Home > Culture, Film > Anticipating The Hobbit: Christmas in Middle Earth

Anticipating The Hobbit: Christmas in Middle Earth

The first trailer for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movie duology hit cinemas and the internet last week, replete with helicopter landscape shots, dwarf singing, Ian McKellen back in full-on Gandalf mode, and Martin Freeman Bilbo-ing avuncularly. It looks, sounds, and feels for all the world like an old friend: Jackson’s own mega-successful Lord of the Rings films, which defined an era in Hollywood blockbusters. And yet these two movies cannot ascend the heights of the earlier three, by their very essence.

Still sharp.

This was ever my concern about a cinematic take on The Hobbit coming after Rings, especially a full decade later. Namely, that the later adaptation of Tolkien’s earlier work would not only come across as weaker and anti-climactic, but that it would do so while snatching at the established rings (pun perhaps intended) of the earlier glories. New actors, new narrative focus, and 3D aside, The Hobbit is most certainly evoking the existing film trilogy and, more than anything, its marketable success in this trailer, and we’ve not even glimpsed half of the brief cameos by beloved LOTR characters yet.

But The Hobbit is still The Hobbit, a perfectly enjoyable but slight travelogue of a children’s tale with a rather more mildly comic tone to its plucky hero’s adventures. The Lord of the Rings took shape in Tolkien’s manuscripts while a cataclysmic war shook the foundations of civilization as he knew it, crushing his simpler and more innocent narrative of the same world under its epochal weight. In much the same way, Jackson’s sprawling film trilogy will undoubtedly dwarf (pun perhaps intended) its subsequent two-film prologue-of-sorts, obscuring The Hobbit‘s own likely merits not merely under a long shadow of numerous Oscars and a billion dollars in grosses, but also under Rings‘ greater moral seriousness and sociopolitical applicability.

By the juxtaposition of Tolkien’s eternal, essentially conservative themes and the current affairs of the first years of the new millenium, Jackson’s Rings films gained a cultural currency than they would not have otherwise had if there had not been a considerable faction in American politics and society that felt there was something to be gained by encouraging a clash-of-civilizations siege mentality in the populace in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The other fantasy phenomenon of the period, the Harry Potter books and films, belatedly came around to similar metaphors, but their qualities of modern tolerance and subcultural implication (what are Death Eaters but goths gone too far?) dulls the edge of their Manichean mentality.

Tolkien offered the genuine article in LOTR, a vision of familiarly British limited liberty challenged by the complete tyranny of an evil which is ugly, permanent, and unapologetically alien. And by alien, one always means foreign. Jackson and his team, dedicated to fundamental faithfulness to the spirit of the books if not always the precise word, cannot really be blamed for the politics that their accurately-adapted films buttressed in public discourse. They very expertly gave us what Tolkien meant to give us, in his scholarly British Catholic way: a blueprint for humble resistance to unfathomable evil, where humility belongs to white Britons and evil to almost everybody else.

This sort of ponderous gravity attracts the Academy, to say nothing of the legions of media critics who pre-condition the Academy’s decisions with their lockstep praise. The Hobbit has little to offer in this vein, however. Its villains are not ever-vigilant and ineffable like Sauron or supremely tortured and tragic like Gollum (though both appear in the book in minor roles). They are knobbly, nasty children like the trolls and goblins, sarcastic, greedy serpents like Smaug, or stern step-parents like the Mirkwood Elves. These are hardly the nightmare images that blight our dreams and confound our waking days. Best Picture? Hardly likely. Impressive takings and some respectable technical awards at Hollywood’s night of prestige distribution seems like the most that can be expected for these films. Not that a film’s worth is entirely decided by such things, but the crowning Oscar night triumph of The Return of the King looms large in its cinematic mythos.

Fortunately, PJ looks more like PJ now.

Ultimately, beyond any such considerations about The Hobbit falling short of The Lord of the Rings onscreen, it is as a continuation of the legend of these films that it is most worthy of anticipation. John Updike once called Franz Kafka “the last holy writer”, and to some extent, The Lord of the Rings could be called the last holy movie. In a movie industry so thoroughly saturated with cynical and increasingly desperate marketing-first ideology that even completely non-narrative board games are now “inspiring” expensive smash-up blockbusters, Rings evoked a handmade feeling, an old studio-system craftsmanship and passion that is not only rare but impossible to fake and even more impossible to replicate. Much of this impression was simply image marketing, of course, but the Extended DVDs that spread this message could not hide the obvious dedication, almost selflessness, that Jackson and his army of collaborators displayed in making the trilogy. That the films were so visually rich, emotional textured, and enormously entertaining and absorbing surely didn’t hurt either.

Although The Hobbit, in my view, always had less going for it than Rings did, the promise of further tales from the exquisitely detailed onscreen Middle Earth of Peter Jackson and Co. is difficult to resist indeed. Like many fanboys, I will always wonder what Guillermo Del Toro would have done with the material and lament his departure from the project; an imaginative Del Toro vision of Middle Earth would have surely evaded the trap of rehashery that will still plague Jackson. But it’s hard not to see those familiar sets and costumes and images and to hear a few snatches of what is sure to be another smashing Howard Shore epic film score and not get excited at a visceral film fan level. Part of that is this time of year, which was marked and, for me, forever refigured by the Solstice-timed release of the original trilogy, and soon of the two prequels. What a perfect time to release the trailer, after all. There’s no Christ, and therefore no Christmas, in Middle Earth, but Jackson’s films set there feel more like the season aspires to feel than the tacky, mawkish neon monstrosity that we’ve built up in this culture. For all of my doubts, this small glimpse of The Hobbit feels, once again and at last, like home.

Categories: Culture, Film

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