I was fine when Peter Jackson announced that he was doing The Hobbit as a two movie series. After all, converting a book to a movie often requires some additional room. When it was announced that it had become a trilogy, I was skeptical. To me, that read more like a financial decision than a creative one. Obviously, I am not privy to the reality. The first movie felt a little thin, but still mostly true to the book. I was (and still am) happy to contribute some small piece of my time on earth to supporting this kind of grand, inspired storytelling. Yes, there were a lot of action sequences; that’s fine. I like a good blockbuster movie as much as the next person. Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t high art, but it was a rollicking good time. An adaptation that doesn’t pay attention to the specific rhythms of the new medium isn’t really an adaptation, just as a transliteration is not a translation. In general, I’m withholding judgment on the series until the third movie is complete. After all, he said it was going to be a trilogy, and it should be judged as such. However, one key dynamic has emerged that troubles me.
In Tolkien’s work (both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), the world of Middle Earth is filled with situated protector-figures. Obviously, Gandalf is a key protector-figure, but he is rootless, a wanderer. Outside of the (mostly) safe realm of the Shire, there are all sorts of dangerous lands, but most of them also have some kind of local protector. Tom Bombadil watches over the wilds between the Shire and Bree; Treebeard watches over Fangorn Forest; Elrond, Galadriel, Faramir all “own” their particular areas, knowing the paths, guarding the unwary, policing the line between accident and malicious evil. The inverse figures also exist: the tentacled guardian in the water outside Moria, the Balrog, Saruman (who should be a protector but is not), even Sauron himself. Each of them is situated, local, particular to a landscape, intimately familiar with it, reflected in it (as the desolation around Orthanc symbolizes Saruman’s own decay and rot).
The primary quest of The Hobbit is to flip one of these locations: the lonely mountain. When the story begins, it is like Moria: lost to evil, home to a powerful threat (Smaug), a blight on the landscape. The re-establishment of the dwarven kingdom should turn it back into a haven, like Rivendell, with Thorin ruling in peace and justice, protecting the weak, and securing this piece of land against outside threats. I would argue that this Feudal iconography is central to the storytelling in The Hobbit. The decay and cruelty of Mirkwood is related not only to the necromancer’s growing power but also to the decay and heartlessness of Thranduil, the elven king; the goblin king makes all of the Misty Mountains dangerous, not just his own home; the king of the eagles protects those who make it to the other side.
What troubles me is that Jackson seems to have developed a habit of erasing, minimizing, or dimishining these figures in his movies. In The Hobbit, specifically, Beorn gets short shrift. Instead of the benevolent, if idiosyncratic, protector of the lands east of the Misty Mountains, a lover of life who protects and lives with the animals, he is a vengeful, barely controlled figure of rage. Similarly, Bard and the Master of Laketown are bitter, bickering, antagonists. This echoes the portrayal of Treebeard as an isolationist in The Two Towers movie, whereas in the book he is a protector of the forest; instead of deciding to go to war to protect the land, he is tricked into reacting out of anger. Tom Bombadil was erased completely, and while I didn’t make much of it at the time (after all, cuts need to be made when translating epic works to the screen), it now seems like part of a larger pattern.
Certainly, the world we live in today is not nearly as local as England was in Tolkien’s time. The Feudal model of local control, and the concomitant duty to shepherd and protect, is outmoded in a world where we are distrustful of our own governments, cynical about their functions, and paranoid about both those who wield power and how they win and exercise it. But, myths are abstractions. By definition, they portray the world not as it is, but as a model of how it does or should work. The changes that Jackson is making with these protector-figures may make the movies more relatable, more modern, but they also lose part of the beauty and wonder of a world where there are powerful forces for good around every corner. The triumph of the everyman hobbit is itself an inversion of the Feudal model in some ways, but it plays against that backdrop, showing that the greatest protectors are not necessarily the largest, loudest, or even most skilled. In Jackson’s version of Middle Earth, the heroes are still heroic, but the land itself is less full of good and virtue. It may be a reflection of our more individual-focused times, but it also reinforces that dynamic, in what I personally feel is a negative way.
The jury remains out, as I said above, pending the last movie. But, with five full-length movies to work from as an opus, one can discern patterns, and this one is particularly troubling.