Seeking a Better Country Than Middle Earth

Seeking a Better Country Than Middle Earth December 14, 2012

A Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Directed by Peter Jackson


I previouslyblogged about the surprising darkness and pessimism in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit. That book is often mistakenly called a children’s book, and even though there is nothing childlike about its tales of genocidal war and cynical realpolitik, it will continue to be considered beloved work of fiction no matter how it is labeled. However on second reading I found it to be uneven, episodic, and featuring thin characters with an abrupt end to the dragon.

Watching Peter Jackson interpret J.R.R. Tolkien is like watching a master jazz impresario play Beethoven. The original is classic; the interpretation as a new work is equally brilliant. Jackson’s new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (the first in a projected trilogy) departs from Tolkien but gains from the divergence. Jackson’s Hobbit is a splendid film.

The film follows (as anyone not hiding in a hole knows…and, come to think of it, even those in holes ought to know too) Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of Bag End, on his unexpected adventure with Gandalf the wizard, Thorin Oakenshield the dethroned dwarf king, and his band of a dozen dispossessed comrades on their quest to slay a dragon and retake their homeland.

In Tolkien’s original, the dwarves are driven by greed, vengeance, and honor. They want their gold and they want to kill the dragon—and, as an afterthought, rebuild their lost kingdom. In the movie, Jackson wisely foregrounds the political motive, turning The Hobbit into a story of national liberation by an aggrieved and stateless people. Thorin utters “We must seize this chance to retake our homeland!” or some variation of it a dozen times or more during the movie. These dwarves are soldiers, not mercenaries; Jackson downplays the commercial motive–even suggesting that Thorin’s grandfather’s greed presaged his downfall.

Jackson’s Hobbit is thus a story of returning to a lost homeland. The dwarves are in the position of the heroes of faith of Hebrews 11:13-16. “They were strangers and exiles on the earth…they are seeking a homeland…they desire a better country.” Some of the more poignant moments in the film emerge from the dwarves’ sense of homelessness, of lacking roots, of not belonging. Home is a place of rest, belonging, and family. To lack a home is to be restless and alone—a universal experience that the Bible affirms is true and rooted in our spiritual homelessness in this world. For Christians, the only true home is heaven.

The other effective moments in the film arise from Biblo finding the courage and purpose to join and stick with the quest. Here Jackson is true to the spirit of the book, as Biblo’s growth is central to Tolkien’s original. There is, however, a difference: Jackson front-loads a few of Bilbo’s major crises—necessarily so, since he only handles the first third or half of the journey. In doing so, he actually improves on the book.

In the book, Bilbo pretty much stumbles into the quest with no moment of decision. The reader may be forgiven for thinking that Bilbo is on the adventure simply to please the requirements of the plot. The moment he shows agency comes later in the mountains and in Mirkwood. In the film, Biblo makes a very conscious choice to join the dwarves (after initially refusing to), and as a result we get a much better sense of why he does so and what it costs him. This yields the film’s best lines. Late in the adventure the dwarves complain that he is homesick and not really committed to the quest. He admits to missing home, and then says, “That’s why I’m helping you. Because you have no home. And I’m going to help you get it back.”

I’m stretching a bit here, but Biblo reminded me faintly of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabitess whose mother-in-law, Naomi, was an Israelite. After their husbands die, Naomi embarks on a journey back home to Israel. Ruth chooses to accompany her. She could have stayed home in Moab, but chooses instead to make a new home with Naomi. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you,” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Biblo doesn’t quite go that far. But he leaves home and risks his life to help Thorin and the others find a new home—a magnificent picture of loving one’s neighbor. His growing loyalty and friendship to the dwarves is the best part of the film.

If you liked the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you will like this movie. It isn’t quite as well paced (the first hour drags a bit, and the movie feels like it has two endings). Don’t expect pure fidelity to the book: Jackson takes almost as many liberties as his did with The Two Towers. And, if you want to catch all the nuances, it will help if you read Appendix A.III to Lord of the Rings, from which Jackson draws out (and embellishes upon) some sub-plots. Finally, on a technical note, I saw the film in the full 3D, 48 frames-per-second format. The 3D didn’t do much for me, but the 48 fps was gorgeous. Find a showing in this format if you can.

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