From one perspective, it’s ironic that the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books have been so successful; they owe their success to technological progress, and yet an argument against such progress is one of their underlying themes.
Rambling along country roads in England, for instance, was much better in the past. Back then, as you meandered about, puffing on a brier pipe, the world was a sunny paradise. Birds chirruped; cows chewed cud contemplatively; and portly farmers grunted surly, friendly greetings. These days, some chump in a Land Rover will no doubt mash you into the nearest clump of gorse, upbraid you in crude “estuary” English, and speed off.
In Britain during the past century, there was no shortage of people who could tell you how things were sliding downhill, fast. The past was better, merry, mirthful; dirtier in some respects, but good, honest dirt for all that. And we, with our plastic flowers and cement grass, have left our soul behind in yonder merry medieval ditch.
I have always found this narrative fairly hard to fathom. Tooling around in medieval times, wooing the odd damsel, and banging out a few ale-drenched Chaucerian stanzas may sound great fun, but on closer examination of only a few historical statistics, the Chaucer and the damsels pale into insignificance. Fact is, if you were around in ye olden days, you would probably be dead, since child mortality rates were astronomical. Other illnesses were so little understood, they didn’t even have the right names! (Anyone for the bloody flux?)
The reverence for a supposed golden age ruined by progress is a recurring theme in human history. The Romans had it, no doubt the guys before the Romans had it too. J.R.R. Tolkien, whose children’s story The Hobbit has now been adapted to the screen as a trilogy by Peter Jackson, also subscribed to this philosophy, along with his contemporaries, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Dorothy L. Sayers, and C.S. Lewis. As the twentieth century progressed, Tolkien would be embraced by the alternative society as a sort of prophet of doom, accurately predicting the harrowing bleakness wrought by modernity.
To this day our hemp-wearing chums will knowingly roll their eyes and talk—at length—about Tolkien’s prophetic abilities (in theme, at least). Machines ravaged the earth only a handful of years after he wrote The Hobbit, in the carnage of the Second World War, they pronounce. But machines are operated by people. Human cruelty can be catalogued as far back in history as you want to go. The twentieth century has no exclusive rights on the charnel house.
And, most tellingly, neither of Tolkien’s books that have now been adapted into live-action features, The Hobbit or its cinematic precursor The Lord of the Rings, would have been possible without advancements in film production. Both were turned into feature animations of varying success in the 1970s, and John Boorman had long planned bringing the latter to the screen in the same decade, but it was technological progress that allowed Peter Jackson, et al to successfully tackle such densely—and idiosyncratically—crafted works of fantasy. Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a rousing success, hugely popular with both audiences and critics, garnering billions of dollars at the box office, with the final film, 2003’s The Return of the King, sweeping the Oscars. Jackson and his films put the fantasy genre on film culture’s map.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Before Jackson’s trilogy, fantasy in film had been about as cool as a tweed g-string. When I was young, it was, speaking bluntly, rubbish: fascinating for the Dungeons and Dragons set or habitual devourers of superhero comics, but to be avoided like the plague by people with any taste (I can say these things—I used to belong to the D and D set). But the Lord of the Rings films changed something, and people started talking about not just them, but also the fantasy genre, in hushed, awed tones. For better or worse, the genre and its fans owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Jackson and technological wizardry.
This tradition of marrying fantasy with high-tech hermetics and portentous narrative continues in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which promises to be the first part of a new trilogy, fashioned from a book that a particularly slow reader could devour in a lazy afternoon. Despite his initial protestations, Peter Jackson returned to the director’s chair vacated by Guillermo Del Toro, whose sole contribution seems to be an afterthought-like screenwriting credit. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a dense picture, but perhaps not as densely conceived as it could have been (the original plan only included two installments). It neither disappoints nor enchants. If anything, it leaves the viewer wondering what all the fuss is about Tolkien.
I have recently watched Fellowship of the Ring, and found it once again to be utterly delightful. It remains my favorite of Jackson’s Ring Cycle, mainly because I love the quaint, rather English scenes set in the Shire before the plot kicks in. The Hobbit, judging from its advance publicity, promised more of the same. And it delivers. To a point.
The Hobbit opens with not one but two prologues, the first showcasing how Erebor, the greatest dwarf kingdom in Middle Earth, was overtaken by the treasure-hungry dragon Smaug, forcing the dwarfs into a nomadic existence. The second works, assumingly, as a bookend to the earlier films and a narrative device connecting them to The Lord of the Rings, as old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) sits down to write his memoirs. This takes us back to sixty years previously, when Gandalf, once again played by Sir Ian McKellen, who knocks on the younger, and much more timid, Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) door to enlist him on an adventure with 13 dwarfs, who want to reclaim their mountain kingdom from the dragon. The dwarfs (I refuse to use “dwarves,” Tolkien’s in-universe plural for dwarf) are led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who remains unconvinced of Bilbo’s talents, which Gandalf says will make him useful as a burglar. Hesitation, though, is overcome by all parties involved, and the group set off on their quest, in which they come across elfs, goblins, and many other creatures, the knowledge of which once assured the relative longevity of my virginity.
Peter Jackson, who, along with Del Toro, also wrote the screenplay with long-time collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, has put together a fine, if uneven, almost paradoxical, film. The Hobbit is long and feels long, but it has a new challenge for the characters every few scenes. Tolkien’s original book is highly episodic, but Jackson overcomes this with a deft, natural-seeming touch. Having said that, the film leaves one with a sense of incredulity. Unlike The Fellowship of the Ring, whose titular band ends up in tatters, The Hobbit comes to a close, after almost three hours, just as it is revving up.
Indeed, so much of the film is filler that it amazes me to hear there will be an extended version for home video. Short of having the dwarfs sing the full version of the Lonely Mountain song (which is, admittedly, a terrific moment) or showing the fat dwarf wiping his arse, one wonders how a film that spends ten minutes showing a wizard trying to resuscitate a hedgehog left anything on the cutting room floor.
The film has many high points, though: Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo: the sense of underhanded sarcasm in his delivery of even the most sincere lines is welcome in a series devoid of such thespian frivolities. Sir Ian is equally delightful as Gandalf, thanks to a higher screen time than he had as Gandalf the Grey in Fellowship.
The film’s scope is perhaps even greater than The Lord of the Rings, if not wholly logical (at one point the group is in the middle of verdant greenery, in the next cresting a snowy mountain overpass). Accompanied by Howard Shore’s instantly hummable main theme, the visuals are stunning. The effects look magnificent, especially during the Erebor scenes in the monologue as well as a later battle between stone giants. Even Gollum (Andy Serkis) looks much better than he did in the earlier films; the game of riddles he embarks on with Bilbo is the film’s single most wonderful sequence.
In the end, though, Jackson’s film remains a bit of an enigma. It cannot be dismissed as either a vanity project or a mere commercial endeavour. It’s grand, yet it also feels small. More than that, though, the film’s central philosophy is muddled. It advocates leaving one’s creature comforts behind and venturing out into the wild, and yet its reasoning for this, in Jackson's interpretation, remains the eventual restructuring of a once-stationary order. The film argues for progress, only to inhibit its natural inclination: the destruction of boundaries. What’s best: localization or globalization? At least Tolkien and his kin thought the old ways were better. Jackson hasn’t quite made up his mind.
Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents. Ali is also a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Slant Magazine’s official blog. Occasionally, he updates his personal blog Cerebral Mastication. In addition, his writing appears on various film and pop-culture sites on the blogosphere. He also believes in the transformative potential of Twitter.