For viewers who were enthralled by Peter Jackson’s majestic films of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, watching the first installment (of three) of Jackson’s version of The Hobbit is likely to be equal parts pleasure and frustration. It is a pleasure to have Middle Earth brought to life on the screen, to see so many familiar faces, and to hear once again Tolkien’s eloquent words. It is frustrating that Jackson has attempted to stretch a modest story into three films, a decision that results in the first film, at least, being filled with a tedious series of chase and escape scenes. The visual distractions caused by the new supercharged format, which delivers 3D images at 48 frames per second in place of the usual 24, also irritate. There are many things to like about the film, and some of the enduring themes of Tolkien’s vision emerge, but the way Jackson delivers the experience to the viewer turns inside out Tolkien’s understanding of fantasy.
The Hobbit tells a fantasy story about a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who becomes an unlikely hero of Middle Earth as he joins a troop of dwarves in their quest to reclaim their homeland and their treasures of gold in the Lonely Mountain from the dragon, Smaug. In translating the story from page to screen, Jackson again does quite well in his selection of actors. Viewers will be happy to encounter familiar faces: Orlando Bloom as Legolas, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Christopher Lee as Saruman, Andy Serkis as a CGI Gollum, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. Newcomers Richard Armitage, as Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, and Martin Freeman, as Bilbo, are also perfectly cast.
Amid all the action, there are some very entertaining scenes: the dramatic arrival of the dwarves at Bag End, invading Bilbo’s comfortable house and devouring his food, and an encounter with cannibalistic trolls that contains a good bit of humor.
There are a few scenes that come close to the grandeur of much of LOTR. One is a meeting of Elrond, Saruman, Galadriel, and Gandalf, at which they discuss the merits of the quest to recover the mountain from the control of the dragon. Saruman and Elrond counsel patience and inactivity — they worry that the quest will disturb centuries of peace — but, interpreting ancient prophecies and discerning the rise of an evil power, Gandalf urges a continuation of the quest. Galadriel concurs.
Another excellent scene is the riddle contest. Lost in a cave, in which he has just found a gold ring, Bilbo encounters a strange and menacing creature, Gollum. Keeping the creature at arm’s length with his sword, Bilbo challenges Gollum to a contest of riddles. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will show him the way out; if Gollum wins — well, he will have supper. This is one of the few moments in the film in which we sense that something is at stake; it’s also a pivotal scene for the character development of Bilbo. Throughout the first half of the film, Bilbo is a bemused bystander, who has difficulty overcoming his initial instinctive reaction to adventures, which he terms “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things.” Here, however, we begin to detect that Bilbo possesses sufficient mettle and intelligence to justify Gandalf’s confidence in him.
In this scene, Bilbo exhibits a virtue that exceeds both mere cleverness and the noble ethic of the warrior: mercy. Rendered invisible by the magical ring, he has the opportunity to kill the murderous Gollum, but he stays his sword and simply passes by Gollum on his way out of the cave. In so doing, he practices what Gandalf had taught him earlier in the story, namely that true courage consists in knowing “when to spare a life.” For viewers of LOTR this advice should call to mind the more ample advice Gandalf gives to Frodo, who regrets that Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the opportunity in their first encounter in the cave. To Frodo’s insistence that Gollum deserves death, Gandalf presciently responds,
Deserves [death]! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. . . . I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many — yours not least.
The problem with Jackson’s The Hobbit is that the subtle and significant moments get lost in the proliferation of mini-adventures. With the amped-up 3D technology, the action scenes have the look and feel of a high-speed Disney theme-park ride. Now, that experience can be enjoyable so far as it goes, and so long as it does not last nearly three hours. But here it is a distraction from the action itself, as the viewer’s vision gets tugged — occasionally startled — this way and that by the sharply defined and rapidly moving images.
There is a certain irony here, one that would not be lost on Tolkien himself, who was a dissenter from the modern belief that technological development was always to the good. In his letters, he likened technology to magic, in both of which the basic motive is“immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.” With the ease and alacrity of production comes the capacity to satisfy human wishes instantaneously. Magic or technology thus comes to serve the ends of human fantasy, whether these fantasies be noble or base, good or evil, healthy or unhealthy. It also has the effect of shifting our attention from the natural and the ordinary to the artificial.
As Tolkien scholar Ralph Wood observes, “True fantasy, Tolkien declared in his 1939 essay On Fairy-Stories, is escapist in the good sense: it enables us to flee into reality. The strange new world of hobbits and elves and ents frees us from bondage to the pseudo-reality that most of us inhabit: a world deadened by bleary familiarity. Fantasy helps us recover an enlivened sense of wonder, Tolkien observed in this same essay, about such ordinary things ‘as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.’” But the effect of the new 3D technology is not to return us to an appreciation of the ordinary and natural as wonderful but to get us gawking at, and jabbering about, how slick and alive the artificial images are. More real than reality, one is tempted to say.
After the success of the LOTR trilogy, for the final installment of which Jackson won both Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, one can understand the temptation to try to repeat the performance — to create something as vast as LOTR and to present it in an even more dramatic fashion through the use of the latest technology. Like the wearing of the ring of power, it is a temptation he should have resisted.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published recently by Baylor University Press.