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The Hobbit and the Palantiir

Whether tales enchant or bore depends mostly on the eyes through which we see them.

Waving aside the warnings of some thoughtful friends, I, perhaps due to the juvenile delight I take in the spectacle of fantasy set-pieces, consented to watching the second Hobbit film.

That it strayed from the book’s spare plot did not bother me overmuch.  It was only mildly irritating to see the laws of physics strained so many times, (many implausible falls from various heights) I allowed myself a semi-audible groaned at an invented subplot featuring and elf-elf-dwarf love triangle, and felt only a touch dismayed watching the dwarves’ barrel trip down the river devolve into an acrobatic spree of unneeded orc-slaying. But these moments were balanced by some really lovely depictions of iconic scenes from the book: hoary, fearsome Beorn serves breakfast to his guests, a colony of delightfully repulsive gigantic forest spiders imprison our heroes in nasty silken webs and exclaim “it stings!” when Bilbo slays them, Bilbo climbs to the top of Mirkwood forest, breathes in the sweet air before descending again into the darkness, the dragon Smaug is a wonder to behold, if ultimately a bit feckless in his inability to cook a few little dwarves with his bellowing fire (he always seems to miss.)

It is not that the bad scenes outbalance the good ones which accounts for why The Hobbit part 2 fails. No, it is the expanded scale of the film that stretches beyond the book’s concentrated focus on its main character, the little hobbit Bilbo for whom the volume is named. Without warning, we are whisked off to mountain peaks just to watch bands of (non-canonical) orcs cross them, to monsters’ lairs, elven high-chambers, and human hovels for the sole purpose of showing them off. But in the novel, we mostly only see what Bilbo sees and, more importantly, how Bilbo sees it–with an uncomprehending wonder and curiosity that only sometimes stands out from his groaning stomach. Being a hobbit, and very often an invisible one, he is often overlooked by the other players in the wide world he has stumbled into, and by the time Bilbo finally confronts Smaug the Magnificent (undoubtedly the greatest and most grandiose mythical being he has yet seen on his journey) he trumpets his insignificance as the reason for his many victories: he is the unexpected lucky number, the luck-wearer, stinging fly, the barrel-rider. The novel, being told through Bilbo’s eyes, is squarely focused on his limited experience of the surrounding grandeur of the quest. The film gets it backwards. Little Bilbo is indeed lost in the wider story and the long list of striking characters, but the camera is not on his side of things except for a few check-ins where he must move the story along. To Peter Jackson, everything is apparently more interesting than the hobbit himself, especially his newly invented romance and war subplots inserted for purposes unfathomable.

The all-too-funny thing is that Tolkien himself created a metaphorical device that helps explain why rendering a story, even an epic story, using a lens that can see all the world at once is so depressing. The Palantiir stones treasured by King Denethor and misused by Pippin Took are, perhaps, the portents of modern film’s wild careening into visions beyond the limitations of character. Looking through one Palantiir stone lets you see through the glass of every other. It amounts to too much information, free of creaturely context. Denethor goes so mad with despair by seeing through his stone the breadth of the armies arrayed against him that he cannot concentrate on the task at hand–the defense of his city. Similarly, we get tired-head watching every single digitally-enhanced scrap between orcs and heroes that is going on at the world at the same time. Even the film’s grand finale, the face-off between Smaug and Bilbo (and later, improbably, the rest of the dwarves) is deflated by the abrupt changes of context, as we wing it back to Lake-Town to watch (for some reason) some more hibachi-like acrobatics as some spare side heroes cut up even more nasty orcs. We are seeing everything at once, and so we feel nothing at all.

The relationship between Bilbo and Gandalf suffers most for the film’s Palantiir-like vision. The film cuts back-and-forth between the Dwarven journey and Gandalf’s fantastical battles against the Necromancer, though the novel does not reveal where Gandalf’s errands take him nor why he must take them. To the hobbit, he is a warm, grandfatherly presence whose great purpose sometimes requires periods of absence but not without leaving instructions and wise advice. In the film, the grey wizard comes off quite cold with brusque orders instead of fatherly advice and a knowing trust in Bilbo’s abilities. Because we have to see just where Gandalf goes and what he does, he is no longer the story’s spiritual center, radiating a penumbra of hope, mystery, and wonder, but just another chess piece to be moved around aimlessly. Keeping the camera firmly on Bilbo, watching the film’s many predicaments from the ground up, instead of its sweeping aerial climes, would have made even the film’s weakest bits measurably better and more relatable.

And yet, I’m left to wonder if audiences could accept such constraints in our day. Can we still hold to our creaturely selves while we carry little square Palantiirs in our pockets that whisk us out of our own shoes whenever we wish to peer into them? If not, then we’ve ceased to be Bilbo and so cannot identify with him anymore, his longing for carnal comforts of home and hearth, his fitful wrestling with his own physical and mental smallness and how he might overcome both with greatness of heart. Perhaps we’ve moved on from our hobbit holes to the air-conditioned halls of bored kings, staring dully into our disembodied portals, if we have not yet fully integrated with the spirit-world of digital media as wraiths upon dead thrones.

2 Responses to “The Hobbit and the Palantiir”

  1. Rachael

    So wonderfully put. I enjoyed the film, but absolutely felt the tonal shift you emphasize between limited vision and sweeping epic. Of course, both types of stories offer us something vital, but Tolkien did seem to write the Hobbit with a focus on the small wonders that sustain our personal struggles for strength.

    Reply

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