Not this blog’s usual fare, but hey, ’tis the season to be jolly. Especially when we can again look forward to three Christmases with new Tolkien films! (Warning: Like the film(s) in question, this review has become rather bloated, from a quick two cents to a rambling, occasionally theological, two thousand words….)
—The critics, as usual, have it wrong. Yes, they’re right the the film is too long, the exposition too ponderous, but they’re wrong that the problem lies in the slow opening, in Bilbo’s hobbit-hole in the Shire. On the contrary, Jackson, Freeman, McKellen, and Co. are in top form in these opening scenes, and would probably have made Tolkien himself proud with their faithful recreation of Tolkien’s endearing account of a peaceful hobbit existence rudely interrupted by an outlandish and frightfully un-respectable band of dwarves. And as for the critics who declared that the problem was that Jackson had insisted on being scrupulously faithful to the book, I feel quite confident they must have never read it.
—Why, oh why, were almost all the reviews of The Hobbit so preoccupied with the new 48 fps format and how awful it supposedly looked? As it turns out, only a small fraction of the showings are being done in 48 fps, so most fans can, and will, see the film without this distraction. That many critics decided to spend half of their reviews dissecting the look of this technology, and in many cases, panned the movie based primarily on this one consideration, just shows that they’re too lazy to actually do their job and analyze a film.
—Peter Jackson isn’t out for more cash. Or at any rate, that’s not his primary motivation at least; that much seemed clear to me pretty quickly. A loud chorus of critics have maligned his choice to expand one short book into three long films as a cynical cash grab. And while the choice does need maligning, the motive is clearly megalomania, not greed. I mean, if money maximization were the goal, he would’ve made three two-hour films, not three-hour films, right? The reason Jackson turned a moderate-length children’s book into a sprawling epic is because he sees himself as the authoritative expositor of Tolkien’s world, and hence sees The Hobbit as an opportunity to lift the curtain again on Middle Earth and present that world to us on its full scale, which is clearly an epic scale, tricked out with many layers of detail and backstory. Peter Jackson determined that if he was going to take us back to Middle-Earth, it was going to be the fully-formed Middle Earth, not the rambly, goofy, occasionally half-baked version of 1937, which afforded mere fleeting glimpses of the tapestry that lay behind.
While it’s easy to mock, though, this was in fact a respectable decision to make. Indeed it seemed to me, when the film was first announced, that it would be very hard indeed to go backwards—to start with the fully-formed, internally-consistent world of the Lord of the Rings, and then go back to the haphazard children’s tale that was The Hobbit, complete with stone giants, trolls that turn to stone, and a man who can change into a bear. Audiences would just be puzzled. Jackson would have to grow The Hobbit up, bring it onto a similar plane as The Lord of the Rings. The result is certainly awkward in many places, but we should be grateful that Jackson at least relied largely on Tolkien’s own hints (in places like the Appendices to Lord of the Rings and in The Unfinished Tales) to accomplish the filling-out and growing-up.
—That said, Jackson has not given up on the more playful air of The Hobbit. This comes out particularly in the action sequences, which are almost all of the Legolas-surfing-down-an-oliphaunt level of ridiculousness, generously punctuated by dubious punch-lines. The troll scene, thankfully, is fantastically handled. And we do get the stone-giants!
—Elijah Wood wasn’t bad at all for what Jackson was trying to do with Frodo in LotR. But he was a terrible Frodo, not remotely hobbitish. Martin Freeman, on the other hand, was born to be Bilbo. Kudos to Jackson on the casting. Andy Serkis again blows the lid off in his Gollum performance
—No Orlando Bloom? No problem. We now have sexy heartthrob super-archer Aidan Turner as Kili.
—In this film, what should already have been clear from LotR became glaringly obvious: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens can’t write dialogue to save their lives. In the LotR trilogy, one usually had little trouble telling which lines came straight out of Tolkien’s text and which ones Jackson and Co. had cooked up, with the latter at times proving grotesquely corny. Fortunately, the ratio of source material to film time was great enough with LotR that Jackson and Co. very often could simply cut-and-paste, leaving their own inventions to splice narrow and inconsequential gaps. Here, however, there are whole scenes, some of them fairly important, where the dialogue has been fabricated out of whole Jackson/Walsh/Boyens cloth, and the product ain’t pretty.
—I enjoyed watching the makeup crew’s attempts to prevent characters from Lord of the Rings from looking like they’d aged in the ten years since that film. In most cases, they were reasonably successful, although Cate Blanchett must’ve needed a few Botox injections. Christopher Lee, however, looked like he had been exhumed from his coffin and propped up in a chair to play out one last scene or two as Saruman. And no wonder—the man’s 90. Yikes.
—There were bushels full of treats for the true Tolkien nerd, moments that made your inner geek wriggle with pleasure. Jackson has taken at least as much care as he did with Lord of the Rings to populate this world with the backstory people and places that bring it to life: The Necromancer, the Five Wizards, Dain in the Iron Hills, The Blue Mountains, the battle in which the Witch-King was destroyed, Mount Gundabad, Azog. We get the “That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates” song. We get the little story about how Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took knocked off the head of Golfimbul at the Battle of Greenfields and sent it sailing into a rabbit-hole, thus inventing the game of golf. We meet Orcrist and Glamdring, and even hear about how they were forged for the king of Gondolin by the High Elves in the First Age, warming the hearts of those of us for whom the name of Gondolin sent a strange thrill up our spines when first we encountered it on reading The Hobbit in early youth. And we even get to see the Great Goblin shriek, upon seeing them, “AAGGH! Biter and Beater are here!” My personal favorite geek moment, only mildly marred by the alteration of key details of the narrative, was the inclusion, in a narrative of Balin, of the Battle of Azanulbizar, “or Nanduhirion, in the Elvish tongue, at the memory of which Orcs still shudder and Dwarves still weep.” Alas that it was neither named, nor that matchless line included—although we did get treated to “for our dead were beyond the count of grief.”
—On the other hand, there were moments aplenty to rankle my inner geek, chief among them the reductio of the White Council to absurdum. This has to go down as the worst scene in the film. Although there are no shortage of reasons for its failure, chief among them is the idiotic flatness of Saruman’s character. He comes across as exactly the same complacent, deceptive, arrogant jerk that he was in Lord of the Rings. Now, in Lord of the Rings, that was just about right. But the point is that he wasn’t always that way, as Gandalf is keen to emphasize. He was, we are told, originally worthy of his title, and truly great, even if always a bit proud and overly inquisitive about evil. Jackson’s inability to trace the lineaments of his character, to convincingly render his corruption from nobility to depravity, display the same lack of moral imagination that was so egregiously apparent in Jackson’s rendering of Denethor in Return of the King.
—Azog was pretty darn freaky, although his menacing declarations in Gobbledigook, in which the camera would zoom dramatically in on his face while the subtitles revealed some vapid variant on “I want that dwarf scum dead,” made him seem more ridiculous than intimidating at times.
—Radagast was a bit ridiculous, and most of the more fanciful liberties that Jackson took with the plot involved him. But Sylvester McCoy’s performance was so delightfully eccentric that I can’t complain.
—Azog deserves a moment or two more of reflection. Betraying Peter Jackson’s relative lack of imagination, Azog played a role that was a virtual carbon-copy of “Lurtz” in The Fellowship of the Ring—ghastly giant orc of absurd strength and invulnerability, hell-bent on the pursuit and destruction of the traveling company, who makes a far greater number of screen appearances than necessary, just to add an element of menace to the tale. Unlike Lurtz, Azog is not a pure Jacksonian invention, but a mere simplification of Tolkien’s original, in which it was Bolg son of Azog who was the sworn enemy of the Dwarves; but Bolg played a much smaller role in the book than does Azog here. So what gives? Why Lurtz? Why Azog?
Both represent, it seems to me, attempts to personify evil, to give us a traditional Hollywood villain (albeit a rather flat, grotesque, and bestial one). This is something that Tolkien notably fails to do in his stories. Saruman incarnates not so much evil per se as the banality of evil. Sauron, and in the Silmarillion, Morgoth are the only real personifications of evil—they are evil itself, and are almost forces, rather than agents in the full sense of the term. Their minions, for Tolkien, warrant very little attempt at character development. Why? Because they have no character. Tolkien is Augustinian. Evil is nothingness, evil is that which effaces, which depersonalizes. It preys upon that which is good and leaves behind it only an absence. Jackson, however, is much more Manichaean. Evil is an active presence and takes form in evil agents who are strict counterparts to the good agents. The murkiness of evil in Tolkien’s universe cries out, in Jackson’s universe, for clearer definition and positive reality. The result, however, seems bizarre and incongruous, for Jackson makes no effort to alter Tolkien’s portrayal of evil as fundamentally irrational and absurd. Thus we end up with villains like Lurtz and Azog, who seem to combine a surfeit of personal malevolent purpose with a lack of any rational motive behind that purpose.
—Perhaps this Manicheanism provides an explanation for the pathetic portrayal of Saruman mentioned above. Jackson cannot grasp the idea that evil was not always evil, but is a corruption of native goodness. He has no room in his world for a flawed nobility that descended, by corruption of the will, into folly and wickedness. The evil characters just are evil, and always have been.
—Prospects going forward? I expect that Pt. 2 will take us up to when Bilbo meets Smaug, and Pt. 3 will be devoted to Smaug’s rampage and death and an extremely elaborate buildup to and then recreation of the Battle of Five Armies. Expect a generous dollop of tedium and tackiness, but with enough nuggets of true Tolkien or Martin Freeman brilliance and enough visual splendor to make it worthwhile.