The movie opens with Bilbo working on his book, and planning his one-hundred-and-eleventh birthday party at the same time. I liked this, it harked back to Fellowship of the Ring where Bilbo is working on There and Back Again setting off to the elves so that he might escape the hangers-on and the wasters of his time, and finish his book. I liked that, very much. It was a warm wink from Peter Jackson to the fans that have waited for him to get to the Hobbit since The Return of the King ended.
Now, I know, that beginning irritated several of my friends who are purists, and its common knowledge on the internet that Christopher Tolkien is not happy with any of Jackson’s work based on his father’s work. Christopher Tolkien is caught on one horn of a dilemma. Tolkien’s work is part of him, left behind for the rest of us to see. It is the tangible essence of J.R.R. Tolkien brilliant mind. From his perspective changing the story is like redrawing his father’s features. I can understand his anger, and his outrage at Jackson’s doing that.
Christopher has also sacrificed a huge chunk of time and talent to bring all of Middle Earth to us, laboring over his fathers incomplete work so that the rest of us could see its glory. He has a right to be grieved, and a right to “turn his face” from the movies. I can also understand the upset of the purists. They love Tolkien’s original vision and like his son, want everyone to see that vision, and love it as much as they do. They want to share the moments of sudden insight, the pictures in their mind’s eye of the characters, and how they felt as they read the book for the first time.
The problem with this, is its like asking everyone to enjoy cauliflower soup. If you’ve ever had cauliflower soup, you’ll remember it. I’ve not met a person yet who was ambivalent about it. They either think it is a wonderful, hearty, filling comfort dish, or rapidly excuse themselves from the table to spit the mouthful they took into the trashcan and then go scrub their mouths for forty minutes to remove every last micron of flavor that might try to hide within its chamber. Tolkien’s work is very distinctive, very rich, and very hearty in its verbosity and ideas.
The culture of today is different from the culture of Tolkien’s day; and the way he wrote then wouldn’t be published now. The rules have changed.
Even in his own time, J.R.R. Tolkien was not esteemed for his ‘frivolous dip’ into writing fantasy. Those in the white stone halls of Academia sneered at his offering of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Fantasy has never been upper-class reading. Maybe they wondered why in the world he took all of his learning, all the ancient culture he had absorbed and gave it to the rabble in tomes like those instead of penning something that could only be understood by those blessed with enough intelligence to be admitted into the ranks of the educated elite. Maybe they thought he was slumming. And the truth is, he was. But he wanted to give something back to Britain, something that was lacking in the culture (which was not part of Oxford or Cambridge) and his gift was accepted by the man on the street long before it was accepted by those who taught in his college.
As I watched the movie, watched the dwarves come and eat and clean up after themselves in the strange way that they do, watched Bilbo run to catch up with the adventurers, watched the trolls catch them unawares I marveled at the way Jackson drew from the text and added to it or told things in a different way. It had to be a tough job, not only adapting the book to a movie format but then updating it for this generation.
The attention span is shorter, the average intelligence and working knowledge of a person is much less than Tolkien’s day, and as a culture we are used to in-your-face-heroes, not the more subtle ones that had value in his day. How do you take a subtle hero like Bilbo, and show him off in a world used to Neo from the Matrix and Harry Potter from The Sorcerer’s Stone? How do you make a small, plain, rather plump and content fellow like Bilbo into a character people want to emulate? Well, you turn him inside out. That’s exactly what Jackson does. He flips Bilbo inside out like a pocket, early on. It’s Bilbo who talks down the trolls (in the book it’s Gandalf that does that) and plays for time. That shows that he’s intelligent as well as compassionate (he wanted to see the horses freed). Later on in the book, Bilbo makes the iconic decision to spare Golem’s life, and then escapes with the Ring. The same scene plays out in living color on the screen as in the book as Bilbo squeezes through the tiny opening and his buttons fly in all directions.
Instead of facing the quandary about whether to turn into the mountain to rescue the dwarfs that have been so wretched to him throughout their quest, or out into freedom on his own, Jackson’s Bilbo faces much higher risks as the movie draws to a close.
There is a powerful climax as the Wargs and Orcs which have chased Thorin throughout the movie, finally catch up with them on a cliff ledge. Bilbo, who has taken a verbal beating from Thorin since the start of the movie deliberately steps off a place of safety to defend the man who has bullied him and derided him.
I actually got chills, and looking over at my brother, caught a flash of his features, taut, as he leaned forward.
It is an incredibly piece of cinema story telling. For the sake of those who haven’t seen the movie yet (HI JAKE ::WAVES LIKE CRAZY::) I’m being rather vague. Those who have seen the movie know there’s a lot more that happens, a lot more powerful images I could comment on, but I don’t want to spoil this amazing climax for those like Jake, who have a rather longer wait for it.
David and I tried to frame the movie experience as we darted back through the traffic to his car in the parking lot.
“I think” I said, at long last after a geek-heaven of dissecting different scenes “That what Jackson has done is crept into Tolkien shadow, and used his characters to tell an epic and sweeping, heartbreaking, soul lifting story. But it’s not the Hobbit.”
“It’s definitely not the Hobbit” he agreed and grinned. “Did you like it?”
“I loved it” I grinned back at him. “Best Christmas Present in a Long, Long time.”
So, that’s my conclusion. Jackson’s movie is Hobbit-like but it’s not the Hobbit. In my book, this isn’t a bad thing. Writers have been cribbing off one another for years. Tolkien cribbed off a historical sources, Shakespeare cribbed from the Greeks, and the Greeks from the Meades and the Persians.
As far back as you trace the art of storytelling, you’ll find ideas and characters borrowed from one storyteller and bent into a slightly different shape by another storyteller. It’s what we do. My hope, is that this icecream sundae version of The Hobbit, might make some viewers interested in trying the cauliflower soup.
I know this is one of those topics where there’s a lot of polarization, so let me know how you feel in the comments below. Be respectful, and be honest.