I hated The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
It provided a highly-enjoyable evening out with my son (he’s twenty-six — the film is far too long and intense for a youngster), and it is a movie I need to see at least once more in the theaters, for reasons I’ll describe in a moment. Taken entirely on its own merits, it’s a solid film, pulling a 75 on Rotten Tomatoes.
But it isn’t The Hobbit.
I’m not sure that Peter Jackson quite understands what it is about Tolkein’s work that has captivated so many readers for generations; or perhaps he understands perfectly well, but it isn’t relevant.
I used to be in the habit of re-reading the Lord of the Rings every Autumn, about the time Bilbo would get his urge to go wandering in the wide world, and what brought me back every year was not the story, compelling as it is. It was the writing.
Tolkein has a distinctive voice, and enormous range, spanning from the prideful tone of Denethor, Steward of Minas Tirith, fencing words with one of the last Wizards of Middle Earth at the ruin of an age, down to the crusty homespun opinions of The Gaffer in The Shire, scolding Frodo for running off with strange folk when he ought to have been home looking out for his neighbors; from high poetry in the style of Gondor (and the language of the Elves), to the Inn Beneath the Old Grey Hill sung in Bree. Tolkein’s descriptions are rich with a love of detail, of texture, of light and smell: he doesn’t merely do the “world-building” that so many poor fantasy writers obsess over, nor merely the “cinematic” visualization that better fantasy writers cultivate (hoping for movie residuals); he draws us into that world so that we are living the experience with the characters.
It’s the writing.
Now, the biggest difference between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is in the tone. Few readers have missed this, and many who love Lord of the Rings do not like The Hobbit, and vice versa, because the tones are so different. Though they cover some of the same characters in the same mythic world of Middle Earth, they are entirely separate kinds of literature.
The Hobbit is told as the memoirs of Bilbo Baggins, penned in his own hand in his red-leather-bound diary, which Bilbo originally entitled An Unexpected Journey, and later thought of retitling There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Holiday. As part of Tolkein’s enviable dexterity as a writer, the tone of The Hobbit is consistent with Bilbo’s title: it is the light-hearted jaunt of a light-hearted (and light-footed) Hobbit, though it involves nearly getting stewed by trolls, imprisoned forever by goblins, sucked dry by giant spiders, roasted by a dragon, and killed outright in a bloodbath called the Battle of Five Armies, to say nothing of the unpleasant incident with Gollum.
The charm of The Hobbit is not really the story, delightful as it is — the charm is Bilbo. It is his way of looking at this horrific year-long nightmare of serial calamities as a Hobbit’s Holiday, and that charm comes through in the style of the writing.
Peter Jackson has dragged The Hobbit, screaming, into the literary style of Lord of the Rings. More correctly, he has dragged The Hobbit into the cinematic style of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film. In doing so, he has crafted what might be, on its own merits, a decent film about Hobbits.
But it is not The Hobbit.
So I’m going to get unpleasant for a moment here.
I visited a friend for a week in a place called Asbury Park, New Jersey. Before air-conditioners were invented, Asbury Park was a thriving seaside resort town that served mostly middle-class and blue-collar workers in Manhattan, who saved vacation time and spare change all year long to get out of the City for the hottest week of the summer. When air-conditioners came along, Asbury Park started to die. By the time I visited, sometime in the 1990’s, it was a burned-out shell of a city, full of boarded-up storefronts, crack houses, half-finished construction projects rusting in the coastal humidity, and street people who had been turned out of the mental institutions under Reagan’s Voodoo Economics.
At one point, I went to the nearby video store to pick out some videos for the evening. They were well-stocked with only two genres of videotapes: ultra-ultra-violent action, and triple-X pornography. It’s what their customers wanted, so that’s what they stocked.
This is a fair metaphor for US filmgoers in general. They want — we want — ultra-ultra-violent action, and pornography, usually both at the same time; we get impatient with anything else. It’s what the customer wants, so it’s what the US film industry provides.
A US film director could try to make The Hobbit and stay true to the tone of Bilbo’s account. But that attempt would guarantee financial failure. In fact, the more closely it hewed to Bilbo’s tone, the worse it would do in the theaters. This has nothing to do with the limits of visual media — it’s about the tastes of the US mass film market.
The US masses aren’t interested in The Hobbit, or anything like it. So it isn’t really reasonable to expect a big-budget film version of The Hobbit that is anything like the book.
That said, I was saddened by some of the things that were added, and the things that were left out. Jackson (and screenwriters) added a whole collection of subplots that appear in The Hobbit as only a line or two, such as driving the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur, and cut a great many other of the most charming sequences in the book. I was really looking forward to Gandalf’s little trick of introducing the dwarves to Beorn the Skin-Changer (who did not like Dwarves at all), but this was completely cut from the film, as was Bilbo drawing the spiders away from the dwarves by insulting them. That the dwarves ended up in open heroic combat with Smaug was completely out of line, yet utterly predictable.
So if you’re going to see this film — and I would, in the end, recommend it — just pretend you’ve never read The Hobbit: that’s the audience it was intended for.
Now, I was going to mention why I need to see it again. My son and I intended to see one showing, but it was sold out by the time we got there, so we bought tickets to the next showing and went to grab some nachos and beers at Old Chicago. The next showing happened to be in a 3-D theater.
The 3-D screening I saw was very odd.
I’m not enough of a film geek to know the right terms to describe the “studio lighting” you often see in British tele dramas: flat, even fill-lighting that drives out shadows and makes everything look like a live stage production. It’s particularly visible in old television shows and films where an “outdoor” scene is actually done on a set, indoors. Think of The Wizard of Oz (the old Judy Garland version), where they walk through the woods on the yellow-brick road, or sheriff Matt Dillon gunslinging on the set of Gunsmoke.
The colors were also muted and “cool”, meaning they had a bluish cast similar to the flashback scenes in the recent Man of Steel film. I think that part may have come from the 3-D glasses.
The overall effect was pronounced enough to be annoying, though the result was to make the CG characters, such as the orcs, look more real than the scenery: like they’d gotten a bunch of impossibly ugly, misshapen actors to put on loincloths and shamble through a stage set. I’ve seen previews and stills of this film that have more normal cinematic lighting, so I suspect it was either the 3-D process, the glasses they handed me, or perhaps the theater equipment.
So I need to see this again in a 2-D theater.