Peter Jackson's the Hobbit: A Beautiful Disaster

By Oziewicz, Marek | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Peter Jackson's the Hobbit: A Beautiful Disaster


Oziewicz, Marek, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


With the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies in December, 2014, Peter Jackson's long pilgrimage through Middle Earth is over. Leaving behind six films that have forever changed the canons of fantasy cinema and can be watched in an unending circular sequence, Jackson enshrined Tolkien's work in a format that--along with the computer games based on these films--may likely be the first or the sole exposure to Tolkien for the general public in the future. This sense of closure invites reflection on the success of Jackson's blockbusters but also raises questions about their problematic relationship to Tolkien's novel. I use the term "problematic" not in the sense that a film adaptation must tell exactly the same story as the literary original on which it is based, but to highlight the fact that any adaptation establishes for the audience a situated, semiotic companion relation to that work of narrative fiction, thereby inevitably transforming how the source is (mis)remembered and (re)interpreted. Jackson's films are visually breathtaking. They involve phenomenal acting and incorporate references to the history of Middle Earth that highlight the relationship of The Hobbit to Tolkien's mythology in general and The Lord of the Rings in particular. For all that, I find them deeply troubling. While my ambivalent experience may not be valid for an audience unfamiliar with the novel and may differ from other readers' response, the three extended edition films appear to me beautiful in a way that brings to mind the beauty of Philip Pullman's Mrs. Coulter or C. S. Lewis's White Witch: nothing less than a beautiful disaster.

As is clear from the above I want to discuss Jackson's trilogy as adaptations. According to Linda Hutcheon, adaptations are productions that "have an overt and defining relation to prior texts" and "openly announce this relationship" (3). Although adaptation theory has now abandoned the criteria of what Hutcheon calls "fidelity criticism," even theorists who embrace the notion of adaptations as autonomous works recognize that "[i]f we know that prior text, we always feel its presence shadowing the one we are experiencing directly" (6). This mechanism, I suggest, applies to the entire audience of Jackson's films; whether or not one is familiar with the novel, the signification offered by the films will inevitably overshadow one's past and future encounters with the literary text. Recent cognitive studies leave no doubt that "film facts" tend to override our memories of "book facts" and reshape our beliefs about the story while simultaneously narrowing our capacity to imagine it otherwise (Zacks np). This principle of reverse exposure explains why those who have seen the film find it hard to picture Bilbo without seeing Martin Freeman's face. Given the worldwide impact of Jackson's films and franchise, including computer games, the stakes for the novel are rather high. In 2004, Courtney M. Booker argued that the popular conception of the Middle Ages between the 1960s and the late 1990s had been largely Tolkienesque, but in the wake of the LOTR films will be increasingly Jacksonesque (173). Paraphrasing this claim, in this essay I suggest that the same process--mediated through The Hobbit films--may well be under way for reshaping the general audience's ideas about The Hobbit and about Tolkien's work as such.

The first section of this essay looks at the archeology of The Hobbit, which demonstrates that Tolkien's story changed not just through the manuscript stages but continued to evolve after the book's publication--the entire process being informed by Tolkien's exploration of Bilbo's character development and the notion of heroism. Against this background, Jackson's film version appears to be a swerve: an unexpected, "unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory" the story had taken thus far (Greenblatt 7). The issue is not that Jackson is telling a different story than Tolkien or through a different medium: it is that his own take on the story is being promoted, as Riga, Thum, and Kollman have argued, as "carry[ing] out Tolkien's unfinished plans by incorporating changes and amplifications that Tolkien both suggested and foresaw" (100). …

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