I was out of the town for the critics’ screenings of The Hobbit, which I’ll try to catch over the Christmas break. But I really appreciated this essay about Ali Arikan that’s half review of the movie, and half a meditation on a contradiction inherent in the film, and in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy as well. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote work that was incredibly nostalgic for the past, but it’s taken modern technology to put them on the big screen:
The reverence for a supposed golden age ruined by progress is a recurring theme in human history. The Romans had it, no doubt the guys before the Romans had it too. J.R.R. Tolkien, whose children’s story The Hobbit has now been adapted to the screen as a trilogy by Peter Jackson, also subscribed to this philosophy, along with his contemporaries, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Dorothy L. Sayers, and C.S. Lewis. As the twentieth century progressed, Tolkien would be embraced by the alternative society as a sort of prophet of doom, accurately predicting the harrowing bleakness wrought by modernity.
To this day our hemp-wearing chums will knowingly roll their eyes and talk—at length—about Tolkien’s prophetic abilities (in theme, at least). Machines ravaged the earth only a handful of years after he wrote The Hobbit, in the carnage of the Second World War, they pronounce. But machines are operated by people. Human cruelty can be catalogued as far back in history as you want to go. The twentieth century has no exclusive rights on the charnel house.
And, most tellingly, neither of Tolkien’s books that have now been adapted into live-action features, The Hobbit or its cinematic precursor The Lord of the Rings, would have been possible without advancements in film production. Both were turned into feature animations of varying success in the 1970s, and John Boorman had long planned bringing the latter to the screen in the same decade, but it was technological progress that allowed Peter Jackson, et al to successfully tackle such densely—and idiosyncratically—crafted works of fantasy. Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a rousing success, hugely popular with both audiences and critics, garnering billions of dollars at the box office, with the final film, 2003’s The Return of the King, sweeping the Oscars. Jackson and his films put the fantasy genre on film culture’s map.
This is one of the reasons I’ve always appreciated A Song of Ice and Fire—it’s fantasy that acknowledges that, while feudal society offered opportunities for glory and luxury to an extremely tiny minority, the standard of living was dramatically lower for almost everyone else, and even those privileged few were vulnerable to disease, death in childbirth, martial rape, death in battle, among other maladies. Tolkien wasn’t wrong that the process of moving into modernity can be wrenching, and the movie’s depictions of, say, Saruman’s deforestation of the area around Isengard, capture those sacrifices. But it’s a world where the only thing that comes out of industrialization is orcs, not, say, penicillin.