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Merchants, Miners, Tinkers, Toymakers and a Hobbit

Some less organized thoughts about Peter Jacksons first Hobbit-film


You may want to introduce yourself to how I view and do criticism generally behind this link here before digging in. This may clarify some confusion but it may also create and intensify it. Worth a shot, still, I think.

I generally enjoyed the film so most of the points here will be rather positive. So let's take a few negative ones out of the way.

First, following what has become a Jacksonian tradition now, the film is rather quite long and at times I got somewhat bored with many of the plot elements that did not offer anything. Much of what was going on on the screen gave me the cynical thought in the back of my head saying this is all just reusing things that worked in the LotR-trilogy. Indeed, the orc-avoiding and goblin-fleeing sequences remind you of the Fellowship of the Ring a little bit too much. Yes, it is parallelism but I couldn't find a meaningful connection there, since these sequences are not really highlighting parallel points in the two separate protagonists' adventures (Frodo and Bilbo

Second, the Misty Mountain song is really nice and works well as an orchestrated part of the score, but it's nothing I imagine it to be. Sure, it's not supposed to be quite a light-hearted as the giddy kitchenware wrecking tune, but somehow here it was made to be too convincing in its artistic solemnity and its polished arrangement with soothing bass-baritones. A pinch of roughness would have made it somewhat better and created a more authentic feeling. After all, this song is a central element in the film.

Third, I don't think the film benefited a great deal from presenting such a clear and comprehensive prologue. I'm not generally fond of prologues that basically map out the primary backstory. I enjoy discovering things piecemeal, especially if there's an impression that something might have slipped by if it wasn't for the viewer's vigilance.

 

Prologue

Naturally, the film's prologue serves a function: it helps the viewer not become confused. It sets the tone for the whole film so that the audience is aware from the first steps that there is a great Middle-Earth epic of success, greed and downfall behind the dawning adventure that helps to understand the motivation for such a difficult undertaking. It helps the audience to better realize the powers that are at work and the thematic moral weaknesses that the group carries with them. And what's most important, it helps the audience to sympathize with the adventurers and their quest: it is a shortcut to that cliff where Bilbo tells the dwarves that he returned so that they might have a home.

All of this can be introduced gradually, but I guess this is riskier. Also, as the book is divided into a film trilogy, each part requires a narrative structure of its own. Hence, there need to be overarching themes together with film-specific themes so that separate films have their own conflicts and developments to deal with, and the whole trilogy has some cohesive elements and greater thematic progression in addition. It remains to be seen how all of it will open up, but it seems that the first part works rather professionally in giving the viewer a coherent film narrative in contemporary Hollywood fashion.

For example, because of the film's inner narrative structure, Jackson cannot wait for Mirkwood until Bilbo makes his first heroic deed and earns his place as one of the fourteen adventurers. In the original text, it is not until a good amount of adventure and journey before Bilbo is ready to kill a creature and take upon himself the mantel of a hero. Here, that step has to be taken earlier, in the desperate situation against Azog and his gang.

This is all reasonable and completely logical. However, I think the backstory would have served its purpose better had it been presented as part of the narrative, perhaps in the same fashion as Thorin's legendary battle with Azog was narrated by Balin. Having the film grow more organically is one of the things that would have transcended it into greatness, beyond mere coolness. Though it is pretty cool as it stands.

Now, Peter Jackson could not attempt to replicate the novel's narrative structure since the story was to be divided into a trilogy. Even more importantly, Jackson could not ignore the shadow of his LotR-trilogy. For the sake of consistency, and possibly to secure financial success, Hobbit the film had to fit seamlessly into the successful franchise from the start. The mirthful start is only momentary and the audience is invited to share the dwarves' longing for home, together with their sad memories and to prepare for conflicting motivations, desires and interests from early on. 

 

Trilogy

A popular question emerges from stretching the novel into a three-part film and it has to be faced. Why was such a decision made? To answer, we need first to deconstruct the idea that a novel corresponds to a film. Traditionally this is the way adaptations have been made, but otherwise we are talking about two very different mediums; especially regarding time, novels and films do not speak the same language. There is simply no objective criteria about how the time in novels should be stretched out cinematically. I once spent half a year reading a novel without really having any considerable pauses in the process. With some books, reaching the exciting ending, which is sometimes only one or two pages, I have intentionally slowed down the pace, reading each sentence with much consideration, perhaps returning back to check details and to anticipate the final conclusion with foresight.

The point is simple: the film has to have a clearly defined temporal length, whereas novels cannot have such duration, even though some narratives, like Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, are fictitiously told in a certain, if not clearly defined, time span. Thereby, there is no standard from which to deviate, but there are many ulterior factors that define this length of an adaptation. Perhaps the producers simply thought that there is demand for three films and the fact that enough material might be gathered up was simply self-evident. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is not a particularly long novel but apparently there is enough going on to make a 6-episode miniseries with no dull moment and to have most readers heavily criticize film-versions for crucial omissions.

Indeed, it may be that it just became impossible for the writers to preserve the most central elements of the source in squeezing the material into just one film and perhaps the success of Jackson's LotR-trilogy and his experiences in that enterprise provided essential motivation for the decision to have not only two films but three.

Whatever the actual process of decision making and the different motivations and arguments have been, I will concentrate in analysing the film “after the fact”. It is the first part of the trilogy for whatever reason and it is analysed as such. It is not analysed against any idea of a “normal” adaptation from the novel into a single film, because we could just as well have a mini-series.

 

Themes

In Middle-Earth lore, the rings given to dwarven kings made them greedy of gold and thus prepared their downfall. This theme of greed is solidly established in the film's prologue and together with racial enmity and stubbornness is likely to grow into the central theme for the whole trilogy. Gandalf gives a small speech in Rivendell about the power of ordinary, small acts of kindness and good will. On the other hand, in Tolkien, the great virtue that the Hobbits seem to represent is moderation and decency, traits that stand against greed (in The Hobbit) and megalomania (in Lord of the Rings). Yet, going into the lair of Smaug, it is clearly Bilbo's pragmatic wit before all other qualities that saves the day.

The book is more clearly just about Bilbo's adventure in taking part in an adventure, while the film is about a great adventure that consists of the adventure of the dwarves, the adventure of Gandalf and the adventure of Bilbo. Everything fits together in a kind of “realistic fantasy” that has become a trend in Hollywood: the incredulous source material is given a realistic “feel”. There is an attempt to answer at least the most obvious questions that are left unanswered in original texts since the context there doesn't seem to demand any answer at all. Initially, there needs to be no “deal” with bats in Batman, he just happens to be a superhero that corresponds with that specific animal.

Dwarves are the most crucial part of the narrative in that they form the impetus itself for the adventure. Of course there are many motives from different angles. In terms of Middle-Earth as a convergence of stories, the journey there and back again serves the function of getting the great ring out in the open. From a narratological point of few, the adventure serves to create and develop Bilbo Baggins. 

 

Bilbo

Martin Freeman embodies an English Everyman with no conspicuities and thus suits the role rather well. Bilbo is a vehicle for the reader who's supposed to be rather like Bilbo and not a born adventurer from a fantasy world, so that the reader's journey in the land of fantasy is like Bilbo's journey in the same land. Shire of course is part of Middle-Earth and the realm of Fantasy, but it is also very much like a rural English countryside. Many Shire hobbits regard magic, dragons and fantastic adventures with suspicion, others do not regard them at all, and while Bilbo is not one of the more cynical hobbits, his excitement before fantastic experiences provides the proxy for the audience that also has to learn that in this world, these things are quite natural and quite ordinary.

Freeman's performance is quite solid. He does not embody the kind of comical characterization of an over-polite British middle-class gentleman that I got out of the text. Perhaps there is enough comedy in the setting itself when dwarves start to pour and the more stereotypical humour was not thought important to preserve.

To understand Bilbo Baggins better, let me write a bit about why it is quite important to label him as belonging firmly to the middle class, English nonetheless, and most importantly, why it makes sense.

First of all, we need to locate power structures in the text that refer to social classes. It is not difficult to locate English middle-class lifestyle and attitudes in Bilbo and in the Hobbits of Shire generally. They live a traditional rural life that centers around good food, peace and quiet. Discomfort, such as adventure or violence, is to be avoided at all cost.

For Tolkien, it is a post-war England where the traditional British masculinity is threatened by changing economic realities, the waning of the Empire and the experiences of modern Warfare. The golden age of the bourgeoisie is coming to an end.

Trolls, orcs and goblins are the scary working class. The three mountain trolls speak in a cockney accent and represent working class stereotypes in coarseness and physical intimidation. They are the first group of beings that the communist authoritarian power in the east, Sauron, if we want to look at the novel in geopolitical context of early 20th century Europe, uses to its advantage.

The dragon sitting on a treasure represents the nobility with its upper-class diction and sense of entitlement. That is where the greatest amount of wealth is stockpiled.

In the novel, Bilbo is basically the only character that develops. All the rest of the characters are merely representations of their races that are characterized by simple traits. The dwarves are greedy of gold, yet basically good. Goblins and trolls are simple and evil. Elves are careless, high-spirited, detached and good. This is, roughly speaking, also the case in the first film, Thorin being the primary exception as a dwarf character that develops or at least gains depth.

Ian McKellan continues with his stellar Gandalf and neither do the rest of the familiar faces disappoint, even though I have to say there was something a bit awkward with the council in Rivendell. This meeting of these great figures feels contrived in its setting, though it is made into a coherent part of the story.

 

The Dwarves

Ken Stott is one of the central actors in this cavalcade. Balin is indeed the soul of the group, the conscience, the wisdom and one of the best deviations from the book, by which I mean that Tolkien's Hobbit does not have this gravity anywhere else than in Gandalf, and when Gandalf is gone the group is more or less lost. This sagacious dwarf, as some commenter pointed out, is dwarfing like nobody's business, embodying a lot of the more respected qualities that people have come to expect from this race. Of course, in the rest of the dwarves, we also get the familiar Scottish-Irish accents, hardiness, stubbornness, quirkiness, loyalty, rarefaction, and so on, all in good moderation.

Thorin is presented as a much more solemn and 'epic' character than in the book. While many of the dwarves provide welcome humour for the journey, Richard Armitage's performance does nothing of the kind. He is there to set the genre firmly on solid ground. Here, we are obviously not balancing between a comic tale and an epic adventure.

I don't have any great problems with how the dwarves are portrayed in the film, but the one small gripe is how much many of them are human-like. Especially Thorin doesn't much feel like a dwarf at all. Appearance of height can be misleading since there are no humans at all and one easily compares dwarves with Bilbo who is very short. The shortest dwarves are actually pretty much the same height as Bilbo.

All in all, Jackson's dwarves are a diverse pack of colorful characters. Perhaps they are not what you or Tolkien imagined, but they are imaginative and they work as a story element: they are a convincing enough vehicle for the adventure and for Bilbo's character development. They are not hostile nor unwelcoming, but somehow Bilbo has to still earn their trust through an act of bravery before he can be finally accepted. His words of self-discovery before the warg-attack have only a slight effect on Thorin, perhaps a preparatory one though.

 

Azog

While one can criticize the creative directions Jackson has taken his material, he mainly attempts to make faithful interpretations. He does not bring alien elements into the story but rather reworks existing bits and pieces. In Return of the King, an orc commander Gothmog is reworked from very scarce material into a rather memorable evil character that gives life and depth to battles of Minas Tirith. Similarly, Azog the Defiler is mentioned in Tolkien's Hobbit, but only in passing as the killer of Thorin's grandfather who in turn is killed by Dain.

While I don't feel there was great need for a central bad guy in the film, it was a rather creative way to form one from an existing character in a way that does not violate the spirit of the source. Of course Jackson's Azog gets his hand cut off by Thorin in Moria and survives the battle altogether, but such a deviation is hardly outrageous even to a devout fan.

Radagast the Brown is likewise only mentioned in the source material. In the whole Tolkien mythology, there is little information to be found about him or the two blue wizards. Bringing Radagast into life and extending some of the notions about him is probably one of the most popular Jacksonian inventions among fans. It would be a great surprise if we don't see a good amount of this character in the rest of the trilogy, especially in the upcoming battle against the Necromancer.

Even though Azog is not the most colourful and innovative character in Jackson's Middle-Earth, there is still a bit of meat around the bones. The menacing pale orc apparently speaks a variety of Orkish rather than the Common Speech (English) and seeks out his vengeance with palpable pride. Naturally, he is a purely evil vicious character without any depth, as antagonists are supposed to be in Fantasy.

In terms of the Middle-Earth that Jackson has created or is in the process of creating, Azog is actually an orc that breaks 'racial boundaries'. Setting aside the paleness and stature that are the more obvious tropes of distinction, Azog differs from normal orcs in at least two important ways. First, he appears to be an independent leader with independent motives and not just following orders from above. Second, he is proud of who he is and what he represents. He is one of the two characters that speak exotic languages in the film, Elrond being the other one. Dwarf Bofur says something indecipherable to Gandalf in the beginning but that might be gibberish and explained by the axe in his head. Azog shows patience in his revenge and does not need to actually finish off Thorin himself. It is clear that the orc leader cannot break out from being evil, but he does break out from being simple.

 

Riddles in the Dark

Bilbo's encounter with Gollum is the book's culmination point. In the grand scheme of the Lord of the Rings -narrative, the discovery of the Ring marks the crucial beginning for the War of the Ring, setting in motion the wheels that make Frodo's journey necessary and that endanger the future of free peoples of the West. In the journey There and Back Again it is the ring that enables Bilbo to perform heroic deeds and thus acquire the courage and confidence worthy of a hero. Geographically, the ring is found at about halfway of the journey under a mountain range that symbolizes a high middle point of the narrative.

This is the one scene that all viewers generally know to expect. While there is probably no great mystery around that part of the story, there is still a great charge of anticipation about how things go exactly. Fans who know the book well are interested in how the exchange is played out, how the characters will be positioned, how emotions will be displayed, and so on like readers of Shakespeare often are when presented with a new interpretation.

With all this, I still think it is not the scene that makes or breaks the film, if there is one at all. However, there are some crucial decision that we need to analyse.

First of all, Bilbo doesn't just find a strange object on the ground that is revealed to be a valuable golden ring; rather, we see Gollum, unaware of the hobbit, dropping the ring so that Bilbo knows it is his. As to the audience, well, it would not have been quite reasonable to assume that many viewers might be kept in the dark about the ring and its connection to Gollum given the popularity of the films and the multitude of paratextual references. So here, whether we want it or not, the narrative cannot in all practicality work exactly as it does in the novel, especially when it is read before introduction to the Lord of the Rings.

Second, the cavern is not quite dark. Tolkien's narrative makes the reader feel the surrounding darkness: its effect is accentuated in Bilbo's weak position: the darkness centralizes Gollum's home field advantage in the encounter. In the film, the viewer is not made conscious of the darkness, which makes the scene less powerful.

Third, the two characters dance around each other quite a bit. This is of course allowed and brings to mind theatrical interpretations. It creates tension in a rather primitive fashion, but it works pretty well.

 

The Ring

There have been many interpretations about the great ring ranging from nuclear weapons (or modern warfare technology in general) to narcotics.

Referring to the Greek tale of the ring of Gyges that also made its wearer invisible, we can think of the One Ring as representing freedom from punishment: a possibility to get around rules. In that sense it represents a more basic idea that the fear of punishment is what stops people and society from ditching morality and descending into anarchy. It's a kind of Kantian realization of the logic that what makes moral maxims moral is the desirability for their universality: if the subject here transgresses, then the whole structure might crumble. End does not justify the means but the means define the end.

Bilbo becomes a hero largely because he uses the ring, but this also gets him into trouble with his community. On the other hand, perhaps it is mostly the adventure itself that changes Bilbo and makes him incompatible to the Hobbit community in the long run. Then again, perhaps the ring represents mental liberation from societal control and gives the kind of emancipatory power that makes the individual impermanent and suspicious to the community.

The One Ring has brought Gollum to his present miserable state in which it is the only thing that really matters to him. While the ring is very powerful and important, Gollum, like Bilbo, is a rather small and irrelevant in the whole Middle-Earth. This absurd battle of the ring is waged between two insignificant and powerless creatures but of course there is a power structure. Bilbo is quite wealthy and he has the sword, while Gollum really has nothing and only thinks he has the ring (which cannot really be seen as a concrete commodity). Bilbo needs the ring to complete his quest, but he of course does not know this, whereas Gollum needs it because he values it for what it is. The book tells us that Gollum also needs the ring to deal with goblins but we get no such idea from the film.

So for Gollum, the Ring represents surprisingly natural means of survival and a central part of his livelihood. Initially, it means nothing to Bilbo other than that it's a beautiful and interesting commodity, but later on it starts to define him and his adventure. This structure reminds me of colonialism, where Gollum represents a native with natural resources that are ultimately taken away by means of more advanced technology, or here, a more modern disposition to riddles, as Gollum's great problem is inability to conceptualize what rules of riddling have been violated by Bilbo's unexpected question. Bilbo enters the lair almost like an explorer enters a potentially hostile native village, its inhabitant presented as primitive and erratic. The relationship then enters a phase of fair exchange, in riddling, and culminates in riches being taken away. The imperialist here looks upon the native as both innocent and fallen (Smeagol and Gollum) and thus deserving empathy for the unlucky state but also deserving to be exploited.

The native can only use his riches in a very limited way as a central part of his survival, whereas the colonizer can use them even as means of exploitation itself. This is of course a rather restricted reading of the text, but it gives an interesting angle to following the theatrical dance between the characters as Jackson portrays them.

Invisibility is quite normal in worlds of fantasy, where the implications are not always fully considered. As in Glaucon's story, we can easily imagine how Smeagol could enjoy the great power he gained through the ring and how he descended into immorality and an all-round depraved state. The ring became the trope for all the pleasures it could obtain so that in the end, going down into a cavern where nobody could take the ring away would seem like a great move, the middle-man having turned into the man itself, means into end.

Now, if we think of fairy tales, the setting of a treasure down below in the bowels of a mountain guarded by a troll or some kind of a creature of darkness is quite a common one. There needs to be no explanation about why the treasure has ended up in such a place and why there is such a creature guarding it. Tolkien does not provide comprehensive explanations in the Hobbit, but there is a fair amount of treatment of the situation. This is another example of balancing between genres and going beyond both Arthurian fantasy and folklore, and Jackson takes it further portraying Gollum as palpably schizophrenic and thus implying something more of his psychological history with the ring.

Overall, there is more tension in the novel's setting, but I must admit that the film gives much food for thought. Andy Serkis does give a laudable performance, continuing the themes developed in LotR. Gollum's huge eyes suddenly make a lot of sense down in the dark caverns that are not quite dark enough (the implied explanation is faithfulness to the novel, of course) and their cuteness is put into use although it feels a bit overwhelming.

It is a nice detail that Bilbo does lose buttons from his shirt by squeezing through an opening, even though there are no goblins involved in that scene as in the novel. His comfortable manner and rather nice looking clothes are gradually worn out so that he can become a hardy adventurer.

 

Technology and Conclusions

A great deal of discussion is going on concerning technical advances. I made the decision to see the most barebones version of the film so that I would not be distracted by technology, as 3D-films have tended to make me aware of the technical aspects and thus distracted from what's actually going on. Now I was more than happy with the simple aestheticism of Jackson's vision of the Middle-Earth, and now it's hard to imagine that seeing it with every frame and in 3D would have made a great difference. Perhaps the fully technologically advanced version would have been much more impressive, and thus made me completely oblivious of, for example, the fact that the film was rather long. It's hard to say. What I watched, however, was visually powerful enough to draw the viewer into the flow of adventure as if he was in the middle of the action himself.

Which might be the most important reason we enjoy adventure films when we do. So to abruptly and briefly conclude, the film does not in any way fall short of healthy escapism, but it's not mindless diversion at all, especially for fans of the lore. It does not actually stimulate intellectually, but it does not leave your sapience hanging either. It is an excellent fantasy adventure that might be somewhat more, but not in the framework it is set to as part of a trilogy that is part of Peter Jackson's Tolkien- films.

The greatest wizardry in Tolkien's Hobbit is the parallel evolution of its main character and its narrative timbre. What begins as a light-hearted children's tale grows into an epic adventure interwoven with various power structures and motivations. The progression goes from simple and safe into complex and dangerous. The fairy tale is not killed in this process, however: what the novel grows into is rather an synthesis between fantasy as childlike wonder and fantasy as epic narrative.

It is a pity this development does not take place in Jackson's adaptation.

 

An Unexpected Journey is a promising start to a much awaited trilogy. It does not have the grandieur from the LotR-trilogy, but it is a very good film with some shortcomings that do not seem that damning at all.

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Jaakko Häkkinen

An exhaustingly thorough analysis! I liked especially about the pieces of information about the Tolkienian England and more classical tales.

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