The Hobbit, or Madly in All Directions

The trouble with the internet is that it’s all too easy to feel you’ve been to see a film even before you set foot in the cinema. Having spent the last week or so bombarded with information and opinions about The Hobbit pt. 1, it was almost an anti-climax to be settled in a seat at the local cinema, waiting for the film to begin.

And before you ask, there will be no discussions of cinematic technicalities. I saw the film in 2D on the poky second screen at my local cinema, because that was what was available. The cinema was less than half-full and the proprietors presumably thought that The Life of Pi would be more popular (tigers, oh my!). I am not as upset about this as you might suppose. I wear glasses because, among other things, I suffer from a marked lack of depth perception, and I find that my prescription glasses and 3D specs don’t play nicely together. Perhaps Erebor or the goblins’ stronghold would have been more exciting in 3D but I was quite happy to sacrifice the full experience if it meant I didn’t feel queasy and vertiginous throughout the film. (The Mines of Moria in 2D were quite bad enough, thank you.) On the other hand, I’d have liked to have seen it on a bigger screen.

However, because it is, as we know, a long film, my local cinema thoughtfully provided a short intermission part way through. It felt like going back fifty years in time though they mercifully no longer play the National Anthem at the end of the film and expect everyone to stand (and you think I’m joking, don’t you? I’m not).

So, full water bottle – check; iron rations – check. Are we sitting comfortably? We should be for we will be undeniably sitting here for some time. Cue music, roll credits, and it’s time for Back to Middle Earth I The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The Film of the Book The question, I suppose, is what should I expect of a film that is an adaptation of the first third of an average-sized book for children, and that clocks in at ten minutes shy of three hours. I was less bored in the first hour than a lot of people seem to have been but the film undeniably picked up once Bilbo finally raced out of his front door, waving the dwarves’ contract in his hand. Not quite how it happened in the novel, as I recall, when Bilbo had to be chivvied away from the breakfast table by Gandalf, hence his hatless and pocket-hankerchiefless condition, but then, this is certainly not the film of the book. In fact, having rewatched Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring last night, I was struck by how similar in many ways the two films are in their construction.

In each case, a settled and affluent hobbit is suddenly propelled out of a comfortable existence by external forces, in both cases orchestrated by Gandalf the Grey. In Lord of the Rings<, of course, the Ring itself is another external factor, but in The Hobbit, at any rate in the film, Gandalf’s twin motives in involving Bilbo appear to be a conviction that Bilbo is too settled (great emphasis is laid on his being the son of Belladonna Took, a most redoubtable hobbit, coupled with Gandalf’s distaste for Bilbo’s concern for doilies and crockery), and the need to find a species with which Smaug is unfamiliar, thus further emphasising the idea of hobbits as creatures out of myth and legend, who’ve effectively vanished out of history. That was not, I think, present in the book, but Jackson, as many commentators have noted, is busy doing infill for Lord of the Rings.

In each case, too, there is a sense of the ‘hero’ being ineffectual when it comes to surviving beyond the borders of the Shire. In the novel of Lord of the Rings, Frodo seems incapable of commanding his group of hobbits on the journey to Buckland and then on to the Prancing Pony at Bree, although he is at least able to keep moving; in the film he seems to be remarkably passive, inclined to put on the ring at every available opportunity and place himself in harm’s way. Bilbo, by comparison, is cheerfully open about his incompetence throughout Hobbit 1, and redeems himself in the eyes of Thorin through an act of physical bravery, whereas in the novel, although he was aware of his physical shortcomings, he was able to counter this through his cunning and a facility with words. That ability is only intermittently on show in Hobbit 1, most notably in Riddles in the Dark, the famous encounter with Gollum, and first, in the encounter with the trolls, except that it is left to Gandalf to split the rock and send in light rather than Bilbo’s words keeping the trolls busy until daybreak, as though Bilbo can’t quite be trusted to perform this feat alone. And of course, he can’t be. The film’s arc demands that he gradually redeem himself in the eyes of the dwarves; to do too much too soon would be to topple the story’s tower of tropes before its time. Instead, Bilbo has to go to Thorin’s aid and kill a goblin before he is worthy of notice. There is a not-fully-articulated argument going on here about the value of brains over brawn.

Rereading The Hobbit
I thought, given I couldn’t remember when I last read it, that I should refresh my memory of The Hobbit before seeing the film. And that in itself is suggestive. As a teenager I read and reread Lord of the Rings to the point where I can no longer read it at all because I still remember most of it too clearly. I probably haven’t read it in its entirety for something like thirty years. I was never particularly enamoured of the geneaologies when I was young and now, even if I were to reread The Silmarillion I could never recapture the intense concentration of the teenage reader, who could have absorbed and retained all this material if she’d so desired. And yet, although I was delighted to discover that Lord of the Rings was about hobbits, I rarely reread The Hobbit. It remained vague in my mind– a dark place, filled with woods, trolls, heavily bearded men, dwarves and, best of all, a dragon.

Coming back to it, I enjoyed it a lot more than I’d expected to, though this reading is fuelled by academic interest rather than simple pleasure. In particular, many of Tolkien’s sources are clear to me in a way they were not to my younger self. Beorn, the bear-man, the shape-shifter, is familiar to me now as a figure in Norse sagas. The dwarves are more problematic, part Nibelungen, part Disney, but I can understand more clearly why I find them so difficult. Other sources are more elusive. I knew George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin when I was a child, thanks to readings on tv, but if I made a connection between it and The Hobbit at the time, I must have forgotten it over the years. Yet, the connection is quite clear – in MacDonald’s story, the goblins live under the mountain. They hate humans, from whom they are descended, and are planning a war on them. Curdie, a miner’s son, rescues Princess Irene when she is captured by goblins, and the two of them set out to thwart the goblins’ plan, assisted by Irene’s great-great-grandmother, an ethereal presence in the novel.

Familiar too, and I’d genuinely not noticed this before, is the set-up of Lake-town, which reminds me so much of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, published in 1926. I’m thinking here not of the strange interweavings of human and faery life but of the venality of the men who run Lake-town.[1]
Indeed, the novel of The Hobbit is suffused with commercial calculation, some of which surfaces in the film. If Smaug is dead, who does his hoard belong to? There are many groups interested in it, and this much is made plain in the film. Peter Jackson makes rather more play of the irony in the fact that the dwarves, the group best known for their interest in gold, are the ones who seek a home as well, and we are prompted to believe their motives are, mostly, pure. Whether this will change in Hobbits 2 and 3 remains to be seen. The novel is, I think, more ambiguous about this matter. There is a greater sense of confusion about motives, but also, the traffic between different groups is more confused. The relationship between elves and men is built on commerce, the purchase of alcohol and, we guess, other things as well. The elves of Mirkwood are rather more hard-headed than many of those we will later encounter in Lord of the Rings Yes, they love singing and song-making, and Bilbo responds to this, but they seem more robust, more tangible, than the ethereal beauties of Lothlorien and Rivendell.

At the same time, there is a strong sense of The Wind in the Willows about this story. Bilbo’s snugly appointed hobbit hole is reminiscent of Rat’s riverside abode while the dwarves’ perception of their home underground reminds me strongly of Badger’s home, reaching back into the hillside, down through history. A certain element of the obsession with food and feasting can, I think, be traced back to this book as well.

Trouble with Dwarves
One of the mildly amusing running jokes throughout Hobbit 1 was Gandalf counting up the number of dwarves every time they got themselves out of trouble, making him not so much a wizard as a slightly harassed schoolteacher trying to keep track of his pupils on a school trip. Add that to the recent internet ‘hobbit dwarves flowchart’ and it’s clear there are too many dwarves

If anything, the film is easier than the novel, given that most of the dwarves have distinctive visual quirks, generally in the department of facial hair. In the novel few of the dwarves, other than Thorin, Balin and, because of his size and the eating jokes, Bombur, emerged as distinctive personalities. As a child I never did sort them out. To judge from the rhyming pairs of names (many of them pulled from Norse saga), but the odd number of dwarves, with Bombur almost invariably the last name, my guess is that Tolkien supposed that children would enjoy chanting the lists: ‘… and Bombur!’. Possibly I was not the child for whom this was intended.

And yet this points to a deeper problem with the dwarves, one that neither Jackson nor Tolkien himself seems able to properly address. Are the dwarves to be taken seriously, or are they intended simply to be comical? Clearly, the back story is entirely serious. The dwarves are a displaced people who want their ancestral home back. In part their love of gold, the attendant greed and desire for more, have proved their downfall in that the presence of too much gold attracted Smaug in the first place. But the dwarves are dispersed in a way that no other group is, in either novel or Hobbit 1. The Men of Dale move down to Lake-Town, the elves always retreat to the forest, and hobbits live quietly, unobserved, in the idyll of the Shire. But always they are in groups. It is the dwarves who seem to lose contact with one another all too easily.

And yet Tolkien frequently portrays the dwarves simply as a troupe of Disney characters, concerned with eating, drinking and generally messing about; this is a group that apparently doesn’t know how to conduct itself in the wilderness whereas Bilbo, used to being unobtrusive, knows how to avoid attracting too much attention to himself.

Jackson takes his cue from Tolkien with both hands, so we have extended sequences of bad table manners, jokes involving flatulence and belching and, dare one say it, a general sense of reluctance to engage with threats if they can send in the burglar first. It might almost be cowardice, but dwarves are brave, etc. It is a far cry from Lord of the Rings where, although Jackson had (lack of) height jokes, dwarf-tossing jokes and so on, Gimli was also the embodiment of courage, bravery, ferocity and, finally, loyalty to his friends. Perhaps the trajectory that Jackson plans to follow is one of a people finding self-respect again (though it must be noted that Gimli’s drinking manners remain a little messy; it must be all that facial hair).

For Children or Adults?
To go back to Tolkien’s dwarves, his uncertainty as to what to do with them seems to me to suggest a deeper unease as to what The Hobbit is supposed to be: children’s story or something else. The tone veers from rather patronising Victorian children’s story to medieval romance to Norse saga and back again. Given that Tolkien was already an inveterate scribbler of stories for his children (see, for example, The Father Christmas Letters and one has the sense that his first intention was to write something else for his children. But clearly, Tolkien got sidetracked somewhere along the way. We move from an opening assuring us that the hobbit hole was not a nasty hole (foreshadowing the abode of Gollum, perhaps) to a point where Bilbo stands at the deathbed of Thorin Oakenshield, a sequence that seems to come from a completely different story, although soon enough Tolkien pulls us back, with a ‘whether you believe it or not’.

This uncertainty seems to persist in Jackson’s film. Plate-juggling and snot jokes are interspersed with wargs, fight scenes with goblins, wargs, attack bunnies and more wargs, oh, and elves. It’s all very decorative but too often it feels like fan service for those who loved the original franchise. The battle scenes in the goblin stronghold are preposterous and at times horribly jokey considering they’re mostly about slaughter. They may be bad guys but this film frequently holds life very cheap, especially if you’re a goblin. One detects a distinct whiff of that nineteenth-century fear of the teeming masses, faceless, endlessly replaceable, running out of control at the drop of a hat, needing to be cut down to size.

But whereas Tolkien intermittently finds a sense of grandeur, mostly at the points when the story reaches back to the Norse stories, whenever the action flags for Jackson he gleefully reaches for the CGI and we have another battle.

However, there is one point where Tolkien and Jackson come together.

Riddles in the Dark
In narrative terms, the encounter between Bilbo and Gollum is a disgression from the main action, namely finding the dwarves. Bilbo has managed to conceal himself in the tunnels of the underground fortress, and is sneaking around, trying to figure out how to rescue the dwarves, when he finds the ring and meets Gollum. When he discovers the ring’s ability to render him invisible, he will use it to rescue the dwarves, but at this point no one knows of the ring’s deeper significance. Viewers of the film cannot escape the significance of Bilbo’s finding the ring; Jackson’s challenge then is to make the encounter seem as fresh and new as it would have been for a first reader of The Hobbit. Rather as I felt the first sight of the Black Riders in LOTR 1 and the encounter at the ford were test pieces for Jackson’s ability to get LOTR onto the screen in a form I recognised (though this was balanced by the embarrassing failures of the Nazgul and the Ents), Riddles in the Dark would provide some sort of measure of the quality of The Hobbit.

Riddles are an intrinsic part of Anglo-Saxon literature. The asking and solving of riddles is akin to sacred ritual, and the riddle-telling process is taken very seriously by both Bilbo and Gollum. You note how familiar they both are with the process, the ease with which they solve the first riddles, and how even when Bilbo wonders aloud, ‘what have I got in my pocket’, which is not a riddle at all, Gollum is nonetheless bound by the rules of riddle-telling to honour the question.

In the novel, it’s a beautifully constructed sequence —the dank setting, the two riddlers manoeuvring in the darkness, physically and verbally, Bilbo not sure where Gollum is, the play with words as intensely anxious as the need to know where the creature is. Thankfully Jackson stays very close to the original, and very close to the actors. No huge vistas here, just two incredibly skilful actors doing their jobs as well as possible. While the rest of the film is undoubtedly entertaining, this sequence is the moment at which the adaptation is most faithful to the book while simultaneously bringing out the drama of the story without fiddling around with it unnecessarily.

You Want Back Story With That?
Hobbit 1 (and I must stop thinking of it as Lord of the Rings: The Phantom Menace) covers the first 121 pages of a 317-page novel, and draws to a close with Thorin acknowledging that Bilbo the Burglar might be a decent sort of chap after all, something he will not do for another 200 pages in the novel. As noted, it’s a three-hour film, more or less, and there are three of them. While smearing the story of The Hobbit across three films, like butter spread too thinly on bread, Jackson is also attempting to bring together the Lord of the Rings back story and show how the situation as it pertains at the beginning of the novel came into being. It’s an interesting idea but oh, I don’t know … . It seems to me more as though Jackson can’t quite bear to let go of Middle Earth and came up with this merry wheeze to keep things going. In fairness, I doubt that this was Jackson’s intention but there is an element of fan service about the whole thing, including fan service to Jackson himself. Whereas in the three Lord of the Rings films, the cutting between storylines revealed the simultaneity of the different stories in a way that is often hard to distinguish in the novels, in Hobbit 1, the drawing together of such very disparate threads seems to generate more confusion than it dispels. Perhaps it will make more sense in subsequent films but too often I felt Hobbit 1 was struggling to keep those elements in play.

So, I enjoyed seeing the film, and I’m looking forward to the next one when it eventually shows up, but whether it is The Hobbit is another issue altogether. Not that I think it particularly matters, to be honest. Jackson’s Hobbit was always going to be different from Tolkien’s Hobbit; the interest lies in how different.

[1] Mirrlees and Tolkien lived for a number of years within a brisk fifteen-minute walk of one another’s houses in Oxford; I have never been able to find out if they knew one another, though I’ve always suspected they didn’t. On the other hand, I would be astonished if Tolkien did not know Lud-in-the-Mist. I in turn frequently passed Tolkien’s house when I was a child, without realising it. And I only found that Hope Mirrlees lived in Oxford when I read her death notice in the local paper. It was years later that I found she too lived fairly close to my family’s house.