In Defense of Peter Jackson, Tolkien Fans, and Nerds Everywhere

Peter Jackson has taken a lot of flack for the alleged butchering of The Hobbit, variously described as bloated, silly, crass, and all of the familiar insults typically hurled at his work, and at fantasy in particular.  Most frustrating, and revealing, however, has been the consistent charge that Jackson has caved in to his own fan-boy impulses, importing many subsidiary plots into the main narrative of his new trilogy of films.  Indeed, Laurence Dodds of The Telegrapg even went so far as to say that, in essence, “This [Jackson’s film trilogy] is typical nerdism, which cannot imagine an imaginative gap which does not exist to be filled.”  Nor is Dodds the only one to argue that Jackson has done something awful to Tolkien’s legacy, for no less a luminary than Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.’s literary executor, argued in an interview with the French periodical that Jackson has turned his father’s work into banal entertainment designed to entertain 15-25 year-olds (it hardly bears noting that it is precisely that age group that originally gravitated to Tolkien and has also consistently kept his works in print).

What emerges from both of these critics is a sense that it is precisely the fans of Tolkien’s work that have done the most “damage” to his literary legacy (I referenced this point in my post about the vexed question of Tolkien ownership).  Of course, it should be no surprise that the literary establishment, the intelligentsia, and film critics should fall into such frankly lazy ways of dismissing the work of Jackson’s.  Indeed, the terms they use to dismiss his work are eerily similar to those the established critics used to dismiss Tolkien’s works when they were originally published.  And, borrowing from Tom Shippey’s impassioned and well-articulated defense of Tolkien, I would argue that these folk do not know how to read Jackson and that this, more than the failings on Jackson’s part, lie at the heart of their stalwart and stubborn (and often quite vicious) unwillingness to grant him any appreciation or critical approbation.

Again and again, the reviews keep saying that Jackson did something wrong (and downright avaricious) by pulling in the backstory to The Hobbit that was only revealed in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings.  But, you know what?  I’m actually glad that Jackson has fleshed out his version of The Hobbit.  I know that I am not the only Tolkien/Jackson fan that was looking forward to the epic battle between the White Council and the Necromancer.  Was every part of that confrontation as I would have wanted it?  Of course not.  I wasn’t the filmmaker, and so my vision doesn’t always mesh with Jackson’s.  That doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of seeing this background brought in, however, for it deepens and enriches our understanding and appreciation of The Hobbit.  The films allow us to understand many of the unseen processes at work even in the novel, and while this may not be to everyone’s liking, as a self-professed Tolkien nerd I highly enjoyed it.

Through it all, and through everything, I have been struck by the emotional truths that these films reveal.  As I noted in my review of the film, I think that The Battle of the Five Armies hits the closest to the spirit of the North that The Hobbit gestures toward (albeit obliquely).  There is a sense throughout this film of loss and of sorrow, of fighting even though the effort seems vain.  As with The Lord of the Rings (both novel and film), The Hobbit (novel and film) suggest that, with every battle we fight, we cannot remain unchanged or unscathed.  We are changed, and there will inevitably be sorrow, and sometimes even regret, at what has been lost.  Sorrow and regret suffuse Tolkien’s entire ouvre, I think, and the marker of Jackson’s success as a filmmaker has consistently been his ability to capture that sensibility, glimpsed most powerfully in BotFA in the final scenes, as Bilbo returns to his home and, when asked who was his employer, responds, “My friend.”  Shortly afterward, as he stands in his ransacked house, he makes to put on the Ring and we, in the audience, know that he has indeed been forever changed by the actions of his quest, that there is no going back.  The simplicity of these scenes, the sparseness of the dialogue, and the raw yet subtle emotion conveyed by Freeman’s Bilbo, all combine to engender in the viewer a profound sense of sadness and loss, a profound sense of emotion that grants meaning to the entire film that preceded it.

Likewise, I have always thought there was a genuineness to Jackson’s endeavours.  He did not want, originally, to do The Hobbit film adaptation.  And who could blame him?  The critical and fan reactions to George Lucas’s similar attempt to flesh out the back story of his famous film trilogy must have been uppermost in his mind, and I’m sure he wanted to avoid inviting the same kind of venom.  Sure, there is quite a lot of bombast in this last film, but who can blame Jackson for having a bit of visual fun with this last visit to Middle-earth?  And sure, some of it may be a trifle overdone (I still can’t wrap my head around the giant sandworms), but that last scene, and several more, really make all of the CGI worthwhile.  It is these moments, such as the fraught parting of Thranduil and Legolas, or the emotionally resonant one between Thranduil and Tauriel, that show that, for all of the bombast, at heart Jackson loves this world and the stories contained in it.  All that he has done, he has done for love, for Tolkien and for the fans who have stood by him through all of his endeavours.

And as for those charges that he has somehow “ruined” Tolkien’s work or vision or whatever other idiotic expression the critic chooses to use, I would simply say this.  Tolkien’s original version of The Hobbit still exists, is still widely available, and is still in print.  If you prefer the (deceivingly) simple whimsy of that version of the story, by all means continue reading it.  I know I do.  But that doesn’t mean that Jackson’s version is complete rubbish, nor does it give anyone the right to dismiss (often in quite cruel and simplistic terms)  the nerds and fans who have not only made Tolkien’s work the cultural phenomenon it is, but have also dedicated substantial portions of their lives, and some cases their academic careers, to enriching their lives and those of others by finding new ways to appreciate Tolkien’s work.  Many of those same fans–but by not means all–have also done the same for Jackson, and I count myself fortunate to be one of them.  In closing, I would refer once again to Tom Shippey (still, to my mind, the authority on Tolkien), who argued some time ago that Jackson has provided one road to Middle-earth, though hardly the only one.  I know that I, whatever others may think, have been quite happy to go with Jackson down that road.

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One comment

  1. Robyn · January 22, 2015

    Tolkien was a master craftsman with his books. But there just was no way to do The Hobbit and not add to the story. In places, the book was boring. The capture of the dwarves in Mirkwood was one example where more was needed. On the other hand, Legolas running up the crumbling tower was more on the level of cartoon physics , not real world. But all in all, the movies were not as bad as the critics say. An epic book was translated to the screen. He tried to stay true without losing the audience.

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