No! No! No!
It has been nearly two score years since I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I read it a second and perhaps a third time, but it could be as long ago as thirty years since I last read the much-loved children’s classic. It is not my favorite work by that author. I prefer the sequel epic The Lord of the Rings, his comic tale Farmer Giles of Ham, and the great short story “Leaf by Niggle.” But I do have very fond memories of reading it, and I looked forward to the film version created under the watchful eye of Peter Jackson.
I saw the movie Saturday night, in 2D. (Lacking two working eyes, I cannot watch 3D movies. Besides, as my friend Mr. Monteith points out, it is always best to wait for a 4D version — that is where they add the plot.) I had been prepared. I understood that the filmmakers had stretched the story, and that it would not be completed with this particular episode.
On the face of it, this is somewhat galling. Jackson had made The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of movies, and that had made a certain amount of sense. It was presented to the world as a trilogy of books. But taking a shorter, simpler story and stringing it out? Not really necessary.
But he was obviously attempting to make a prequel in the same grand manner as his earlier Tolkien efforts. So stretching it out came naturally. After all, there were a lot of story notions embedded in Tolkien’s extensive notes to the trilogy.
The truth of the situation, though, is this: The Lord of the Rings was not a trilogy (or “triology,” as my cousins and I mispronounced the word back in the days of our youth, by a most rational epenthesis, interpolating “trio” into the word). It was six books crammed into three volumes. And the biggest problem with Peter Jackson’s movies was the writing team’s first major decision, to cut out the bulk of the last book, “The Scouring of the Shire,” and not giving it its own movie. (This would have allowed the third movie to end with the triumphant bowing of all to the hobbits.)
So, as if to balance the radical redaction of LotR, The Hobbit was beefed up.
Still, I have no great complaints about the movie. I enjoyed it. I wish to be counted among the film’s admirers. The Rivendell sequence was a logically developed episode, and the backstory about the bad blood between the lead dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, and a pale orc conqueror (whose name I forget and who I will not look up), did not strike me as intrusive to the story.
What was intrusive were the battling stone giants, a rock-em-sock-em-robotic pair that seemed merely to add danger and violence to the story prior to the entry into Misty Mountain caves. The amount of improbable physical misadventure was tarted up in the movie, as well, laid on with a trowel. As was the Misty Mountain orc with the goiterish double chin — but at least he was a bit of comic relief.
The best scenes in the movie are at the very end, eagles’ rescue to the contemplation of the destination of the Lonely Mountain; the Riddles in the Dark, with a brilliant Gollum, once again; the droll episode with the trolls; and the party at Bag End.
I understand that I am nearly alone in liking this party sequence. But certainly in conception and nearly in execution, this is a great introduction to the story, and I wish that all the frame story and backstory could have been dropped in favor of extending this episode, for it is pure Tolkien. The party is why some of us took to Tolkien so eagerly. The humor, the nostalgia for peace and safety and security, the intimations of mystery and adventure: these are all here in the story.
And it is here that we are introduced to the young Bilbo Baggins, played by the actor best know for his portrayal of Dr. Watson in the recent British series Sherlock. This is one of the most brilliant bits of casting in recent memory. He is perfect for the role.
We are introduced to the dwarves in this great scene, too. They number twelve amusing (if minor) characters, plus their leader. The most obvious flaw in the movie is that we never really get to know the twelve dwarves very well.
And yet it is with the leader, Thorin Oakenshield, that I have my biggest complaint. He is the only one of the dwarves to look basically like a bearded leading man. He doesn’t have an oversized nose, big ears, funny hair, stocky torso, or any other touch that would indicate he is of a different species from Man.
This bothers me because it suggests a latent racism, or (more properly) speciesism. He is the “heroic” dwarf of the fellowship. But since he looks like human, and not dwarvish, the suggestion is that Men are heroic, Dwarves are not.
There are weird racist subtexts throughout Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories, many of them deriving from Tolkien’s focus on fighting the Pure Evil of Sauron. But perhaps we can overlook all that, just as we overlook Peter Jackson’s repeated images of the Flaming Vagina (the Eye of Sauron in the earlier movies; the eye of Smaug in the current tale).
Thorin is put through a minor arc in this movie. He was a skeptic about Bilbo from the beginning, accepting the hobbit only on Gandalf’s insistence. He is mostly dour throughout, molto serioso. But in the end he . . . hugs the hobbit. Thankfully, there is not as much hugging of hobbits in this movie as there was in the earlier trilogy. Peter Jackson and his cohorts cannot help but impute to Middle Earth culture the habits of today’s scandalous over-huggers.
More grating yet, Thorin shouts Jackson’s favorite cinematic cliché: “No!” Frodo repeated this mantra upon the fall of Gandalf in the mines of Moria, and the dwarf Gimli repeated it a few minutes earlier, upon the discovery of the demise of his kinfolk. I find this annoying because, well, I have never seen it done in real life. It seems like a cinematic tic, to me. I have had any number of bad things happen to me. I did not apostrophize a “No” at the time.
There is only one real justification for shouting “No!” in a Middle Earth tale, and that is if it is in the sentence “No More Trilogies!”