For some reason, my wife and I decided to go to the midnight premiere of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Actually, let me rephrase that.
For some reason, my wife decided to go with me to the midnight premiere of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I’m not sure why. I went because Tolkien basically taught me to love reading as a kid, because I wanted to write a column on the movie, and because I have the ability to sleep in as late as I want. None of those reasons applied to my wife, however, so she was either going because she was starved for a date or because she… well, actually, that’s the only reason that makes any sense.
At any rate, we went together, bundled up against the cold and wind, fighting for seats among a few hundred high school students in elf costumes, a few scores of college students in ironic dwarf beards, and a dozen parents in I-plan-on-sleeping-in-the-theater-as-long-as-I-don’t-see-my-kid-making-out-with-someone sweatpants. A few minutes after we sat down, the one and only guy bold enough to wear a full Gandalf costume strode in, to general applause.
“I don’t belong here,” my wife said.
“Yeah, you really don’t,” I said. “Luckily, our seats are terrible.”
Actually, there were a number of really good seats still left in the theater when we came in, but all of those seats were designated for “D-Box” ticket holders. For those of you lucky enough to live somewhere that doesn’t have D-Boxes, I’ll explain briefly what they are.
First of all, contrary to what you might think based on the name, they are not actually boxes. They are oversized seats, placed in the best possible spots in every theater, in the center of the middle rows. These seats are equipped with some sort of mechanical device that will violently vibrate your butt in coordination with the movie you are watching.
This is supposed to make the movie more intense. So somebody gets shot, and your butt vibrates. A bomb goes off, and your butt vibrates. Two lovers exchange a passionate kiss, and your butt vibrates romantically.1 I don’t know what the “D” stands for, but I assume it stands for “diarrhea,” because that is what you get after sitting on a vibrating chair for two and a half hours.
The theater only charges an extra five bucks for this privilege, so you may be surprised to learn that they are usually empty, even when nearly every other seat is taken. This always leads to at least three occasions when someone comes into the theater late and looks at the seats for about ten seconds, wondering why an enormous block of really good seats is empty, followed by them trying to sit in said seats, followed by an immediate backlash from everyone else, asking them if they have D-Box tickets, followed by them asking what D-Box is, followed by them getting mad about D-Box.
Of course, I wasn’t really there to watch the confusion and anger caused by D[iarrhea]-Box. I was there to deprive my wife of sleep and take some notes for my column. I already had a bunch of stuff written down before I went. Most of it was about Christian fiction, since that is what The Hobbit is supposed to be.
This may surprise a few of you. The Hobbit has very little in common with most of the books you’ll see in the Christian fiction section of your library. For one, it doesn’t have a picture of a white woman in a bonnet on the cover. For another, it is actually good. Christian fiction as it currently exists is not so much good as it is mind-numbingly safe, conformed to specific moral standards that have far more to do with the 1950s then they do with the Bible.2
If you want to see an example of this, you can check out Christian publisher Thomas Nelson’s editorial standards online. What’s fascinating about the Nelson standards is that they do not refer to the writers of their books as “authors,” but rather as “communicators.” This implies that the role of a Christian book is to communicate some meaning rather than some story. This is very similar to the way that C.S. Lewis thought of his work, as well.3 Here’s him writing about what he thinks the purpose of Christian fantasy is:
“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm… But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.” – C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said”
For Lewis, Christian fantasy is like Bilbo Baggins, an invisible burglar that can sneak the message of Christ past the “watchful dragons” of our hearts. And this is the biggest difference between Lewis and his good friend and fellow Christian fantasist Tolkien. When Lewis writes a fairy story, he’s always concerned with what a thing means: Aslan means Jesus; the Stone Table means the Law of Moses; the White Witch means Satan (or perhaps sin).
Tolkien is far more interested in what a thing is. Here is a forest, and a dragon, and an evil ring. Here is a hobbit, and a beautiful jewel, and a dwarf full of greed. Tolkien is a storyteller, a myth maker, for he believed that myths demonstrated truth, that truth cannot actually be understood apart from myth. We can have no true vision of the stars unless we can first see them as “songs of living silver,” no true understanding of the earth until we can first understand it as our mother. Our myths matter a good deal, and how we think of elves is of vital importance to how we think of ourselves.
Jackson’s Hobbit movies have so far managed to miss this Tolkien essential almost completely. Jackson is neither a communicator nor a mythmaker. He is a spectacle maker, a ringmaster, a showman. And he is very, very good at this. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug manages to be both overwhelmingly big and manageably entertaining, balancing the actions of all the important characters quite deftly, allowing each of them just enough heroic moments to justify their presence in the movie. Basically, Jackson made The Avengers: Middle-Earth, and it is this very bigness that breaks the movie so forcefully from the books. Tolkien’s book is not a story about superheroes. It’s a story about a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, one of the smallest of folk, shorter even than the dwarves—a fat, ordinary person who does a lot of brave, ordinary things.
You can sort of see Jackson reaching for that idea at times. My favorite part of the movie comes early on, when the dwarves get themselves lost in the depths of Mirkwood. Trying to see how far away they are from edge of the forest, Bilbo hauls himself to the top of a tree. Up out of the muck and darkness he climbs, into the free air, and there’s a moment when the sunlight shines upon him, and the butterflies flutter about, and he can see for miles. That’s a moment that feels like Tolkien to me, when the beauty and power of Middle Earth reflects back on our own world, and we, too, rise above the darkness.
But there is precious little of that in Jackson’s Middle Earth, few opportunities to catch your breath, look around, and transcend. Instead, we get a sequence of increasingly massive battle sequences that swallow Bilbo up without a trace. Halfway through the movie, I found myself thinking that Martin Freeman wasn’t forceful enough on screen, that his Bilbo had none of the fire and personality of Ian Holm’s Bilbo or Tolkien’s original. But by the time the movie was over, I realized that it really wasn’t Freeman’s fault. The Hobbit is no longer actually about the hobbit. It’s grown much too big for him.
There was this moment, right before the movie started, when a group of five or so young dwarves in front of us started singing “Far Over the Misty Mountain Cold,” the main theme of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It was haunting and sad – a somber, low hum of longing, heavy with the weight of grief long endured. Seriously, it was. And there was a joy in it too, an excitement shared among young friends dressed up and out late on a school night. When they finished singing the two verses of that song, they decided to sing it again. And then again. And again. And the magic of the first singing faded away and died, and they all sort of looked at each other, not knowing what to do.
I can’t help feeling that Jackson’s Middle Earth has reached that same point, has become nothing but two verses of Tolkien’s grand song, repeated endlessly, every note punctuated with a flying orc head. Until, eventually, its magic fades, and we all start to feel a little bit embarrassed.
1 I like to think that there is a D-Box “composer” out there somewhere, studying the latest Hollywood films, artistically deciding the length and intensity of these vibrations to provide an elegant counterpoint to the action onscreen. In my head, this person wears a white turtleneck and a scarf, because they are an artist and because their neck is really cold all the time.
2 This criticism is largely restricted to books actually labeled as Christian fiction by the current marketplace. There are plenty of excellent books still being written and published that are Christian in everything but name. The most obvious example of this is probably Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. No really.
3 Though I will hasten to point out that this is largely where the similarities between Lewis and Thomas Nelson publishing stop. Lewis was adamantly against stories that were “safe” in this way, especially those written for children. I do not know what he would have thought of such stories written for adults.