The Desolation of the Hobbit: Why it should matter (to some of us)

Greetings all!  It’s good to be back, blogging for LHP, after almost a year’s absence!

With Don giving his belated two-cents worth on the newest Hobbit movie, I thought I might add mine.  Its detractors moan and bewail the many, massive changes that have been made and the movie’s defenders moan and sigh (dramatically, I might add) over the fact that there are still people out there who want to moan and bewail it in the first place.  Should the changes to the movie matter to us?  In my opinion, they should, particularly to anyone who calls him or herself an author.

Smaug: “Tell me again how you’re going to burn a dragon to death?”
Bilbo: “I’m…ah…well we’re going to burn you to…ah…death.”
Smaug: “BWHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

First, let’s get the nonsense out of the way.  Would I say what I am about to say about any and all changes that could be made?  Certainly not.  It is beyond well-established with all but the most radical Middle Earthers than there will be some changes–perhaps even some we don’t like but grudgingly acknowledge.  I do not have an unreachably high standard.  (At least, I don’t like to think I do, though those who disagree with me on the movie will undoubtedly disagree with me on that point too.)  Next, am I implying that because we might have serious problems with the movie, we should boycott it, ostracize those who see it, and picket Peter Jackson’s mansion in the hopes of saving the third installment?  Again, a resounding “no.”  I don’t have to change Jackson’s mind (or yours) in order to have my own justifiable opinion.  Further, I can watch and enjoy the movie for what it is while potently stating what it isn’t.

Back on point:  As an author (albeit of a very different caliber than Tolkien), I know what I want to happen to my own creations and what I want them to mean to people.  I want them to be real, as worlds and as characters.  I want to know that my stories matter, first and foremost to the specific people to whom they are written, but also to anyone else who sees them.  I know that some people will dislike them, hate them, or belittle them (and that I usually have something to learn from that), but as they go forward I want them to remain my creations. I want them to retain the essential part of themselves that I gave them and, in any reasonable opinion, makes them them.  I’m not angry (only a little jealous) when other people who are better than me take the same elements that I’ve worked with and do something more interesting with them.  I would mind someone taking my creations and fundamentally altering them into something different to tell someone else’s story.

That is what I’m afraid has happened with Jackson and The Hobbit.  While I don’t intend to get into the weeds here since others have already in far greater detail, we’ve passed beyond the point where we have Jackson telling Tolkien’s story to where Jackson is mainly using Tolkien’s creations as crutches for his own.  At some point (it’s hard to say where and when) the story ceased to be Tolkien’s and became Jackson’s.  It was bad in Lord of the Rings (Faramir, anyone?) but with the last installment of the Hobbit it has become egregiously so, with Bilbo becoming a supporting character in his own story.  This bothers me, not because I am a Tolkien fanatic but because I am an author, and I want to extend to Tolkien the same respect I would want to see given to my own work. Frankly, it would seem hypocritical of me to do otherwise.

“I know! Let’s cover him in gold so he’ll REALLY be invulnerable!”

I think this is also an issue that Christians should consider–though I don’t think it a major spiritual problem by any stretch of the imagination.  We are children of the Book, and we worship the Author of the Universe.  Through our respect for scripture, we absorb a respect for authorial intent that much of the rest of the world finds confounding.  Postmodernists and others deny it exists; we stand firmly by it, in its absolute form in regards to the Bible and through principle to other authors who worship the Author by emulation (however unintentional). How seriously should we take the redefinition of an author’s story to mean something else completely?  Where do we draw the line?

All of this of course is made more sad by the fact that it was, overall, an enjoyable movie for what it was.  Jackson could have taken his story, made it entirely original, and left his own mark on the world.  As it stands, he will be remembered as the man who vulgarized Tolkien.

So–and this is just my humble opinion–enjoy the movie, the visuals, the music, the acting, etc.  All the while, keep in mind our respect for the author and judge accordingly when the subject comes up.  If perhaps you get the chance to one day write your own book or movie, you’ll think of Jackson and know better how to either give the author the respect he/she is due, or let your own originality shine.

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on February 7, 2014, in Brian Melton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Movie Reviews, The Hobbit and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Excellent, Brian. One little quibble. Christians are rapidly losing their loyalty to authorial intention. Many of our students will say something very different when they are off guard in the cafeteria from what they put on their hermeneutics exam to please their professor. They take it as a self evident proposition needing no defense that meaning is created by readers in receiving the text, not by authors in writing it. Once we have adopted this perspective, the ability of the Bible to function as an authoritative text is compromised, even if we still call it the Word of God. Authority has been transferred from the author to the reader. It is inevitable. And I think this is a huge spiritual problem.

  2. Things that bothered me about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug:
    -Gold-plating Smaug (At first I thought the dwarves were going to *distract* Smaug with the giant gold statue and then try to stick him with Black Arrows, but then they did… whatever it was that was supposed to be. Maybe they were trying to drown him? I have *NO* idea)
    -The portrayal of Beorn (I was impressed with his bear-form, but very disappointed by his man-form and supposed backstory. We don’t really learn that much about him in the canon, but Jackson’s version was just plain boring)
    -The Legolas Kill Machine (While I was actually pretty ok with Legolas making a cameo for continuity’s sake, there was an awful lot of fan-servicey Orlando Bloom screentime, and it didn’t help that Legolas’ personality in this film is basically that of a particularly murderous log)

    There are others problems, but I still enjoyed the movie because of many of the highlights:
    -The Dark Forest with the spiders, I thought, was excellently portrayed.
    -The wood elves were to me a very believable and impressive alternative to the playful and silly version in the book, especially with Lee Pace’s extra creepy and frilly Thranduil.
    -The Cumberbatch/Freeman combo and the visual depiction of Smaug were fantastic, even though Jackson’s Smaug is technically a Wyvern and not a dragon. The desperate, insane paranoia of Smaug’s character seemed to me extremely potent and effective.

    All of the things I mentioned above are different from the book, bad and good. It doesn’t mean I love the book any less, and it doesn’t mean that I love the movie any more. I have effectively dissociated the two in my comparison because similarly to how I never expect a movie about the Bible or biblical stories to come out of Hollywood without significant or even heretical alterations, I don’t expect the Hobbit movies to represent the depth and brilliance of one of the greatest fantasy writers to ever put pen to page.

    But like the example of Bible movies, we have a choice: we can rage about the misrenderings and fundamental misunderstanding of our beautiful and elegant scripture, not to mention the insult to the God we worship and his sacred word, or we can use these rare opportunities to enter into a conversation with our culture about what they’re missing.

    Though I am by far no expert on the subject, my study of the entrance of electronic text and multilinear media into our culture has taught me many things, but among them, two important lessons: the western world has conclusively shifted away from considering text as a solid, absolute thing, and Christians were and remain utterly unprepared to contend with the consequences of this shift. Fantasy literature, as well as Science Fiction, has brought The Fantastic back into mainstream conversation such that we have opportunities possibly greater than ever before to discuss spiritual topics that transcend the mundane materialism of the Atheistic default. But in order to do so, we must be willing to account for a world which no longer sees the text as a sacred thing, even if we hold it to be so in the core of our very being.

    I would much rather spend my time and meager powers of persuasion in engaging the culture in a positive way than in tearing down the art of men who clearly do not approach truth in the way I do. Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth may be a pale shadow of Tolkien’s world, but at least we have a shadow to work with to point people to a much grander truth.

    • Two questions, Erik. 1. Why is “positively engaging the culture” incompatible with noticing ways in which Tolkien told a better story, or with noticing the role of gratuitous violence and physics-free zones in Jackson’s cinematic style, or with thinking those things hurt his work aesthetically? 2. Is there any point at which we have to defend the Bible as a *given* text with an authoritative message, or does “positively engaging the culture” mean we just concede that, like every other text, it means whatever the “interpretive community” wants or needs it to mean?

      • 1. It seems that we have a habit of making our posts on this topic almost exclusively on why Jackson gets everything wrong without trying to attend to *why* he does what he does. It’s too simple of an answer to say “Why, the man’s a self-important hack” since his perspective comes out of a larger cultural discussion and therefore represents more than his own take on things. My complaint is largely about attitude in this regard, and if you only focus on the dumb mistakes like what you mentioned there, you’re staying on a superficial level.
        2. Of course we hold to the truth of the authority and divine nature of scripture. But our belief in the truth doesn’t change others’ belief in lies. Attempting to understand *why* the culture approaches truth claims the way it does (not respecting authority of text, as I mentioned) is important to understanding how to bring the *Truth* to people who will not accept our side of things by default. We used to have an edge here: people used to approach truth in a linear way. That is no longer the case.

        • 1. Jackson’s “reasons” are philosophical as well as cultural; but they are his, and he is responsible for the results, even if some of those assumptions are shared by others. Yes, he’s more than a “hack” (not my word); but I’m hardly the only person to see a certain pomposity in his approach to film-making. I still think it is accurate to call it hubris. 2. Of course we have to understand where the PoMos are coming from and why. We also have to guard against conceding their perspective in order to win an audience with them; that price is too high. And I think that is precisely what a lot of younger Evangelicals are doing–following in the footsteps of their ancestors who gave up the faith to classical liberalism as it came out of Germany a hundred years ago with well meaning concessions to “higher criticism.” The Fundamentalist movement was the inevitable and necessary but sadly inadequate backlash to that betrayal of the faith. We don’t want to set ourselves up for that experience all over again. But I’m afraid that is exactly what we are doing.

          • I don’t disagree with you, but I think there is a variance to what we’re referring to here. To use the points again:
            1. I don’t disagree that hubris might be part of Jackson’s problem, but obviously *he* doesn’t see it that way. So, what motivates him to do what he does? That’s more interesting to me to figure out than what sum total of Tolkien heresies he commits, and I think this line of investigation might be helpful in understanding people like Jackson (other PoMos? I like that phrase, by the way)
            2. There is a huge difference between studying postmodern perspectives and conceding to them. Similarly, I can read a Marxist/Feminist’s article and seek to understand why she sees problems in literature and culture all the while being very much *not* a feminist nor a Marxist myself. We bring the lens of scripture and the understanding of Truth as something established by God not man, the concept of the imago dei, and many other tools which aid us in critically evaluating the Marxist/Feminist position on things like LOTR. If I was to talk to that Marxist/Feminist person, I could acknowledge that, for example, Tolkien didn’t include any female characters in The Hobbit and that to people like this critic, it’s really important. I could then discuss why that doesn’t mean that Tolkien hated women, etc. I can better argue my position with a fuller understanding of hers.

            I am sure that you don’t mean to say that we should just dismiss people like Jackson. Obviously, he’s kind of a big deal, and people like what he does. You don’t defeat a social movement by ignoring it, and if our premises are completely different, new angles of approach need to be investigated or else it’s like speaking a different language. That doesn’t mean compromising our *own* ideas, it means trying to find ways to communicate.

  3. No, I don’t mean to “dismiss” Jackson. I agree it is important to understand him. Have you read my article “The World of the Rings: Why Peter Jackson was Unable to Film Tolkien’s Moral Tale” TOUCHSTONE: A JOURNAL OF MERE CHRISTIANITY 26:6 (November/December 2013): 14-16? We might not agree on that either, but it goes into some of the philosophical differences that seem to lie behind some of Jackson’s choices, particularly with how he handles characters that Tolkien wrote very differently. There are patterns in his choices that go back to basic assumptions about the nature and purpose of art. In any case, that is a more serious critique than my blogpost, where I allowed myself to be, shall we say, provocative. I certainly seem to have provoked you!

  4. Thank you for being level-headed about this, unlike so many people.

  5. Reblogged this on Racing to Live and commented:

    Brilliant summary of Peter Jackson and J. R. R. Tolkien, the audience and the author. Happens to be by The Husband. 🙂

  6. About the major change criticized in this article of making Bilbo a “side character”, one of the reasons Bilbo was so central in The Hobbit was that the book had been written by him right? So how are you supposed to translate this into a movie? In fact, making a character`s motivations clear at all is much easier in writing than it is in a movie. You can`t have characters explaining why they`re doing what they`re doing directly most of the time I mean.

    If I could change anything about the two Hobbit movies it would be to make orcs less pathetic, so Legolas the Amazingly Dull can`t stand or rotate on two dwarf heads floating down a river while killing ten of them. The orcs were pretty pathetic in LotR as well, but it just reached a whole new level of patheticness in Desolation of Smaug. They`re supposed to be scary and dangerous right? Also, I would like an explanation for why Bolg and Azog are so badass while all the other orcs are so lame. Are they on steroids? I demand an explanation in TaBA!

    • Sorry to take so long to reply! How long has it been since you read The Hobbit? In the book, Tolkien himself is the narrator, and he’s telling the story from an omniscient perspective. Later on, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he adds the bits about Bilbo keeping an account of his journey. From that perspective, I still think the criticism (which wasn’t the main one I was getting at) is valid. In The Hobbit the book, the focus is almost exclusively on the Hobbit himself–so much so that I find I want to know more about the dwarves, some of whom seem quite incidental. In The Hobbit the movies, it’s the other way around. It almost feels like Jackson didn’t think Bilbo by himself was enough to carry the story and so now we have the dwarves as the main characters and Bilbo is in support. Perhaps he was right and Bilbo by himself wasn’t exciting enough to get on with–but that doesn’t invalidate the criticism itself. It may, perhaps, excuse it.

      My main criticism is the focal point of the creativity. Out of respect for the author, I think that Jackson has a duty to translate Tolkien’s ideas as faithfully as he can. That will mean some changes and some of them will be pretty dramatic, but if sacrifices must be made, let them be made in such a way that always points back to a greater theme of Tolkien’s original design (i.e. Tolkien wanted to give a sense of pursuit out of Hobbiton. If we need to introduce Merry and Pippin more dramatically than in the “Conspiracy at Crickhollow,” so be it.). It seems that, however, Jackson is essentially taking Tolkien’s “toys” and using them to tell a new story, much of which came from his own (and his fellow screen writers’) mind. I simply argue that it would be better for Jackson to stand on his own two feet as a fantasy author and director, instead of trying to pretend his story is Tolkien’s.

      And I can’t agree more about Faramir–don’t get me started! 🙂

      • Thanks for the reply, and don`t worry about being late. It`s like having the slowest telephone conversation ever and gives you plenty of time to think about other things in the meantime:)

        I agree with what you wrote here, and to be perfectly honest it`s been a long while since I read The Hobbit. Also, I sadly only own a Norwegian copy. For some reason I have never manage to remember getting the original in English. But what I do remember is what you said: that the focus is almost entirely on Bilbo. Somehow I think it would have been difficult to translate this focus to the movie, at least not without making the other characters redundant.
        When it comes to relatively minor plot changes, like the example you mentioned with Merry and Pippin, they don`t really bother me all that much as long as the essential story is intact, as well as the characters. Some of them may also have straightforward narrative explanations. For instance, I can easily understand why the Old Forest and Tom, the Barrow Wights (Which is actually pretty important when you think about it. The Hobbit`s weapons came from there.), the wolf fight before Moria, Ghan Buri Ghan and the Cleansing of the Shire were dropped. Some of them are detours, which it would have been hard to make intelligible in movie form. Indeed, some of them are hardly intelligible in book form, like Ghan and to a certain extent Bombadil. I would have liked to see the Cleansing though. But then that would have been another 30-45 minutes of movie right? So the decision was made to move Saruman`s death to the top of Orthanc instead, which was alright as a backup solution I thought.
        My main gripe has always been changes in characters and their motivations, particularly, but not exclusively, with Faramir, for the obvious reasons. But I also feel very strongly that Jackson didn`t fully grasp the Frodo character, which to me was demonstrated amply at Parth Galen and in Cirith Ungol.
        Anyway, to me this has not been an issue so far with the Hobbit movies, which I was very pleased with. Bilbo is Bilbo, and very well cast and played, Gandalf is Gandalf and as spot on as he ever was. And the nondescript dwarves now have the personality most of them have been missing for 80 years. The WC is embellished into things, but they are all good and need to be there for the DG story. And I liked all the other characters really, Stephen Fry being an obvious highlight. Even Radagast, about whom I have had lengthy and heated discussions with many Tolkien enthusiasts since the first movie was released. If he loves birds enough to have them nesting in his hair then he is going to have guano in his beard. Anyone who has ever owned a bird will be able to tell you that. And if his diet consists exclusively of mushrooms (Not that Tolkien ever wrote this of course, but it sort of makes sense, considering where he lived and what his habits were.) then of course he might well be eccentric.
        And above all, when the decision was made to add the Dol Guldur back story – which I was also very pleased with – it made a lot of sense to include Radagast in that, as a messenger first and then as an ally. After all, he was the one who lived closest to the necromancer when he took up residence in DG, so it stands to reason that he would also have noticed him first and warned the WC. With many of these inclusions I think a lot of thought and subtlety has gone into the scripting of The Hobbit, which could very easily have been missing.

        But yes, it is very much Jackson`s movie. But then it almost has to be. Additional dialogue has to be scripted to give scenes coherence and realism, and there is always an added immediacy to all thing audiovisual when books are adapted to film. If you think about it, The Hobbit is really a terribly violent book. It`s just that Tolkien very deliberately doesn`t describe any of it. But when you dramatize it in film you can`t avoid that. The trolls die, although not in a very gruesome way. The goblins were killed a bit in the cave, the orcs, wolfs and spiders a bit more after that. And the battle at the end was obviously very violent indeed. And violence is just one of many things not described very much at all by Tolkien. Everything from clothing, hairdos, architecture, landmarks, scenery to household articles and gear had to be made up almost entirely by WETA. So just in the production and casting of the movie there is an enormous amount of license taken, which simply cannot be avoided.
        So with some of the criticism I do agree, while with some of it I just have a hard time seeing how it could have been avoided.

  7. I don`t agree with the main criticism in this post I think. The reason Bilbo was so central in The Hobbit was that he was the one who wrote the book right? So how on earth are you supposed to get this right in movie form without endless flashes of Bilbo writing in Bag End, or something similar, breaking things up? Maybe Jackson could have made a first person movie where you never saw Bilbo at all but just what he was seeing, while listening to his thought processes being read out loud by the actor. I feel pretty confident that the “purists”(pedants is a better word for them for the most part) would have complained even more loudly about that though.

    Apart from Parth Galen, Evil Kidnapper Faramir, Frodo telling Sam to get lost in Cirith Ungol and the flowery and meaningless dwarf-elf love development in DoS I don`t have any major annoyances with the movies really, even though I`ve been a huge fan of the books for a long time. Some things will always be different in a movie; either understated (people`s motivations, background story, long periods of time, distances) or overstated (everything audio or visual). As long as the story is more or less there I don`t understand what all the hullabaloo is about. And by story I don`t mean pointless details like open barrels vs closed barrels.

    I do think the orcs in DoS were just unacceptably pathetic though. As inept as they mostly were in LotR and AUJ, the barrel scene was just totally off the charts in terms of patheticness. At least make them competent enough that they can fight the dullest elf in the world effectively while he`s balancing and doing pirouettes on top of two floating dwarf heads. Or for that matter able to fight unarmed dwarves floating down a river. Just why are supposed to be scared of these things again?
    I would also like some explanation for why Bolg and Azog are so fierce and hard to kill while all the other orcs simply fall apart just as soon as they see someone without a skin condition.

  1. Pingback: The Desolation of the Hobbit: Why it should matter (to some of us) | bluewhimsywriting

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