As I write this, Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) - or rather, the first part of it – is a runaway hit.
That bodes well for Jackson, who has taken a gamble by turning a short children's novel into a trilogy on the model of The Lord of the Rings. But it doesn't bode well for the art of cinema. What could have been a charming movie is turning into a bloated monstrosity. I had been afraid of that from the outset, but some people I respect had praised the first installment, so I decided to give it a chance, but...
The best parts are those that are true to the book – the arrival of Gandalf and a dozen dwarves at Bilbo's home, and the riddle game with Gollum. Bilbo's reluctance to go adventuring, the comedy of his playing host to the dwarves and his being won over against his better instincts come right off the pages. So does Bilbo's duel of wits with Gollum – not the original 1937 version, but Tolkien's revision from 1951, when he was working on LOTR and making Gollum's ring the center of the quest in that epic rather than the handy invisibility gimmick it had seemed before. Only the scene is marred by a technical glitch that muffles some of the words.
Jackson, who took over as director (He had already been producer.) from Guillermo Del Toro after Del Toro left on account of lengthy delays occasioned by legal wrangling and other problems, was dead set on tying The Hobbit even more closely to LOTR as an epic of mythic import. But there simply isn't enough of that in the novel, so he had to pump it up by padding the canonical scenes unmercifully and adding new scenes that weren't in the story to begin with but allude to LOTR. There will be even more new material from the LOTR appendices in the second and third Hobbit movies.
Of course, an epic requires an epic hero, and that may be why Jackson made Thorin Oakenshield, described as only "enormously important" by Tolkien into a heroic-looking figure like Aragorn in LOTR, nothing like typical dwarves in appearance. Oddly enough, however, Thorin doesn't act the part as much as you might expect. Neither does Gandalf act much like a great and powerful wizard.
This begins with the scene where the dwarves are captured by the trolls. Thorin is helpless and Gandalf is nowhere to be seen. Yet in the novel, it is not Bilbo but rather Gandalf in hiding nearby who, using ventroloquism, gets the trolls to arguing among themselves until the rising sun turns them to stone. When the heroes are attacked by goblins in the troll cave, Gandalf kills several of them with magical pyrotechnics, and later frees the dwarves and Bilbo by the same means – Thorin then makes short work of the goblin king with one of the swords he had recovered in the troll cave.
In the movie, the struggle with the goblins (orcs) goes on and on and on, and their cavern looks like a theme park set or something out of a cartoon – Bilbo and the dwarves fall into it through a chute, and thereafter it seems to consist mostly of catwalks across which they must scramble to escape. Twice most of our heroes fall what must be a hundred feet, but aren't even scratched. “Well, that could have been worse,” Thorin says, as if it were some sort of a joke. As sf-fantasy critic Darrell Schweitzer put it on Facebook, they're like toons; nothing can hurt them. Except that they presumably aren't fireproof; they're trapped in a blaze in a pine forest after Gandalf (his first act of magic in the movie as opposed to the novel) ignites pine cones to toss at pursuing goblins. In the book, it was only their allies, the giant wolves called wargs – the goblins came along later to set fire to the tree where the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf had taken refuge. And the tree was never hanging over a precipice, either – nobody has to fall or jump through the air onto the eagles.
Other examples of pumping up abound. In the novel, the battling stone giants are seen only in the distance; our heroes aren't actually on one of them and thus in dire peril. They only stop overnight at Elrond's house; Galadriel is never seen, and Gandalf doesn't have a skull session with Saruman and Radagast. That skull session in the movie isn't in itself intrusive, but Jackson insists on turning Radagast, a minor character even in LOTR, into a player. Only his "powers" include psychically healing a hedgehog. And in what has to be the most idiotic sequence in the whole movie, we must endure watching him race across the rough and snowless countryside, pursued by goblins, in a sleigh pulled by giant bunny rabbits. It's as if the director were thumbing his nose at the whole mythology of Middle Earth.
Well, Jackson has already turned Middle Earth, at least the Hobbiton part of it, into a theme park back in New Zealand. Three movies may bring in more tourists and well as tripling box office and later DVD sales. And we can also imagine all sorts of spin-offs – dragon toys, elf toys, maybe even Radagast bunny sleigh toys. There's nothing subtle about movie tie-in merchandising. But art can be very subtle, and the first installment of The Hobbit is so unsubtle that I've seen some online comments that Jackson simply isn't capable of subtlety, or that he doesn't have any respect for Tolkien's material. And yet he is, and has – or at least he once did.
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was true to the vision of its source. There wasn't a false note in the portrayals of Frodo and the other hobbits, of Gandalf and Saruman, Aragorn and Arwen, dwarves and the elves, the riders of Rohan, even the ents. And the story not only moved, but was moving from start to finish. The quest itself is shown as the stuff of tragedy as well as triumph, for it leaves Frodo as a stranger in a familiar land where he can find no peace. And who can forget Jackson’s faithful renderings of such iconic scenes as Aragorn raising a ghostly army of oath-breakers, the madness and despair of Denethor, or the heroism of the warrior woman Eowyn?
It was also visually stunning, not only in its use of landscapes that had a sense of place, and in the designs of Moria, Gondor and the other locales, but in such brief yet telling scenes as the heroes passing the Sentinels of Númenor on the Great River. That is one of the scenes put up on YouTube, and there are a number of others. But perhaps the best is one that doesn't come from the letter of Tolkien and yet is true to the spirit of Tolkien. In The Return of the King, Frodo and Samwise are seated on thrones and praised with great praise. Not very cinematic, but Jackson knew how to create a scene that is truly cinematic – as the hobbits (including Merry and Pippin, who have fought heroically in the defense of Gondor) begin to pay homage to Aragorn (now King Elessar) and his bride Arwen on the ramparts of Gondor:
There have been a lot of movies about the nobility, or the supposed nobility, of olden times. There was little of any true nobility in the lords and knights of those times; nobility, it seems, is something we can believe only in fairy tales. But it that one scene, Jackson showed what it should have been, and might be in some better world than ours. Would that he had remained as true as that vision…