Color me skeptical. When Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trailer broke a week or two ago amid emails and facebook posts of breathless excitement, rife with exclamation marks and omgomgomgs, I muttered a “bah, humbug.”*
When Jackson’s adaptation of Fellowship of the Ring came out ten years ago David Bratman, a librarian who’s done a lot of thinking about Tolkien, commented, “I felt as if I were seeing two films at once. One in the visuals, which was faithful and true to Tolkien, and another in the script and in the general tone and style, which was so unfaithful as to be a travesty.” This is exactly what I fear and fully expect out of this new film.
Peter Jackson doesn’t seem to be able to help himself. He wants to make exciting, action-driven movies with lots of monsters. He possesses a strong visual aesthetic but as drama goes he’s a bit dumb. I’ll give you an example that’s a little further removed. King Kong, Jackson’s 2005 rehash of the 1933 original, should have been right up his alley. (I realize King Kong was very popular and my criticisms may seem out of place, but bear with me.) Skull Island, Kong’s home, is loaded with violent natives, scary animals, and disgusting grubs. Jackson indulges as much as possible while his characters are on the island and achieves some striking images. But three critical scenes, meant to not only be action-packed but also dramatic, are so uninteresting you almost forget what movie you’re watching. There’s Kong’s battle with the T-Rex, the scene where everyone’s running away from dinosaurs, and the bit where slugs and centipedes are eating everyone’s faces for about two of the film’s three hours. (By the way, if you ever have a giant bug on you, the best way to get it off is via Thompson Submachine Gun–preferably fired by someone with no training or experience whatsoever.) There a lot of casualties in the chase and the grub scenes, but they’re all throwaway characters, sailors from the ship who apparently just there to die–they don’t even seem to have trouble manning the ship on the way back to New York having lost so much of the crew. I went back and watched each of those scenes, and shocked myself. They’re each about 3-5 minutes long, but I clearly remembered them as closer to ten. I couldn’t remember the actual time those scenes took but had a vivid recollection of how long each felt. The sheer tedium each ultimately pointless scene practically forces you to stop caring, and at the end you’re just tired.
There are three scenes in The Hobbit I’m afraid will take the exact same route, but to much worse effect. Worse because there are actual stakes in this film. This isn’t Jackson playing around with a schlocky fantasy story about a big gorilla who smashes things. This is an interpretation of a piece of fine literature–less significant than The Lord of the Rings, but important nonetheless. A great many people who misunderstand Tolkien may write off his work as any other series of fantasy, something like Dragonlance or Robert Jordan’s books. Poorly executed films only reinforce that assumption because they do not let the author speak for himself. Nine hours is not an impressive amount of time when you consider it’s supposed to wrap up three books: over 1000 pages. The new films are a visual Cliff’s Notes, written by Peter Jackson. The depth of Tolkien’s prose is largely lost. I appreciate the difficulty in doing justice to both visuals and the story, and the price tag for filming a nine-hour feature per book would be astronomical, but I still cannot be satisfied with the compromise.**
But more specifically, I suspect with the short amount of time allowed for this film, Jackson will end up sacrificing true drama in his eagerness to play with monsters. I hope I end up proven wrong, but I predict 1: The Trolls’ Quarrel, 2: Mirkwood, and 3: Any scene with Smaug will be able to be summed up in a single word: Interminable.
The Troll’s Quarrel is a fairly minor scene, and if Jackson plays it up for its slapstick elements it at least won’t be out of place. I just expect it will be too long, with far too many wild swings and dwarves and a hobbit almost being stepped on, etc.
Mirkwood is of greater gravity, thus of greater concern. I think Bilbo’s resourcefulness, courage, and moral struggle–that is, his character development–will play second fiddle to long closeups of glistening spiders’ fangs and the rustling of hairy legs.
Smaug is a dragon. I’m afraid, for Jackson, it will be that simple.
Again, I hope I’m wrong, and I hope the movie will be a smashing success. I hope Jackson resists the urge to turn this romping adventure into an action film. But I’ll just have to wait to find out.