THE HOBBIT, by Peter Jackson

You did not read J.R.R. Tolkien‘s book The Hobbit? But you have surely seen the Lord of the Rings movies. Then look at the guy on the photograph below: he looks like any heroic phantasy persona in one of these movies. He could be some human knight or villain. Well – he isn’t.


Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) © 2013 Warner Bros.

This is Thorin Oakenshield in filmmaker Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, and he  is supposed to be a dwarf, a very old and important one. But the man on the photograph has no long beard and no pointy hat – in fact, he doesn’t look like a dwarf at all, at least not like J.R.R. Tolkien has described « the little folk » in his books. Peter Jackson’s Thorin Oakenshield is a replacement of Aragorn, one of the human heros of the Lord of the Rings movies, a kind of shorter brother to him. In The Hobbit, An unexpected journey, Thorin has become a short human who’s main occupation is to be angry at everybody, and occasionally fight an ugly monster, the Pale Ork, a hideous creature probably imagined by Peter Jackson’s digital artists. But why do we need a Pale Ork in the story? Because a  hero always needs a villain.

Here is what J.R.R. Tolkien writes in The Hobbit about dwarves:

dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.

A piece of old wood as a shield ?

Yes, a movie is no visual copy of a book, but what about the oakenshield transformed into a ridiculous tree branch with which Thorin defends himself against the Pale Ork in Jackson’s movie? Does this look heroic to you? Jackson’s Thorin is shorter than a human, but that doesn’t make him a dwarf. He is not a hero either : he fights with broken tree bits. There is not much left of Tolkien’s character, Thorin being one of the main figures in the Hobbit story. The appearance and character of a dwarf are gone, now what does come instead? Some bad taste sunset scene with Galadriel the elve and the magician Saruman, two figures which doesn’t even appear in Tolkien’s Hobbit.

The Desolation of Smaug is the second of three movies from Peter Jackson, born 1961 in New Zealand. Jackson’s trilogy ist based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit, first published in 1937. Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit and hero of the story, is used as burglar by the dwarfs to be sent into the depths of the Lonely Mountain. There he is to steal from Smaug the dragon. But the Tremendous, Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, supposed to be sleeping under a heap of treasure, wakes up. If it were only for watching this phantastic creature moving trough the treasure heap, with waves of gold coins running like liquid through his claws, the supple movement of his long neck, his batlike wings, his evil, glowing amber eyes, this movie would have been a succes. Even if a certain T-Rex from Jurassic Park seems a distant cousin.


Smaug the dragon 2013. Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, there is the rest of the movie. Peter Jackson’s decision to add useless characters to Tolkien’s story rather than making the existing ones more convincing, is very annoying. Just one exemple : the silly love story between a female elf, Tauriel, and a dwarf who doesn’t resemble a dwarf but by his size. For love’s sake then.

The technical possibilities of making fictional beings look real – like Smaug the dragon – are so elaborate today that filmmakers seem to forget good movies need most importantly interesting characters. Smaug the dragon is one, but he is quite alone.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) is really the only actor worth seeing. Ian McKellen is no doubt a brilliant actor, but his Gandalf doesn’t work. All trough the movie, one can’t even understand what he is mumbling mysteriously in his beard. Orlando Bloom (Legolas) lacks the sense of poetry – any poetry. His strange mask like face looks really immortal, not only because he is now older than he was in The Lord of the Rings, but because he plays an empty part in the movie, and absolutely no part in the story. Why adding Legolas instead of bringing some of the original characters of Tolkiens story in existence? The worst exemple of useless figures is Beorn, a boring character in Jackson’s movie but a very strong and unforgettable figure in Tolkien’s book.

In The Desolation of Smaug, the Pale Ork, a Peter Jackson invention and as evil and ugly as ever, is also back, but he is still as inefficient. He and his ork mates are global failures. They are all ugly and sometimes scary, but they can’t shoot, they can’t fight and act rather stupidly which is annoying for the chief vilain, the black shadow Sauron. I suppose this is why Sauron decided to come into existence: too may idiotic orks around to do the job properly.

Heroism lies with ordinary people

Let’s go back to Jackson’s former films, The Lord of the Rings, freely adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books published in three parts in 1954-1955.

I was amongst hundreds of people queueing for hours to get as soon as possible into the movie theater to see the latest Jackson movie. I had liked The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers and was very keen to see The Return of the King. But this third sequel ruined my high expectations, when in the last twenty minutes Peter Jackson couldn’t decide to get on with the story and endlessly filmed Frodo‘s tearful eyes. Frodo’s departure set in a kitschy sunset atmosphere, and everybody crying and hugging that lasted foever made the scene a never ending bad soap opera nightmare. The dark and pessimistic ending of Tolkien’s original novel had been transformed into fake emotion, dripping Hollywood bliss of green fields and happy smiling friends. This perversion of the story’s ending I found very disturbing. The purpose of the Hobbit book had been lost. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is not about hobbits strolling about in foreign lands, returning home and living happily ever after. What makes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings so important, in particular the end, is that it tells the story of Frodo Baggins, a small, insignificant creature fond of good company and (English) tea, who saves the world but does not even get a hero’s reward or a hero’s goodbye.

Norman F. Cantor put it right when he wrote in Inventing the Middle Ages that Frodo wants

to bring peace and quiet to the Shire, to remove threats and promote stability and civility : These are the purposes of his long journey. It is not a romantic quest of nobility. It is the wish of the little people in the world. It is a common man’s rather than an aristocratic athos. […] Frodo, who, more than anyone else, is responsible for having saved the beloved land from darkness and war, is not hailed and rewarded at the end as the One and Future King. He is treated more like the wounded veterans of the world wars (Tolkien included) who were ignominously shunted aside by their ungrateful homelands. (N.F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages, Harper Perennial, p. 228)

It is this rather realistic turn which makes the end of the story so touching. It is a very down-to-earth feeling, very common and very close to anyone who isn’t a big hero or warrior – to us, the majority of human beings. Peter Jackson confounds authentic emotion with tears and kitsch pink sunsets, beauty with pseudomedieval dresses and long wavy hair, and dwarfs with video game heroes. Smaug, the ultrasophisticated full colour HD monster, is the nice surprise of the movie. To steal from a dragon might be easy when you are a super hero, but not when you are a small and frightened hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit is about being human, and it tells us, as Norman Cantor puts it, « that heroism lies with ordinary people« . (N. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages, Harper Perennial, p. 230)

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