Review: The Hobbit, Part 1. Directed by Peter Jackson.
Reviewed by Donald T. Williams
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/.