"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."
THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
THE HOBBIT: A BRIEF REVIEW
As a bit of a Tolkien nut, there was never any question whether or not I was going to go see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I've read the book at least a dozen times and have been eagerly waiting for the film adaptation. But despite looking forward to it, I went into the theater with a mild case of trepidation. You see, some other Tolkien nerds, I thought Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy was genius, Tom Bombadil or no. The bottom line is that I recognize books cannot be filmed directly as written, that the two mediums are very different animals, and that particularly in the case of a wordsmith like Tolkien the transition from print to cinema necessitated change. So it wasn't any Peter Jackson hate that made me uneasy going into The Hobbit. My jitters were caused by two big questions hanging over the project. First, did a children's novel that weighs in at less than 300 pages really require a nine hour long film trilogy? Second, I knew Jackson wanted to tie the Hobbit films into The Lord of the Rings as a sort of prequel, which the book sort of is. Sort of. The problem is that The Hobbit is a light-hearted children's fantasy, while The Lord of the Rings is, well, Wagnerian. Joining the two would be like making Snow White the lead-in for Les Miserable. Could Jackson pull it off?
Well actually, yes.
In general I try to be patient with people who tell me Tolkien is a "bad" writer, that he "had a great imagination" or was a "fantastic world-builder" but that the writing itself was weak. To each his own, of course, but what I am really hearing is something like "I have never read a piece of pre-industrial fiction, don't have the first clue about it, and expected Tolkien to read like a modern novelist." They go into Tolkien thinking he is R. A. Salvatore or Robert Jordan and are dumbfounded by what they find. On the other hand, if you have read medieval or ancient literature, it becomes crystal clear that Tolkien was an extraordinary writer, but that he chose to work in a genre that was no longer around. He reads like Geoffrey of Monmouth or Thomas Malory, and had more in common with Beowulf, the Kalevala, and the King James Bible than George RR Martin or Michael Moorcock.
The Hobbit, however, is the one exception. In writing for children, Tolkien consciously tries to bridge the gap between the medieval and the modern by speaking directly to the reader in a conversational tone and in the personage of Bilbo Baggins. His hobbits are anachronisms; in a world of warriors, dragons, and wizards, they have pocket watches and handkerchiefs, a postal service and afternoon tea. Bilbo was a literary device to ease children from the world of 1930s Britain into the ancient past. As Bilbo is dragged into a strange new world, so were they.
It's all in the names. Tolkien lifted the names of Gandalf and the 13 dwarves from the old Norse Voluspa saga. They are quite literally relics of a bygone age. But Bilbo is a "Baggins of Bag End," whose very name elicits a smile from those who catch the joke ("Bag End" is the English translation of cul de sac, the very symbol of modern suburbia). Tolkien is having a bit of fun with us, and making it very plain that Bilbo is the modern reader's surrogate. As he slowly releases his modern comforts and picks up a sword, so do we. There is no such anachronism in The Silmarillion or the recent Children of Hurin; the reader is thrust right into the ancient world without decompression. And Frodo Baggins of the Rings saga is no Bilbo, he's a soldier called upon to risk his life for his country rather than a well-to-do bourgeois who decides an adventure might be fun. Thus The Hobbit stands apart from the bulk of Tolkien's work not only in being kid-friendly, but in being more "modern reader" friendly as well.
What Jackson had to do, then, was wed an epic story about war, resilience, and death (The Lord of the Rings) to what was effectively a children's adventure meant to awake something "Tookish" in kids and make them dream of Beowulf (Tolkien, was, of course, one of the greatest Beowulf scholars of his day and as a good Catholic has his characters re-enact Beowulf like the stations of the cross; we have Gollum in his cave for Grendel in his, we have Beorn the "bear man" for Beowulf the "bee-wolf" or bear, and it all leads of course to a dragon). Jackson is put in the position to do what Tolkien wrestled with...making The Hobbit a real prequel. Because it wasn't, not really. There are no "orcs" in The Hobbit but "goblins," the trolls are comical and speak cockney, Gandalf is just a wizard and the ring is not yet The Ring. All the mythology Tolkien would later weave is not really there in The Hobbit, and Tolkien was himself hard pressed at times to link them.
Jackson does a fair job by literally blending The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings. He keeps the comedy and the songs, but shows us the meeting of the White Council that Gandalf only alluded to in the book His trolls are comedic, but he introduces Radaghast the Brown and shows us the darkening of Mirkwood and Dol Guldur. Gandalf is given motives for the quest that Tolkien only attached to him much later (the Dragon could be a potential ally for Sauron of Mordor down the road). In short, Jackson takes The Hobbit and seasons it with the Rings appendices.
Which leads me to the problem...
Unlike the purists whose heads explode with ever little deviation Jackson makes from the Holy Writ, it is clear to me that Jackson and his team love Tolkien. They are fanboys (and girls) like me. While I am hardly naive enough to discount the fact that the studio can make a lot more money from three films rather than one, I remain convinced that Jackson likes the idea of three Hobbit movies because he can cram every last nerdish detail in.
Bringing The Lord of the Rings to the screen in just nine hours required a Herculean effort of concision and editing. We are talking about 1500 pages of text. Bringing The Hobbit to the screen in nine hours is the total opposite. The story is less than 300 pages. So again we go back to "blending," not just to bring the tone of The Hobbit closer to Rings but to make sure we can pack in as much minutia as possible. Anything and everything that didn't make the Rings films is popping up here.
This isn't a bad thing--in fact for fans it is a great thing--but I can easily see where casual viewers will be left wondering where on Middle-earth Jackson banished his editors to. I had a laugh out loud moment when Gandalf explains that there are four other Wizards like him; Sauruman the White, Radaghast the Brown, and the two Blue Wizards whose names, Gandalf admits, he "forgot." I laughed because I know Tolkien never really bothered to name them, but no one else in the cinema got the joke. Like seeing the White Council meet on screen, it is the kind of thing that extended cut DVD watchers like myself eat up but may leave others yawning.
So is the first installment any good? Absolutely. If you judge it by other fantasy films it is brilliant. If you judge it by the Rings movies it is merely "good." If you liked the Jackson Middle-earth films you will like this Hobbit. There is even a good chance it will bring in new fans as well, given that this is a MUCH more "family friendly" film than any of the others. Jackson does a superb job of finding a middle of the road tone between the lighter Hobbit and the apocalyptic Rings, and by including so many members of the Rings cast he clearly sets this all up as part of the same epic story...just a lighter chapter. But in the negative column, unless you are a die-hard Middle-earther these films are bound to be a bit of a slog. Two Hobbit films I could believe, but three? I am hoping the next two films pick up the pace a bit.
Now, before I go something has to be said about Martin Freeman, on whose Bilboish shoulders much of this hangs. He is, in a word, splendid. In the book, Bilbo is more a device than a character, and Freeman has the challenge of making him real, which he does wonderfully. He is a much more attractive figure than Frodo was. And the script manages to do something truly wonderful, taking Bilbo's love of his little hobbit hole and using it for a climactic display of empathy that is quite moving. Richard Armitage is equally good as Thorin Oakenshield, who again feels more flesh and blood on the screen than he did in the book. This may be one thing Jackson has going for him in these films; in the Rings, he had to capture the depth of the characters, while in The Hobbit he is more free to give depth to them. So far, so good.
I give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 6 Ringwraiths out of 9.