Reflections on the Hobbit films

I am a huge fan of Tolkien and even teach a course on the philosophy of Tolkien and Lewis.  I taught that course this term and my students  were quite surprised to hear that I had never seen the first two installments of the Hobbit trilogy and that I was decidedly cool about the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I have seen but now avoid).

Well, a friend is hosting a middle earth party for the third Hobbit film, so I thought I would watch the first two this week to prepare.  I attempted to watch the first the other night, but stopped about an hour in.  I stopped the movie at that point in part because I found it painful to watch, but mainly because I thankfully remembered why I don’t wish to  reduce all of my literary experiences to dramatic ones.

I don’t care to explore the first reason here, beyond saying that the movie was completely overdone.  The opening chapter took forever, almost an hour of strained jokes and dwarf partying.  Aristotle remarks in his Poetics that great story tellers do not need to rely much on spectacle.  Peter Jackson takes a good story and buries it under spectacle.  Even a dinner party is polluted with dazzling CGI of plates flying like frisbees every which way.  I found it annoying and I did not care to see what he would do with the rest of the story.  I chose to preserve the purity of my own imagination rather than watch further.

And this takes me to the principled reason I stopped watching, if having a “principled reason” to stop watching a blockbuster hollywood movie does not sound too snobby.  My reason here is derived from Tolkien himself (“On Fairy Stories”) and his exploration of the distinction between literature and drama.

We are in the habit of treating literature and drama as one thing.  Perhaps this is understandable, given that we are more likely to read a Shakespeare play than we are to see it performed and more likely to watch a dramatized version of a great work of literature than to read it.  Good and great stories from the Iliad to Harry Potter are quickly made into entertaining and easily digestible movies.  And so the distinction between drama and literature is lost on us.  But drama and literature really are distinct arts, each with their own formal and final cause.  There are similarities, of course, but also differences.

The most obvious similarity is that both drama and literature are, in their own ways, in the business of telling stories.  And both use, at bottom, similar devices (words, plot, event, etc.).  But how those stories are told, and what is asked of the writer and reader/viewer, are very different.  I will focus here on the one difference I take to be most relevant to why I do not care to watch the Peter Jackson middle earth movies.

In drama, we behold a visible and audible presentation of a story.  As such, the task for the viewer of drama has little to do with the imagination.  The images are already made, so there is little for our imagination to do.  Rather the task for the viewer is to engage in a sort of “suspension of disbelief.”  The viewer must suspend their disbelief (momentarily forget that it is all just stagecraft) in order to be drawn into the story.  When this is well done, the effects can be very powerful, eliciting a variety of different emotions.

But it does mean there is something limited about the imaginative demands of drama.  Tolkien remarks that the “hand outruns the mind”, that imagination is stifled by what is visually given.  Since drama offers a visible presentation, because the created world is given in a spectacle, viewing drama requires little imaginative work on the part of the spectator.

Literature is quite different in this regard.  In literature, and Tolkien argues especially in fantasy literature and faerie, we do not “behold” but instead imaginatively “sub-create”.  By sub-creation Tolkien means our power to imaginatively create secondary worlds and myths.  In drama, even in great drama, the sub-creative work is overrun by the hand that outruns the mind.  But not so in literature, and especially not in faerie and fantasy where the sub-created secondary worlds have their own distinct “logic.”

Tolkien calls this special kind of imaginative activity and belief involved in literature (especially faerie) “enchantment”.  The writer and the reader sub-create a world through language.  Literature “works from mind to mind”; it is not mediated through a visible form.  Tolkien thinks it is thus more “progenitive.”  Literature plays in universals, though of course those universals (bread, sword, mountain) have to be particularized.  But the act of particularizing and embodying those universals is done by author and reader together through description and imagination. When the story tells of bread, it does not give a visible form.  Instead, the author describes something; he appeals to an idea (or a collection of ideas).  Each hearer will give to these ideas and descriptions his own unique embodiment in his imagination.  This should not be understood to mean that the less description the better, thinking that it would give more for the imagination to do.  No, it does not matter how rich and complete the description is, the reader still has to imaginatively particularize and embody the description.  That is, the imagination is called to work.  Rich and full descriptions are no impediment to this, and if the sub-created world is a world of faerie (a world with its own logic), the rationality of the description is actually more difficult (for the author) and more imaginatively satisfying (for the reader).

The claim here, then, is that one essential difference between faerie / fantasy literature and drama is that the former must include “sub-creation”: the imaginative creation of “secondary worlds” through language and the imagination.  Well written fantasies have the power of “enchantment”, which is the power to draw a reader into the story and into the process of sub-creation.  Drama has its own power, but this activity is not a part of it.

This is not an argument for one over the other.  Comedy and tragedy are both wonderful, but it is still worth carefully distinguishing their formal and final causes.  Drama and literature are both wonderful.  But literature, qua being literature, is not well served by being dramatized.  In fact, Tolkien argues that faerie is destroyed when it is dramatized.

The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are stories which can make for good drama.  But when they are dramas, they become something essentially different – dramas and no longer faerie stories.  Good movies, perhaps, but the experience of watching the movies is not at all like the experience of reading the books.  More worryingly is that those who watch the movies first, before their own subcreative imagination has secured a sense of the embodied story, might make it impossible to read the stories as literature.

Back to the Peter Jackson films.  I did not watch all of the first Hobbit movie, so I should withhold judgment.  My sense of watching an hour of it was that it was not even a very good movie.  The Lord of the Rings movies were, I think, good movies.  But I regret that they were ever made.  I suppose he would argue that CGI special effects allow, for the first time, for the story to really be visually presented.  But the story has always been visually presented — in the imaginatively embodied story in the mind of each reader.  All Jackson has done is fix that to one visible form, thus destroying for many thousands the chance to really read the books as literature.   What is more, he even underserves the story by getting so carried away with spectacle.  The story and the characters are rather lost, at times, in a mix of unnecessarily childish jokes (not that I can’t laugh at a fart or other juvenile humor, but I tended to find the presence of such humor in the Jackson movies forced) and relentless spectacle.

One more thing on literature and drama.  I gave a reason above for why we tend to treat the two as one (we tend to read drama and watch novels).  But I have another, compatible, theory.  We are in the habit of reading literature and drama – especially great literature and drama – for meaning.  We almost habitually now mediate those works through the lens of analysis.  What is the meaning of this, what does this represent, what is the symbolism, how should I interpret this event, etc?  Of course those are all very good questions, and we spend plenty of time on those sorts of questions in my Tolkien class.  There is plenty of very interesting material for philosophical reflection in any great work of literature, and we should not be shy about doing that reflection if we find it edifying and interesting.  But those questions should be secondary.  Students and readers are too keen on acquiring a lesson from a great work of literature or drama.  They should first of all enjoy the magic of participating in it.  And my argument above suggests that the mode of participation in literature (especially faerie) is distinct from the mode of participation in drama.

That we even can enjoy this magic of participating in the imaginative act of faerie literature and world building is itself philosophically interesting.  Perhaps man is best defined as poetic animal – myth making animal, story telling animal, being with language.  I don’t take this to be at all odds with man as rational animal, but rather a broader understanding.  I am thinking of Heidegger’s emphasis on poiesis – man as poiesis being (linguistic animal where we understand language as a mode of a-letheia / disclosure).  But for the person who watched the middle earth films before reading, I am afraid that none of that will ever really occur to them.  And thus not only will the enchanted pleasure of sub-creating with Tolkien be lost, but (to paraphrase Heidegger) man also loses a bit of himself.

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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3 Responses to Reflections on the Hobbit films

  1. Huenemann says:

    Interesting! I read The Hobbit forever ago, and didn’t care much for it. I read it again more recently, before the movies came out – and again didn’t care for it. I saw The Hobbit movies, and loved them. I also loved the LoTR movies, and was so excited that I decided to read the books – and didn’t care for them. So, for me, it’s Peter Jackson 5, Tolkien 0. I don’t know what all that means, except perhaps that my imagination is crippled and needs a lot of assistance!

    But I’ve thought further about the chief point in your essay, and I think you/Tolkien are basically right – there is something very important in the way literature calls upon us to create worlds, and drama/movies don’t require the same from us. I do think my engagement with the stories is not nearly as deep as yours, probably because you have had a role in the creation of them, in the sense of your essay; I’ve just sat back and enjoyed them.

    I would want to generalize your/Tolkien’s point about literature to other art media, though – painting, sculpture, and music.

  2. William H. says:

    I remember the Tolkien panel you (Kleiner) participated in some time ago, and afterward the discussion about the films came about and you repeated that you thought they were one action scene after another. There is much to criticize about the films, though the extended versions are far superior they are still too quick, too overly done at times. But other times I’ve still found them beautiful, moving, when they simply let a moment speak for itself without piling on the effects or forced dialog and jokes. I think in cinematic drama sometimes this is the difference between say, 2001 Space Odyssey, with a lot of mystery and spectacle handled just right, and Intersteller which constantly needs to remind the audience of what it wants and what its doing and whats serious and important etc etc. There is the need for room to breathe and modern movies refuse to have it.

    Regarding the LOtR films, there is sometimes too much of the explaining or info filling using effects but managed to tell the story. Seeing the full versions over three weeks in a theater some years ago was as profound a film experience as I’ve had. But everywhere those films tread dangerously the Hobbit films have leaped off to nothingness. Rereading the book was bittersweet considering how bad the movies have been, and how frankly condescending they are. They remind me of children’s entertainment from around the 80s which treated its target audience as dumb animals needing lights to be kept entertained. Walking out of the second film, my friend and I burst out in pained laughter wondering what we had just seen. I also wondered out loud to him if I could now ever give a child a book as a gift, since it wouldn’t have all these fancy things the movie did.

    The books, all four of them in the saga, are so wonderful to me because they give just enough of a world to the reader then leave them to see it themselves, to use that “inner voice” that I’ve read old conservatives talk about recently, and that even libraries seem content now with silencing with entertainment. I’ve rewatched the LotR trilogy recently and found them harder to get through. An interesting thing now is that any criticism is assumed to be because “they aren’t like the book” as in line for line quotations. This is both an admission that drama and literature are very different, but also an escape from the truth of that admission. Its not about the similarity, its about the telling of the story and what needs to be done in those different settings, and people today seem unwilling to admit that a qualitative deficiency exists. After all, its the Hobbit, or Harry Potter, so its good, stop being judging and whatnot. I can enjoy simple entertainment, but like you mentioned, the jokes in the The Hobbit seemed to stiff or pandering to me they were more offensive than had they appeared in Beavis and Butthead.

    Enough rambling, I am sticking with the literature as well, and also the beautiful music of the austrian black metal Tolkien nerds Summoning.

  3. Roger Ebert Jr. says:

    I agree that film and literature are two distinct forms of art that have their own formal and final causes. They are asking different things from their consumers. So, because of these differences, I think it is unfair to compare the two. To me, it’s apples and oranges. Both are fruit. both come from trees. But, they are different in almost every other way. So it is with film and literature. However, I also recognize that when these two mediums cross (such as in the Hobbit or Harry Potter) comparisons are unavoidable. I guess on the whole I agree with your statements eventhough I personally prefer film to literature.

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