There, but seemingly never back again.
Once upon a time, there lived a guy who loathed the guy who wrote about the hobbit who lived in a hole in the ground. In 2001, I was happily writing crazy popular reviews for an arts monthly in Bozeman, MT. Despite writing whiteness and masculinity critiques of a whole range of films, my negative review of The Fellowship of the Ring (I suggested it circulated the social energies of George Bush’s mad quest for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan) struck a chord with the liberals at the magazine. I was summarily fired from my reviewing job for being “too political.”
I suspect the reason given was not exactly the correct formulation, but nonetheless, I struggled over the release of the next two Peter Jackson blockbusters, which gained in critical and popular appeal as the years went on. To me, the films were worse than slasher films, plotless with little characterization to care about: people run, people fight, people rest. Repeat until my legs fall asleep (not to mention my poor brain).
The problem is that my fellow travelers in Hobbit-hating are not the company I’d generally like to keep. The most influential critic of the 1950s, Edmund Wilson, wrote a humorless, scathing attack upon the initial publication of novel, The Fellowship of the Ring in 1956. Entitled, “Ooh, Those Awful Orcs,” a title which makes the review seem more interesting than it actually is, drags out the standard critiques of fantasy culture as juvenile, and the accompanying insult words (“pathetic” and “trash”) to make its ad hominem attack
It’s not that I don’t see any merit in Wilson’s position: he argues that The Lord of the Rings novels are boring to adult readers, which certainly describes my many attempts to plow through the trilogy. However, it rankles me as a science-fiction fan to hear such simplistic attacks on the most important genre to my intellectual formation. There is something particular about The Lord of the Rings that does not apply to Harry Potter, Star Trek, and other of my beloved science fiction and fantasy texts, to which I have devoted considerable leisure and scholarly attention. Like George Lucas’ Star Wars, there is less there than meets the eye.
It has something to do with the doltish Christianity in the books (regeneration! nature over evil!), although this is far more prominent in Tolkien’s buddy, C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia books I find to be the least engaging literary works I have ever encountered. Indeed, reading The Fellowship of the Ring reminds me of reading the Bible: “john doe, whom I don’t care about, begat jane smith, about whom I care even less,” and on and on, ad infinitum. I really could care less about orcs or elves, unless they are baking my cookies in a large tree.
Another critic with whom I’d usually like to have as little to do as possible, Harold Bloom, offers a slightly more promising path forward. Despite his almost monolithic disdain for 20th century fantasy, from Tolkien to Harry Potter, joining forces with Edmund Wilson to deplore their impoverished status as literature, Bloom begins his second anthology on Tolkien, Modern Critical Views (2000) with a limp defense of The Hobbit, declaring it at least a little bit better than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Understandably finding Galdalf the wizard a bit of a bore, Bloom comes to Bilbo Baggins’ defense. When Gandalf insults the little guy, “you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all,” Bloom celebrates Bilbo’s response, mimicking his own: “Thank goodness.”
Having never gotten past page 50 of The Fellowship of the Rings, I remember reading The Hobbit as a child and enjoying it tremendously. This is where I part company from Wilson and Bloom and their ilk. As Peter Brooks reminds us, the “triumph” of high modernist literary criticism, celebrating the style of James Joyce and William Faulkner, has left us little able to appreciate “reading for the plot.” A few masters of storytelling seem to have escaped the scathing, such as Charles Dickens, but otherwise, the gigantic plot-based forms of soap operas and the like suffer the scorn of the literary firmament, which is regrettable indeed. The Hobbit, it strikes me, and quite a lot of other critics, is a nicely focused novel, sticking to the point of Bilbo’s journey to kill the dragon. In less than 300 pages, Tolkien tells us a heroic story without bludgeoning us too much with his elvish philology.
And thus, I went to see Peter Jackson’s film version of The Hobbit with some hopefulness, although tempered by memories of my sore bottom from sitting through the 4 hour extravaganzas that comprise the previous trilogy of films. Alas, I am afraid I must report that I think The Hobbit film is even worse a cinematic experience than The Fellowship of the Ring. Jackson’s method, I can only surmise to make $3 billion instead of merely $1 billion, is to split the short novel into a trilogy unto itself. That is, Jackson is taking the one advantageous feature of Tolkien’s early novel and converting it via the worst abuses of the much longer and bloated trilogy. And so, I must now sit through two more of these walking and fighting and resting fiascoes. “There and back again” indeed. There, and there, and just when you thought it was over, there again. Harumph!
– Walter Metz