CINEMA: News Weekly
New cinematic trilogy for Tolkien fans
, February 2, 2013
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 3D (rated M), is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Ladies and gentlemen. The latest ad for Tourism New Zealand is here. Yes, it’s Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a 3D film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (part one of three).
It is a clever exercise in fabulism and mythology, of ancient virtues and ancestral vices, where stories are constantly told and re-told, pre-figured and re-presented, that builds upon the novel on which it is based, adding echoes for weight.
Martin Freeman as the quiet, peace-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins.
The framing device is that of the ageing Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) writing his story for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) before the birthday party that starts The Lord of the Rings. It’s about how, 50 years previously, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) — still “The Grey” — his true powers and identity unknown, arranges for the visit of some dwarfs to Bag-End for dinner with the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) for the purposes of an adventure.
The dwarfs are led by the smouldering Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), last King Under the Mountain. Their quest is to regain their kingdom and their gold from the grasp of its new inhabitant — Smaug the dragon. There is also Middle Earth inter-racial power politics, rumours of a Necromancer, dark forebodings, Orc packs and goblin kingdoms. And Gollum (Andy Serkis), as demented as ever and keen for riddles. It is recommended to keep an eye out for the interesting array of other actors who appear in all sorts of odd roles.
The tone is lighter and gentler than that of the saga-inspired Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is a nicer, nuttier, more child-like tale — a bit more fun than the fierce high seriousness of The Rings trilogy. The songs, in particular, are marvellous and worth singing in pubs.
The cinematography is the same swooping New Zealand advertising-style that characterised the first trilogy — except this time it’s in 3D. Peter Jackson has a very old-fashioned approach to image-crafting, meaning that the audience should have some clue about what’s going on.
Early reports suggested that the visionary, but barmy, Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, was slated to helm this film. Sadly, that’s not to be; but his prominent naming in the credits shows that his “creative DNA”, with its trademark delicacy and intricacy, has not been neglected.
The critics have not been overwhelmed by this movie. Their eyebrows are raised by the expansion of a single novel into a cinematic trilogy, and the shift from tale to saga. However, this is done quite cleverly, by incorporating material from the rest of the Middle Earth mythology to flesh out the simple story.
But these critiques are not the most damning. The most damning go to the heart of the ideas behind Tolkien’s work.
China Miéville, an acclaimed British science-fiction/fantasy writer, leads the anti-Tolkien crusade with a famous quote that is unprintable in this periodical. Similar views are presented in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, although that’s more deliberately anti-Narnia, than anti-Middle Earth. The most recent contrast is provided by George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, adapted for HBO-TV as the ridiculously critically and commercially successful A Game of Thrones.
These approaches are praised for their “grittiness”, their “realism” and their iconoclasm. Their aesthetic is that of subversion, upset and discomfort. Unsurprisingly, their politics are revolutionary and their religion anti-clerical. This is far from the traditionalism of Tolkien, but it also misses the point of poetry — literally “making”.
As Tolkien himself argued in his essays, “Mythopoeia” and “On fairy tales”, poetry is about sub-creation, the making of something new from that which already is. Rather than being subversive and aiming to undermine, they are superversive and seek to build. Tolkien, following G.K. Chesterton, saw this as the essence of story-telling, that in it are played out the grand dramas that swirl around human experience, re-imagined in as many ways as there are imaginations, but still appealing to the same fundamental notions.
The popularity of these anti-Tolkien works stems not from the ways in which they conflict with their master, but how they echo him. A Game of Thrones is complex and audacious with many contorted characters. Although unrealistic in its depiction of the political realities of feudal culture, it gives the appearance of realism by the pseudo-history it draws on, much like Middle Earth. As well as this, it appeals to same visceral conflict between Good and Evil as does The Hobbit, even if the conflict seems more grey.
The point is, to borrow some words of Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, just as “the just man justices”, and “kingfishers catch fire”, so Truth, Goodness and Beauty will always resound in our hearts, whether they come from man or dwarf — or hobbit.