Friday, December 14, 2012

Bad Hobbits

My mom likes to tell the story of the time I was five years old and got so excited about Halloween I didn't sleep for a week beforehand.  Predictably, on Halloween night itself, I lasted about a block before falling asleep and needing to be carried home.

I guess I haven't learned much in the past forty-three years.

For some time, I've been looking forward to the film adaptation of The Hobbit.  With all the delays, contractual wrangles, directorial switches, and so forth, I've been kept in a state of nervous agitation for what seems like years.  And now that the movie's out and I've finally seen it, I have this to report:

It sucked.

Oh, there were a couple good parts: the riddle contest had a kind of menacing intensity, and the representation of Thorin Oakenshield, though not at all like the picture in my head of an elderly, stately dwarf, actually worked really well.  And Cate Blanchett was absolutely ravishing as Galadriel, so that was a plus.

Other than that, though, the film was lame, lame, lame.  Here's why:

1. Blockbuster Bloat.  Tolkien's novel may be the prequel to the much more sweeping epic of The Lord of the Rings, but The Hobbit itself is a small, domestic, homely tale (I use all these words with positive connotations, as did Tolkien).  Blowing this story up to not one but three three-hour movies, with endless epic battle scenes, CGI-heavy chase sequences, and 3D-friendly roller-coaster rides made no sense whatsoever (unless, of course, all you care about is making a buck).  I'd have thought Jackson, who was once a director who cared about quality, would have disdained making a movie that cares only about quantity.  But I guess once you become a blockbuster director, the things you care about change.

2. Dwarf Droppings.  In his essay "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien famously defines fantasy as the act of creating a "Secondary World," with its own rules, logic, and internal consistency.  It's okay, he says, to have magical things, impossible things, in this Secondary World--so long as you don't change the rules in midstream.  I quote Tolkien:

What really happens [in fantasy] is that the story-maker proves a successful "sub-creator."  He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter.  Inside it, what he relates is "true": it accords with the laws of that world.  You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.  The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or art, has failed.  You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

This is, alas, precisely what happens in Jackson's film.  I can accept goblins, hobbits, wizards, trolls, and all that stuff--but I can't accept human beings (or even dwarves) dropping five hundred feet on a rickety wooden platform, then being squashed by a two-ton monster, and walking away unscathed.  That's not one of the rules of Tolkien's Secondary World: dwarves are mortal, and (though hardy) breakable, so you can't do any damn thing you please with them for the sake of a really cool computer-generated shot.  But Jackson has shown himself willing to do just that in many of his recent big-budget movies, as in King Kong, where regular human beings roll around on the back of giant dinosaurs with nary a nick or scratch.  It's big, loud, dumb movie-making, and it destroys the credibility of the whole enterprise.

3. Gore, Gore, and More Gore.  The Hobbit was written for children.  The film version was made for the audience that every blockbuster film is made for these days: teenage boys (and their hapless dates). So you've got to have beheadings, impalings, amputations, incinerations, and everything else that, for some inexplicable reason, teenage boys consider really, really cool.  (My guess is they'd find it less cool if it were happening to them, but that's another story.)  Once again, in the interest of marketability, Jackson has decided to violate the spirit and substance of Tolkien's book.

4. Been There, Done That.  I loved The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy--but I don't need to see constant homages to it in The Hobbit.  Same score, same dramatic moments, same lines, same actors (including Elijah Wood and Ian Holm in particularly unfortunate and meaningless opening cameos where they try to play the parts they originally played when they were ten years younger).  Even the great Ian McKellen was rather tired and obvious as Gandalf: he's done it so well before, all he could do was repeat himself here.  In retrospect, it's a shame that Guillermo Del Toro backed out of the project and Jackson took over; a fresh interpretation might have worked better than a retread.  It might not, however, have made as much money, and I guess, in the end, that's what it's all about.

So in sum, I wish I'd learned my lesson from age five.  I'd have been a lot better off sleeping through this one.

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