The Desolation of Peter Jackson

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.

The Hobbit Movie PosterThere 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.)

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • cestusdei

    The film is less The Hobbit by Tolkien then The Hobbit according to Peter Jackson. It was reasonably good, but the book is better (as is so often the case). Read the book.

  • Della

    While I agree that PJ has gone a bit overboard with the battle scenes (he seems to relish them at the expense of more meaty themes), I’m not unhappy about some of the changes to the story as you are. I’m a true blue Tolkien fan, but I’ve always thought “The Hobbit” a bit too thin and childish. Tolkien himself wasn’t happy that he “talked down” to children in the book. And I’m very happy to see elements from the appendixes added. The overall story makes more sense when joined with TLOTR. It is easy to focus on the flaws in PJ’s movies (“King Kong” had the same overblown treatment). But, his efforts have brought Tolkien’s writing to the fore–meaning children might read his work over other less good efforts at fantasy, such as the dreadful “Harry Potter” books. I’ll take Jackson’s films over those of Cameron’s any day since he isn’t interested in pushing an agenda, but in telling a good story. Considering his background and modern education I’m not surprised that he sometimes falls short of expectations. One can only give what one has. PJ has more to give than many others making movies these days, evidenced by his choice of material.

  • catholic_citizen

    Gone a ‘bit overboard’? Really? Have you even read the Hobbit? Do you know why Tolkien wrote it?

    One day, while grading papers, he he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He started fermenting this phrase in that rich brew that was his subconscious. Over time, he began telling his small children the tales of Bilbo Baggins. A story he typed up and passed around to friends – likely to entertain their small children. In 1936, the manuscript came across the desk of a woman who worked for a small publishing house. She asked him to tidy it up, the owner of the publishing house ran it past his consultant – a ten year old son. The lad gave the story the thumbs up and the Hobbit was published in 1937. AS A CHILDREN’S BOOK.

    Tolkien took the various tales and writings, combined them with themes of ancient literature – something he was aquainted with – and wrote what would be the Lord of the RIngs trilogy, published in 1954 and 1955 in three books. This was a ‘watering down’ of his first attempt at adult epic fantasy, the Quenta Silmarillion.

    Tolkien certainly never would have approved of Tauriel. He would have been appalled at this romance between elf and dwarf. And please don’t trot out Gimli. This was an allusion to the perfect, chivalric love – a chaste one – that Tolkien would have been very familiar with in his own readings.

    The Jackson movies have nothing to do with telling a good story. It has everything to do with merchandising and stretching one blockbuster into what will surely be three. I bit on the second movie only because I received a gift card for Christmas to our local cinema. I will be seeing the third one when it hits netflix, thanks.

    Finally, I don’t ever recall reading anything about Tolkien lamenting the tone or language in the Hobbit. It was exactly the book he intended to write. A great story for children and adults who are still children at heart.

  • hombre111

    About the Titanic: 61% of the 1st Class passengers, 42% of the Standard Class passengers, and 24% of the Third Class passengers survived.

    • Adam__Baum

      The matter here is the Titanic the movie a work of fiction, not the actual maritime disaster.

      What the author should have pointed out was the inanity of an old woman passing to her eternal reward and being separated from her husband in favor of a fling that couldn’t have lasted more than hours.

    • Mel

      And how, precisely, does the Milwaukee Journal know this? What are the details of this bit of information? Of all the resources you can cite, you chose the Milwaukee Journal as a trusted source? What’s next, Wikipedia?

      • hombre111

        The Milwaukee Journal apparently did its research, and referred to first hand accounts by people on the ship. Maybe better than your rags to riches statement about wealthy people in England.

  • hombre111

    About the Titanic: 61% of the 1st. Class passengers, 42% of the Standard Class passengers, 24% of the Third Class passengers, and 20% of the male passengers survived.

    • Mel

      So, what percentage of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class passengers were male? Women and children were loaded first, no one thought the ship would actually sink during the first critical hours, and it does take quite a bit of time to walk up the stairs from the lower decks where the third class was located. Even if we pretend that there was an equal amount of women and children in each class (which I doubt, since the “poor” didn’t travel on luxury liners for fun family trips), you can’t fit the entire population on the decks all at once – you do have to empty the upper floors before bodies can move up the stairs, otherwise, they would be multiple deaths in the corridors and panic-driven stampeding. At that time, most of the wealthy were not “blue-bloods”, meaning they actually earned their wealth – as in they started poor and became wealthy through their own efforts (unlike today’s Rockefellers). Many of those same men, after being offered a place on a boat, voluntarily stayed on the ship to allow more women and children to be saved. Please do not insult our intelligences by accusing those who have been more successful than you of being morally bankrupt.The “noble poor” idea is a fallacious fantasy perpetrated by inferior intellects desperate to appear superior to the average person by any means and by those who wish to hoist the blame for their own bad life decisions on others.

      • hombre111

        Whoof! All I did was offer some statistics, and you go onto a long defense of the rich? Methinks you protest too much. You did ask a good question about the men: only 20% survived, so they definitely did give the places on the lifeboats to the women.
        There are some interesting facts when you look up the Titanic story on Google. For instance, only twenty lifeboats were available for all those people! Typical failure of Darwinian capitalism. The rich did lock the gates on the poor. And, since most of these people were from England, where the rich were the old rich, or people who made their money in manufacturing. Don’t know where you got the rags to riches idea from.

  • Della

    @catholic_citizen….I can’t agree that the movies are as bad as all that. Tolkien wrote about inter-species relations when he wrote about elves and humans being lovers, so the idea isn’t all that odd. Besides, he integrated hobbits into humankind and the high humans of Numenor into ordinary humanity. He also mentioned that Belladonna Took may have had “fairy blood” aka elven blood. Dwarves weren’t as alien as Ents, after all. They were humanoids, so the mating of a Dwarf and an Elf wouldn’t be impossible.
    I enjoy reading TH, as well, but it’s not as complete or as good as TLOTR as a literary work. Tolkien had wanted to rework it to integrate it into his greater vision of Middle Earth but never got to it. As a writer myself I can understand how that happens. 🙂

    • ShermanLogan

      In Tolkien’s cosmos, Elves and Men were both “Children of Illuvatar (God).” They were obviously interfertile, as seen by multiple recorded marriages in Tolkien’s writings, and presumably others. The recorded marriages are between High Elves and Men, with the lesser races of Elves considered less important.

      Though left unspecified, Hobbits are presumably a sub-species or race of Men and therefore also Children of Illuvatar. Some ancient marriage of one of the lesser Elves with a Hobbit is not impossible.

      Dwarves had a quite distinct origin. They were created by Aule, one of the Valar (demi-gods/angels) in the time before the appearance of the Children of Illuvatar. They were not really alive, as only Illuvatar could create true life, but were basically puppets that moved by Aule’s will.

      Illuvatar confronted Aule fpr his presumption, and the upshot is that He wound up “adopting” the Dwarves, giving them real independent life, though they had to slumber till after the Elves appeared.

      So Men, Elves and Hobbits are all equally Children of Illuvatar. Dwarves are only his children by adoption, and are not necessarily even inter-fertile with the true Children, any more than Ents are, who may be Illuvatar’s children by adoption also, created by Aule’s wife Yavanna, though not specified as such in the canon.

  • paul

    So the movie is replete with “small minded niggling and unneeded, overblown elaboration,” is a work of “shallow, overblown self-indulgence,” and “the results are rather awful,” yet the author “will, of course, be watching the final installment of The Hobbit when it comes out.” Lol. Let’s hope the professor doesn’t “squander the opportunity” to enjoy the next film by turning it into another object of “infantile pseudo-moralizing” and “political conceit.” But alas! There is something about The Hobbit that brings out the “megalomania” of critics and ideologues, so another “tired and overdone” review is “predictable, perhaps even inevitable.”

    I will, of course, be reading it though. The chance to read something so “smug,” and yet ironically self-referential, is too good to pass up!

  • Asemodeous

    “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.”

    This is wrong. The Hobbit was never intended to be a precursor to the Lord of the Rings. It was originally written to be a stand alone tale, as the entire idea of the one ring was just that of a trinket Bilbo found and used. If you actually bothered to read the book you can see that there was no foreshadowing or anything that would make the One Ring stand out as actually important.

    • Josh

      I bet the author read the book. Do you know that Tolkien revised The Hobbit to be connected with LOTR, including the addition of extra details regarding the ring, so that it -does- stand out as actually important? I thought that was common knowledge, and now I question whether -you- have read it. I read through it in May, and remember those details well.

      • Asemodeous

        Read The Hobbit. There isn’t anything in there that ties the One Ring as anything significant. The story doesn’t even come close to revolving around it. It’s a trinket Tolkien used as a plot mechanic to get Bilbo through scraps.

        The whole saga itself is unfinished as well. It was called the Middle Earth since he was going to tie it into some future books that were set in the present. The end of the third age was supposed to be 6,000 years into our past, as the land of middle earth was prehistoric Europe.

        • Adrian Croft

          Only nerds and losers got into these books.

          • Asemodeous

            Which means you followed me here from my previous posts to say what, exactly? If you want to stalk me you could do a much better job of it by just being open about it. Make the both of us feel comfortable.

        • Athelstane

          Tolkien did, in fact, go back and revise the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in the early 50’s, to make the treatment of the One Ring and its effect on Bilbo more congruent with its true nature as revealed in The Lord of the Rings.

          That said, he did so precisely because he had had no notion of LOTR when he wrote the Hobbit, a children’s tale but loosely based in the world of Middle Earth that he had been fashioning over the previous two decades.

        • badpixie

          No. Middle Earth (Midgard in Norse mythology) is, as anyone familiar with Norse Mythology Knows simply our own world- the world of men (and women)’: ie it is our own world, standing between the worlds of Gods and those of the Giants and the Dead.Tolkien simply used the Norse term for ‘Earth’ -he was an expert in Anglo Saxon and Norse literature remember. It has nothing to do with supposed future writings: a modern novel is probably something Tolkien would have approached like a live tarantula.

      • nasicacato

        What were those details? I don’t remember them. I do however remember that the swords found in the troll’s lair were from Gondolin and wondered how a reference the Silmarillion made its way in to the Hobbit when they were supposed to be totally unrelated when The Hobbit was written.

  • Tony

    I’m not going to see The Hobbit. I hated the LOTR trilogy, and could hardly bear to watch the third one through — we watched them all together on DVD’s. There was no real mirth in them, no delight in life, no spark of love between Aragorn and Arwen, no somber wisdom in Elrond; Galadriel was a Hag in the Making; you never knew why anybody wanted to save the Shire; the Ents were selfish snots … And the wearisome, overdone fight scenes, the stupid heaping up of one Big Thrill CGI upon another, like a bad exaggeration of John Williams on steroids … I said that there were only two things that Peter Jackson did not understand: Good, and Evil. I could have added Men and Women.

    As for the stupid Soldierina bit: Tolkien understood the difference between the spiritual warfare (and yes, physically expressed) of Eowyn, and actual warfare by women. The latter, divorced from any consideration of Our Lady, terrible as an army in banners, is cruel and vicious and stupid. Tolkien was a veteran of the nastiest war in human history, World War I. There is as much chance that Tolkien would have gone gaga over Women in War as that he would have looked for a daughter-in-law in a brothel. What the Lady Soldier bit does do, however, is turn both males and females into silly Marvel Comics cartoon figures, with no real spark of difference between them; both of them strangely asexual.
    I’ve been watching a lot of old movies on TCM lately, and they look like works of art made by grownups who had had plenty of humility-making experiences: hard physical labor, warfare, poverty, bending the knees in church … These guys like Cameron and Jackson seem by comparison like bratty teenagers who think they can write poetry because they got something published in the high school rag. Dopes.

  • Perelandra

    I share Bruce Frohnen’s disappointment with Jackson’s version of THE HOBBIT. It’s wildly overdone, discordant, and vulgar. (The extended cut of “An Unexpected Journey” is even worse.) However, Jackson was not mining THE SILMARILLION for added tidbits. His film rights don’t permit that. (Hence the names of the two Blue Wizards can’t be given.) He did take elements from the appendices of LOTR, such as the meeting of the White Council. The SIL, as edited by Christopher Tolkien, is a collection of short works in different genres, from the Creation to the end of LOTR. Tolkien did intend to complete all elements of his legendarium but time and will ran out. The fragments, background essays, and early drafts are collected in THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH and THE BOOK OF LOST TALES. Although Tauriel was a dreadful invention, Tolkien said that unmarried elf women did sometimes learn weaponry and go to war. Given the Dwarves’ odd origin-story, a dwarf-elf union would not seem biologically possible. Finally, the Necromancer is Sauron himself, not a parallel, hiding in his own fortress of Dol Guldur.

  • Thank you so much for writing this piece. I was beginning to think I was the only who felt this way. The Hobbit has held a special place in my heart since childhood, and watching the first two movies, I actually felt as though damage was being done to a loved one. I felt pained and grieved.

    If anyone’s interested, here’s my review:

  • Stephen Hitchings

    Bruce has made some very good points, and I essentially agree with most of what he says, but considering that his whole point is about overdoing things, there is more than a little irony in the fact that almost all his arguments are overdone.

    For example, James Cameron as “titan of trite”? What does that even mean? Certainly Cameron has no sense of the spiritual – other than New Age Avatar-style “spirituality” – and therefore a very skewed set of moral values, I cannot see what it is that makes him more trite than 95% of the other film-makers operating today. Cameron is a tremendously talented director – obviously less talented as a writer – and I cannot think of any director more skilled in 2 of the things that the movies do far better than literature: action scenes and the use of image to make profound statements (e.g. the scene in Titanic where the image of Rose standing exhilarated at the bow of the ship morphs seamlessly into the reality of the rusted hulk that Titanic has become). Is this what Bruce means by “spectacle”? If so, I would love to see more of it.

    Likewise with Peter Jackson. Perhaps it is just a personal thing, but I didn’t mind what he did in The Hobbit (apart from the absurd Goblin King scene). Before seeing it I was appalled that he had tried to make such a slight book into three movies, but in the end I was generally impressed and relieved that it turned out as good as it has. While I was extremely concerned about alterations to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit was such a relatively light-weight piece that it just didn’t worry me much. The other factor is the excellent use he has made of the extra material. Granted, what he has given us is really a kind of Hobbit Plus, but in some ways I prefer that to straight Hobbit.

    One thing I cannot let pass is the incredible assertion that Jackson’s “central conceit” is borrowing scenes from The Silmarillion, a work Bruce describes as “Tolkien’s notes on the history and theology of Middle Earth… 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.” No, Jackson’s major source was not the Silmarillion but the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. And far from being a series of sketches for The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion was one of the four great loves of his life (the other three being God and his faith, his wife Edith, and his philological work). It occupied almost the whole of his life, being begun in 1914 (23 years before The Lord of the Rings was even though of) and still incomplete when he died 59 years later.

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  • Krinj

    Whilst not harboring the unmitigated hatred you seem to have for James Cameron, your words could not have elaborated upon my own thoughts better with regards to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (for this is definitely NOT Tolkien’s The Hobbit, by any stretch of the imagination).