New Yorker Hobbit Review

The New Yorker Hobbit Review

The subtitle of “The Hobbit,” written by J. R. R. Tolkien and published in 1937, is “There and Back Again.” Crisp, decisive, and comforting, like the book. The first part of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”—a three-part screen adaptation—is subtitled “An Unexpected Journey,” though that does little justice to the result. Had Jackson been more accurate, he would have called it “Not Quite There Yet,” or “Still Some Way to Go.”

The story has the simplicity of folklore, but the straightness of the narrative keeps arriving at moral crossroads. Thus, when Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) turns up at the house of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the hobbit in question, and returns the next day with thirteen dwarves, who invite Bilbo to come and steal gold—or, as they believe, reclaim it—from a dragon far, far away, and to receive a share of the plunder, our hero is faced with an elemental choice: stay or go? Rest in the consolatory rhythms of hearth and home, marked out by meals and seasons, or break the pattern and take the unknowable risk? As Gandalf says to Bilbo, “The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there!”—a sly gibe, which casts an eye not just on hobbitry but on Tolkien, who had fought and seen comrades die in the First World War, and who, from 1926, preferred to ensconce himself in North Oxford, amid the book-lined walls of his own head. The world was in there.

Bilbo, of course, takes the plunge, and the merry band sets forth, toward the obstacle course of dangers that Tolkien devised. There is a trio of loutish trolls, cannibalistic by choice, but as vulnerable as vampires to the light of day; a huge subterranean fiefdom of goblins, although that is a word we hardly hear in the film, which settles on “orcs,” a less Hogwartian term; and a company of wargs—half wolves, half paparazzi—that crouch and bay at the foot of a pine tree, upon whose boughs the treasure-hunters perch. And there, more or less, the film concludes. If anything, I would have preferred Jackson—who, however noisy his films, has a dash of silent-movie showmanship about him—to be even more unabashed in his melodrama, leaving Bilbo to teeter on the brink. After all, Tolkien himself was a surprising master of brinksmanship, and “The Hobbit,” being infinitely brisker than “The Lord of the Rings,” measures out its plot in narrow squeaks. It is populated largely by child-size men: an ideal conceit, allowing child readers to dream of manly deeds and adult readers to recall, however dimly, what it once meant to have a pulse that raced like a child’s.

But there was more to the novel than that—something that squirmed in the murk of its motivations. In “The Lord of the Rings,” the errand of Frodo, though epic in execution, was plain enough: to destroy what would, in the wrong hands, cause irreversible harm. It was like stopping the Nazis from building an atomic bomb. But what the dwarves want, in the pages of “The Hobbit,” is gold, and their lust for it corrodes the quest and tarnishes its valor. That is what lusts do. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, who deplored the vanishing of the Latin Mass, believed in the existence of evil and in the struggle to be delivered from its claws. It is there in every shimmering scale of Smaug, the dragon; deprived by a mouse-quiet Bilbo of a single precious cup, he falls, Tolkien writes, into “the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but never used or wanted.” Ouch. The dwarves, in their small way, are no less possessed, and the joke is that a hobbit, who wishes nobody ill, should help to lead them into temptation. So many twists of the spirit, in such little space. In my old paperback, Tolkien gets the whole thing done in two hundred and eighty pages, nineteen chapters in all. And how far has Jackson travelled, after almost three hours of cinema? The end of Chapter 6. The corrosion has yet to bite.

There is much to relish here. Martin Freeman, compact and affable, is a snug fit in the difficult role of Bilbo. He is especially adept at hesitation, cocking his head like a sparrow and speaking hurriedly to others, as if trying an idea out on himself. This makes him an excellent foil—better and less wide-eyed than Elijah Wood was, in “The Lord of the Rings”—to McKellen’s Gandalf, with whose lengthy, growling vowels we are already familiar. No less welcome is Richard Armitage, scarcely known here, although he has throbbed hearts on a regular basis on British TV; he now pulls off the task, deemed impossible by every expert on Middle-Earth, of making a dwarf seductive. To be honest, the dwarves come across as a jumble of Brueghel faces, lit with grins, scrunched by scowls, and fronted by bulbous conks; only Armitage, as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the pack, earns consistent dramatic attention, and he brings the rumpus of the early scenes to a beautiful halt as he pauses to croon, in a yearning baritone, an anthem of dwarf-desire—“Far over the misty mountains cold.” Not before time, it must be said; Jackson has allowed one tea party to linger like a five-course meal, and such blithe elastication is the root of the movie’s fault.
No one could quarrel with Jackson’s scheme to transform the three volumes of “The Lord of the Rings” into a trilogy of films. It was an obvious arrangement, crowned by “The Return of the King” and its eleven Academy Awards—“One for each ending,” in the words of Billy Crystal, our host on Oscar night. If Jackson couldn’t bring himself to bid the franchise farewell, his problem, with “The Hobbit,” is the opposite: how to get going? Like George Lucas, with “The Phantom Menace,” he is constructing a six-film saga in peculiar order. We thus begin not with backstory but, this being Tolkien, with backmyth—the legend of Smaug and the devastation that he wrought long ago. From here, we pass to the aging Bilbo (Ian Holm), and to his recitation of what befell him sixty years before; and from there, at last, we reach the point at which the novel starts. In all, it is three-quarters of an hour before the youthful Bilbo departs, adventure-bound. Because of that delay, there is something doughy and whimsical about the proceedings, as if we were present at the spinning of a yarn.

Still to come, and interrupting the flow, is a layover in Rivendell, the stronghold of the Elves; an aery cameo by Cate Blanchett, as Galadriel (who is not in the book); and a dreadful, unfunny diversion into the doings of another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), who drives a rabbit-powered sled and goes cross-eyed when he scores a hit of Gandalf’s bong. Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” had the air of an urgent report, borne in desperation from a distant land. His “Hobbit” has many thrills, and rather too many spills, but it never sheds its bouquet of mere moonshine.
Mind you, what a shine. “An Unexpected Journey” was shot in 3-D and filmed at forty-eight frames per second, as opposed to the standard twenty-four. This sounds miraculous, and you will indeed notice and marvel at the difference, but only if you happen to be a snowy owl who likes watching voles from a hundred and fifty yards. The rest of us will be reminded of high-definition television—better known, in my household, as a reason to avoid viewing films on TV, unless they contain characters named Woody and Buzz. HD has the unfortunate effect of turning every film into what appears to be a documentary about a film set, not just warts-and-all but carefully supplying extra warts where a wart has no right to be. There is something awry in the idea that Tolkien’s wondrous inventions—an entire history and landscape, plus trees of unknown languages, grown from one man’s fancy—should be transmitted through a medium newly and utterly bent on realism. When the imaginary is presented as fact, hard and hypervisible, right down to the popping buttons of a waistcoat, does the magic not drop off?

For pathos, though, we still have Gollum, the damned and slimy soul (voiced again by Andy Serkis), who lurks in the dark and loses what he loves. Bilbo finds it: “His hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel.” That is the account given by Tolkien, who knew that turning points were all the more momentous for being unadorned, but Jackson, with so much room to spare, cannot dare to underplay the crux. Instead, before Bilbo stumbles upon the ring, we see it slip from Gollum’s safekeeping, tumble in refulgent slow motion, and, on impact, give a resounding clang. (If Jackson ever films “Othello,” wait for Desdemona’s handkerchief to hit the ground like a sheet of tin.) “All good stories deserve embellishment,” Gandalf says to Bilbo before they set off, and one has to ask whether the weight of embellishment, on this occasion, makes the journey drag, and why it leaves us more astounded than moved. And yet, on balance, honor has been done to Tolkien, not least in the famous riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum, and some of the exploits to come—dwarf-wrapping spiders, a battle of five armies, and the man who turns into a bear—will surely lighten the load. As Bilbo says, nearing the end of the book, “Roads go ever ever on.” Tell me about it

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