Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Trouble With Sebastian: A Review of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

This is a post that I've been meaning to write for almost three months now, and I must admit that it has been clogging my blogging for a while. I saw the movie twice (once in 3D and once in ordinary 2D) and read an unofficial transcript of the film. As I considered the material each time I tried to come to grips with my feelings about it, which are complicated and contradictory, so that I was stymied about what to say. Every time I sat down to compose anything else, the thought that I wanted to say something about An Unexpected Journey rose up like Banquo's ghost and stood in the way. In light of the imminent release to home video on March 15th, I feel this might be the last time I can legitimately give my thoughts and opinions before the whole thing simply becomes history. So here goes.

I like it. I liked it the first time I saw it. Some people, members of my family with whom I went to see it (and who had no large previous investment with the source material), enjoyed it immensely as an exciting and fun adventure, full of spectacle and humor. The box office numbers seem to indicate that a lot of other people agree, and that The Hobbit movies (there will be three of them altogether), while doing less business than expected and not yet as universally beloved as the LOTR trilogy of films, is off to a good start. And I would like to stress that The Hobbit really is just starting; I do not think that a full and accurate assessment of the entire venture will be justified until the final film unfolds before us. Only then will we truly be able to judge the success or failure of Peter Jackson & Co.'s effort.

But even as I watched H:AUJ for the first time, concerns and objections to several elements in the film were surfacing and submerging uneasily as the story played out. In the end it was not the resurrection and repurposing of Azog as the Great White Orc with an obsession to exterminate Thorin and the Line of Durin that really bothered me; I understand that Jackson wanted a personalized interest to drive the storyline forward, and not simply the Quest of Erebor. It was not the troll snot in the soup or the bird poop on Radagast's face, that so many found disgusting. It was not the flouting of physics, with the dwarves (even taking into account their thrawn nature) falling many yards multiple times with no apparent injury, although Middle-Earth, while imaginary, is (as Tolkien said) our world, where miles are miles and gravity is gravity. I even accepted the eccentric, over-the-top Radagast (with the possible exception of the stick insect in the mouth). What made me fall out of the dream was Sebastian.

Sebastian is the name given to a hedgehog who falls under the evil influence that is darkening Mirkwood and who is saved by Radagast. When I first heard it I thought, "Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. This will never do." When I mentioned it to my brother afterward he agreed, and said he had noticed it too. My sister-in-law was puzzled, and asked us why we objected. I had to explain.

Ordinarily, Sebastian would be a perfectly fitting name for a hedgehog; a little creature bristling with prickles is named after the Roman Catholic saint bristling with arrows. Ordinarily, but not in Middle-Earth. Middle-Earth is feigned to be the Northern European area of our world in some lost pre-history; as such, names that are not in Tolkien's created Elvish language are usually from old Norse languages or are at least ostensibly English in flavor. Even the most ordinary names in the film, Bert and William, have Germanic origins, and Tom has been so naturalized in the English language it scarcely shows its Aramaic roots. To import a name like Sebastian with such a heavy Mediterranean "flavor" is jarring to anyone with an ear for Tolkien nomenclature. And it is not the only instance.

I don't blame Peter Jackson, who is trying to make an exciting and engaging film experience, and I don't expect it bothers most people who see the movie. The responsibility devolves primarily on his writing team, Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh (both self-proclaimed Tolkien enthusiasts), and secondarily on any Tolkien scholars they might have run their script by to obtain an imprimatur. Someone let slip into their films such non-Tolkienian names, words, and concepts, such as Thror ruling "as by divine right" or, in The Fellowship of the Ring, such barbaric nomenclature as "she-elf." It is these small but telling notes that really needle me (especially as J. R. R. Tolkien himself put such emphasis on the language he used) and not so much any changes that might be made in adapting a book into a movie.

And not as a criticism, but more as an observation, I think Jackson & Co. might be suffering a bit from anxiety of influence of their own past success. Since the release of The Return of the King their productions (King Kong, The Lovely Bones, The Adventures of Tintin) have not been as acclaimed as their LOTR work. In trying to recreate the Middle-Earth experience, they have continuous echoes from the earlier films, especially The Fellowship of the Ring. In both H:AUJ and FOTR Gandalf uses his "power" voice to persuade people, the One Ring "accidentally" falls on a hobbit's finger, Gandalf summons the Eagles using a moth, and so on. While one or two might be amusing as a call-back (call-foreward?), too many come to seem merely repetitive. To re-create is not to be as creative as you once were. Perhaps a little too much regarding The Hobbit as a prelude to LOTR, and not as its own tale, is fuzzing the focus. But, as I have said, we will have to see all three films to judge rightly.

But there are many original touches supplied by Boyens and Walsh that I find to be beautiful, creative, and right. The sight of Thranduil the Elven-King riding a forest stag; Gandalf's reminiscence of Bilbo as a young, adventurous dreamer; Saruman's disdain for the pleasures of the flesh; the dwarves desire to reclaim their home and not simply their treasure: these are all things that I like and that I find to be encouraging signs for future developments in the telling of the tale. The production values and design are superb, the scenery lush, the thought put into differentiating all thirteen dwarves (who have plenty of room to develop over the course of the films) fascinating. Martin Freeman's portrayal of Bilbo is spot-on, although the accents of his character arc seem a little misplaced. Richard Armitage's Thorin is intense. I simply love the wise, gentle Balin. Ian McKellen has become Gandalf, and this earlier incarnation of the grey wizard allows him to be as irascible and as flawed as he likes. The riddle game between Bilbo and Andy Serkis' Gollum is universally acknowledged to be the jewel of the film. So, despite my nit-pickery, I think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (as I said before) an engaging film and an exciting, fun adventure, and on the 19th of March I will certainly be buying a copy at my earliest opportunity.

1 comment:

Babel said...

I agree with all the points of your review. It was a strange sensation watching "The Hobbit"; the same as when watching the three LOTR movies, but I had forgotten it: it is almost like watching someone very dear to you performing on stage-you hold your breath hoping they don't blow it and exalt in the moments that connect just right. The entire orc hunt story line really bugs me, more so in retrospect than while I was watching it. There is something more War Crafty than Hobbity about it, although I accept PJ's reasoning for including it. I think making the villain an albino orc is kind of stale too, the evil albino trope is pretty tired. There were moments that, as Peter Griffin would say, insisted on themselves a bit too much. There was a lot of fat that seemed to be laced on to make this baby a trilogy, and it kind of felt like it. All that being said, to see the iconic imagery of Gandalf meeting Bilbo on his porch, the Unexpected Party, Riddles in the Dark, etc, so gorgeously presented was a real treat, and goes a long way in excusing the excesses. The proof, as you say, will be in the pudding, when all the films are done and stand together. Here's hoping for no Bilbo love interests, or Gandalf dancing the Macarena!