The Hobbit: a review (Spoilers for both movie and book)

Perhaps I am reaching a point in my life when a simple chase scene no longer appeals to me, but one of the starkest thoughts I had while watching Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was “wow. Those goblins have some impressive logistical ability; why can’t the dwarves recognize that infrastructure?” I had this thought just after the dwarves had been captured by goblins in the Misty Mountains. They had been taken before the large goblin in a massive open cavern lit by hundreds of torches and some chandeliers of torches suspended from the top of the cave, hung over several stories of pit. Of course, it was all for visual effect and I am sure that Jackson gave no thought to the logistics of the undertaking on a regular basis–the torches only had to be lit for the shoot…unless they were CGI.1 Nonetheless, I was curious. But more on that scene later.

Overall, Jackson did a remarkably thorough job at capturing the bulk of the Hobbit, the accumulated mythology of Middle Earth as created by Tolkien, and matching the story with his Lord of the Rings movies. Admittedly, though, these multiple threads made for a rather different movie than the original book. I had minor qualms with the movie, but unlike with the Fellowship movie where I had very specific issues and solutions, in the Hobbit I could only shrug at the issues and concede that I had no feasible or readily available solution.2 The deviation from the book tended to be in the hope of simplification or, often, because Jackson stitched together so many disparate parts and needed a way to compress and unify the story into one narrative–or several narratives closely enough aligned that they could fit into the same movie. In light of this, I found surprisingly little Peter Jackson bloat–scenes that served little narrative purpose (though there were certainly some that could be been compressed). yes, the complaint may be made that while everyone enjoys walking about in New Zealand, there is only so much that one can take. I may be a wanderer (peregrinans) at heart, but I thought there was only one truly excessive walking scene. The others were just transition scenes and fit the actual story well enough. The three hour time –and even the three movies–actually fits what Jackson is doing, that is, using the extra material provided by Tolkien to give a prequel to the Lord of the Rings in its fullest sense. Thus, he makes little distinction between the rise of Sauron at Dol Guldor, the quest of Thorin Oakenshield to rid the Lonely Mountain of Smaug and the in-fighting of the White Council, while using the story of the Hobbit as a narrative backbone for the larger tale–not unlike what Tolkien did. So far, the movie itself may not measure up to the first three, but it is more thorough and thus (in some ways) more satisfactory.

There were issues, though. Specifically, I had problems with one fight scene, two chase scenes, and one hazardous mountain pass. I will not bother with what I described above as efforts to stitch the stories together, though I will also note several lapses that might have been worth including.

One of the ways that Tolkien sets the stage for his story is that the dwarves each are wearing distinctively colored cloaks when they arrive at Bag End and all are without weapon. Jackson likewise sets his story by their arrival, though most of his dwarves are armed. One reviewere lamented that this undercut the original story by making the dwarves into stalwart warriors. While I do feel this change (and lack of cloaks) diminished the story just a bit, it also served to alert the viewer that this story is a legitimate prequel to the Lord of the Rings, so, of course they would be armed. Jackson did also pay homage to this by drawing distinction between the several warriors in the party while drawing attention to the motley nature of the rest of the dwarves.

The first scene that felt distinctly out of place (and one of the few that did) was a scene where Gandalf uses the excuse of being chased by Wargs to trick Thorin into going to Rivendell. From a broad scope of the revised narrative it did offer a chance to make Thorin and the party chased from the beginning, but it was also drawn out (including (in my opinion) gratuitous scenes of Radagast and his ridiculous bunny-sleigh). Still, I don’t really have an alternative solution…it just seemed wrong.

The second scene, that of the storm giants, was one of the few bloated scenes that went from a minor passage in the book to an exciting scene fraught with danger. This one felt like Jackson had a new toy and wanted to make use of it. Certainly, it was a nice inclusion since it covers about a page in the book, but to make such a big deal out of it was overkill.

The second chase that bothered me was the escape from the goblin cave. In the book it is a frenetic escape in the dark through cut caves. In the movie those hundreds of torches suspended above scaffolding provide more opportunities for cinematography, but I felt as though I was watching a video game level where you have to hit the right levers as you run through it. Yes, Tolkien could do as an author many things that Jackson can’t as a director, but this scene felt overdone to the point of cheesiness.

Before pointing out the climactic scene that bothered me, let me say that Jackson missed an opportunity after that chase. He has Thorin go on a rant about the useless hobbit only to have Bilbo step out and shame him. In the book, though, the dwarves are amazed that Bilbo is alive and gain respect for his as a burglar when he explains how he got past the goblins. The movie worked well enough, but it took another act for Thorin to truly appreciate him. That last act brings me to the final scene that bothered me. In the book, the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo are chased up trees (okay, so far, so good), only to have the goblins attempt to burn them out and a rescue by eagles. But, in the movie, there had to be another fight scene, so when the party is chased up the trees, they throw lit pine cones at the wargs and then, seemingly as a last resort, Thorin goes out to confront his nemesis, only to be saved by…Bilbo? Bilbo’s bravery is what endears him to Thorin. As before, this scene felt unnecessary–as though there needed to be a climax to set us up for part two. This also took something away from Bilbo the burglar, but , once again, the scene was not so much dissonant with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit as with Tolkien’s original.

On the whole the movie was enjoyable and no less because I needed an afternoon distraction when I watched it. My biggest problem with it is a problem with the medium more than with this particular movie. Peter Jackson did a pretty good job with the Hobbit both as a film and a dedication to Tolkien’s original, but it was still a collaboration of Jackson, the actors, etc, interacting with and putting on an interpretation of Tolkien’s world, after which it is relayed to the rest of the world for our consumption. The viewers of the film have little interaction with the story besides being passive recipients. When I read The Hobbit as a book and then seek out the additional material it becomes an interaction between me as the reader and the world created by Tolkien. To a great extent, it is the same reason that I dislike the Game of Thrones tv show–and why I have decided that I will not see any more movies made out of books I like. To put out a viable movie or tv show based on a book is to corrupt that book. Peter Jackson did a good job with his interpretation, but, at the end of the day, I feel as a viewer and as a reader that, somehow, I should have been more involved in conjuring up the story.

1 In Tolkien’s version, the scene takes place in a much more dimly lit cavern and most of the subsequent chase takes place in the dark.
2In part, though, I know the story less well.

Assorted Links

  1. Bribery Aisle: How Wal-Mart Got Its Way in Mexico– A story in the New York Times Wal Mart de Mexico and how it used bribes to bypass, manipulate, or acquire zoning and licensing permits for stores in Mexico, including around historic landmarks.
  2. Ramesses III’s Throat Was Slit– A new cat scan on the mummy of Ramesses III reveals a deep cut in the throat that likely would have caused death instantly, thereby suggesting that that was what caused his death. Likewise, a DNA test on a desecrated body found near the dead Pharaoh, confirms that it was a blood relative and probably his son.
  3. The Entourage in Antiquity– At PhDiva, classicist Sarah Bond discusses some of the ways that paying for and having an entourage was a symbol of status in the ancient world…not unlike the modern world.
  4. Defining Learning Expectations-An essay on Inside Higher Ed that looks at the set of standards for skills that students should be able to learn in history classes, while leaving the specific facts up to the instructor.
  5. Why Workers Are Losing The War Against Machines– An article in the Atlantic that has a somewhat misleading title. Instead of looking at manual labor against the machines (as the followers of Ned Ludd attempted), the article gives a solid, if somewhat basic, account of the ways in which technology disproportionately benefit those people who are already in positions of power or have the technology. In short, those with the resources and training/ability can maintain some level of control over the product and with the rapid growth of communication, the net effects of the decisions made by relatively few people are magnified. There are exceptions, but the article argues that those few who can rise into the category of “superstars” are fewer than in the past while the underlying, structural gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing. Despite the somewhat misleading title, the article provides some figures and a straightforward walk-through of information that has been popping up in fits and starts for a few years (at least).
  6. Buried Christian Empire in Yemen Casts New Light on Early Islam– A report in Spiegel about an archaeological find in Yemen that further suggests a Christian kingdom that may have exerted influence over Mecca in the years leading up to Mohammed’s birth. It also discusses in passing the environmental conditions and plagues of Arabia during the latter part of the period of the kingdom. As a detailed report and discussion the article is pretty deficient (or, alternately, it tries to let the reader know too much and does it in terms that are too vague), but as a thought piece and article blurb it is interesting.

Thoughts on Orthodoxy in the classroom

Orthodoxy is believing the correct things as demonstrated by adhering to the correct creeds, saying the right things, and otherwise demonstrably proving that you are not heretical in your belief.

Orthopraxy is performing the correct actions and conducting yourself in the right way.

These two concepts are most often applied to matters of religion with the idea that one begets the other, but with different emphases on how to best preserve society. I would like to apply them to education–partly based on a frustrated tangent I went on in the classroom this past semester.

Freshmen in college seem either to know or to crave “the right answer” in history classes, depending on the question. If the question is about racial or gender issues but does not require much prolonged thought, students can regurgitate a politically correct answer that they learned in high school. Slavery is bad; Europeans have treated Native Americans badly and are never sympathetic people as a result; of course women should be allowed to have jobs and vote–to give a few simplistic examples. The problem is that when the students prepare essay answers or write papers they sometimes say shocking and bigoted things, sometimes because they are trying to say something else entirely, and sometimes because while they know the politically correct answer, they are grappling with the issues presented only in a superficial way while holding onto beliefs that they have been trained to hide.1

Somehow schools and society are teaching students that they need to have the correct, rote answers on political issues ready at hand. If they can repeat those answers for the teacher, then everything will be fine. Thus, students go into a class like mine trying to rummage around and provide me with the right answer that I am looking for on any given week. If they don’t have that answer or can’t find it in their tea leaves, they stay silent for fear of being wrong.

I teach discussion sections for the survey of American history. Beyond answer questions about the lecture each week, my goal is to foster an extended discussion of the readings and topical issues going on in the world related to the readings. There are inaccurate facts–and I am a stickler on that count–but, assuming the facts are correct, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and I am looking for them to talk about the issues, talk about the reading, and otherwise engage with the world around them. I am interested in the process by which they come to answers and beliefs and less about the beliefs. This emphasis on orthodoxy only serves to get people to mask potentially politically incorrect beliefs, which actually does nothing toward creating a more understanding society. If students are forced to follow the process, then, even if they are not persuaded to be more caring, understanding, and respectful, then at least the beliefs will be laid bare.

The issue at hand is that education is a process, not a test, not a series of facts, and certainly not a series of answers. In fact, education is about the absence of answers–and the journey to find them.2 The is an uncomfortable truth that many people do not like to deal with and why there seems to be a rush to escape school. But education–whether in kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, or your spare time on weekends–is a process by which we learn about the world around us and thereby interact with the world around us. Any active antipathy toward the process combined with the fear of failure turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now I just need a better way to convey this to my students.

1 For instance, in a paper about the American myth and the war in Vietnam, one student wrote: “The soldiers however were not met with open arms from the natives, most were not even looking to be freed.”
2 As Martin Schwartz points out in a discussion of the importance of stupidity in scientific research.

Assorted Links

  • Chinese Textiles from Palmyra– From Dorothy King’s PhDiva, some color pictures of Chinese silks found in Palmyra.
  • Academic Groupthink and the Power of Randomness– A discussion by Neville Morley about invitation-only academic workshops. His basic point is that invitation-only events tend to support a limited group of students and scholars, while marginalizing everyone else.
  • The Historicity of the Hall of Fame Debate– A discussion of historiography and the baseball hall of fame by way of responding to the group of people determined to maintain “the integrity” of the institution by excluding those who cheated…also known as everyone who played in the 1990s and most of the 2000s. His point is much as mine has been (and why I would put Pete Rose in the hall, though I can understand the lifetime ban so long as he is put in posthumously), which is that the hall of fame is both a record of the game and a memorial to the greatest players of each generation. The game of baseball is what it was at the time and no amount of omission will change that. Put them in and then you can have a debate about what narrative is presented with the plaque–are we going to remember Mark McGwire for chasing and then breaking the single season home run record or for steroids (or both)? That should be the debate, not whether or not he should be in the hall of fame, any more than the height of the mound, size of ballparks or a game without an emphasis on home runs at all should be held against players of other eras.
  • History With a Beer ChaserA nice story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about a reading and writing group of the sort I crave.
  • The end of Homework?-Discussion in the New Yorker about the potential of eliminating homework in schools on the grounds that it does not provide a significant benefit for test scores and is universally despised. The author suggests that providing extra-curricular activities–music lessons, sports programs, museum trips, etc– for students through the schools (so that the financial burden does not fall on the parents) in place of homework would allow for the elimination of homework for everyone (since the opponents are affluent parents). For some types of classes this idea works well. For others, there is a need for homework (paper writing once students reach a certain age, and certainly reading books) because there is simply not enough time in class for students to read entire novels or even news/history articles that should expand their awareness beyond what the teacher says–one of the dangers of a lecture based education that dominates history at all levels. Moreover, while the idea of more extra-curricular activities is a good one, there needs to be more imagination to meet the needs of rural schools for whom museum trips is not feasible, as well as more education funding to pay people to lead these activities.
  • Sandwiches and Unicorn Reindeer

    I have a propensity to indulge my curiosity and since I have done the (admittedly indulgent and abbreviated) research today, I thought I would share:

    The sandwich gets its name from the Earl of Sandwich, merely one of the most famous aficionados of a more widespread popular movement at first associated with relatively scandalous behavior. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, though, the first written use of “sandwich” was in a journal entry in 1762 by the politician and notable famous as a historian, Edward Gibbon. The third record? Jane Austen.

    There was a book published in 1913 entitled Reindeer in Europe to the time of Alexander and Caesar.

    Reindeer may well have existed in some form in Europe. Aristotle and Theophrastus describe reindeer existing in Scythia. Julius Caesar described bos cervi figura or ox shaped like stag (BG 6.26), with a single horn in the center of their foreheads. Thus, in a description of the fantastical forest fauna of the German wood, Caesar describes unicorn reindeer.

    Assorted Links

    1. Are You Smarter Than Your Grandfather– An article in the Smithsonian magazine that examines the rise in IQ scores over the last hundred years. The argument is largely that the environmental factors surrounding linguistic and scientific development of young people has led to a rise in IQ scores without necessarily an actual increase in “intelligence.”
    2. Istanbul’s Heritage: Under Attack– An article in the Economist about Istanbul’s world heritage status as there are plans for a suspension bridge across the Gold Horn that would obscure the skyline of the city and plans for a mosque in Taksim Square–facing the monument to Ataturk and the revolutionaries.
    3. Norwegian Fox Lured by Dying Rabbit App Steals PhoneA smartphone app summons foxes. When you leave the phone unattended, the fox will steal the phone…and evidently answer it when you call.
    4. Searching For Doggerland– A feature in National Geographic this month about relics and finds from Doggerland, the lowlying plains, once connecting Britain to Europe, but now covered by a shallow sea.
    5. Amherst College to launch the first open-access, digital academic press– A librarian at Amherst College is attempting to launch an all-digital, open access, peer reviewed academic press dedicated to the humanities. His stated purpose is to change the academic publishing industry in order to reduce costs and pressures on university libraries in tough fiscal times. Despite the limitations and hurdles to be cleared one school is taking action against the problems in academic publishing in the humanities. Hopefully the press will flourish–and that other like presses spring up elsewhere.
    6. A map…of every brothel, saloon, bar, and casino in the Levee District in Chicago from 1870-1905. Some of the highlights include “Satan’s Mile,” “Street of Whores,” and “W. 18th St. ( Wickedest Place in the USA)”

    Life Online: Putting the Meme in Memoir

    Life Online

    Patrick Rothfuss is the host of Storyboard (presented by Geek and Sundry). I have only seen a few of these, but the latest episode–featuring Jenny Lawson, John Scalzi, and Wil Wheaton–was particularly worth seeing. It is an hour and a half of watching four smart, thoughtful and engaged people commenting about writing and blogging. The individuals had a great rapport and that is entertaining to watch. As authors, bloggers and people, the participants have some insights for people who struggle with audience, self-image, depression, writing and performance…and have some comments about parenthood.

    I highly recommend this episode for bloggers, authors or anyone who is interested in knowing more about any of the authors.

    Assorted Links

    1. Angry Panama– A feature in the Economist that looks at the unbalanced economic growth in Panama and the civil unrest that is taking place as a result.
    2. Atheism and Islam– An article in the Economist that uses a trial and riot in Indonesia against an atheist in order to discuss some of the other laws and prejudices against atheism throughout the Muslim world.
    3. How the Nazis Succeeded in Taking Power in Red Berlin– A feature in Spiegel that discusses Goebbels and his campaign to set the Nazis up in the Capital of Germany–a city labelled “the reddest city in Europe besides Moscow.”
    4. Turkey requested NATO missile defenses over Syria chemical weapons fears– Several weeks ago Turkey requested Patriot missiles to protect against potential Syrian air and missile strikes against their towns. Now it appears that there is intelligence that there has been an uptick in activity at Syrian chemical facilities and that the Assad regime is contemplating the use of ballistic missiles and chemical warheads against the rebels if traditional airstrikes do not work.