Relative Sanity

a journal

Concerning Hobbits

It's December 19, 2001, and we've just seen Middle Earth in full battle gear. Hordes of orcs and elves clashed at the foot of Mount Doom, the One Ring was taken and lost, and found, and the frame has faded to black. My dad and I—and everyone else in the theatre, for that matter—hold our breath, completely hooked by Peter Jackson's incredible vision of our beloved Lord of the Rings.

We wait.

Birds sing as The Shire pulls into focus. Both of us gasp and choke like kids handed the keys to the toy shop, unable to believe what we're seeing. It's there, and it's real. The Shire, our beloved Shire, has been found and filmed and we're going to get to see it live and breathe before our very eyes.

I look over and see tears rolling down my dad's cheeks, a beatific smile on his face. I realise that I'm wearing exactly the same expression.

"Happy birthday, Dad", I whisper, squeeze his hand, and then allow myself to be lost in Jackson's wizardry.

Fast forward now to early 2013. It's late, the kids are in bed, and I'm idly flipping through Instapaper looking for something to catch my attention. My darling wife Anisa had taken herself off to bed half an hour earlier, having already been snoring on the sofa for a good twenty minutes prior.

I glance up to the wall. On it, blazing out of our forty inch screen, plays Peter Jackson's take on The Hobbit. Fire and flame lick up trees as some forgettable pale Orc challenges Thorin Oakenshield to a fight, while the rest of the company cling precariously to a burning tree hanging over a cliff.

The scene, like so many that preceded it, is recognisable from the book, but only if you squint just so, and don't mind too much that half of what is on the screen not only doesn't match the source, but also directly contradicts it. I wonder, absently, if the eagles are still going to rescue the party, or if Jackson is going to conjure rock monsters from the cliff again, seemingly to prove what a badass he really is.

No, it turns out that this is too good an opportunity for "prequel poetry", an art form pioneered by George Lucas whereby characters echo their future selves, simultaneously cheapening the grandeur of the later act, and making the current one feel more like pantomime than drama.

Gandalf, still dangling from a tree, manages to spot a butterfly, out for an evening flutter, and asks it to fetch some eagles. Again.

Why the eagles don't play a larger part in these stories when they are seemingly invincible and summonable at will has already been covered in numerous parodies. I half expect Gandalf to knowingly wink at the camera and chuckle about the in-joke.

Because the whole film has played like a parody. A supersized, hyper charged action movie parody of Jackson's own adaptation of a different book. This is not an adaptation of The Hobbit, a charming children's book written in bite size episodes, ideal for bedtime reading. No, this is The Hobbit, starring Jason Bourne, in which falling miles down ravines, being crushed by mountains, savaged by wargs and squashed by goblin kings are but annoyances. Everyone in this film is a superhero, with a backstory that hints of great deeds and grand tales. Even Radagast the Brown, a laughable character, endures whiplash injuries from his rabbit sled (I wish I was making this up) that would have hospitalised Damon Hill.

Jackson's great achievement in filming The Lord of the Rings was in what he removed, in what economies he struck. The Two Towers remains a master class in how to take a nonlinear book narrative and interweave the threads to maintain interest and momentum. Say what you like about the quality of the filmmaking and story telling in those films, the fact that they were filmable at all, and that those who weren't versant in the source material could engage and follow along, was what Jackson should be most proud of.

In making The Hobbit, his goal seems to have been the exact opposite. The Hobbit is a simple, linear, even repetitive story about the repeated courage and bravery of small characters in larger worlds. There are some lovely moments that remind us of this, but Jackson has so thoroughly mined every last nook and cranny in a bid to make everything seem important that those moments struggle for air before choking to death.

A decade ago, Peter Jackson left Tom Bombadil on the writing room floor. These days, he'd have cast Robbie Coltrane to play him, and had him dropping one-liners while facing off against the Balrog.