The new Hobbit movie has only confirmed the feeling I got from the Lord of the Rings films. Peter Jackson doesn't understand -- or more likely, doesn't care much -- about the moral and religious scaffolding upon which J.R.R. Tolkien built his stories.
Put it this way: Jackson's story is to Tolkien's as Mormon theology is to every other self-identified Christian group. They share many values and key texts and even terminology and names. But they are essentially -- at their centers -- very different.
That doesn't make one necessarily better than the other. I know folks who find deep spiritual satisfaction across a broad spectrum of theologies. And I know of lots of Peter Jackson LOTR fans. But anybody going to this new film hoping for something like a faithful adaptation of the book they've loved will be disappointed.
I'm not just talking about Jackson's rearrangement of the narrative furniture, although there's even more of that in this movie than happened in the LOTR films. And to less obvious purpose. Turning Radagast the Brown into a major character? What's the point? Although with two more films to fill, Jackson may plan to give us lots more Radagast, plus the two Blue Wizards (ask Mr. Google) and -- who knows? -- even Tom Bombadil.
And some of this production is wonderful. The Riddle Game between Gollum and Bilbo is flat-out perfect. In an astonishing mastery of CGI and the captured skill of actor Andy Serkis, we meet game-loving Sméagol (ask Mr. Google). For Star Trek fans, the dwarves will feel like a cross between the warrior Klingons and the uber-merchant Ferengi. Which was spot on for me.
And as was true for the LOTR films, Jackson has the visuals working as well as any illustration I've ever seen of Middle-earth.
So what's my beef? I'll reach back to Jackson's most significant change in LOTR and then explain his biggest alteration thus far with The Hobbit. (Spoiler alert: If you're unfamiliar with the books or movies, you may want to move along. I'll be giving away the store.)
Tolkien created Middle-earth with a very particular -- and particularly Christian -- set of moral laws. There is no Christ, of course, but there is a coherent mythos with the equivalent of God, angels and lesser supernatural figures. And the story of the One Ring, about the inherent corrupting power of worldly might, builds to a single moment that exemplifies Tolkien's theology.
To recap: In book and film, Frodo has heroically carried the Ring to the one spot where it can be destroyed. Instead, he claims it and -- in that one moment -- Gollum attacks and bites off Frodo's finger with the ring. In the book, this is what follows:
"But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle...And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone."
In the movie, after Gollum bites off his finger, Frodo heroically launches himself at Gollum and hurls them both over the side. Gollum falls with the Ring into the lava but Frodo is barely saved by Sam.
I'll grant that Jackson's version is more exciting, in the same way that loading Ophelia with a suicide vest and having her blast herself to smithereens center-stage would liven up a production of Hamlet. But that wouldn't be Shakespeare.
Here's the key for Tolkein that Jackson ignores: Frodo fails in his quest but the quest succeeds. Jackson, however, has Frodo win.
To put it in Tolkien's Christian framework, salvation in the book could not be achieved even by the most heroic efforts of men (or hobbits). To a secularist, Gollum's fall might be read as an accident. To Tolkien, it was always providential, an act of grace.
Tolkien wrote about this moment a lot in letters collected and published after his death. He addresses Frodo's failure here:
"No, Frodo 'failed'. It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us."
Frodo's failure, Tolkien writes in several letters, is "inevitable." As is the eventual victory granted by means not seen.
This failure/triumph is the fulcrum upon which Tolkien's entire story turns. By changing that moment, Jackson's version turns upon a different fulcrum. That doesn't make it wrong, but it does make it essentially different.
So consider The Hobbit. The themes are lighter than LOTR, but there's still a quest involving a small and unlikely hero.
There's one moment where this first Hobbit movie went very sour for me. As in the book, Bilbo is an initially reluctant adventurer. The dwarves initially distrust him and see little value in his presence.
In the book, Bilbo eventually comes to understand himself -- and be understood -- as brave, clever and valuable. He succeeds primarily because of his wits. In the book, he finally comes to his own in a battle with giant talking spiders. Nasty foes to be sure, but it's clear they're no match for a desperate hobbit armed with a small sword and magic ring.
In the movie, the lynchpin moment arrives after a battle that feels like it takes most of an Age of the World, though in the book it only occupies a couple of pages. Thorin Oakenshield is about to be gutted by a goblin on a warg -- imagine an enormous NFL lineman in combat gear riding a cross between a rhinoceros and a wolf.
Bilbo goes into a beserker rage and throws himself at the goblin and warg, killing the beast and saving Thorin. The dwarves instantly repent of their doubts.
Sigh. Tolkien's Bilbo doesn't win by being lost in a warrior's fury. He's plucky and creative, tough and strong enough to execute his plans. But crazy-violent? Not hardly.
And even in the magical unreality of Middle-earth where wizards and elves are part of the background, Bilbo successfully taking on the warg seemed unbelievable. Or at least inconsistent. Tolkien's Bilbo is a hero, never a superhero.
And that's central to The Hobbit, a story that was initially and principally about and seen through eyes of, well, a hobbit.
But Jackson has that additional six hours of so of movie to fill. He's already said that Bilbo's tale is only a fraction of the story he wants to tell. Maybe it will all make eventual sense and his Bilbo will become a mini-barbarian who spears Smaug. And maybe Radagast and Jar Jar Binks will show up in a grand alliance.
But whatever it becomes, it's already pretty clear that Jackson's Hobbit will never be Tolkien's.