Why Critics Will Come to Regret Their Relentless Savaging of the New Film
Despite tentatively positive reviews from The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, National Public Radio, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, and several smaller urban newspapers, if you've heard much about the first entry in Peter Jackson's much-hyped Hobbit trilogy, it's probably that, well, it isn't very good. Right now the nearly three-hour demi-epic, controversially shot at double the frame-rate of most Hollywood features, is sporting a dispiriting 42% on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie-review aggregator that certifies movies as "fresh" or, as in the case of Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, rotten.
What's odd about the naysayers is not their opinions--movie-reviewing, like movie-making, is an artform rife with necessary subjectivities--but how they've gone about substantiating them. If there's one biographical fact avid moviegoers have considered sacrosanct these past few years, it's that Peter Jackson was and is a nerd-king of historic dimensions whose genuine love for all things Tolkien was and is the animating principle behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy and its now-three-part Hobbit companion. Not so, say those scions of the movie-reviewing circuit who've heaped calumny upon The Hobbit; in fact, Jackson's decision to bloat the 310-page children's book into a trilogy on par, in length and cinematic scope, to Tolkien's 1,500-page (in manuscript form, 9,250-page) Lord of the Rings trilogy was entirely a "mercenary" one, according to CNN.
What these critics don't know, and what Jackson most certainly does, is the history of The Hobbit as a text, and of Middle Earth as a holistic construction. While knowledge of the literature behind the film doesn't necessarily imbue the film with automatic cinematic bona fides, it does suggest that, in the long run, critics of The Hobbit will be made to feel rather foolish for their circumspection and (in many instances) their open hostility toward both Jackson and his creation. If there's a reason most critics panning the film don't also encourage moviegoers to avoid it, it's likely that they sense--as they ought to--that future generations will view the effort considerably more kindly, and that therefore The Hobbit is worth seeing now, whatever its infelicities.
Yes, Tolkien's The Hobbit is by and large a children's tale, full of English whimsy and approachable language, but it constitutes, also, the necessary germination of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a fact Tolkien could not have been unmindful of when he prospectively referred to the now-better-known epic as a "sequel" to The Hobbit in December of 1937. Moreover, by the completion of The Lord of the Rings in 1955, Tolkien had done sufficient work on the millennia-long history of Middle Earth that the central place of The Hobbit in the longer narrative of the One Ring had become eminently clear. (Indeed, Tolkien had written an appendix-like short story, "The Quest of Erebor," to tell the tale of The Hobbit in a literary style more alive to its relation to, and its interconnection with, the more conspicuously-majestic events of The Lord of the Rings.) It is upon this larger narrative that Jackson has undoubtedly been focused for the fifteen years he's been working on bringing Tolkien's literary vision to the silver screen. (Just 51, Jackson has now spent nearly a third of his life on the project.) Jackson's knowledge of Tolkien lore can be presumed to exceed that of any small-city film critic by a factor of twenty or more, and way he shot The Hobbit reveals it unambiguously.
According to Tolkien's Middle Earth chronology, by the time Gandalf approaches Bilbo outside his Hobbit-hole in the year (by Shire reckoning) 2941, the following has already occurred:
171 years earlier. 171 years before The Hobbit begins, the dragon Smaug raids the mountain home of the film's dwarvish protagonists and (after massacring thousands of them) drives them out. What this fact underscores is that the history of Middle Earth is by and large one of constant warfare; the Lord of the Rings trilogy may feature Middle Earth's very darkest days, but, well, none of them are particularly bright--and Smaug's assault on Erebor and his eviction of its residents directly sets in motion (by way of forcing the dwarves to seek a new homeland in orc-riddled Moria) The War of Dwarves and Orcs. It is during this latter campaign that Sauron acquires the very last of the Rings of Power (the one held by Thorin's father).
91 years earlier. 91 years before the events of The Hobbit, Gandalf learns for certain what he has long suspected: that Sauron has returned to Middle Earth in the form of the Master of Dol Guldur, also known as that "necromancer" the now much-hated, Jar Jar Binks-analogized Radagast the Brown stumbles across in The Hobbit. Wondering why Radagast and his outrageous rabbit-sleigh needed to be in The Hobbit? Probably because Radagast was the only human being in all of Middle Earth sufficiently positioned (living, as he did, in the remote Greenwood Sauron sought to slink into unnoticed) to discover the Dark Lord of Mordor's return to Middle Earth. And Radagast's friendship with Gandalf the Grey made that crucial piece of intelligence available to the good guys decades earlier than might otherwise have been the case. It's at this point, 91 years before The Hobbit begins, that Gandalf becomes certain, too, of Sauron's plan: To gather the Rings of Power and then track down the One Ring to Rule Them All.
90 years earlier. According to Tolkien, this is when Saruman the White (played by Christopher Lee in the films) became evil; that is, this is when he began to so desire the One Ring for himself that he started making decisions contrary to the good of Middle Earth. When Gandalf urges an attack on Sauron's home base of Dol Guldur at the White Council held in this year, Saruman overrules him solely because he wants the One Ring for himself. So were you wondering whether Saruman appears in The Hobbit just (as critics suggest) for nostalgia's sake? Well, read the books: He appears in the movie because he's already gone over to darkness and is trying to block Thorin's progress toward Erebor for his own dastardly reasons: Mainly, that he wants to continue his own search for the One Ring without the distraction and inevitable complications of a new war on Middle Earth. Meanwhile, the Gandalf of The Hobbit wants Smaug dead because he believes Sauron may be trying to recruit him to his cause--and fears that if he does so, Mordor will become unstoppable.
80 years earlier; 56 years earlier. Think The Hobbit is just a fun romp through a mystical kingdom? Think again. 80 years before The Hobbit begins, orcs invade Rohan en masse and kill its king (having consistently harried the horse-people for approximately six decades by that point). 56 years before The Hobbit begins, allies of Sauron invade Gondor so aggressively that their neighbors to the northwest, Rohan, must ride to battle to save them (something that happens again in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, offering some sense of how much trouble Gondor was in a full five decades before Gandalf invites himself to tea at Bilbo's).
8 years earlier. Aragorn is taken to Rivendell to be raised by the elves. He is considered to be under such threat from Sauron's allies that his identity as rightful King of Gondor is concealed to all.
2 years earlier. Twenty-four months before the events of The Hobbit, Sauron's scouts are searching desperately for the One Ring near the spot where it was lost by Isildur, Aragorn's ancestor. What this means is that the beginning of The Hobbit is different (contextually and "historically" speaking) from the beginning of The Lord of the Rings only in the fact that Sauron is aggressively looking for the One Ring in both instances but is looking in the wrong place in the former.
So as The Hobbit begins, Sauron is known (at least by one of the film's main protagonists) to have returned to Middle Earth and be seeking the One Ring; the most powerful wizard on the planet (unbeknownst to anyone) has turned to evil; the most powerful dwarf alive, Thorin, is--unlike any of the major protagonists of the Lord of the Rings trilogy besides Boromir--just a few months away from dying in battle, making him, like Boromir, a tragic figure, rather than (say) like the less-complicated Aragorn, with whom he is often wrongly compared by film critics.
A mere ten years after the events of The Hobbit--in Earth terms, the equivalent of a blink of an eye (as a point of reference, it takes Aragon fifteen years after the events of The Lord of the Rings to even visit his Hobbit friends in the Shire)--Sauron declares himself openly in Mordor. So when The Atlantic opines that Jackson's The Hobbit should have been "slender and simple" like the book, indeed "innocent and intimate," and that any reference to the "necromancer"-cum-Sauron in The Hobbit is merely "Jackson cross-promoting his earlier films," don't listen to it for a moment--and don't be fooled by the legerdemain of that magazine's film critic, who drops esoteric references to the books as though he understands them well and has considered their scope and intersections in writing his review. Likewise, when CNN says that there's "so much less at stake" in The Hobbit, and that the movie should acknowledge this by avoiding any "dark forebodings of impending death and destruction," this too is a betrayal of Tolkien's literary legacy. This is not, as CNN would have it, a mere "caper." Nor is it, at The Washington Post and others absurdly posit, reminiscent--either visually, tonally, or otherwise--to "The Teletubbies." This is dark, mature subject matter involving a cast of characters still unaware enough about what's going on around them that they can still take time to laugh and (admittedly, on occasion) make bad jokes.
All of this may seem like hapless nerd-kvetching, but consider: Would a film critic reviewing a Jane Austen adaptation be forgiven for exhibiting little knowledge of (and little willingness to embrace) the film's source material? How about Tolstoy? The reviews of The Hobbit don't just indulge, they indeed rely upon both the critics' and readers' ignorance of Tolkien's tale and what it was actually intended to be by the time of the novelist's death and (more to the point) Jackson's mid-nineties discovery of it as a possible cinematic blockbuster.
Moreover, critics seem to be whitewashing the flaws of the original movie trilogy. The Washington Post complains of a lack of "engaging character development" in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as if that had ever been a hallmark of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. The original trilogy was itself a plodding, portentous affair with a good deal of unbearably melodramatic dialogue and head-shaking archetyping. We permitted it, as moviegoers, because The Lord of the Rings was and is an allegory, because it was and is beautiful to experience, because it has ever been intended as a lengthy and immersive experience, and because it tells a story of massive scope and scale: all things which, as it happens, are true of Tolkien's (and Jackson's) The Hobbit.
As the years go on, critics will return to the first entry in The Hobbit trilogy with a more favorable tone than they have approached it with thus far, and will be embarrassed for having rated it barely above George Lucas' thoroughly execrable Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (38% on Rotten Tomatoes). Here's hoping that reversal comes sooner rather than later.