Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- adventures and ordinary life

Director: Peter Jackson, 2012 (PG-13)

After Peter Jackson’s stellar movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the bar was set high for The Hobbit. Sadly, Jackson  fails to reach these heights with part one of this new trilogy. But that is not to say that the film does not entertain. It does. But not as much as before. This is partly due to his decision to make a trilogy of a simple book (rather than three books); and partly due to his decision to make this less like the children’s story that it is based on and more like a prequel to his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings.

As before, Jackson gives us a short story from Middle Earth as a prologue to the film and to set the context. The Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor thrives with activity, as dwarves mine gold and precious jewels. All is well until the king’s love of gold becomes “a sickness of the mind” and he pursues more and more gold simply to possess it. Greed has gone wild. And as his vast resources of gold expand, the fearsome dragon Smaug discovers this treasure and destroys the underground palace and takes up residence in the mountain. The dwarves are forced out of their kingdom, becoming homeless vagrants whose pride turns inward into anger as they roam over mountain and vale, eking out a barren existence.

This prolog itself offers an initial point of ethical consideration. The love of gold here is described as a sickness. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul says something similar: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Here it is not so much a sickness as a root of sin. When this love takes hold, our hearts become dark and prone to sin. Greed leads to loss of perspective, as was the case for the dwarf king, and loss of morality. Indeed, greed is listed by Jesus as one among many sins that includes sexual immorality, theft, murder and adultery (Mk. 7:21-23). It can end in no good, as in Erebor.

For the hobbit, though, the film begins exactly where The Fellowship of the Ring began: in Bilbo Baggins home at Bag End in Hobbiton on the eve of Bilbo’s 111th birthday. Ian Holm briefly reprises his role as the older Bilbo, writing the story of his adventure, before we go back 60 years to actually witness his adventure.

The first act has Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen) showing up at the door of the young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). He tells Bilbo, “I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure.” The hobbit seems an unlikely choice, as he prefers nothing more than his cozy home, his books and his food. But Gandalf goes on: “You’ll have a tale to tell when you come back.” Bilbo asks, “You can promise that I will come back?” Gandalf replies, “No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”

Here is the second and crucial theme for this film: adventure. Bilbo loves his life at home too much. Gandalf even tells him, “When did your doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you?” He is in a comfort zone of predictability and safety. He does not desire the danger of the unknown. But this adventure is going to change him, to allow a part of Bilbo that is latent to emerge so that he might become stronger, deeper, more courageous.

How often do we retreat into our Hobbit-homes when adventure comes knocking? If we are honest, I think we all have our comfort zones where we can retreat and cocoon. But we don’t grow in comfort; we stagnate. Adventure brings with it trials. And the Apostle James had this to say about trials: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:2-4). Adventure can craft character. Like a sculptor working on a block of marble, God can use such adventure to chisel away our unbelief and leave us strong and mature in our faith. We must welcome adventure like an old wizard friend!

But this first act is long and weak. It brings a baker’s dozen dwarves to Bilbo’s door, led by exiled king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). These thirteen are tough to keep track of, even though so much time is spent on their initial impromptu party at Bag End. By the time Bilbo has agreed to become the final member of their fellowship, and they are off on their ponies, an hour has passed.

Once they are on their way, the film picks up. The final two acts breaks into segments almost exactly the same as The Fellowship of the Ring. Act two has them riding through the glens of Middle Earth, encountering trolls and orcs, concluding in Rivendell where the Elves proffer some advice and counsel to the band of wanderers. The third act features a battle of stone giants before the group descends into the bowels of the Misty Mountains where they encounter goblins.

Jackson turns the mood somber in these two acts. The gaity and merriness of the feasting at Bag End transform into dread. While the book contained a certain lightness, the film mirrors the Lord of the Rings. A darkness has settled on the land, and it is evident in the film. Indeed, one would not know that this was a children’s tale from the movie. There is simply too much fighting, too many goblins and orcs. It is not as if we had not seen this before. As remarkable as The Fellowship of the Ring was, this feels like a copycat makeover. Even the fighting becomes repetitive and somewhat boring.

The best scene occurs deep below the Misty Mountains. While the dwarfs are fighting the goblins, Bilbo comes face to face with Gollum (Andy Serkis), that most pathetic of creatures who covets his “Precious,” the ring that will form the heart of the later trilogy. Bilbo’s life-and-death battle of wills with Gollum demonstrates his growth. And when he subsequently spares Gollum’s life, an act of volitional mercy that will intersect Frodo’s life later, we realize there is maturity in Bilbo that not even Thorin possesses.

In the face of so much evil permeating Middle Earth, why did Gandalf bring Bilbo? This is a question that the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) asks Gandalf and he gives her a specific answer: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay... small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? That's because I am afraid and it gives me courage.”

Gandalf reminds us that even though great adventure can result in great victories, it is in the ordinariness of life that we most often come face to face with evil. We can respond to the unkindnesses of men and inequities of life with bitterness and cynicism. We can seek revenge, an eye for an eye. Or we can return evil with good. We can show love and mercy to those who would not expect it. Jesus told us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). In so doing, we keep the darkness at bay. Paul gave similar advice: “ ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:20-21). Who knows who might be alongside watching you, seeking courage from your simple and ordinary acts. Treat each day as an unexpected journey that might lead to a new adventure but will certainly lead to opportunities to en-courage others through acts of kindness and mercy.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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