So I went to see The Hobbit yesterday. And there’s a lot to say. Some of it could also be said about the novel, too, and has been said before, better than I could. So let’s leave that aside—
(Though I want to interject here: let’s not be afraid to unpack. That was the word we used for it in grad school: unpacking a book. When you turn the story upside down and shake out all the things unsaid and implied, good and bad, the themes and the repetitions and the prejudices and the great leaps. Everyone, everything has stuff to unpack. It doesn’t mean a book is not-great, it doesn’t mean a book is bad. It can, however, mean that we all become a little more compassionate and informed by having such discussions. It’s part of what literature should do.
Now I haven’t been reading much fiction lately because of the novel. But I’ve seen a lot of discussions about new fiction in the past year, especially YA fiction, and some of what is being tried on seems to border on minstrelry. And I think, perhaps if we all unpacked these things a little, we might produce more informed writers as well as readers—?)
What disappointed me about The Hobbit was not anything that JRR had done; it was what this movie did. I felt doubtful, going in, that there was enough in the book to warrant three movies; I know now that there is not enough in the book to warrant three movies. And in fattening up the novel as they did, they killed off some of the magic, for me—in fact they killed off the one thing about all the Middle-Earth writings that resonated with me long after I had read the books. The one thing that knocked it out of the park, moreso than the detailed worldbuilding and the lovely languages and the scope of it all.
That’s still all good. But the spark is gone.
The thing is, when you put the two works side-by-side—The Hobbit and LOTR—you have this interesting discrepancy. On the one hand, you have a kind of madcap adventure, with some dark moments but also some crazy ones, and lots of fun in between. On the other, you have a very dark saga, where even when the characters win through there’s still separation and death. (To this day I cannot read that line about Aragorn never again visiting that bit of wood as living man without getting a little tight in the throat—it’s just thrown in there, in the middle of this peaceful interlude, a reminder that whatever happens he’s still going to die someday.)
In The Hobbit, what is coming is just hinted at, in little references—and that’s as it should be. The finding of the ring has no sense of importance past the fact that it makes Bilbo suddenly useful—and that’s as it should be. It’s a hobbit-level view, a single perspective of this world.
And that, for me, was the most magical thing about the whole saga. That one small creature’s discovery, secured by that crazy riddle-game and never perceived by anyone, should have this kind of snowball effect that comes to encompass all of Middle-Earth. Because of the ring, Bilbo becomes useful, and at times a savior; he turns the tide of a potential war; and he nearly drives himself mad, then puts his kin, their friends, and the whole world in life-threatening peril.
All because he picked up that ring.
Now that’s still in the movie, but the impact is blunted by the sheer volume of foreshadowing that is shoehorned in. The scale of the book, the madcapness of it, is overwhelmed by the dumped-in story of Thorin and Azog and thus we’re left with not the small beginnings of a great war but something that feels like it is a great war . . . except it’s not.
And it’s an uneasy addition, all this excess. Because in the books they’re after the gold first and foremost, and that’s why they come to Bilbo—the concern over a “homeland” is less than the desire to get their gold back before someone else does, and they’re dividing it up 14 ways, not restoring a king to his throne and treasury. Yet by the end everyone’s weeping over home as if the gold doesn’t matter. We’ve lost the charming humanity of the characters—everyone in The Hobbit always felt more rounded to me, because they were selfish as well as heroic, stupid and obstinate as well as noble and thoughtful.
What we have, instead, is a second LOTR.
And I wonder if in doing so we haven’t missed one of the points JRR was trying to make. When he started this whole project (as I understand it, in my hazy memories of his bio, and I’m too lazy to go to Wikipedia right now and besides who fact-checks Wikipedia? Who watches the watchmen?) he had survived one world war and was watching a rising threat in Germany. All the dominos that must fall in order to murder millions, they can start with innocuous things, things we never bother to pay attention to: an art school rejection, a bit of talk in a pub, an assassination in a distant country.
Or a ring, slipped into a pocket.
(Two small postscripts: what was up with the dwarves’ noses, which deserved billing in their own right—or perhaps a little, ahem, unpacking?—and if I ever, ever see another grime-splattered man roar “noooooo” in a movie, I might end up doing the exact same thing.)