After spending half an hour with my wife in an empty theater before discovering that we were “mislocated” (I’m not the cleverest hobbit in the Shire), we raced to the right theater just as the trailers ran down and the film commenced. Were we, I wondered, in for a treat or a trick?
After viewing the film, I come down on the side of treat. No film perfectly captures a great book. Of all the films I’ve seen, To Kill A Mockingbird comes closest to encompassing the essence of Harper Lee’s story, but even this film falls short in places, while occasionally soaring even higher than the book because of the visual dimension. I have the same sense about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.
I was reasonably sure that I would see the feet, hands, eyes, and ears of The Hobbit, all of the active organs, but would I catch a glimpse of its soul? Would I be able to “see” the J.R.R. Tolkien of the book in this film? Would there be any hint of the man whose faith informed everything he did? Would I recognize an authentic Bilbo, an authentic Gandalf? My answer to these questions is a qualified but confident yes.
After a grandiose introduction to Smaug the terrible, we settle into the Shire for a breezy orientation to Bilbo and his new comrades, featuring some of the merriment, and even zaniness, that distinguishes The Hobbit from The Lord of the Rings.
Yes, there was action and mayhem galore in this film, but character and virtue were not neglected; courage, honor, loyalty, generosity, and mercy abound. Kindness and love were explicitly endorsed by Gandalf. The lure of gold (a representation of things as ends in themselves) came through loud and clear, along with the moral and social disorder that such lust breeds.
Peter Jackson took some liberties with the story, with some innovations pointing to the past and some pointing forward in time, probably helpful for those with only a casual interest in Middle Earth, but stretching me a little. Radagast the Brown was depicted as a kind of action figure, and an especially villainous orc was concocted as a foil for the dwarf-king. There were also some overly simplistic expository statements, but none of these things marred the film for me.
Majestic scenes displayed a natural beauty that combined the familiar and otherworldly. The Elven and Orcish languages and subtitles give one a deeper sense of grace and malice. For those who are not fans of Middle Earth, the initial pace of the film might be too languid, but I didn’t mind spending these extra minutes in a fairly realistic Middle Earth.
Jackson could have taken the easy way out and reduced the number of dwarves – characters are often jettisoned to streamline plots – but he didn’t succumb to this expediency, and the riddle game, so essential to the plot, was pure.
Leaving the theater, I felt like I was departing Middle Earth, if not an exact replica of Tolkien’s mythological world, then one that was close enough for my enjoyment and edification.
(Editor’s note: A full Catholic World Report review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit will be published later this week.)