Peter Jackson Is Hobbit Forming: How A Halfling Becomes A Man
My wife and I took most of our kids to the first showing of The Hobbit at our local theater Friday morning. All but one of us was already a fanatically patriotic citizen of the Shire long before this movie, and all of us enjoyed the film quite a bit. This will not be the case for every Tolkien fan: I suspect the purists will be upset by the ways in which the films deviate from the book.
I, however, am not a purist. The Hobbit is a nearly perfect book from a literary point of view. That is no surprise, given the fact that it comes from one of the greatest literary minds of the 20th Century. But, books and films are different types of story-telling vessels and Peter Jackson was right in adapting the story to the newer medium. And he did so as someone who truly loved the original, who respected his source material, and who as a general rule carved it with the grain and not against it in his attempt to shape it into the needs of a big budget film trilogy.
Two departures from the book stand out to me as particularly helpful. First, the ‘geo-politics’ of middle earth, which come to a climax in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, are used to shed light on the prequel. The story of the dragon Smaug, his war on the dwarves, and the otherwise unexplained intensity of Gandalf’s interest in the affair are resolved in the film version by treating them as a kind of proxy battle in the ‘cold war’ between the forces of Mordor and those of the free West. The ancient battle, Gandalf believes, is not over, but temporarily dormant, like the illusion of peace between World War I (in which Tolkien served) and World War II (during which the Lord of the Ringswas written). The story of the Hobbit occurs between the two great wars, just as the actual book, The Hobbit, was written between two Great Wars. And Jackson highlights one particular theme of the interwar period in his cinematic version – the philosophic clash between moral clarity on the one hand, and appeasement and complacency on the other.
In a foreshadowing of Saruman’s later apostasy, Gandalf and he vehemently disagree about the threat of the rise of ‘the shadow’ again in the East. Saruman declares it to be impossible, while Gandalf seems to see it as plausible but preventable. Fans of the Lord of the Rings, of course, are aware as they watch this prequel that Gandalf is correct and Saruman is not; that the danger is real and threatens to engulf the whole world in shadow. Later Saruman will move from complacency which denies the danger to a despair which seeks to surrender to its allegedly inevitable triumph. Saruman’s arc takes him from a Neville Chamberlain ‘peace in our time’ to a Bertrand Russell ‘better red then dead’ form of appeasement in the face of tyranny. Gandalf, on the other hand, remains steadfastly Churchillian throughout.
The story is not really about Gandalf’s arc, but rather Bilbo Baggins’. He is the one who will go ‘there and back again’, but as every great quest hero who traverses a geographical journey into the center of a labyrinth and then back out the same way, he is permanently changed by it. What is changed about Bilbo Baggins is his relationship with his possessions.
Mr. Baggins has surrounded himself with comforts. The novel opens with this:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
In fact, this line is repeated in the films. The moral problem for Bilbo is that the things which he possesses have come to possess him. He can’t leave them behind. Gandalf challenges him; saying something like “When did your doilies and your grandmother’s porcelain dishes become so important to you?” The ways in which our possessions come to possess us is the moral message of the whole film and the arc of nearly all of its major characters:
The Dwarf King goes from being committed to the productive arts of mining and metallurgy to simply gazing at the veritable sea of gold which he has gathered under the ground. He loses his wisdom and eventually his kingdom when the dragon Smaug, a creature even more enslaved to the love of gold than the dwarf, takes it from him. The pile of inert wealth draws to it a creature even more greedy than the dwarves, as such a pile inevitably does. The Dwarf King and the dragon are literary doppelgangers of one another, both of them in a mimetic rivalry for gold, therefore both of them sharing the same love which brings out inevitable conflict.
Bilbo and Gollum are also mimetic rivals and literary doppelgangers. Both live in their holes in the ground. Both are possessed by what they possess. Both are afraid to venture out any further from home than their food needs require. The difference is that Bilbo, eventually, does leave what is literally his comfort zone. That makes all the difference. Eventually both Smaug and Gollum lose their lives due to their inability to free themselves from their golden shackles, while Bilbo is saved, both body and soul, by the skin of his teeth. The company of dwarves trace a similar arc themselves as they struggle morally to free themselves from the captivity of kingdom, pride, and treasure which destroyed their kingdom two generations earlier.
Now, of course, all of this could easily be hijacked by economic leftists who are unable to tell the difference between a miser and an entrepreneur. But economically informed readers will realize that misers and entrepreneurs are more opposite then they are alike. Misers never leave their comfort zone, while entrepreneurs almost never enter it. Misers suck money in and keep it inert; entrepreneurs seek money precisely so they can send it out again, risking it again and again, more often than not risking more than they prudently should.
As we sat together watching the film, unbeknownst to us, outside the theatre TV and radio were filled with stories about the rise of a terrible shadow in Sandy Hook Connecticut. We learned of the shootings after we got home. I don’t want to try to force a connection between the film and the shooting, nor do I want to join the chorus of people with pre-packaged ideological answers in the face of such gruesome evil. But if there is something which Tolkien and his company could offer us by way of insight it is this: the intransigence and persistence of human evil. We keep thinking that we have vanquished the darkness with this battle or that one. Our facile governing class keeps insisting that we are just one more ban or one more campaign or funding stream or program or educational outreach or military action away from the end of evil. But we’re not. Tolkien, who watched while his friends were literally crushed in the battle of the Somme (the basis of the Dead Marshes in LOTR) and lived to see it rise again in the East despite promises of a war to end all wars and the welfare state and the League of Nations and all the rest, knew that evil is with us till the end of time.
Article originally published on Forbes.com.