Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Tolkien?

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUGThere is an important point that, if more widely recognized, might defuse some of the controversy incited by Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, New Line Cinema and MGM, 2013). Any work of art, any aesthetic creation, is irreducible and so untranslatable to any other medium. A written story, whose action takes place in the imagination of the reader, can never be faithfully reproduced on screen (even if the dialogue is taken directly from the original text).

A poem is an excellent example of this. How can a poem be “translated” into prose without irrecoverable loss? Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message,”[1] because “it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”[2] The “message” or “meaning” of Jackson’s film versions of Tolkien’s books thus introduces a new “change of scale or pace or pattern”[3] which many lovers of the books understandably find jarring and troubling. But this change in message (from Tolkien’s meaning of the story to Jackson’s) is the unavoidable result of a change in its medium (from book to movie) and so to be expected (even if not, by some, welcomed). Thus, the vehement backlash in some quarters toward Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film “adaptations”: first of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954–55; New Line Cinema, 2001, 2002, 2003) and now his trilogy of Hobbit films (2012, 2013, 2014).

C. S. Lewis related a similar experience and expressed well the disappointment when confronted by the irreducible nature of an aesthetic work, when, after seeing a screen adaptation of a story he very much loved—Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines—wrote in 1947: “there is death in the camera.”[4]

We can, of course, seek to point out where we think a certain adaptation departs from or misinterprets the original. A teacher should rightly point out a student’s deficient answer to an essay question on a particular text, for example, “Your answer obviously corresponds to the movie you watched and not the book you should have read.” But if we go to a movie expecting it to mean for us what the book meant, we will be disappointed when it cannot do what is impossible. Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth as presented in his books died on the screen this past December. There is death in the camera.

Thankfully, however, that is not the end. For there is something else present to the viewer that is very much alive—namely the film itself. And, like the work upon which it is (however faithfully) “based,” it is its own unique aesthetic creation and, like the text that inspired it, irreducible to any other medium without catastrophic and defacing loss. We can criticize an adapted work for its failure to be faithful to its source material, or for so greatly altering it as to make it unrecognizable. But it is silly to criticize it for being a movie (following another’s imaginative vision and invention) when what we really want and love is a book (which invoked our own private imaginative experience). A film adaptation of a book will not mean what the book meant but will mean itself. And we would do well to remember that while something must inevitably die in the camera, something else there (and only there) also lives.

[1] Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1964/1994), 7.
[2] Ibid., 9.
[3] Ibid., 8.
[4] C. S. Lewis, “On Stories,” in Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollins, 1947/2000b.), 93.

Image Credit: New Line Cinema and MGM

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  • Andrew Kaethler says:

    Well said Travis. I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I think in most cases it would be best not to even attempt adapting a book to film. It is a corruption of medium on both sides. With few exceptions (e.g., ‘The Life of Pi’), I think the best films are films based on scripts that are solely conceived within the imagination as a film (e.g., ‘Run Lola Run’). In so doing the medium of film is used to its fullest potential. However, you left me with two related questions: is The Hobbit, as film, well done? Should I spend the money and rush out to the theatre?

    • Travis Buchanan says:

      Thanks Andrew, and good questions. It is impossible to give short answers to them, but I will nonetheless attempt the beginnings of a response with the caveat that much more should be said and so this will not be adequately nuanced. I have seen the movie.

      Now, what I assume you mean, in asking if The Hobbit, as film, is well done, is: Is it a good movie and worth seeing on its own merits (apart from its faithfulness or lack of faithfulness to Tolkien’s story)? The short and inadequate answer from me is, Yes, I do think it is worth seeing. I am inclined to say that the movies (and the three on The Lord of the Rings do this better than the more recent Hobbit films) capture enough of the power and light from Tolkien’s myth to move a viewer on the affective level (in spite of Jackson’s best efforts to make his own movie), and so are worth watching based on that virtue alone. That is the conclusion I come to currently after much thinking about this. Whether or not this latest movie is ‘well done’ would depend on a number of different questions that could be implicit in that one. And so I don’t think I could give a blanket answer to it. But I will say the following. (If all you or another reader is interested in is my short answer, feel no need to continue reading. Go on with your vain life under the sun, and eat, drink, and be merry, if you may.)

      I don’t know what criteria I’d use to more objectively determine if a movie is well done or not. On one hand, each aesthetic creation is unique and should be treated as such. And we should open ourselves up to experience it for what it is and uniquely has to offer before passing judgement on it. Some things are given to us to be enjoyed, but often what they have to give is never allowed to work on us and so spoiled because of our critical (and often unconscious) prejudices. On the other hand, after having experienced a work of art for what it has to offer, it is legitimate to attempt to place it in a context or genre and compare and critique it against other like works, formulating judgements of its relative worth or value for different uses accordingly. (This should be done, or would be much better done, after multiple readings of a book or viewings of a movie, for example. According to C. S. Lewis, rereading is an important indicator of a book’s value to us. And according to Vladimir Nabokov (Lectures on Literature 1980/2002, 3), we cannot begin to appreciate a book for the unified work of art that it is unless we have read it several times, and so begin to hold the whole of its story in our minds the way we could view the whole of a painting at once.) Much has to do with personal taste, however, and so even ‘objective’ criteria for evaluating works of art are open to deconstruction.

      Jackson’s movie is a big-budget production, obviously, and so uses the latest CGI technology to portray fantastic elements on screen. According to the Academy, this it did better than most other films made last year, as it is nominated for three Academy Awards in the categories of sound editing, sound mixing, and visual effects. It aims to be entertaining (most movies are made to be profitable and so sell tickets), and it largely chooses to entertain by putting the viewer on a roller-coaster ride of action adventure from beginning to end. This quasi video-game effect of seeking constant danger and thrill to advance the plot seems to dominate the mood of the film and limit the opportunities for character development. For some this is thrilling, and it certainly causes them to repeatedly reach for popcorn in furious releases of excitement; for others, it is a frustrating flattening of character and motive which they wish were more artfully built up as in the novel. I know one frustrated viewer who commented after seeing the first of the three Hobbit movies, ‘Anticipation [of future dangers] and flattening! What DO they teach them in film school these days?’ in response to ‘Bilbo’s climactic out-of-character attack on the orcs’. I can certainly understand that critique and am in sympathy with it. Jackson has repeatedly demonstrated he is out to improve on Tolkien’s tales and not slavishly follow their presentation of events or even their spirit. I read one interesting article even criticizing Jackson’s choice of ‘postcard-gorgeous’ New Zealand as the exact wrong location for depicting Tolkien’s Middle-earth for several reasons, especially because ‘it is decidedly young—both geologically and as a place inhabited by people. It simply does not transmit the requisite aura of decay’ to ‘convey the sensibility’ of Tolkien’s world ( However, as I tried to emphasize in my post, this is Jackson’s right as an artist, and working in a different medium than Tolkien he is going to produce a different work that will inevitably reflect his own vision of the truth, however indebted he feels (or wishes to remain) to his source. It should be judged as a movie and not as an adaptation of Tolkien’s story, which isn’t really possible (certainly not in a way that would ever satisfy lovers of the book). Hence your question, Is it well done, as a film? At least technically it is well done, if award nominations mean anything.

      But when I say that I think the movie is worth watching, I am approaching it from the perspective of the mythic elements it (despite its many flaws) conveys simply by virtue of reproducing some of the quality of Tolkien’s story. Allow me an excursus using C. S. Lewis as a theorist. It may at first appear a long way round to our discussion but perhaps it may help clarify a few things along the way.
      ‘A great myth’, to C. S. Lewis, was ‘a thing of inexhaustible value’ (‘Preface’ to George MacDonald: An Anthology 1946/60, 15). Lewis concisely contrasted myth with allegory once in a letter:

      a good myth (i.e. a story out of which ever varying meanings will grow for different readers and in different ages) is a higher thing than an allegory (into which one meaning has been put). Into an allegory a man can put only what he already knows: in a myth he puts what he does not yet know and cd. not come to know in any other way. (Collected Letters III, 789–90)

      Myth was an irreplaceable or unsubstitutable source of knowing, Lewis felt, because myth was a window into reality, offering a glimpse of the true nature of things. There are things which we need to know that we could ‘not come to know in any other way’ but by good story or myth, he said. Changing metaphors, myth is a gleam of light which if looked along will reveal something of the ‘permanent aspect of human experience’ (‘On Stories’ 1947/2000b, 88). Myth thus ‘appeals to . . . innocent and permanent needs in us’ (‘The Funeral of a Great Myth’ 1967/2000a, 32). Now, ‘the most “popular” fiction’, Lewis argued, ‘if only it embodies a real myth, is so very much more serious than what is generally called “serious” literature’ for the reason that real myth ‘deals with the permanent and inevitable’ (‘The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard’ 1960/2000b, 154). Tolkien’s major works may have become ‘popular fiction’, but most would agree they are ‘serious literature’ as well (especially The Lord of the Rings). By great myth or story, Lewis has in mind ‘a particular pattern of events’ (1946/60, 15) which he elsewhere elaborated on as the best means for catching as much of reality as one can receive. The conclusion to Lewis’s essay ‘On Stories’ wonders if stories are not a good though imperfect means to catching glimpses, fleeting though they be, of Joy and ultimate reality. ‘To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality’ (1947/2000b, 95).

      Finally, in Experiment in Criticism Lewis identified six characteristics to myth, the first of which is that a good myth is ‘extra-literary’—its meaning survives all its various tellings and is exhausted by none of them (1961/2000, 43). Thus, if Tolkien’s books contain a good myth then (if we follow Lewis on this point) that is something that may be communicated—‘a state or a quality’—through the series of events portrayed in a variety of mediums. We might receive the myth best in the books, but the myth itself is not bound to its written embodiment but is in an important sense free or greater than it and so may be embodied in other tellings or forms. Among these various ‘incarnations’ of a myth some may be more conducive to communicating its original power and quality than others. (I have heard that Stanley Kubrick once thought The Lord of the Rings unadaptable to cinema, which is of significance to the point I’m making here). Thus the relative power and appropriateness of each incarnated telling of a myth is a useful point for discussion that is also case specific.

      Personally, I feel the most constructive conversation to engage in concerns the question of How much of Tolkien’s myth conveyed through his books is ‘embodied’ in Jackson’s movies? Or, how much of the ‘state or quality’, what we might also call the ‘spirit’ of Tolkien’s mythopoeic tale, is caught in the net that is Jackson’s films? Those most critical would answer that close to nothing is retained. Others more positively would argue the movies capture quite a bit of Tolkien’s myth. It is a point on which people may legitimately differ. And so to repeat my ‘short answer’ given above, I am inclined to say that the movies (and the three on The Lord of the Rings do this better than the more recent Hobbit films) capture enough of the power and light from Tolkien’s myth to move a viewer on the affective level (in spite of Jackson’s best efforts to make his own movie), and so are worth watching based on that virtue alone.

  • Adam says:

    Here here Travis! Well said and thank you.

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