On The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

In previous posts, I covered Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now I begin to cover The Hobbit trilogy, beginning with An Unexpected Journey.

The film itself is hardly amazing by any means, as this series is similar in vein that Underworld: Rise of the Lycans was to Underworld and Underworld: Evolution. Much of the content depicted in these films is aligned to things we already know to occur, which takes much of the danger from the viewer’s perspective: Will Bilbo survive? What is the ring he finds? We already know many of these details.Martin Freeman (Sherlock) does play a young Bilbo quite fantastically though. I really enjoyed his portrayal of the character.

Certainly, The Hobbit films series is a very male series, but a progressively male series, as according to Ms. Magazine blog, “The Hobbit: A Gender-Bending Journey“:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, in no way, shape, or form a film that passes the Bechdel test. Not only does it lack two female characters interacting with each other about something other than a male love interest, it pretty much lacks female characters, full stop. Of all 15 main characters, not one is female. Granted, this is true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original book, an adventure story written for his children that primarily charts the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, on his journey across Middle Earth–a place filled with dwarves, goblins, dragons, magic, evil and, yes, very few women.

As noted at Feminist Fiction, “Women don’t play a named, significant (or even insignificant) role in the story. They don’t matter. They basically don’t exist.” While screenwriters Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens do make some changes to include more females in the film, J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit hardly references women. However, the paucity of female characters doesn’t mean a text need be written off or ignored by feminists–quite to the contrary.

While I disagree with the main claim of this post, which argues that one of the main points women can take away from The Hobbit is that women are better than men, I do agree with the sentiment that the story can be read as suggesting “Men should not be given a free leash with leadership.” However, I would add that the story actually works to trouble the category of “men,” as well as that of masculinity/feminity, and instead of merely suggesting “males make bad leaders” it suggests that greedy, power-hungry, domineering, discriminatory creatures–of any gender or type–make bad leaders.

Thus far, the story (of which An Unexpected Journey is the first of three films) not only reworks the definition of heroism and leadership, it also de-essentializes gender, giving us two male leads who blend femininity and masculinity. Sure, The Hobbit, much like The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson’s previous Tolkien trilogy, consists almost entirely of male characters. This bugs me. I am inclined to agree with this post, which pointedly asks,

Here’s a man brilliant enough to invent entire languages for his elves and dwarves, but he can’t dream up a chick to join the unexpected journey? Not one of those 13 dwarves has a wife, a sister or a mother? Does the stork deliver Middle-Earth babies?

At least in the film adaptation, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett)a royal elf who is part of the White Council (a group of wizards and others trying to defend Middle Earth from evilmakes an appearance. Screenwriter Philippa Boyens argues that, “As Professor Tolkien wrote her at this time, this part of the history, she is the most powerful being in Middle Earth.” Well, that may arguably be the case in other Tolkien texts, but she is absent in The Hobbit. At least the second installment will up the female quotient a bit with the inclusion of Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, a female elf.

Though Jackson has noted his plans to remain faithful to the source material, and only added one scene with Galadriel to An Unexpected Journey, the adaptation does display a distinct bent towards feminizing its two male heroes–Bilbo Baggins and Gandolf–and, even more key, feminizing them in a way that is championed rather than mocked.

Perhaps this is at the heart of what various critics take issue with in the opening segments of the film–notably the long scenes at Bilbo Baggins hobbit-hole, where the dwarves plunder his pantry before the journey begins. These scenes construct Bilbo as a character who is light-footed, quiet, well-mannered and  loves the home and all it portends– warmth, good food, creature comforts, love of family–while loathing the thought of adventures, which he describes as “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things” which “make you late for dinner.” He falls decidedly on the “private” side of the public/private split–the side which has been coded as feminine. This is made all the more apparent when the dwarves come thundering in, with huge appetites, little manners and raucous ways. As noted here, they’re “purely masculine characters” who “resemble nothing more than adolescent boys on an adventure; setting off without any thought as to how the journey will go and what they will do once they arrive at their destination.”

Betwixt the feminized Bilbo and the masculinized dwarves is Gandalf, a gender-fluid wizard who sometimes acts like your stereopytical stern father or uber-warrior and other times takes on a traditional maternal role, nurturing Bilbo and the dwarves. While this piece claims Gandalf’s staff is phallic and the dangerous ring is feminine, as is the evil dragon, I think the film muddies such binary reads of gender.

Gandalf rarely takes on the role of warrior in the film and often is positioned in the background, sitting or leaning, looking thoughtful–in contrast, for example, to the hyper-masculine Thorin, whose patriarchal ancestry is repeatedly emphasized.

Bilbo, the indisputable hero of The Hobbit, has both lines of his ancestry focused on. In the novel, Belladonna Took is the only female mentioned and is framed as the person from whom Bilbo has inherited his adventurous side. (I wish the film would have emphasized this more. Not doing so seems a missed opportunity, as this is one of the only ways a female actually in the text could have been featured.)

Bilbo’s father’s side is the more “traditionally Hobbit” side, with love of home and loathing of adventure emphasized (another instance of gender-bending expectations that the film does not highlight). Bilbo, at one point in the film, insists ““I am not a Took, I am a Baggins,” arguing he’s more like his “feminine” home-loving father than his “masculinized” adventurous mother. The fact that he identifies more with his homebody dad leads him to understand why Thorin, who leads the journey, doubts him, prompting him to admit, “I would have doubted me too … I am not a hero … or a warrior.” He also admits “I miss my books and my armchair and my garden … that is home … and that is why I came back as you don’t have a home … it was taken from you …but I will help you take it back if I can.”

Here, Bilbo emphasizes why he is willing to fight when necessary–for the sake of “home” – and not a homeland mind you, but a hobbit hole, a place with a well-stocked pantry and nice dishes. This, as well as his small stature and pacifist mentality, makes him an unlikely hero, one who not only worries more about doilies and teacups than adventure, but also willingly admits, “I have never used a sword in my life,” and is quick to apologize and/or own his weaknesses.

But, like the undervalued more-than-half of humanity (yes, women), Bilbo is capable of far more than Middle Earthlings give him credit for. Indeed, he can be read as the “better man” who does not cheat, who is opposed to violence, who protects and nourishes rather than destroys and kills.

Yet The Hobbit  has excessive amounts of violence and battle, so much so that I am inclined to agree  with the Los Angeles Times review  that “all this violence gets increasingly wearying as all those minutes unfold.” However, though some scenes go on a bit too long, the battles undertaken are not ones of conquest or empty valor, nor driven by greed for power or wealth. It is a quest that asks more for “loyalty, honor, a willing heart” than for  victory or plunder. “True courage is about knowing not when to take a life … but when to spare one,” advises Gandalf. Boyens, one of the screenwriters, even suggests we read the dwarves as “part of a Diaspora, the loss of the homeland, the way that they wandered in the wild, the great longing and yearning…”

Indeed, there are many political allegories one can glean in Tolkien’s work, but the texts don’t exactly shout out feminism. However, this first Hobbit film, drawing on something that does not go against the reading of the book, does tease out a critique of masculinity–particularly of traditional masculinity and its links to bravado, heroism, and war-waging. In perhaps the most feminist exchange of the film, Gandalf shares with Galadriel the feminist tenet most famously espoused by Margaret Mead–that small, everyday acts can change the world:

I have found that it is the small things, every day deeds from ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.

So, while it may be mega-light on the female character quotient and heavy on battle scenes, the film adaptation nevertheless pleases this feminist viewer. Not only does it critique gender norms and celebrate gender bending, and not only does it beautifully depict halfling heroism, wit and intellect, but it also earns bonus points for condemning racist language such as “Dwarf-scum” and for not, (thank you screenwriters!) adding any unecessary heteronormative romance elements.

As Gandalf proclaims in the film, “all good stories deserve embellishment,” and the filmmakers do embellish the adaptation with a female hobbit here and there in the shire, as well as with the addition of Galadriel. Though I would personally love an all-female rendition of the film someday, I appreciate this version has stayed true to the text while still slyly suggesting Bilbo may be more of a Bilbette–and that while macho warrior types have it all wrong, Joss Whedon types recognize a true hero when they see one, and that hero can be female or male, heterosexual or otherwise, human or hobbit.

Enjoy your holidays, my fellow halflings, and may your pantry be as full as Bilbo’s was before the dwarf raid and your meals as full of life and merriment as the one he and Gandalf shared with them at the outset of An Unexpected Journey.

According to The New York Times:

In “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first Middle-earth fantasy novel, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) sets out with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a posse of dwarfs to battle a fearsome dragon. [Spoiler alert] they do not kill the dragon, although [spoiler alert] they eventually will, within the next 18 months or so, because [spoiler alert] this “Hobbit,” which is [migraine alert] 170 minutes, is the first installment in [film critic suicide-watch alert] a trilogy.

What’s that old saying so memorably garbled by a recent president? Fool me twice — won’t get fooled again! This is not to say that Mr. Jackson is a con man. On the contrary: He is a visionary, an entrepreneur, a job creator in his native New Zealand. And his “Lord of the Rings” movies, the last of which opened nine years ago, remain a mighty modern gesamtkunstwerk, a grand Wagnerian blend of pop-culture mythology and digital magic now available for easy, endless viewing in your living room.

“The Lord of the Rings” was the work of a filmmaker perfectly in tune with his source material. Its too-muchness — the encyclopedic detail, the pseudoscholarly exposition, the soaring allegory, the punishing length — was as much a product of Tolkien’s literary sensibility as of Mr. Jackson’s commitment to cinematic maximalism. These were three films to rule them all, and they conjured an imaginary world of remarkable complexity and coherence. This voyage, which takes place 60 years before Frodo’s great quest, is not nearly as captivating.

Part of this has to do with tone. The “Rings” trilogy, much of which was written during World War II, is a dark, monumental epic of Good and Evil in conflict, whereas “The Hobbit,” first published in 1937 (and later revised), is a more lighthearted book, an adventure story whose comical and fairy-tale elements are very much in the foreground.

The comparative playfulness of the novel could have made this “Hobbit” movie a lot of fun, but over the years Mr. Jackson seems to have shed most of the exuberant, gleefully obnoxious whimsy that can be found in early films like “Meet the Feebles” and “Dead Alive.” A trace of his impish old spirit survives in some of the creature designs in “The Hobbit” — notably a gelatinous and gigantic Great Goblin and an encampment of cretinous, Three-Stooges-like trolls — but Tolkien’s inventive, episodic tale of a modest homebody on a dangerous journey has been turned into an overscale and plodding spectacle.

Also, not to be pedantic or anything, but “The Hobbit” is just one book, and its expansion into three movies feels arbitrary and mercenary. This installment takes Bilbo and his companions, led by the exiled dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage), son of Thrain, through a series of encounters with orcs, elves, trolls and other beings, some scarier or more charming than others. The only character who manages to be a bit of both is the incomparable Gollum, once again incarnated by Andy Serkis in what remains an unmatched feat of computer-assisted performance.

The meeting between Bilbo and Gollum, which takes place in a vast, watery subterranean cavern, is the one fully enchanted piece of “An Unexpected Journey.” It’s a funny, haunting and curiously touching moment that summons the audience to a state of quiet, eager attentiveness. Even if you aren’t aware of the apocalyptic importance of Gollum’s precious ring, you feel that a lot is at stake here: Bilbo’s life and integrity; Gollum’s corroded soul; the fate of Middle-earth itself.

If only some of that feeling animated the rest of the movie. There are, of course, plenty of shots of noble characters turning their eyes portentously toward the horizon, and much talk of honor, betrayal and the rightful sovereignty of dwarfs over their dragon-occupied mountain. But it all sounds remarkably hollow, perhaps because the post-“Lord of the Rings” decade has seen a flood of lavish and self-serious fantasy-movie franchises. We have heard so many weird proper names intoned in made-up tongues, witnessed so many embodiments of pure evil rise and fall and seen so many fine British actors in beards and flowing robes that we may be too jaded for “The Hobbit,” in spite of its noble pedigree.

But I don’t mean to blame the cultural situation for the specific failings of the movie, which rises to weary, belated mediocrity entirely on its own steam. Mr. Jackson has embraced what might be called theme-park-ride cinema, the default style of commercially anxious, creatively impoverished 3-D moviemaking. The action sequences are exercises in empty, hectic kineticism, with very little sense of peril or surprise. Characters go hurtling down chutes and crumbling mountainsides or else exert themselves in chaotic battles with masses of roaring, rampaging pixels.

It seems harder and harder to bring any real novelty or excitement to this kind of thing, though it is not clear how much Mr. Jackson really tries. (“Giants! Stone giants!” someone cries, and a couple of mountains dutifully slug it out.) When the initial rush of a chase or a skirmish dissipates, you are left with the slightly ripped-off feeling of having been here before, but with different costumes, in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie or “Clash of the Titans.”

And near the end, when giant birds arrive to pull “The Hobbit” out of the squall and muck of tedious combat, your pleasure at this soaring aerial tour of New Zealand may be accompanied by a shrug of recognition, since the flight plan retraces the routes of “Avatar” and “How to Train Your Dragon.”

“The Hobbit” is being released in both standard 3-D and in a new, 48-frames-per-second format, which brings the images to an almost hallucinatory level of clarity. This is most impressive and also most jarring at the beginning, when a jolly dwarf invasion of Bilbo’s home turns into a riot of gluttonous garden gnomes.

Over all, though, the shiny hyper-reality robs Middle-earth of some of its misty, archaic atmosphere, turning it into a gaudy high-definition tourist attraction. But of course it will soon be overrun with eager travelers, many of whom are likely to find the journey less of an adventure than they had expected.


2 thoughts on “On The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

  1. Pingback: On The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies | The Progressive Democrat

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