The Moviegoer: Hobbitses, Les Misérables, and Grace Notes Not Quite in Harmony

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

The Hobbit (Peter Jackson) & Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)

     At the moment when Bilbo Baggins answers the door to his Hobbit-hole home to unexpectedly find a Dwarf inviting himself in as if summoned, followed by all that ensues in that sequence of scenes which comprises the first chapter of the book, I was feeling more than optimistic about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. His depiction of the central, introductory meeting at Bilbo’s home in the Shire is, for me, pitch perfect in its adaptive acumen. There’s boisterous feasting and mead chugging; there’s Bilbo’s mounting angst over increasing visitors, consumed quantities of food, and flying table dishes; there’s beautiful—mournful—singing from Dwarves in exile; there’s poring over maps and discussion of burglary; and there’s established that important underlying sense that only Gandalf seems to recognize at the start–there is a lot more in Bilbo than you’d guess, and even a deal more than he has any idea of himself. Another way to put this is that early on Martin Freeman does well in character as the conflicted, Tookish hobbit. Everything about Jackson’s work in this introduction–from the cozy aesthetics of the hobbit-hole to the goings-on of an unexpected party therein—rings consonant with Tolkien’s vision.

Unfortunately, there’s a sort of unintended irony at work in much of the rest of Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s beloved novel. During the first act of the film, Bilbo voices a serious concern he has about the journey he’s undertaken with Gandalf and the group of Dwarves. Knowing that potentially grave perils are ahead, Bilbo stammers, “I have . . . I have never used a sword in my life.” Gandalf the Grey, ever full of wisdom and witticisms, provides a worthy response: “And I hope you never have to. But if you do, remember this: true courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” Now, I don’t wish to work through the film and count to see if, and how often, there are instances of needless killing from the characters’ perspective. That’s not really the point. Rather, it seems to me that Jackson’s depiction choices in adapting the story do not quite capture the tone of Tolkien’s beloved fantasy novel as an adventure geared toward children; instead, it’s something more like an adult action-adventure, if you’ll allow the genre distinction typically used in video game circles (which, if you read the first two paragraphs of Alan Jacobs’s review, you won’t have a hard time accepting the distinction, I think).

I know that Tolkien’s novel implies a good bit of war violence, but, on the whole, the book doesn’t really unfold in such a way that warrants a series of action set-pieces. But even if we allow that someone who has never read The Hobbit might enjoy Jackson’s more action-adventure tone, I’d suggest that the pacing of the film is still a problem. I wouldn’t say that I found myself bored, but what occurs between the opening scene at Bilbo’s home and Bilbo’s later interaction with Gollum (more on that brilliant scene shortly) feels like one big let’s-hurry-up-and-get-there ellipsis filled with indistinct chase scenes. By all means, Jackson needs to bring certain things to visual life that are only implied in Tolkien’s narrative, but perhaps instead of depicting hints of war violence and altering the fundamental tone of the book, he could have, for instance, paused for a bit longer during what in the book is a wonderful fortnight’s stay at Rivendell.

Another way of putting it is that eventually Bilbo does make a choice in a particular instance of whether he is going to kill or not kill, and the scene which immediately precedes that decision is probably my favorite from the film, and it’s exemplary for how I wish more of the film had operated. Bilbo has a run-in with Gollum in the recesses of a cave, and what unfolds between them is an engrossing, delightful back-and-forth game of riddles. If Bilbo stumps Gollum, then Gollum will show him the way out of the cave; if Gollum perplexes Bilbo, then Bilbo will be his sustenance for the evening. The clever scene had me on the edge of my seat in a way that none of the preceding battles and chases and obstacles did. You see, it’s not that the stakes of impending death are not central to the story; it’s that Jackson’s film rarely evinces the playful-adventurous quality in which those stakes take shape in the book. Gandalf’s grace-filled word to Bilbo about knowing when not to kill is a line that finds its fruition in a bookend moment toward the end of the film, but most of what comes in between the two moments seems not quite in harmony with the tone that message sets.

     By now, you’re probably familiar with much critical exasperation and defense regarding the ever-present close-up shots in Tom Hooper’s hotly debated Les Misérables. First, I want to provide two autobiographical notes related to my viewing of the film, which will hopefully speak to the situation without taking sides in a way that would rile up the offended party. I went to see Hooper’s musical with my wife, who, it should be noted, had no idea about any of the critical reception of the film going in. I didn’t say anything to her of it before or even immediately after the film. At the film’s conclusion, she was in tears; it had really affected her like it understandably has many other people. After the film, she made two related comments to me—again, without my remarking on the film. I asked her what she thought—”I loved it,” she said. And by “loved it,” she meant all-time loved it. “But,” she said, “one thing I would say is that I kept feeling like I needed to move back, or we were sitting t0o close to the screen.” Later on, she would mention that she glanced over at me and wondered if I was crying or just rubbing my eyes. You can probably guess which one.

And that’s the thing: even for my wife—a smart, but casual moviegoer—the incessant zoom shots had a noticeable effect of taking her out of the experience of the film. And this is the exact opposite intended effect of the close-up shot, which, no doubt, was intended to cinematically invest the viewer into the pathos of the musical experience.

There is much that is commendable about Les Misérables. This admittedly untrained ear was impressed with all of the performances—even the much maligned Russell Crowe, who I thought channeled a Javert-like ungraciousness into his singing performance. I’d imagine that straining after lawfulness in his way would have a marginal effect on one’s voice! It fits. And even the comedic bits featuring Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier and Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thénardier were, on the whole, enjoyable reliefs. Further, I think Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway—playing Jean Valjean and Fantine, respectively—put in performances that are alone worth the price of admission, for they both most effectively conjure up the necessary embodied contortions of feeling and lament that a cinematic musical with constant zoom-ins might demand.

And, without a doubt, Les Misérables is admirable in its unflinching observance of distinctly Christian themes. The drama between Jean Valjean and Javert is an elemental contrast between law and grace, or, as Dr. Jason Hood over at Mere Orthodoxy rightly nuances the issue, it’s a sharp contrast between “the law informed by grace and mercy” as opposed to the law “pitted against” grace and mercy. The law unqualified by grace and mercy would have the slightest of offenses as cause to put the offender in chains for torturous years of incongruous punishment; the law informed by grace and mercy—embodied from the Bishop of Digne to Cosette and Marius—has a beautiful chain effect that functions like a legacy of love for love’s sake, given to the least of these and passed down from one generation to the next. The latter is a force that Javert finally crumbles under—enchained by the most tragic note of all.

I’m sincerely grateful for all of this, and I’m fairly certain Hooper’s film will make an appearance on a 2012 year-end list for me. But, for this moviegoer, Hooper’s choice to constantly zoom-in really had a negative impact on the experience. I maintain that he could have found multiple ways to convey the intended emotional experience. The best way to communicate the trouble I had, I think, is to summon a particular analogy suitable to the nature of the content. Les Misérables was like a Pastor preaching a really good message at a continuous heightened volume and tone, such that afterward, I thought to myself ‘good message’ but some of what should have especially affected me didn’t have the desired effect because the unchanging intonation drowned it out. I might look around and see fellow church members in tears, and be glad that they were unbothered by it, but I, thankful for the message, remain relatively unchanged. The form—the approach—wasn’t quite in harmony with the message.

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Eliza

    While I agree that the art of how truth is presented can have a profound impact on how powerfully it is received I still think the overall message and beauty of the truth revealed in this movie out weighs any negative “angle.” So for me the message in words and song is more powerful then any visual emotional experience that may be lacking.