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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Losing the Poetry in 'The Hobbit'

The Judge takes a break from the series on poetry criticism to write something of an extemporary feature article - one which, be ye warned, contains a few spoilers. (The series will be finished, worry not, probably after Christmas).

Consider this poem by JRR Tolkien:

Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
It is marked by a rending sense of melancholy and nostalgia for that which is past, and this nostalgia is expressed on many levels. Firstly, it is literally stated, as the speaker rhetorically suggests that nobody shall ‘behold the flowing years from the Sea returning’. Secondly, it is rendered in the naturalist imagery that takes over from the classical one in line three (nicely synthesised in the transition from the harp to the fire), and which stands in contrast to the industrial world in which Tolkien lived. Finally, it is implied in the choice of form and diction. Phrases like ‘Where now are the horse and the rider?’ or ‘Who shall gather the smoke’ are constructions which come straight out of classical poetry, much like the alliterative style (helm – hauberk, harp – harpstring, days – down, etc.) derives from poetry in Old English, from Beowulf onwards. Tolkien is invoking, among other past ages, the past ages of poetry.

The poem comes from the Lord of the Rings, and it encapsulates not only one of the book’s central themes, but also one of its literary merits. Central to the enduring success of Tolkien’s masterwork is the grace with which it brings together his differing interests in lyric poetry, in epic poetry (the latter expressed in his famous essay ‘The Monster and the Critics’ and, apparently, in an upcoming epic poem of his own), in philology, and of course in the novel, a form which he first touched in The Hobbit.

Peter Jackson’s An Unexpected Journey, released less than a week ago and already leading all of the charts, is the latest attempt to transpose Tolkien’s work to the big screen. Like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is a rather dreadful effort. Jackson’s passion for the text is unquestionable – he’s certainly researched the source material. It’s his understanding of what makes the books work, in particular their textual subtlety, or his ability to translate that into a new medium, that is lacking.

An Unexpected Journey is not as faithful to the book as the previous trilogy was. Indeed, Jackson has taken the opportunity to make an out-and-out prequel, and the differences between book and film have already been lamented. What none of the reviews I’ve read have pointed out, for some reason, is the gulf between Tolkien’s use of language and Jackson’s use of images – and this is a problem that was already sharply on display in the original filmic trilogy.

The primary difference between poetry and film is that one is linguistic whereas the other is visual. But nothing prevents these media from using words and image to produce the same effect. Jackson’s greatest failure lies precisely in reading the novels with a purely literal eye. As a consequence, he is unable to reproduce levels of subtlety such as we find in the above poem, even though he follows the diegetic rails quite accurately.

Tolkien’s prose owes much to the Gothic novel, for the good and for the bad. It is extensively descriptive, especially when it comes to the journeying, and the diction is archaic – even a bit highfalutin. While it is not always successful, the understanding that it belies remains one of beauty – and it is a type of beauty that is delicate, subtle and transient. Jackson’s imagery is entirely lacking in all of these qualities. His films are defined by blazing dawns and sunsets, shots of intricate baroque cities framed in their gigantomaniac entirety, crashing silver waterfalls with rainbows spearing through them, and endless swoops over forests, rivers and mountains. When important characters must be introduced, the image blares: the elf queen Galadriel appears in this latest film with a blinding, golden rising sun behind her as she turns in slow motion. When a dialogue is important, the visual trumpets blow again (maybe that’s where that horn is blowing after all, John): the final reconciliation between Bilbo and Thorin takes place during a sunset, and all the characters are bathed in a refulgent light. Jackson in fact has much more in common with the silver-maned George Lucas than he does with Tolkien, in style and talent both.

Is this really a failure inherent in the category – be that film, fantasy or blockbuster? Exactly thirty years ago another movie was filmed in the very same genre. It too was a fantasy epic blockbuster, though there was nothing epic about its budget. It was entitled Conan the Barbarian, and it was a film dominated by the titanic physical presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. It wasn’t nearly as silly as people usually remember it to be, and more importantly, it had exactly what Jackson’s films are lacking: a visual style that is frequently and essentially poetic, if in a bleak and barren way. Director John Milius opens the scene of Conan’s crucifixion on the ‘tree of woe’ (see it for yourself at minute 3:57 of this video) with a wide angle, giving us a clear view not only of the tree but of the desert that surrounds it. The wide angle implies the epic breadth and scope of the story, while the monochrome desert reflects its crude simplicity; the solitary, leafless tree mirrors Conan’s sense of spiritual isolation. The frame fades out into the desert, then pans onto the hero’s ravaged physique, reinforcing the thematic connection between the two. The scene has tremendous suggestive power, and not a single word is spoken.

Compare the tree of woe with the moment in The Hobbit when Thorin rises from his own tree, the one where he has been pinned down by his enemies’ hounds. As he goes to fight his rival, he is hit and he falls. As he falls, events start rolling in slow motion. Then a track of violins starts playing. When Thorin hits the ground, the frame cuts to a close-up of a dwarf shouting ‘Nooo’, and then back to Thorin. It is such a standard form that it is almost scholastic; there is no space for imagination, sentiment or suggestion. It is as though Jackson automatically assumed that his audience was comprised of idiots, so he does not trust them with feeling or understanding anything on their own. Instead, he gives them small cues to indicate them when to feel sad, when to feel relieved, when to feel worried. Imagine Tolkien being that explicit in his poem.

There are many other flaws in Jackson’s films. The action scenes are terribly choreographed, there is an over-reliance on CGI which only Lucas is able to match and which is not very competently used (I was unable to find a single creature which looked alive, not even the simple ones like hedgehogs and birds), and the characters are mostly quite flat, including the inescapable, odious comic relief – in this case an obese dwarf, because as we all know fat people are funny. But the one thing that really crumbles the connection between these films and the original texts is simply the vulgarity of Jackson’s direction. Even when inserting the poem at the top of this article in one of his character’s monologues (one of the few fine moments in the films), the use of light is almost blinding.

For Tolkien, like for the great epic poets, the golden age is a thing of the past, necessarily and inherently irretrievable. For Jackson, the golden age is right now – and it’s getting more and more golden as the increased powers of CGI allow for brighter dawns and sunsets in higher definitions and frame-rates. Jackson certainly appreciates Tolkien’s poetry. The problem, judging by this film and the ones that came before, is that he doesn’t understand it.


  1. An excellent point. Thanks for taking the time to share it.

    For an encore, I challenge you to explain why The Terminator was better than 2001. ;-)

  2. I'd have trouble finding an argument to beat Kubrick's weightless Apollonian exploration... but I can tell you why The Terminator is a much better film than it is given credit for: http://www.rhythmcircus.co.uk/film/rethinking-the-terminator-3/

    Enjoy, and thanks for reading! ;)

  3. That was me, by the way.

    -- The Judge.

  4. Very good review, I agree with almost all of it.

    Your comments about Conan the Barbarian are interesting, since a lot of the criticisms you have of The Hobbit can be levelled at CtB: for all Milius' command of vision and his fascination with disparate philosophies, it's but a pale imitation of Howard's incredible prose and poetry, and an awful lot of CtB's themes are directly antithetical to Howard's.

    I will say, though, that Milius is a far superior director to Jackson.


What say you?