As the northern sun kissed its nadir and winter’s grip reached full clench – that’s last Friday’s solstice I’m on about - a merry band of us from the HCJB Global media office, with a few family and friends, braved the McDonaldisation of the silver screen which is Cineworld, to view Peter Jackson’s latest antipodean money-spinner. We joined a motley pre-holiday afternoon crew which, while no doubt containing a few genuine Middle Earth aficianados, was probably mainly youngsters wanting to know if this flick about something called a ‘Hobbit’, with the bloke from Sherlock staring down earnestly from the side of a bus in hair extensions – is actually any good. I hope they weren’t disappointed, although Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t playing Gandalf, so a few young ladies might have been.
My mother asked the other day if I thought she’d enjoy it – she has a low ‘sex violence and general unsavouriness’ threshold and didn’t care much for the orcs in Lord of the Rings (which is fair enough, they’re no oil paintings, and definitely overdue a visit to the dentist). Dad though had suggested to her that The Hobbit is a ‘gentler’ book. It is – I read it as an off school, sick in bed 14-year old once, and I don’t recall it making me any more nauseous; but I had to point out that the film content stands pretty firmly in the LOTR tradition of big battles and ugly orcs (with a very big dragon thrown in). And what with the far more meagre book material being likewise expanded to a trilogy, Jackson seems to be adopting a ‘let’s go with what worked last time’ approach.
It didn’t take long – the lengthy dwarf carousing scene in Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole to be precise, replete with solemn dwarfish sung incantations - for the suspicion to creep wraith-like upon me that in order to spin this modest tale into a trilogy of three hour films, there would have to be a serious amount of ‘milking it’. There’s a lot of stuff in the film I don’t recall from the book; but then it was a long time ago - maybe three Shrek look-a-like trolls really did try to roast Bilbo and his dwarf buddies over an open fire (if you know, please tell me.) Nevertheless, what with those savage orc-hounds, their one-armed leader (an especially mean-looking Shrek), and one very big and very fire-breathing dragon (Smaug), there was enough stimulus to keep me from lighting up my phone and updating facebook (probably a good job – a girl got frogmarched out apparently under suspicion of being a film pirate. She didn’t look very pirate-y, poor thing.)
Before you accuse me of posing as a wannabe Danny Leigh from Film 2012 (which admittedly does have the perk of sitting next to Claudia Winkleman) let’s cut to the chase. There were two moments that made me sit up long enough to think ‘my that’s deep’ before the next bang and whoosh. First, Bilbo’s opinion about adventures as he tries to brush off Gandalf’s invitation to join him on one: ‘nasty uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner’. There you have it – eight words summarising the entire tendency of human nature towards convenience, self-protection, and ultimately an evasion of encounter with the depths and breadths of life, and dare I say it, God. ‘..Make you late for dinner’. I have the same opinion about ‘The One Show’, but that’s another story.
Second, Bilbo’s spine-tingling encounter with Gollum, the unlikely star of the Middle Earth juggernaut - as hobbit hero Bilbo, cloaked with invisibility by the ring of power he has found and is wearing, endeavours to pass the shrivelled creature in a mountain tunnel and rejoin his companions. Bilbo raises the elfish sword he has been gifted, to strike Gollum dead. Cue eerie ‘invisibility effects’ as he ponders the latter’s bulbous-eyed, pained expression in the agony of his bewilderment and loss – and Bilbo relents. We recall Gandalf’s admonishment that courage would be most revealed, not by killing, but knowing when to refrain. More profoundly, Bilbo catches a glimpse of the ‘humanity’ hiding vulnerable behind Gollum’s ugliness, and is moved to mercy, perhaps dimly discerning his own latent tendency to fall to such depths. I’ve heard Gollum used at least once by a preacher as an illustration of humanity warped and poisoned by sin. A filmic moment to breathe fresh life into the cliché ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
In the film’s final moment, from beneath a vast dune of gold in the dwarves’ former home, a scaly slit cracks open and Smaug’s reptilean eye stares malevolently out at us. Beckoning us, in the hands of a director with a steady eye on a franchise, to come back and see the next instalment in a year. Well ok. I’ll think about it.