Seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Thursday night was so awesome stars in a ten light year radius went supernova with glee. Above all else it was a fun ride and succeeded spectacularly in transporting the viewer to another realm and immersing him deep within its geography, its history, and its cultures. I know purists will balk at some of the liberties Jackson took with the story of The Hobbit (hey, I’ve been that guy- I hated The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers when they were first released!) but if you stay calm and go along for the movie’s ride I’m convinced you will see that Jackson has captured the essence of The Hobbit by boldly applying the same faithful/idiosyncratic dialectic that made his Lord of the Rings films so satisfying. I hope it’s a mark of maturity that allows me to recognize that a film adaptation doesn’t necessarily have to lift the story off the pages of a book verbatim to be a good movie- that’s something I never bought into before, but Nolan’s Batman films went a long way in challenging that presupposition. Films and the novels they’re based on are different entities- it’s not like a film that embellishes its source material wipes that source material out of existence, but I think that’s how a lot of nerds- er, devotees- view it. Now, if an adaptation fails to embody the heart and soul of a novel then that’s one thing, but if every detail doesn’t make the cut or if some elements are altered in order to make a better film experience, who really cares (provided it’s good, of course)?
Tolkien would be the first to admit that there’s a tonal disconnect between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was written as a one-off, lighthearted children’s story, not as a prelude to an epic. Tolkien set The Hobbit within his invented world of Middle-Earth, a world he had been privately concocting for over a decade, but he didn’t extensively connect it to his wider Middle-Earth mythos- he just needed a setting so he could get to work on this story for his kids. While he enjoyed writing The Hobbit, it wasn’t the real work of his heart; the massive corpus of legends and poems about the creation of Middle-Earth and its First Age was. It was after the success of The Hobbit that Tolkien meticulously undertook the effort to place The Lord of the Rings within this wider canon, and the amazing depth of reality it conveys on even a thirtieth rereading is due to Tolkien’s painstaking efforts to honor its continuity within that canon.
The immediate problem for the Tolkien adapter who begins by filming The Lord of the Rings before moving on to The Hobbit is this marked difference in tone, style, and mythic depth. If someone were to read the two works for the first time in reverse order I can imagine him feeling let down and even wondering if the two were written by the same author. A film adaptation has to find a way to bridge all these gaps and refashion the two stories into an essential unity. Jackson’s Hobbit is fantastic because he has accomplished this by reconfiguring the novel into a direct prequel to The Lord of the Rings. By expanding its story to incorporate material from The Lord of the Rings’ appendices he succeeds in crafting a darker tone more consonant with the first three films in the franchise. The Hobbit explicitly becomes a piece of a larger metanarrative as we witness forces being set into motion that will engulf Middle-Earth in war when Sauron returns to claim the One Ring.
One of the ways this grittier tone is achieved is through exploring the antipathy between dwarves and elves in a series of flashbacks that depict the historical events that split them apart and bred such deep distrust and hostility. We saw this represented in moments of The Fellowship of the Ring but it was mostly treated as a given, leading viewers to assume the Council of Elrond needed to read Piper’s Bloodlines together before planning their anti-Sauron strategy. In The Hobbit the sheer pathos of the dwarves’ plight secures the viewer’s trust and empathy. This in turn informs the deep structure of the narrative by bleeding through not only the dwarves’ characterization but also the course of their quest: Will the dwarves seek the counsel of Elrond, lord of Rivendell’s elves? Are you kidding me? Of course not! Other forces will have to intervene for such a thing to take place.
This is a particular strength of Tolkien’s that I think Jackson captures quite well: the intervention of fate to alter what would have been had only human (or elvish, or dwarven, or orc for that matter) agents had their way. In lesser hands (and most authors and directors have such lesser hands) this is accomplished by a logic defying deus ex machina that saves our heroes in the nick of time. It’s not that last minute rescues are inherently bad, it’s the fact that the majority of these rescue devices are completely disconnected from the plot and themes of the story they are (in theory, at least) a part of. It’s clear from these types of close shaves that the author followed the course of his story for a while then, when the going got rough and it became clear that disaster was imminent, the author liked his characters too much to subject them to the demands of the story and inserted a belief-shattering, magic-unweaving means of saving their butts. Jackson depicts these interventions in ways that feel fantastic yet logical. Sure, there are a couple Attack of the Clones/(dare I admit it?) King Kong moments that begin to strain credulity, but for the most part he doesn’t shoot the audience any cheeky winks that smother their suspension of disbelief.
This brand of fantastic keeps the film from slipping into an excessive or overwhelming darkness. An undeniable tenor of lightheartedness pervades the film and makes you feel, “Hey, this is The Hobbit after all!” The culture shock of twelve dwarves whooping it up at Bilbo’s house it worth the price of admission alone, and Bilbo Baggins, prototypical British bourgeois buffoon, mines comic gold as the well-mannered but clueless fop who is ever and always in the wrong circumstance and wrong society once he leaves the Shire. Slapstick and absurdly awkward British humor abound in the film, as well as… singing? Yes, singing! The songs of the novel find their way into the film both to preserve that fairy tale aura of the original story and to flesh out the simultaneously crude and noble cultural identity of the dwarves.
In watching any movie the believer should take care to scrutinize the worldview embodied in the story, and The Hobbit is no different. Tolkien, a committed Christian, did this very thing in his analyses of medieval texts and would have demanded no less with his own works. We have to be careful not to stumble down the path of allegory in our search, though; first, because Tolkien himself cordially “dislike[d] allegory in all its manifestations” (his own words), and second, because 97.88883% of the time it’s just plain unreliable and boneheaded as a key to interpretation. Instead, let’s simply look at the story and explore its logic to answer the questions we bring to it.
So, where is God in The Hobbit? If we leave allegory by the wayside we’re able to discern some vital clues. He isn’t hidden offscreen somewhere, limited in His reach or power to act; He is transcendant above the fallenness and the chaos of Middle-Earth, though its beauty (the film’s visuals are astonishingly gorgeous and open up the foreign grandeur of Middle-Earth even more than The Lord of the Rings in many respects) still bears witness to His majesty and power as creator. The silence of God in The Hobbit is really the deafness of sinful ears, just as in our primary world. To return to the earlier point about fateful intervention, the believer sees God’s immanence in the actions and planning of human, elvish, and dwarven agents He raises up and sets into motion to accomplish His will by defeating the plans of rebellious, supernatural forces and rescuing the innocent. Gandalf and Sarumann are emissaries of powers older than the world itself, handlers of ancient mysteries who set mortals into motion to play their part in the ages old contest between good and evil. We see this in Gandalf’s motives for assisting the dwarves in reclaiming their homeland, as well as in his fateful decision to assign Bilbo to the quest as its crucial final member. It’s fateful in the sense not only of decisively impacting the future of Middle-Earth, but also in the sense of being something only half-understood by mortals, of higher powers at work behind and within the intuitive choices made by finite beings. Gandalf senses potential and purpose within Bilbo that he cannot explain and that no one, including Bilbo, can sense at all. Why does Gandalf do it? Providence directs Gandalf to call upon Bilbo and operates upon Bilbo in such a way that he freely chooses to play his part in fulfilling God’s purpose. We hear behind Gandalf’s invitation the call of God to flee the soul numbing stupor of worldliness, and it is this call that American moviegoers desperately have to hear. Bilbo Baggins is comfortable in his home at Bag End in the familiar and decidedly undangerous Shire, and this love of comfort and familiarity has become his idol. He has settled into living conditions that suit him and the prospect of leaving ease and predictability behind for any length of time sounds cataclysmic to his pointy, pint sized ears. He has fallen in love with all his stuff and this attachment to his possessions has stifled empathy and concern for the world beyond his front lawn. Bilbo is addicted to inertia and anything that might upset that inertia is out of the question. Again, this isn’t allegory we’re talking about here- these are types and themes that weave together human experience in fact and in fiction. Tolkien didn’t set out to write a story about the pitfalls of Western society in the 21st century but the parallels are so crystal clear we choose to ignore the applicability at our own peril.
The film isn’t heavy handed in its lessons, though, so the film’s fun is never stifled in order to deliver THE MORAL OF THE STORY or other such tonal failures. Instead, The Hobbit is a picaresque water slide into another world with sights, sounds, and theological ramifications as genuine and as crucial as our own. So, you know… go see it, already.