Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Christmas Hobbit, part 5

     In my previous post I was examining ways in which the first installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit undermined the sub-story of the original work by having the characters behave in ways they would not, and events happen in ways they could not, in J.R.R. Tolkien's original novel.  I suggested that, despite the surface similarities, these changes make them fundamentally different characters in a fundamentally different world.  I also promised there was worse to come and that I would share with you one (but by no means the only) example.
     It is important at this point to recall that Tolkien was a committed Catholic Christian (through much of his life he was a daily communicant).  He professed to disdain allegory, and avoided any overt Christian references or symbolism, but nevertheless imbued his Middle Earth novels with a very pronounced Catholic world view.  His stories take place within a sort of spiritual and moral economy (my term, not his) where no events are truly random, moral choices have profound significance and, as we have seen, all is overseen by Providence.  Let's return for a moment to "The shadow of the Past" from The Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf is explaining to the hobbit Frodo how his uncle Bilbo had come to have the Ring of Power previously in the possession of the murderous creature Gollum.  Bilbo, protected by the power of invisibility conferred by the ring, passed up an opportunity to kill Gollum (who was trying to kill him).  Frodo says: "What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!"  Gandalf replies: "Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand.  Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.  And he has been well rewarded, Frodo.  Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil [i.e., the evil power of the ring], and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the ring so.  With pity."  It is clear that the moral choice Bilbo makes in that one moment of time saves him from the evil power of the ring that corrupts Gollum and, as we saw earlier, nearly destroys Boromir. Not only that, it is plain at the end of The Lord of the Rings that Bilbo's one act of mercy has saved all of Middle Earth.

     The incident to which Gandalf refers takes place in The Hobbit.  To their credit, the movie makers depict Bilbo's sparing of Gollum faithfully.  They make a profound error, however, in how they represent Bilbo's finding of the ring.  In Tolkien's telling, Bilbo awakes in a dark goblin tunnel where he had been knocked unconscious, puts his hand on a ring in the dark and unthinkingly puts it in his pocket.  He shortly encounters Gollum, with whom he engages in a riddle contest in which the penalty for losing is that he becomes the creature's next meal, and from which he barely escapes.  It doesn't occur to him that the ring had been lost by Gollum until the point at which he knows it's power of invisibility is his only means of remaining uneaten.  He comes by it honestly, in other words, and later, when under it's evil influence he conceals the ring from his companions and is evasive about his experiences, Gandalf is troubled because he knows that Bilbo is an honest hobbit, but also that he's hiding something. In the movie, however, Bilbo sees Gollum drop the ring, and takes it knowing that it belongs to someone else, before Gollum presents any threat to him; when he meets Gollum he makes no effort to return it.  In other words,  his ownership of the ring begins with an intentional theft, whose baleful effects, at least in Tolkien's Middle Earth, can't help but pollute everything that follows.  The movie Bilbo is a different hobbit, living in a different world.
     My wife and I have always enjoyed sharing J.R.R. Tolkien's books with our children: they are exciting adventures and beautifully written (read The Hobbit aloud sometime and just listen to the flow of words); they also present a very Christian view of a world in which our actions have consequences, a virtuous character is rewarded in the end  (even if it seems unlikely at first), doing right is better than doing what is expedient, and all is under the watchful eye of a kindly Providence.  Sadly, none of those things are true of Peter Jackson's film, which is why The Hobbit a bad movie.