The Franchise: The Title: The Subtitle: The Catchphrase: The Roman Numeral

Culture, Media, Movies

There’s a brief comic moment in the second Lord of the Rings film—I don’t think it occurs in the original book—where Gimli the dwarf tells the noble niece of the King of Rohan, a sort of half-Norse, half-Hunnish horse kingdom riding out of the North of Tolkein’s fictive world, that men mistakenly believe that there are no dwarf women, whereas in fact dwarf women simply look so much like dwarf men that outsiders can’t tell them apart. Then Viggo Mortenson, future King of Gondor, which is a sort of half-Roman, half-Most Serene Republic, half-Carolingian kingdom in the south, says to her, sotto voce: “It’s the beards.” It’s an odd, modern locution given Jackson’s general fidelity to LOTR’s ponderous inversions of contemporary English’s Subject-Verb-Object order: epic was the dialogue; but for comic relief ordinary English rarely spoke they. Anyway, this is the common complaint about Tolkein’s universe in general, isn’t it?–the women are just beards for a locker-room full of fellas who prefer the company of other fellas. Poor Cate Blanchett as the mighty elven woman Galadriel really sums it up back in the first installment. Offered the One Ring of Power, she transforms briefly into a weird obsidian-eyed vagina creature and intones ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR, enacting in summary the generally worry of the Tolkeinian universe.

The Hobbit dispenses with women altogether—or, the book does, but it seems less overtly . . . strange, if only because it’s really a boy’s own adventure tale. Cate makes an appearance in Jackson’s film, which, like a middle third trimester pregnancy is both immensely swollen and still unformed. I just reread The Hobbit, and it’s really a shame Jackson had to go and make it epic. It’s such a pleasant little adventure yarn, with a surprising surfeit of bitchy authorial asides. In fact, The Hobbit’s prose is remarkably un-ponderous. Stripped of Anglo-Saxonism, Tolkein can be bumptious and quite funny. The voice in the reader’s head is a slightly drunken English uncle amusing the children after dinner. It’s a shame Jackson stole the movie back from del Toro, who might’ve done the book more justice, having a better eye for both childhood and the grotesque, although for my money, the best choice would’ve been Terry Gilliam, whose Time Bandits (an outright homage to The Hobbit already) was far closer to the tone and tenor of Tolkein’s brisk little tale than this 3-hour prologue. The company of dwarves is permitted its slapstick, but when axe comes to neck, everyone transforms into a superhero, while Ian McKellan’s more mischievous Gandalf seems somewhat flummoxed as to how his later filmic self emerged from this character. The problem here is not so much that the movie is overlong, but that it’s overladen. I don’t mind a long movie where nothing much happens, but this ain’t Barry Lyndon. After a busy opening and then a long fallow section in Bilbo the Hobbit’s house, action arrives with predictable regularity—the problem isn’t the pacing, but the design, or the overdesign. The movie creaks under the burden of its overattention to detail. I did not watch the high frame rate version, but even in regular ol’ projection, it looked like a movie going into post-production rather than emerging from it. The lighting was often either too bright or too dim, and I kept waiting for a boom to drop into the frame or a dolly track appear in the leaves.

It would be unfair to single out Jackson for larding the movie with the many edifices of Tolkein’s, ahem, legendarium just to stretch it out and thus squeeze more fucking money out of it. After all, for every pretention otherwise, the very published existence of Tolkein’s tales and epics and lost tales and lost epics and lays and poems and songs and so on and so forth owes to his estate’s and his publisher’s desire to do precisely that: having exhausted his finished works, they ransacked his papers in order to make more money. Rather, the problem is that movies and heroes may no longer have a limited scope. The adventures of small people in a world that is obviously vast and mostly unknowable to them is actually quite interesting as a conceit, most especially when it’s basically a children’s story, but by constantly panning back and helicoptering skyward to reveal the size of the countryside and the goings-on the next country over, what’s meant to be wondrous become merely banal. In the book, all of this is hinted at just enough by the weird wizard’s occasional disappearance and reappearance, his errands simply implying that greater histories are being woven elsewhere; in the film, we have to follow him around. Far from making the world more wondrous, it makes it less so, over-explained and over-determined, not a story in its own right, but a mere prequel—worse, an origin story, the curse of modern fantasy and science fiction. What is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit? It is the longest, most expensive DVD extra ever made.

9 thoughts on “The Franchise: The Title: The Subtitle: The Catchphrase: The Roman Numeral

  1. What a thoroughly amusing rendering, which makes me feel I’ve enjoyed the film without having to regret seeing it. Or something. Though I reckon Gilliam would’ve made it less Brazil Bandits from Munchbaron’s Hause and more A Dozen or So Imaginative Looking Anthropoids Flying out of the Doctor’s Parnassus.

  2. I swear I felt the insipid, decaying touch of Lucas on this film. During the big chase scene in the goblin warrens, I kept on the lookout for a floppy-eared CGI creature intoning “Meesa sorry! Meesa sorry!”. He sadly never appeared, but then I realized that such juvenile attraction had already been provided by the (formerly) horrific trolls who were now recast as extras from a long-lost “Soccer Hooligan” episode of “The Young Ones”.

  3. When my Mom and Dad moved up from Manhattan to Westchester in the mid-50’s, they bought an estate library as soon as they could afford to (the shelves were planks on bricks – they chose books over furniture.) It was a variegated collection of the classics mixed with books that had been popular in the 30’s and 40’s – I mean, how many people have actually read a Ludwig Bemelmans novel? Anyway, a copy of The Hobbit happened to be in it, and I think I’m probably one of the two people in the world who actually read The Hobbit as a child – read it and re-read it and re-read it. It was so good that I gotta tell you – I found the trilogy a boring overblown ginormity by comparison, and as far as any of the movies go – fuggedaboutit. Anyway. you’ve nailed the tone of it very well – and on a related note I advise you to find a copy of Hugh Walpole’s Jeremy, where the uncle sneaks J out of the house to a Christmas vaudville pageant that J’s father (a minister) has expressly ruled out of bounds. Same kind of very pleasant small-bore novel, and I can only hope that none of our current auteurs decide to give it their treatment. (This is the same uncle, an artist manque who’s been to France, who buys J the toy village he’s desperate to have …)

    1. When my family of origin moved to Falls Church, VA in the mid-1950s, the librarian at the public school I attended recommended The Hobbit to me, a third-grader. I enjoyed it very much, and read it several times while in elementary school. The film, which I saw last week, is a big change from the book. Maybe it had to be that way, for cinematic and commercial reasons. I wonder if there will be a novelization of the film trilogy published. Prospero año nuevo a todos.

    1. There’s a great explanation for that. In the book, they didn’t.

      IIRC, Gandalf dropped a couple of flash grenades, him and Thorin killed about a half dozen goblins who were guarding them, and they all ran off down a side tunnel before the goblins could figure out what was happening. It was decidedly not epic.

      It’s quite impressive, really, how PJ takes three hours to do essentially six scenes from the book.

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