January 5, 2013

You Can Never Go There and Back Again

by James Folta

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) - dir. Peter Jackson

 J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit was one of the first books I ever really loved. I read it over and over. In fact, the second thing I ever bought with my own money, out of my dragon-hoard of coins collected in a sock, was the BBC radio dramatization of The Hobbit (my first purchase being the VHS set of what was then the original Star Wars trilogy). Later, I wore out my copies of the Lord of the Rings. I even read The Silmarillion and acted like I enjoyed the experience. (Don’t lie to yourself, that book is only a badge - the true believers will back me up on this one.)

So I was excited for the new film version of The Hobbit. I was excited when I first heard that Guillermo Del Toro would direct. I wasn’t even disappointed when he dropped out. (Though, can you imagine?) All this is to let you know that I’m biased towards The Hobbit. I want it to be great and live up to my childhood ideals. I’m inclined to be the Fox News to its GOP (Blam! Sucker Punch!). And, for the most part, it did satisfy me - watching this movie adapted what I loved most about the Lord of the Rings films to tell a tale with all the wonder and whimsy from the book’s sweeping mythology. It was fun in that Spielberg-directing-Indy rollicking adventure sort of way.

The strength for me ultimately lay in the nostalgia. The film has its flaws, certainly. But on the basis of the recollections it triggers in me, any detractions would have to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles. The books stamped me hard. Jackson’s previous movies too: The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001 when I was in eighth grade, still mostly concerned with getting good grades, playing video games, and horsing around with my friends. To say the Lord of the Rings intersected with my life at impressionable moments is an understatement. Any nerdy or even slightly marginalized kid knows the power of discovering something that feels made just for them but also serves as a membership card into a group of like-minded new friends.

The film did a great job of reminding me why I love Tolkien’s world. The characters are all boldly drawn. They are, as they were to me as a child, larger than I’ll ever be: every Middle-Earth inhabitant is a giant. The good guys have strong beliefs and ironclad convictions and the bad guys are evil and ugly. Thorin Oakenshield is sufficiently steely, staring off and soliloquizing about his lost homeland. Bilbo is the bumbling fish-out-of-water we root for to overcome his small stature and reputation to accomplish great things. The main villain is Azog, the one-armed orc, pale and scarred atop a giant white warg, a fantasy Moby Dick that roars and slashes his way through scenes. Gandalf is the quintessential gray wizard, a little absent-minded, wondersome and scattered, but always returning at just the right moment with just the right flaming-pinecone spell. He is a deus ex machina in a robe.

The Hobbit is structured as a series of set pieces strung together by sweeping overhead shots of various parts of Middle-Earth. These sequences are beautiful; we are treated to the band trudging through pristine forests, across striking mountains, and through gently undulating fields. For me, it approximated that openmouthed awe which the book inspired; each page felt like flipping through an atlas, leafing over to discover and rediscover how massive and epic this world was. The movie’s wide shots get at this feeling of history, of mystery, and of magic - all discussed and recalled in hushed and reverent tones. The action draws you in as well; it’s sufficiently kinetic and choreographed, best on display in the band’s hectic escape from the goblin kingdom, a hack and slash sprint over the rickety bridges and platforms of the subterranean fortress. It’s fun and exciting and at times, even funny.

It’s also nothing new. This escape scene is indicative of the flip side of my nostalgic response; we’ve already seen this before. The epic sequence of the goblin kingdom feels almost exactly like a scene from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The CGI of the goblin bridges and catwalks built deep in the earth could be the exact same CGI used for the Uruk-hai factory. And when the goblin King lumbers up to block the heros’ way on a bridge, I almost expect him to shout “you shall not pass!”  And it’s not just recalling the movies. Watching The Hobbit reminds me of the books, but this is a hazier memory, of words and imagination, not CGI and actors. In that way, I’m really only reminded of the thrill of discovery, of the feeling of the first time I read the book, before I knew that J.R.R. was John Ronald Reuel.

Again, it’s fun, it’s great. It’s what I want. But it’s ultimately trodden, though hallowed, ground. The movie caters to this reminiscing with a number of do-you-remember-’cause-we-remember winks. The most glaring examples are whenever the One, Darkness-Binding Ring appears. It is treated to dramatic slow motion shots that revel in the significance we now know this jewelry has. Elijah Wood also appears, in the beginning of the film, as if to smooth the transition for viewers who might be queasy from too quick of a change in Hobbit protagonist.

There is an interesting turn here: the reversal between first written and first filmed. The Hobbit becomes a prequel, not true of the book which came out (and I read) before the Lord of the Rings books. This changes the experience of some elements. Now, we as the audience know the power of the ring that tumbles from Gollum’s pocket, but in the book’s chronology, we have no idea what it is. The significance is still unknown. For the moment, it’s just a ring.

I can’t say that this hindered my viewing, but once again, it wasn’t the same as what I remember. Which wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t cherish my memory of these books. Of course, this isn’t always the case (I didn’t like reading The Da Vinci Code, the film didn’t have to meet any expectations), but the difficulty of satisfying anticipation is at the heart of the nerd rage backlash against any book/comic/game-to-film adaptation. We’ve reached a place where even film-to-remake adaptation requires staking out grounds. Now saying, “the old Spiderman was better,” requires clarification.

I’m not complaining, per se; I understand that culture co-opts, appropriates, and reuses. Creative destruction, post-modern, mash-up, perpetual nostalgia, etc., etc., etc. But there’s a certain odd experience of watching your childhood memories come alive, and arrive off-center. It’s like if you were somehow to make a real woman out of a Barbie doll, only to have her die immediately because her lungs were too small. Some things are too idealized to be realized.

But does it ultimately matter? I don’t think so. Was there too much Radagast compared to the book? Was Dead-head Radagast and his Iditarod racer of rabbits weird and fun? Yes to both. There are some itches that can’t be scratched and probably shouldn’t be. I guess that’s the fun and the difficulty of the nostalgia associated with watching the filmed version of The Hobbit. Is it not quite what you remember, or want to remember? Is it so fun that it might be protected by mythic Elvin joy-runes? Yes to both.

No comments: