Monday, 17 December 2012

On seeing The Hobbit at our local cine-plex...

Last night we went as a family to the theatre to see The Hobbit - an Unexpected Journey.  

The 10.20 PM show capped off an extra-ordinary day - which had begun with an early morning family celebration of our 13th anniversary, then saw me whisked to Chembur where Dr. Edwards and I presented our initial evaluation findings with the Project Parivartan team, then came back to Thane and stopped in on Asha's school maths fair where she and her friends were displaying their model of a Ziggurat - and finally plunged into the biggest programme of the year for Jeevan Sahara Kendra - an annual Thanksgiving time which saw over 400 people participate this year - Positive Friends, their families, church volunteers, JSK staff - you name it!   Sheba had also been putting in her time, seeing patients during the day and admitting a very sick man to the JSK centre for in-patient care.  I don't think it would be possible to cram more events into a 24 hour slot.

We were thus rather frazzled by the time we drove out to the theatre at 10 PM.    A few minutes later, in the dim coolness of the cinema - and with a huge tub of popcorn in hand - the four of us donned our 3D glasses and settled down to be taken to Middle Earth.

The film was a fun watch.  While the 2.5 hours were streaming by, my eyes were glued to the screen.  The pace was frenetic.  The set pieces grandiouse.  The scenery stunning. 

And yet the high-light of the film was the eerie blueness of Gollum's eyes.  The unnerving desire seen in this strange (and all-too-familiar) creature.

Looking back 24 hours after seeing the film I can safely say that it was a film almost totally unhinged from the book.   "Story-line inspired by The Hobbit" would be more like it.  Though most of the narrative does echo the core sequences of the book - the whole ethos of the film strikes me as something completely alien to Tolkien's story.

Hollywood loves spectacle.  And the film had plenty.  Using his CGI budget to the max, the director has shown us grandiosity after grandiosity.  The battle scenes contain thousands of different figures.  Whole mountains take form and fight with each other - with the 13 dwarves and Gandalf and Bilbo going along for the ride.  The problem with all of that is that it is so completely and utterly removed from who we are as humans.

I had a minor accident a week ago.  A motorcycle suddenly came from the wrong side.  I braked.  He braked.  His bike hit the front corner of the car.  He was hurt in his leg.  The bike punctured our air-con-radiator.  Steam came from the front of the car.   The actual impact was a fraction of a second.  The sorting out took 2 minutes.  He waved me on.  I went.  I spent the rest of the day processing the shock.  One small incident, but the closeness to real death and destruction shook me to the core.

And yet in this film, the characters go through slaughter after slaugther.  And barely raise an eyebrow.  Where is the essential humanity, the sense of scale that Tolkien so clearly had in all his tales?

One of the beauties of reading The Hobbit was the gradual discovery of courage and pluck in Bilbo.

But as I close my eyes - the images that come back from the movie are the massive battle scenes, the endless cliff-hanging, and unbelievable body smashing that went on.   Smash, bang, grunt, run, repeat.  Pan out.  Show more complicated stuff. Smash some more.  Grunt.  Repeat.

The director and his script writer(s) have had to conjure up a huge bulk of material to make sure they have enough spectacle.  So we get a mishmash of characters from The Lord of the Rings (Radagast the Brown wizard shows up prominently in this film) as well as completely new characters.  The most prominent is some Uber-orc who had a vendetta with Thorin Oakenshield's father.   The dwarves as picturised in the film seem to be largely small versions of Mel Gibson's Braveheart.  There is very little dwarvish in them - but lots about territory, lost home-lands and such.   In the midst of the slaughter - a few moments of 'deep thoughts' about 'being true to who you are' etc. etc.  All very, very, very Hollywood.  The only thing that the director seems to have (mercifully) omitted from the normal Hollywood take is to give Bilbo a love interest.  But who knows, given that there are two more films on the way - probably shot already and waiting to be rolled out for more money....  

Tolkien loved myth.  He loved telling stories - and his characters spend a inordinate amount of time themselves telling tales and singing songs of old.  What Tolkien hated was violence for the sake of violence.  At one point his great warrior Faramir says: "I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for it's swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  I love only that which they defend."

The film version of The Hobbit inverts this.  There is no love for anything but spectacle.  The Shire is reduced to the England that Danny Boyle showed during the Olympics opening ceremony - a small pastiche of quaint cliches - rather than a place where Tolkien - and all who love the good can rejoice in.  The movie has no mooring.  It is just following the flash of mega-disaster films since Independence Day first showed how using computer-aided graphics could destroy whole cities.  The films foundations are in other films - its references are external - rather than building on a world that is cherished and true.

Why do I love reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings?  Partly because at the end of the day, they speak a deep truth about the way things are.  We recognize the constant battle between what is right and good - and the awful destruction that evil wreaks in our world.  We celebrate the bonds of friendship and love that are forged, even while mourning over the stubbornness of heart and the betrayals that take place because of pride that so deeply fills us.  The Hobbit is fiction - but its power comes from how 'true' it is - the thrill of recognizing the real and the true in it.

This is why - as said before - only scene that really stands out is the unnerving portrayal of Gollum - and his manic multiple personality relationship with that which he has lost - the ring.   His twisted emotions are powerfully close to the way that we are.  We recognise bits of people around us - and bits of ourselves in him.

As for the rest of the film?  Mainly Hollywood pastiche.  Wish I didn't have to sound so curmudgeonly, but there it is.   Galadriel's showing up in this film allows for a bit of mumbo-jumbo but nothing like the magical discoveries that a far simpler reading of The Hobbit gave it is readers.  However, if you want to show something magical in film - you need to shoot it in the golden evening sun like so:

I guess I shall just have to firewall the world in my mind that I have for the books - and dip into the big tub of greasy popcorn on the odd occasion that I make it to the cinema.  

Kitab parna Zindabad!


  1. For me the Hobbit is a book I read at bedtimes and that would later come to life in on the canvas of my dreams. I fear watching the movie since it may pollute that (increasingly vague) memory and feeling.

  2. Anand Sir! Agree with you 100%. Alas, now the movie has been seen - but there is a good antidote! Read the book again! And for you - you have the advantage of a little girl who has not (I think) heard the magical opening line yet: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit... So, get out your old copy, or buy a new one, or come to Thane to borrow our dog-eared book... and read aloud to your little princess (and to your queen too)!