My review of The Hobbit in one word: Meh.

My review of The Hobbit in twelve words: Freeman’s magnificent, but the human story is overwhelmed by video-game aesthetics.

I was pretty close to the fourth of the four Hobbit-anticipating camps I presented the other day, but it turned out that I only got to spend about an hour-and-a-half in Middle-earth, and had to spend the rest in a Tolkien-trademarked version of World of Warcraft.

  • Your Next Challenge: Avoid Being Crushed by the Stone Giants!
  • Your Next Challenge: Escape from the Goblin King!
  • Your Next Challenge: Fight the Pale Orc and His Wargs!

Except it wasn’t my challenge at all: all I could to was watch the dwarves bounce around from horror to horror. My hands felt empty and useless without the controller they so obviously needed. Video-game aesthetics are built around the assumption of manual activity: they work far better when you have something to do. I didn’t really want to sit passively and watch Peter Jackson play with his Xbox but that’s what I felt was happening to me for much of the second half of the movie. All I could do was sigh and wait for Peter to finish so we might return for a while to something like a human story.

And the human story is there, just underdeveloped. Not that all of the quieter, conversational scenes work either: the visit to Rivendell is just talk, and pointless talk at that. It could have been cut wholly. And yet something important happens there: when the party is leaving, Bilbo looks back longingly on the valley and the Last Homely House; and a bit later, when he decides to abandon the quest, he tells Bofur — wonderfully played by James Nesbitt, by the way — that he’s going back to Rivendell. But why? Jackson spends not one second showing us how Bilbo develops this deep attachment. Presumably he’s expecting us, as veterans of the Lord of the Rings films, to know that Bilbo will return there to spend the last months of his life, but that only makes sense if we understand what happened to him at this earlier point in his life. Somehow — we don’t learn how — this home-loving hobbit came also to love a strange place that, though not his home, is nonetheless “homely” in the German sense: heimlich, intimate, full of comfort.

By neglecting this development Jackson and his fellow scriptwriters miss a vital opportunity, because hiding beneath all the CGI Sturm und Drang is a powerful story about what it means to have a home and, conversely, what it means to be lost. Bilbo, as he explains in the best scene in the film, loves and misses his books and his armchair and his garden back in the Shire; but in missing them he has learned their true value. And this has given him compassion for those who like the dwarves have had their home taken from them — and even for Gollum, whose most precious possession has been taken from him:

[Bilbo] was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.

Jackson et al. know that this is the heart of the story: they make a point of emphasizing that indeed, as Gandalf says to Frodo many years later, “the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” But they don’t allow that knowledge to govern their storytelling. And so they don’t show us nearly as clearly as they might the wisdom lying within this story about the power of Home and the deep emptiness of being lost, lost, lost.