get it right, why not do so consistently?  We wonders, yes, precious.

Film critics have almost universally panned the flick as poorly paced and dragging.  This just goes to show that critics are not fans.  They made the same mistake with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, complaining about the long scene when Scotty gives Kirk a shuttle tour of the hull of the newly refitted Enterprise.  But those of us who had come to feel affection for that ship loved every second of that sequence.  Those classic lines, in what may still be the most elegant of all that great vessel’s incarnations, deserved every frame that was spent on them—if you are a true Trekker.  Similarly, Tolkien’s real fans almost universally just want to be in Middle Earth.  If Middle Earth itself is convincingly incarnated—this is Jackson’s greatest gift—we don’t really need anything to happen there.  We would gladly watch a three hour slice of daily life in The Shire or Rivendell and leave contented.   The plot (and Tolkien gave us a great one) is almost a bonus.  (I am exaggerating to make a point.)  I think this explains why fans have liked the movie better than the critics do.

HobbitHole

Bag End

Oh, yes, there is a plot, too.  This is where Jackson’s weaknesses show.  He tries to give an apologetic for his approach early on by having Gandalf say that “Any good story deserves embellishment.”  This line encapsulates a profound difference between Jackson’s and Tolkien’s views of the world—for it casts doubt precisely on the trustworthiness and truth of the ancient legends, whereas Tolkien was all about discovering the truth that was in them after all.  One thus cannot imagine Tolkien’s Gandalf saying such a thing.  It highlights Jackson’s view of the legendarium as malleable art, raw material for self-expression, whereas Tolkien was careful to maintain the illusion that it is history.  This is a significant difference.  The historian uses art in telling his stories, but he must bow to the higher value of faithfulness if he is to be a good steward of his sources and his task.  Tolkien of course knew that his pose as historian (merely the translator and editor of The Red Book of Westmarch) was a fictional strategy—but it is one that speaks to the kind of fiction he was giving us.  And this is what Jackson seems incapable of understanding.

TolkienPic1

J. R. R. Tolkien

Embellishment goes further than adaptation.  Some changes to the story are necessitated by its adaptation to a different medium.  Some purists do not understand that.  But In Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, his self-granted freedom to “embellish” gave us characters with personalities and motivations that we did not recognize, and it undermined Tolkien’s motif of Providence by having Frodo (more “dramatically”—ahem) push Gollum off the cliffs of doom rather than having him fall by accident or “chance” (if chance you call it) as in Tolkien’s scene.  I thought  then and think now that such “embellishments” had earned the epithet of “betrayal.”

I saw nothing on that level of betrayal in the new Hobbit, nor anything that would demand that kind of departure from Tolkien’s tale in the subsequent installments.  (We shall see.)  But this does not mean that Jackson’s propensity for embellishment is innocent.  Tolkien’s approach to fiction emphasized what he called in the essay “On Fairie Stories” an “inner consistency of reality.”  That is how he gave us a fantasy world that is more believable than most realistic fiction.  There were by contrast three moments when I did get impatient with Jackson’s Hobbit, though not for the reasons of pacing given by the critics: All involved a violation of Tolkien’s principle.  The first was Radagast’s rabbit-sled.  Really? The second was the long fight/chase scene in the goblin cave, which ends in a fall that no one could have survived.  (Tolkien allowed himself to add the laws of magic to reality as we perceive it, but not to break the laws of physics.)  The third was Jackson’s version of the rescue from the forest by the Eagles, with multiple bodies just happening to fall right onto the backs of multiple eagles who just happened to be flying below them at just the right moment.  No group is collectively that lucky, not even in fantasy.  There is a difference between Eucatastrophe and silliness.

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The Hill, Hobbiton

In sum: there is much to enjoy, but the aesthetic impact of the whole is marred by Jackson’s embellishing hubris.  Jackson exceeded my expectations (which were lower than the pits of Barad Dur).  So we have some things to praise, some to criticize, but nothing (yet) to damn.  But, hey, we’ve still got two installments to go!  No doubt something will turn up.

 

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Toccoa Falls College

 

Check out Dr. Williams’ books at Lantern Hollow Press:  Stars Through the Clouds: the Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (2011); Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (2012); and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (2012).  Order (each $15.00 + shipping) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

 

 

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About gandalf30598

Theologian, philosopher, poet, and critic; minister of the Gospel who makes his living by teaching medieval and renaissance literature; dual citizen of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Posted on February 4, 2013, in Donald Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth, Movie Reviews, Plot, Star Trek and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. To deal with your little mistake at the end first, the eagles (The tackiest literary device Tolkien ever came up with to rescue his incompetent characters from impossible situations incidentally.) did not simply appear by chance, but were summoned by Gandalf. For some reason whispering to moths summons eagles, which he does just as the orc attack starts.
    The rest of your post I found very well written and interesting. Naturally I can`t simply agree though, or the internet would die of boredom. So here goes:

    The Gandalf line from AUJ about embellishment I tend to see more as a reference to the inevitable license one must take in order to adapt books to film than some cheeky admission of guilt for breaking with Tolkien`s vision. I once commented about this problem to a purist (Pedant.) that since there is no mention of pants anywhere in any of Tolkien`s books, we must assume that all the protagonists were in fact nudists, poncing around Middle Earth with their genitals dangling. He didn`t think it was very funny, but although slightly polemic against his rigorous orthodoxy at the time I think it contains a valid point regarding this issue. If nothing can be included in the movie except what is specifically described in the books, then you`re not gonna have much in the way of clothes, hair, distinguishing looks for characters, architecture or even colors. So you absolutely must add a lot of stuff Tolkien didn`t say anything about at all. Just casting people in the roles is licentious really. Yet it seems that the true depth of this problem goes a bit unnoticed by many critics of the adaptive rigor of Jackson. What exactly is he supposed to do about most of this stuff? Ignore it, omit it or make stuff up? I`d go with make stuff up me.

    I agree re pushing Gollum off the cliff though, and I have an expanded list of similar grievances with the LotR trilogy. Parth Galen and Aragorn`s conversation with Frodo is perhaps the one I hate most. In the book, this was the moment of truth for Frodo, when he realized that his duty was to the White Council and no one else, and that to keep his promise he had to leave everyone behind because he could not trust them near the ring as its power grew. This brave and epic decision, which made both Frodo and Sam as characters. was entirely perverted and rendered meaningless by Peter Jackson. This was Aragorn`s greatest failure in the book, in his own eyes, yet he gets off as some far seeing, noble leader in the movie. Everything is going according to plan, nothing to see here folks, move along!
    That one, Faramir kidnapping Frodo and Frodo dismissing Sam are my big ones. Maybe I should add yours to mine, but somehow it just doesn`t rub me the wrong way like these three do.

    But when it comes to the Hobbit movies I just haven`t really been annoyed by anything so far. Of course there`s always Orlando Bloom to complain about if I get bored enough, or the feeble orcs failing down the river. And then there`s the inter-racial love development I can somehow not recall from the book. But other than this it`s just minor stuff: open barrels, Azog still alive, stone giants, burping at Bag End and the Lonely Mountain much too close to the goblin cave. No way that could have been visible across such a distance. But if I allow these nothings to distract me from a beautiful movie, who exactly am I?

  2. Skulb, thanks for a very interesting response. But I did not make a mistake about the Eagles. I know Gandalf had summoned them. My problem is the timing, where dwarves just happen to fall off the tree on to their backs the moment they just happen to be flying under it. Nobody is *that* lucky!

    We agree a lot about LOTR. I could have mentioned your problems too, but they don’t (except for the dismissal of Sam, which very definitely does) rub me the wrong way like my three do.

    Your interpretation of Jackson’s intent in the embellishment line I think is quite accurate. I just don’t think it’s the kind of thing Tolkien’s character would have said–for the reasons I gave. And that does give us an interesting window into the minds of both writers.

    Again, thanks for a very interesting exchange. The internet might die of boredom tonight, but I won’t.

    • That is certainly true, and Gandalf certainly never said such a thing in the book. But when Jackson applied it to the anecdote about Bullroarer repelling the orcs it sort of fit though, although it would obviously have been a much better line for Bilbo than Gandalf. So if lines from Tolkien`s private correspondence are to be used in the movies I vote that we henceforth give them to Bilbo.

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