In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.
And on a wooded hillside in Vermont lived a writer who loved Hobbits, their homeland, and their author: J.R.R. Tolkien.
I am blessed to know Matthew Dickerson and his wife Deborah as dear friends. I’ve been blessed by Matthew’s writing, and also by the maple syrup he boils on his own. He’s an instructor at Middlebury College. He directs the New England Young Writers Conference at Breadloaf, the Gove Hill Christian Writers Conference, and the Gove Hill Christianity and the Arts conference.
He’s also the author of numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction, including A Hobbit Journey, a highly praised new book about Tolkien’s extraordinary storytelling. (Learn more at www.matthewdickerson.net.)
I published my own reviews (two of them) of Peter Jackson’s new big-screen adaptation last week. But I wanted to know what Matthew, a true Tolkien scholar, would think of the movie. So I asked him. And I got a two-part essay in answer. I couldn’t keep it to myself.
Here’s Part One of his pre-movie meditation…
What Have I Brought To My Review?: Of Fantasy, Film and Philosophy
Last night I watched Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Before I inflict opinions on you, I should acknowledge where I was coming from as I walked into the theater on opening day. My feelings were mixed, as were those of many fans who love the source material.
On the one hand I eagerly anticipated this film. I think Peter Jackson is a gifted filmmaker. I enjoyed many aspects of his adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, including: his treatment of several characters, especially Boromir, Eowyn, Saruman, and Sam; the cinematography and score; the visual settings of the Shire, Rivendell, and Gondolin; and the pace of action (in the first two films).
On the other hand—as somebody who has spent more than two decades teaching and writing about Tolkien’s works—I was also fearful because of the many ways the permeating philosophy behind Jackson’s earlier trilogy was antithetical to important metaphysical ideas that undergird Tolkien’s writing. (You can read about some of these in my book A Hobbit Journey, or in my J.R.R.Tolkien blog.)
So I expected to have fun, to be entertained, and to enjoy a well-done spectacle (with my three sons). At the same time, I also expected to be frustrated by how Jackson absconded with Tolkien’s names, created landscapes, and plots, in order to communicate a very different philosophy.
And that leads to my second admission. I am not a film critic. I enjoy reading Jeff Overstreet’s reviews because he articulates aspects of a filmmaker’s craft I am only dimly aware of: visual motifs, the uses of different cameras, camera angles, focal distances, lighting and color, the way characters are shown during dialogues, etc. I know these work on me when I am a viewer, but I am rarely consciously aware of them. What I do know is that the film medium requires a different approach to telling a story than dies literature. I get that. So I’m not bothered when a film adaptation makes changes in a plot, alters the pacing, adds or removes scenes, even introduces a new character—or eliminates one, such as Tom Bombadil—replacing what works in a book with what works in film. Just so long as the original work and its charm are still largely recognizable.
What I am concerned about, though, are the underlying ideas behind the works—ideas that are important to an author like J.R.R.Tolkien. For every work of art does incarnate some philosophy. This does not mean that the artist is conscious of their philosophies or of how they are manifested. Indeed, the moment art becomes didactic—when the philosophy is too obvious, and a film or book is nothing more than a deliberate attempt to push that philosophy—it ceases to be good art and becomes merely propaganda.
And so while I’m not bothered by the choices of a filmmaker or screenwriter to adapt a book to film in ways consistent with the author’s vision, it disturbs me when a filmmaker misuses a book to put forth an entirely different philosophy. This, I have previously argued (with several examples), is what Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings. And that history, along with hints in trailers for The Hobbit, suggests that those who love Tolkien’s work had cause for concern again.
For Jackson is a good artist. Whatever he did to Tolkien’s vision in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey—however much he did or didn’t undermine it—I expected him to do it with good art. Good filmmaking.
That was the complex state of my thoughts and emotions as I sat in the theatre awaiting the film. As it turned out, however, both my hopes and fears were too extreme. As a fan looking for entertainment, the film was for me a mild disappointment. And perhaps because it achieved so much less than I expected, it also did less damage.
If you want to know what I actually thought… proceed to Part 2.
Learn more about guest writer Matthew Dickerson at www.matthewdickerson.net.