I’ve carried a grudge against that dratted little dingbat Peter Jackson for years now. I was seventeen and blown away when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, but I’ve since grown wiser. As for The Two Towers and The Return of the King, they were immediate disappointments and have only grown sourer. And thanks to a sensitive movie radar, I’ve been scoffing at the thought of PJ manhandling The Hobbit since about 2007 — plenty of time for me to prep for war. I went to the theater the day after Christmas with insults at the ready. Badmouther locked and loaded. Jibes and barbs and slurs primed to launch. “Grumpy,” said my sister; “as are most hobbits when on the brink of an adventure.” Grumpy doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Well, listen up, anyone who thinks I can’t change my mind about a movie (or won’t admit it when I do). Because as much as I’d like to, I simply can’t crucify The Hobbit. Not completely. In a tug of war between expert casting, a few choice scenes, and great sets (as always) on one side, and outlandishly tedious action marathons, silly humor, and muttonheaded changes in characters/dialogue on the other, it’s the casting, scenes, and sets that win — with a heck of a lot of rope-burn, I might add.
In a touching correlation that I could do without, the movie is a middling success for the same reason that the dwarves’ surely-doomed-to-fail quest manages to come through: because of a little hobbit. Maybe PJ didn’t know it, but when he rearranged the entire shooting schedule to accommodate a certain average-looking Englishman with a talent for both quirky and diffident (who otherwise would have declined due to conflicts with Sherlock), he played his winning card.
Comfy, stuffy, and instantly likeable, Martin Freeman has the perfect hobbit blend of comic stick-in-the-mudness and honest thirst for an adventure to make him into something better, and he portrays it all with amazing subtlety, expressing more in a cough than most actors can in an entire soliloquy. Stand-out scenes include the unexpected party, riddles in the dark, pity for Gollum, and the foreshadowing of resentment and reconciliation between him and Thorin. He really is, as Elijah Wood put it, “the heart of the movie.” Kudos to Freeman’s gracious modesty in allowing a rather bumbling and unevenly magical movie to hitch itself to his prowess and get dragged along behind, never quite finding its feet.
PJ’s other casting triumph is Richard Armitage. Armed with a fake nose, fake eyebrows, and a wig, he truly stands out as the dethroned king under the mountain: haughty, venerable, quick to resent, and filled with “mock politeness” towards Bilbo — just as Tolkien describes. (He’s also notably sexier than the other dwarves, which is perhaps what Tolkien meant when he described him as an obviously “immensely important dwarf.” Please read past my poker face.) The movie Thorin is a well-rounded character, exuding the pain, loss, and longing that remains latent in The Hobbit itself, ready to be unpacked by an actor. Not everything PJ did with Thorin was wise, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
And of course, there’s Gollum. We all expected amazingness, and we got it. Riddles in the dark is one of the best scenes in the movie, with beautiful interaction between the two (sometimes three) characters.
As I said, the sets and scenery are gorgeously wow, but I’m inclined to take the intricate details of the Shire and Rivendell and the enchanting Middle-earthness of it all as a given. This is basic stuff by now. In NSA language, this is simply passing the style sheet: it earns PJ the privilege of me not walking out of the theater. So I say “well done,” but it isn’t with the same hearty fist-pump that I gave Martin Freeman. Sorry.
A couple more positive things. One critic complained that Bilbo doesn’t even “leave the damn Shire” till almost an hour into the movie, but I must say that this was actually one of the movie’s strengths: opening with a luxurious, delightful time in Bag End so that we not only get to know Bilbo (the way the book lets us), but we also understand why he yearns to come back to his cozy hobbit hole where the tea kettle is whistling.
My thumbs are also up for most of the narrative’s dove-tailing with details from LOTR, The Silmarillion, and the appendices at the end of The Return of the King. Tolkien had no idea when he wrote it that The Hobbit “belonged” to the web of myths he’d been inventing since he was a teenager; he was simply bored and grading student papers when he took a blank sheet and scrawled: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He didn’t know why he wrote it (indeed, he could never figure it out), but the story that followed “proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole” (p. 145). So inserting Gandalf’s private missions and even a bit of Radagast is fine in theory; they are the sort of details that are up for grabs when adapting the novel to the screen. Whether all these details actually worked out is another question. (See complaints below.)
Now for the other side of the tug of war. Tolkien had a thing or two to say about the LOTR movies that were being made in the 1950s: “The failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies” (p. 270, emphasis added). It’s as if Tolkien read PJ’s mind sixty years ago, because these are precisely the transgressions in The Hobbit.
Let’s start with exaggeration. Here, again, Tolkien’s criticism in the 50s comes in handy: “[The filmmaker] has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights” (p. 271).
PJ loves his fights, that’s for sure — the way a three-year-old girl loves glitter. The hyperkinetic action scenes are overdone to the point of boring. I’ve got nothing against adding necessary details to visualize the action; where Tolkien says that the dwarves “fought like mad,” you necessarily have to make up elbow jabs, axe swings, and flights down goblin-packed hallways. But you’re still bound to the spirit of the book. Tolkien has a number of close shaves, but nothing as ridiculously bombastic as riding a mountain giant in the middle of boulder boxing, or trapezing through the air on the skeleton of a bridge, or clinging to a staff that’s clinging to a wizard that’s clinging to a tree that’s clinging to the edge of a cliff — all without serious injury. What PJ doesn’t realize is that very often, at the same rate that the epicness of a scene goes up, the tension of (and our interest in) the scene goes down. They’re so grand, they’re bland.
Why is this so important? After all, it’s a children’s story — a children’s fantasy story, at that. Isn’t a little exaggeration called for? Well, no. For one thing, Tolkien was big on not talking down to children, which is exactly what this sort of hilarious overplay does. For another, he was just as big on the danger of fairy-stories being real, even when the story is written for kids. In his essay “Tree and Leaf,” he wrote that it is “essential to a genuine fairy-story…that it should be presented as ‘true.'” He was talking specifically about not making the story appear as a dream or an illusion, but he was just as opposed to the sort of gaudy, frivolous overstatements that PJ offers. In fact, Tolkien specifically warned of the dangers of trying to capture fantasy in painting or drama: “Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.” I’m going to guess that Guillermo del Toro (had he stayed in the director’s chair) would have delivered morbidity. PJ serves us silliness.
Moving on now to what Tolkien called “intrusion of unwarranted matter.” Character and dialogue alterations are lumped under this one. When the filmmaker in the 50s included a very slight change (making Gandalf’s fireworks include flags and hobbits), Tolkien said simply: “Why…? They are not in the book” (p. 271). How much more would his criticism apply to the changes PJ made? Especially since Tolkien said that “I should resent perversion of the characters…even more than the spoiling of the plot and scenery” (p. 275)?
Let’s talk about this perversion of characters.
1) Bilbo. First off, in the book, he doesn’t make up his mind to go on the adventure simply by wandering around his empty hobbit hole and realizing that he actually prefers 13 ill-mannered dwarves to “comfort.” It takes Gandalf pushing him on his way. Why is this important? Because the real Bilbo Baggins of Bag End never would have left on his own. PJ should at least have been interested in giving his character the same growth: from the flustered little hobbit who has to be prodded off his duff and out the door, to the savvy burglar who saves his friends, steals from a dragon, outwits Thorin, and returns home with treasure, a sword, and a story.
Second, Bilbo was never prepared to abandon the Dwarves on their quest. In the book, Bilbo wishes repeatedly for his little hobbit hole, but he’s the farthest thing from a fair-weathered friend. In fact, after he escapes from Gollum and the goblins and barely gets out of the mountain alive, he decides to go back in and search for the dwarves. And when Gandalf fiercely rebukes him for (apparently) wanting to call it quits on the edge of Mirkwood, Bilbo is quite frantic to explain that that wasn’t him at all. That he should have one foot out the door in the movie is uncharacteristic, unnecessary, and (since we didn’t actually get to see him fall in love with Rivendell) downright nonsensical.
2) Thorin. I’ve already said everything good there is to say about Thorin. My one complaint is that he’s considerably nobler than he is in the book — which, if not as atrocious as the butchering of Faramir, is almost as disappointing because it undermines one of the book’s strongest themes: that of desire, both the right and the wrong kind.
The movie Thorin is filled with the strong, honorable desire to win back his home, but a very different lust possesses him in the book. “We must away, ere break of day, to claim our long-forgotten gold,” sing the dwarves in the opening chapter, and that is all they want. “We have never forgotten our stolen treasure,” Thorin explains to Bilbo. “We still mean to get it back, and to bring our curses home to Smaug.” His and all other the dwarves’ sole motivation is to get back their treasure and have revenge on Smaug—not to reclaim their home, which is only incidental. This change in the film loses the significance of gold-lust which Tolkien sprinkles throughout the story, beginning with the “fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves” that Bilbo feels when he hears their song, and building until they all come under “enchanted desire of the hoard.” In the end, Thorin himself turns into a little dragon, ready to sit on his pile of gold and starve rather than make peace with his friends. But none of this is so highlighted in the film. In making Thorin more honorable and sympathetic, PJ is already sapping the significance out of the king’s dying words: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
3) The Dwarves. These are supposed to be “conventional…Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves,” according to Tolkien (p. 26), but in the movie they’re more of a puerile hybrid of Sneezy, Dopey, Grumpy, and all the rest (Tolkien hated Disney), and a bunch of Christmas ornaments that fell headfirst into a toddler’s finger-paint set. Except for Thorin, they hardly look real at all. Moreover, their humor would have made Tolkien climb up the walls. His dwarves are gruff, temperamental, and petty, but they are not slobs, nor do they belch. Nor do they cry, “You’ve got to be joking!” when things go from bad to worse (even supposing a blubbery goblin with a slimy, warty wattle had landed right on them). When an American filmmaker asked about making a cartoon film of LOTR, Tolkien said he would welcome it “with all the risk of vulgarization,” because “I should find vulgarization less painful than…sillification.” But silly is just what the dwarves turned out to be.
4) Radagast, who appears in The Lord of the Rings, is actually much closer to St. Francis of Assisi than a be-bird-pooped nutter with a breathtakingly implausible sleigh. I can’t even talk about the rabbits.
5) Gandalf and Galadriel. Gag me with a troll’s shin bone, this was ghastly.
Besides flubbing the above, PJ also shoved Tolkien aside on several crucial scenes — chopping stuff up and leaving stuff out like an Egyptian embalmer who doesn’t know what the brain is for, and so chucks it. Stuff like this:
1) The troll scene was hideously botched. PJ not only lost one of the best parts of the book, he also jumped way ahead in Bilbo’s transformation as someone valiant enough to stand up for his friends. Tolkien’s Bilbo clings to a branch without pluck or plan; it isn’t until much later that he earns the dwarves’ respect as someone who can actually help them out of a tight spot. PJ’s foolish scramble to make the hero more “proactive” simply doesn’t work. It didn’t work in LOTR (Gandalf and Aragorn never would have handed the decision of Caradhras vs. Moria over to the prepubescent Frodo), and it doesn’t work in The Hobbit.
2) Rivendell was 75% wasted on Gandalf and Galadriel (and utter tommyrot about Bilbo “giving Gandalf courage”) when PJ should have been paying attention to Bilbo’s love for the place. It makes no sense at all that he would ever want to come back.
3) In the book, Bilbo finds the ring in the dark and puts it in his pocket only absently. He most certainly doesn’t see it fly from Gollum’s, um, loincloth, and he doesn’t go after it in the light. Tolkien’s point is that Bilbo’s discovery is a total accident…except not. In LOTR, Gandalf stresses that Bilbo was “meant to find the Ring.” But he was never meant to steal it — which is what I just saw him do.
4) Gollum’s teeth. “We only have nine,” he says. What? In the book, it’s “But we has only six!” which is a better idea and more fun to say anyway.
5) Azog. In the book, this orc did kill Thorin’s father, but he was finished off long ago by Dain, Thorin’s cousin. It’s hard for me to completely reject remaking this “pale orc” into Thorin’s personal nemesis; it just satisfies my desire for neatness so nicely. But it was still rather cheesily done — especially the overwrought, slow-mo agonized confrontation at the end.
In the End
Two concluding thoughts on the whole thing: one insult, one compliment. During The Hobbit’s most atrocious moments, I couldn’t help but think of that great scene in the movie Hitch where Will Smith refuses to work with the womanizer, pinning him down and saying: “The thing is, my clients actually like women.” For all of Peter Jackson’s mind-boggling trespasses, I would dearly love to punch him in the nose and say: “You see, Pete, some of us actually like Tolkien.”
But where PJ succeeds at all is where Tolkien placed his own emphasis: “Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability,” he says. “If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded.” Tolkien has been whetting my appetite for swords, dragons, and misty mountains since I was very small. And thanks to a little hobbit, PJ’s film does just a bit of that.