Peter Jackson Misses the Point

This past weekend, I joined millions of moviegoers around the globe in what will doubtless become a Christmas tradition (whether we like it or not): I Hobbited.

Having now experienced Peter Jackson’s latest extravaganza for myself, I can safely say that I have very little to add to the critical consensus. The film features many of the visual and imaginative flairs that make his Tolkien adaptations so beloved, but it suffers the same storytelling and thematic flaws that make them so frustrating.

The criticism that the film feels thin and stretched, “like butter scraped over too much bread,” is a) wonderfully Hobbity and b) depressingly accurate. But that failure lies on Jackson’s doorstep, not Tolkien’s. Time and again, I found myself thinking not that the source material was too flimsy for such an ambitious, action-oriented film, but that it had disappeared altogether. To poorly paraphrase, it’s not that Tolkien’s story was tried and found lacking; it’s that it was thought too thin and never tried at all.

The bones of the original are present — Bilbo’s reticence and inertia pitted again his Tookishness and the grand lure of adventure; Thorin’s relentless drive to reclaim his family’s home, wealth, and stature; Gandalf’s mysterious nudgings that push his companions beyond the limits of their comfort, coupled with his awareness that the smallness of their mission is no impediment to its transformative powers; the brilliant duality of Gollum, where our hatred and pity for him grows with every passing moment — but they are bones upon which Jackson fastens muscles and sinews all out of proportion with their framework.

The film’s tone and style mirror the great successes/excesses of Jackson’s spectacular Lord of the Rings trilogy, leaving one with the feeling that The Hobbit‘s director sees it as little more than deep background material for his previous blockbusters. But to characterize The Hobbit as mere prologue does more than just diminish its value; it runs the risk of destroying its message altogether.

For me, the genius of Tolkien’s Hobbit, particularly in contrast with its more ambitious, more successful sibling, has always been that its protagonist is so ordinary, so life-sized. Bilbo’s adventures are as influential in the future of Middle Earth as his nephew’s, but he is blissfully unaware of that larger context. He doesn’t realize his role in the epic struggle taking place between the Light and the Darkness, and he doesn’t need to. His journey is personal rather than mythic; his virtues as applicable to everyday life (and everyday people) as they are to the Hero’s Quest.

To tell Bilbo’s story the way it deserved to be told, Jackson needed to rein in his propensity for massive and mostly unmotivated action sequences and focus more on the little, sincere moments where our hero’s growth and true worth are most clearly revealed. Instead, he doubled down, succumbing to the notion that, in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.

In fairness to Jackson, there were some wonderful moments in the “larger context” framework. Matching Gandalf’s regular absences with his attempts to sift through the rumors and rumblings of Sauron put to rest a confusion that always nagged me in the book. And I’m a sucker for any sequence that manages to simultaneously include the incomparable quartet of Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellan, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee. But at the same time, it is those very establishing moments that pull us further from the wondrous smallness of Bilbo’s story — the ordinariness that makes The Hobbit so unlike its mythic counterpart.

Bilbo is not focused on defeating the Necromancer or waging war against the Advancing Evil from the East. He is committed to winning back the stolen home of his dwarvish friends — a mission that is important to him because of the smallness of his scope, not in spite of it. His virtues are simultaneously profound and unassuming, revealing why his story is so worth telling in the first place, and why it should not — indeed, cannot — be reduced to yet another chapter of The Lord of the Rings.

As  Tony Rossi of “The Christophers” notes, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is “a classic tale of good, evil, and moral courage,” and Jackson’s meddling does not abolish that fact — but it does make it significantly harder to recognize. The louder and larger the spectacle, the less obvious (and less important) Bilbo’s modest heroism becomes. The charm of Bilbo’s adventures is that his vital role in them is so unexpected to him, but not at all unexpected to his audience. The frustration of Jackson’s retelling is that I have to endure so many unexpected (and unnecessary) adventures to watch that story of heroism unfold.

Attribution(s): Publicity images and movie stills are the property of New Line Cinema, MGM Studios, and other respective production studios and distributors, and are intended for editorial use only.

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About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • Rich

    “Bilbo’s adventures are as influential in the future of Middle Earth as his nephew’s, but he is blissfully unaware of that larger context. He doesn’t realize his role in the epic struggle taking place between the Light and the Darkness, and he doesn’t need to. His journey is personal rather than mythic…”

    Uh… how is this spirit violated in this movie? As far as I can see Bilbo still has no idea of the larger context. Gandalf and the audience does, but not the character of Bilbo. There has to be a name for the fallacy of assuming fictional characters are aware of what the audience/reader is aware of, and you are certainly doing that here. In THIS film Bilbo’s journey (story arc) is no larger than becoming accepted by the dwarves. That strikes me as perfectly appropriate.

    Certainly Jackson made the decision to keep the tone of this film at the same epic level of the LOTR films, and some who love the book will never get over that fact. However, the larger context is not entirely an invention of the film makers – indeed the bones of that context are in an appendix at the end of “The Return of the King.”

    (For the record, I believe the decision to make The Hobbit into three films, even with the added contextualization, is silly.)

    • Joseph Susanka

      Rich: The point I was somewhat inartfully trying to make in the section you quote was the dramatic (using its formal sense) difference between Bilbo’s quest and his nephew’s. Tolkien’s focus in “The Hobbit” is on the “Everyman Bilbo” — a role which is present in “The Lord of the Rings,” as well…though in Sam, not Frodo.

      A filmmaker who recognizes those dramatic differences would also recognize the difference in tone, and would craft his film accordingly. I have no problem with the validity of the extra context; it is, as you note, found in some form in the appendices. I do, however, question Jackson’s ability to weave that material into “The Hobbit” without violating what I see as the central point of the work.

      As you say, Bilbo’s motivation can be understood as the same in both the film and the movie. (I question even that, to some extent, but not vehemently enough to press the point.) But the way we as audience react to him and his motivation is much harder to “keep small” when everything else is yelling its larger importance.

      Hence, my claim that “Jackson’s meddling does not abolish that fact — but it does make it significantly harder to recognize. The louder and larger the spectacle, the less obvious (and less important) Bilbo’s modest heroism becomes.” It’s not quite as straight-forward as saying that Bilbo is or is not accurate — I thought Freeman was wonderful, subtle, and pretty much pitch-perfect — but of whether or not the film allows his particular virtues and inspiration to shine forth. And in my opinion, it does not.

      What it boils down to, in my opinion, is that “The Hobbit” slips easily into the larger context without damaging “The Lord of the Rings” in any way. But “LOTR” cannot be injected back into “The Hobbit” without doing some real damage.

  • TKDB

    Personally, I didn’t see the supposed problem mentioned here. While it’s certainly true that the movie brought out a lot more than the book did of the hints and foreshadowing of the threats that would take center stage in the LotR trilogy proper, it still on the whole felt very much like a humble, small-scale heroic fantasy story to me, in sharp contrast to the epic fantasy scope of the trilogy. I don’t think that the scenes dealing with the events that would lead to the epic clashes in the trilogy detracted from Bilbo’s humble tale — in fact, I think they did a good job of emphasizing the smallness of his quest by way of contrast. Here are these rumblings of great struggles on the horizon, and yet little Bilbo’s off on his comparatively trivial quest, utterly oblivious. The handling of the action scenes also helps here, accentuating that while Bilbo’s quest might be trivial in relation to the big picture, it’s by no means trivial in the context of his own life — quite the contrary, it’s exciting, and dangerous, and scary! While the action scenes are big on excitement, they’re still quite small-scale conflicts, nothing like the grand battles seen in the trilogy.

    All in all, I thought Peter Jackson did a wonderful job of capturing the difference in tone between the humble heroic-scale story of The Hobbit and the grand epic-scale trilogy.