WickedEye's Quotient

10/24/2014 at 20:44

The Unexpected Journey (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

Peter Jackson’s first “Hobbit” film, “An Unexpected Journey,” was a terrible letdown.

I’ve been reading Tolkien since I was 9 years old (and rereading him every decade since). I’m still in awe of Jackson, Walsh and Boyens’ monumental, staggeringly beautiful “Lord of the Rings” films. But that very first Tolkien book, when I was 9, was The Hobbit—a very different tale, in style and content, than his epic The Lord of the Rings.

The Hobbit is Tolkien’s come-hither. It is the lure,the bait that leads the enthralled reader on a romp along the paths of Middle-earth until she never wants to leave; and it is a brilliantly effective seduction, precisely because it is so very different from The Lord of the Rings.

Where The Lord of the Rings is a somber and epic tale of struggling races and their defiance of grim, looming fate, The Hobbit is a simple adventure story—one of the best ever written. Merrily plotted, tightly staged, it moves at a cracking pace from start to finish, sketching Middle-earth in sparkling tones touched with only the barest hint of the shadows to come.

So Jackson’s self-indulgent, lumbering, ungainly rewrite—his incorporation of huge amounts of material extraneous to the original plot, most prominently Azog the orc, who is mentioned in a single sentence in The Hobbit (and only in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings)—is appalling. Mutilating the seamless scintillation of The Hobbit’s storyline by splicing it with The Lord of the Rings’ appendices and The Silmarillion shows unparalleled arrogance and presumption.

Jackson’s vanity in rewriting chunks of Tolkien’s legendarium and storyline around his filmmaking is all the more appalling because it’s completely unnecessary: Thorin Oakenshield needs no extraneous super-orcs to render him heroic. His prowess as a warrior could have been portrayed by other, less intrusive means—an extended sequence of the dwarves facing the goblins, or the trolls, or even Smaug, for instance.

Jackson is a director, not a writer—and certainly not a writer of Tolkien’s caliber (so very few are). His egotistical disservice to both Tolkien and Middle-earth has lost him, permanently, the ‘Poet-laureate of Middle-earth’ crown won by his “Lord of the Rings.”

But he’s still a very good director. And nowhere is that so evident as in his casting, and especially in his casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Jackson’s ham-fisted egotism has ruined the storyline of which Bilbo is the star; but he nonetheless chose his Bilbo supremely well.

Martin Freeman expresses the duality of hobbits in a way no other actor yet has—in a way even his far more distinguished counterpart, Ian Holm, fell short of. Freeman nails every insular, disgruntled nuance of the staid and respectable Bilbo’s rejection of Dwarves and their irritating foreign ways, of Baggins’ distaste and dismay for the messiness and voraciousness and uproar and plumbing-dismantling carousing they bring to Bag End.

Freeman’s Bilbo reflects perfectly, in fact, the traditional British intolerance of ‘foreign’ habits, or indeed of anything which disturbs the mannerly, ordered rhythm of everyday life.

But Freeman also gives us the very best of hobbits/the British (there is no meaningful distinction), the qualities which shone with world-illumining heroism in the War of the Ring and in World War II. Freeman inhabits, without a second’s missed inflection, Bilbo’s willingness to brave great danger in the face of danger and discomfort and the terror of the unknown—for the sake of the irritating ‘foreigners.’

And his courage is devoid of any of the traditional trappings of heroism. Bilbo Baggins shares with Samwise Gamgee a quality which might be termed ‘heroic decency.’

Bilbo is no woodsman, no warrior. Unpracticed with weapons,clumsy on rough terrain—his chief talent, even before his acquisition of the One Ring, is the ability to go unnoticed. And to Freeman’s very great credit, his Bilbo—unlike Sean Astin’s wonderfully unselfconscious Samwise—makes sure we see that Bilbo knows that he is clumsy and unpracticed.

We see Bilbo’s knowledge of his unfitness for battle, for the company of the heroes with whom he travels. We see too that his knowledge of his deficiencies increases his fear of the journey. And we see Bilbo choosing to ignore his fear—his well-justified, entirely-founded fear.

Freeman’s Bilbo goes onward in the face of terror from the simple conviction that those whose homes were taken from them have been wronged. From the profound decency of a clumsy, unfit man who nonetheless knows he is in a position to help, and will not refuse to do so despite having opportunity to turn away—and despite knowing that it may cost him everything he loves.

This is Bilbo’s heroism, and Samwise’s…and Frodo’s, and Merry’s, and Pippin’s. A hobbit’s courage is the decency of a simple man faced with overwhelming evil—a man who knows that he is at best a farmer and not a warrior, knows that he cannot possibly win against so titanic a foe, and knows that even so he will not surrender.

A hobbit’s courage is that of small, solitary Britain, naked sword in fist, crying defiance at the gigantic Nazi war machine rolling toward it.

In this, Jackson’s hobbit’s-eye-view remains immaculate.

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