There must be something about New Zealand that brings out the megalomania in movie makers. It recently was announced that James Cameron, that titan of trite who brought us the “morality tale” of Titanic (with rich people falsely portrayed as scrambling for other people’s places on life boats, as if to say all rich people, except James Cameron, are craven cowards with entitlement complexes) has decided to make three sequels to Avatar in New Zealand. One Avatar, with its infantile pseudo-moralizing and overdone special effects, was more than enough, thank you very much. But people have shown time and again that Cameron, despite his distinctly limited talents as a filmmaker, can bring in the cash because he knows something about spectacle.
Peter Jackson also knows something about spectacle. A native of New Zealand, he likes making movies there. And his Lord of the Rings trilogy is epic filmmaking on a massive scale. In these movies, and in The Hobbit, Middle Earth comes alive, especially in the architectural detail brought to most every scene. Mention of these Tolkien titles brings up the other thing Jackson has: (which Cameron lacks) namely, good material. Well, actually, some of the best “material” ever written. Unfortunately, after showing decent respect to that material in The Lord of the Rings, Jackson has returned to Middle Earth with less respect and more smugness. The results are rather awful.
Tolkien’s magnificent story and Jackson’s modicum of self-restraint made The Lord of the Rings trilogy work on every level. Its massive length was called for in doing justice to its material, even as most of Jackson’s alterations (e.g., relegating Merry and Pippin, tough guys in the books, to the role of comic relief and slicing off the intentionally anti-climactic conclusion to Tolkien’s work) ended up “working;” that is, Jackson’s changes generally made the movie effective as cinema while remaining true to the overall spirit of the books. The one massive error he and his co-writers almost made, inserting a “warrior maiden” into the battle at Helm’s Deep, was one from which they wisely stepped back.
There is no such holding back in The Hobbit. In hindsight, this was predictable, perhaps even inevitable, from the moment Jackson decided one movie wouldn’t be enough. Tolkien’s Hobbit is not an epic. It is a tale. This introduction to The Lord of the Rings was intended to be a lighter piece, bringing people into the world of Middle Earth with as much charm as danger, as much humor as pathos, and at a rather quick pace (indeed, lightning quick, for Tolkien). It is grand, wonderful stuff. It is not the stuff of trilogies.
That said, it is understandable that, after filming the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson would be hesitant to leave The Hobbit as the tale it was intended to be. One can understand the desire to make another multi-film—and multi-billion dollar profit-making—epic to match The Lord of the Rings’ success even as the new movies introduce the stories that come after them in Tolkien’s world. And Jackson might be forgiven his central conceit, namely mining the ultimate prequel, Tolkien’s Silmarillion, for material. That volume is, in essence, Tolkien’s notes on the history and theology of Middle Earth. It is filled with half-finished stories and sketches for works Tolkien never intended to complete but rather used to orient his own mind for the story of The Lord of the Rings. With restraint and good judgment, Jackson might even have pulled off his elaboration of the suggestion Tolkien gives of a Necromancer, using him as a kind of foreshadowing of Sauron. Alas, Jackson makes too much of Tolkien’s hints, and ties them too closely to his project of making The Hobbit into an epic prequel; the result is both overblown and almost Cameron-like in its triteness.
But what really makes The Hobbit into a kind of senile version of The Lord of the Rings—tired, overdone, and stretched thin—is less grand, and more insidious. What makes both Hobbit movies released so far fail, and seems destined to have the same impact on the third installment, is the constant, small minded niggling and unneeded, overblown elaboration.
For the overblown, we may look to the scene, from the first installment, inside the Goblin King’s lair, and even to the confrontation between the Dwarves and Smaug in the second installment; both are simply too long. Beautiful as the sets are, well done as the special effects and costumes are, these scenes provide too much of a good thing—spectacular action—to the point where one is almost numbed. Jackson at times seems desperate to outdo himself, to make the action sequences as over-the-top as possible, giving us, for example, the rather ridiculous falling bridge in the Goblin Lair.
Then there are the political conceits. Examples are both large and small. On the small side there is the insulting tokenism of repeated shots in one Lake-Town scene of two black people and the muttering about stupid poor people, elections and “enemies of the state” from Lake-Town’s ruler. For large, indeed mammoth instances of conceit, there is Tauriel. The character of Tauriel the warrior female elf was created out of whole cloth by Jackson and his co-writers, seeking to “correct” Tolkien’s failure to provide enough “female role models” who would appeal to feminist values. Not content with creating an Elven female who kills with abandon, the writers use her as an integral part of another conceit—a cross-species romance I’m sure we’ll see more of in the third film. A double victory for the smug crowd, Tauriel “transgresses” both sex roles and cross species taboos. I doubt it has occurred to Jackson that he has given the world perhaps the most ridiculous cross-species romance since that between Roger and Jessica Rabbit—only without the (intentional) laughs. Tauriel is a character of whom Jackson surely is proud; she is progress incarnate in a medieval fantasy. Anachronistic much? Perhaps just a wee bit distracting from Tolkien’s story line and its larger purpose?
I will, of course, be watching the final installment of The Hobbit when it comes out. The chance to see one of my favorite books on the big screen, particularly given the miraculous work done by the set designers, has proven too good to pass up, as it has, no doubt, for many, many others. But it remains the case that Jackson, after doing an admirable job with The Lord of the Rings, has fallen into shallow, overblown self-indulgence, squandering the opportunity to make another great film (and perhaps others more clearly his own, even focusing on that Necromancer). Perhaps the next Jackson/Hobbit film could be called The Desolation of Smug.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared December 31, 2013 in Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission. (Photo caption and credit: [L-r] Ian McKellen and director Peter Jackson on the set of the 2012 fantasy adventure “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY,” a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures [MGM], released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM.)