Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Hobbit, Not an Elf

I went to see The Hobbit on Saturday; along with most everybody else, I had been looking forward to it for a while. Normally, I don't read a book shortly before seeing the movie, but as it happens I did re-read the book quite recently, detachable cover and all (I got it as part of a boxed set for Christmas when I was a senior in high school). The story is so familiar to me that even without having it fresh in my mind, I would have noticed the places where Peter Jackson inserted material.

I've read that most of the added scenes can be traced to material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. It seems reasonable of Mr. Jackson to tie this movie (and the rest of the trilogy) to his prior work. The Hobbit (as a book) has an entirely different flavor, a lighter and more humorous tone, than the somber Lord of the Rings; I remember having to adjust to the change in atmosphere when I first read the books. The Hobbit is a caper, but LOTR is an epic. Mr. Jackson has emphasized the aspects of the story that place The Hobbit more firmly within the sequence of events leading up to the cataclysmic episodes in the later books.

So seeing the movie is both like and unlike reading the book; it is a little jarring if you go to the theater expecting absolute faithfulness to Tolkien's story as originally written. I agree with those who think some of the scenes were a bit long. (I thought we'd never get out of the Orcs' tunnels, but I felt the same way when I read the book. And the scenes with Radagast in the forest seemed misplaced, almost as if they been transplanted from a Disney movie.)

All of that aside, any combination of Tolkien and Peter Jackson is bound to have its share of magic, and it was fun to see The Hobbit on the big screen. One thing Mr. Jackson has always emphasized is the heroic nature of the quest; in LOTR he poignantly addressed the characters' struggles to live up to the enterprise and the ways in which their adventures changed (and scarred) them. The fellowship of the ring came together to accomplish something more important than individual ambition; in serving something larger, all of its members (even the weak ones) grew. In The Hobbit, Mr. Jackson seems intent on bringing out in a similar way the noble aspects of Bilbo and his companions. Not merely disgruntled treasure-seekers, the dwarves are in search of a home and a legacy that has been violently taken from them. No longer simply their bewildered "burglar," Bilbo becomes sympathetic to their loss and their real emotional need to reclaim their inheritance.

If any young person happens to be reading this, you may not have had the experience of a book (or a movie) somehow becoming different as you come back to it over time. It's happened to me with books I didn't like the first time around (like Moby-Dick, now in my dissertation, if you can imagine) and with books I've always loved. The first time I read The Hobbit, it was simply a very enjoyable, highly imaginative fantasy. It stayed that way for a long time, but when I started studying mythology, I was able to see it and LOTR in the light of a hero's journey and to understand intellectually the story's appeal. Then a little more time went by, and wow, the stories and characters took on an even more vivid hue as I started to recognize myself and other people I know in them.

In the introductory pages of my edition of the The Hobbit are the words of a commentator, Peter S. Beagle, who states, "Lovers of Middle-Earth want to go there. I would myself, like a shot." Imagine your surprise when you finally figure out that you don't have to go there because you're there already. Tolkien's world is really just a mirror, showing us ourselves, in costume, dropped into an imaginary setting, as myths tend to do. I just recently realized how completely familiar Bilbo's conflicted nature, the respectable, tea-cake loving Baggins side, and the wildly adventurous Took side, were to me. I also share his love of meals and the comforts of home. (I had always wanted to be an elf, but it turns out I'm more of a hobbit. You can't always get what you want.)

At the movie's end, Thorin and company are standing on the eagles' rock, looking eagerly toward the Lonely Mountain, with Bilbo declaring, "I do believe the worst is behind us" (of course it isn't -- there are two more movies to go). I don't know about you, but my reaction to that was a wry and painful sympathy. They haven't even gotten to the spiders yet, much less Smaug! This is where Bilbo and I part company: if it had been me, considering all the Orcs, wargs, and trolls I had already bested, I would have been demanding that someone take me back to Rivendell, poste-haste, for some R & R, river views, and a permanent hiatus. Of course, then there wouldn't have been a story.

Thank goodness for heroes!