The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey - review

Peter Jackson has managed to dart off in new directions as he returns to Middle Earth.

The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey (12A)
dir: Peter Jackson

J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published in 1937 for a young readership, with the author moving into a more highfalutin register for the sequel, The Lord of the Rings (written as one volume but split into three in the mid-1950s). The New Zealand film-maker Peter Jackson is approaching the material from the opposite direction. Having secured an inbuilt audience of many millions through his more adult Lord of the Rings movies, he may have been tempted to apply their solemnity to his new three-part film of the earlier, jauntier book. On the evidence of the first episode, An Unexpected Journey, he has resisted.

In print, The Hobbit is far superior to its sequel: it’s accessible and full of pace and punch where LOTR, with its tortuous descriptions of the density of bogland and undergrowth, can be recommended to only the most patient devotees of Gardeners’ Question Time. The later book’s sales figures (more than 150 million copies and counting) prove as effectively as anything by E L James that masochism is big business. However, Jackson somehow managed to find the wistful magic buried in the marshy prose.

The LOTR films, released between 2001 and 2003, had sincerity and cinematic sweep, not to mention eyefuls of handsome New Zealand landscape previously unexploited on screen. They also had longueurs within longueurs, though the extended viewing time brought the audience closer to the arduous experience of the characters, even if the perils faced during all those hours in a cinema seat came not from giant spiders and snarling Orcs but deep-vein thrombosis.

Other parties had tried to adapt LOTR, including the Beatles, who failed to interest Stanley Kubrick in making a version for them to star in. (It’s worth noting that their 1965 film, Help!, revolves around a sacrificial ring lodged on Ringo Starr’s finger.) In the 1970s, John Boorman shopped around a script featuring a scene in which Frodo Baggins has sex, which is a bit like putting cancan dancers in a Stalingrad movie – lust for power being the nearest thing to carnality in the chaste vistas of Middle Earth. Ralph Bakshi made an atmospheric 1978 animated version but its commercial failure precluded any follow-ups.

It would be unfair, then, to mock the studios and financiers who baulked at Jackson’s idea of making the project as two movies. Wizard hats off to Bob Shaye at New Line Cinema, who took an educated leap of faith by suggesting that Jackson should make a trilogy.

Jackson shed a large amount of his body weight after finishing the third LOTR film – anywhere between three and five stone depending on whom you read (and whether the director removed his shoes before climbing on the scales). But his subsequent films, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, were not correspondingly streamlined. The latter was so feeble in vision and philosophy that a return to Tolkien (after The Hobbit’s original director, Guillermo del Toro, stepped down following production delays) seemed the only possible salve for his reputation. Still, my heart sank at the news that a book as breezy as The Hobbit was being given the nine-hour treatment.

Happily, An Unexpected Journey has zip. Set in Middle Earth 60 years earlier than LOTR, it begins with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) nominating the pipe-and-slippers hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to join a hazardous mission. A band of dwarves plan to wrest back control of their kingdom, Erebor, from the dragon Smaug, which is snoozing among stolen treasures while the ordinary folk live in fear and poverty. I won’t say “banking crisis allegory” if you don’t.

Like LOTR, An Unexpected Journey revolves, essentially, around an eventful country ramble. (As a character in Kevin Smith’s Clerks II remarks of the first trilogy: “All it was was a bunch of people walking. Three movies of people walking through a fucking volcano.”) But the new film is distinguished by a swashbuckling simplicity, a sense that the thrill of the adventure might not need to be paid for with quite so many ponderous interludes.

For an indication of the differences, you need only compare the Ents, those impossibly dull walking-talking trees from LOTR, with their nearest equivalent in An Unexpected Journey: a range of jagged, stony mountains that knock seven shades of flint out of one another. But not everything has changed. Humour in Middle Earth remains folksy: someone falls over, someone else has the size of his sword impugned. The sanctuary of Rivendell still resembles a tacky New Age spa and weighty conversations occur on mountain-side platforms. When a flock of benevolent birds deposits the dwarves on a vertiginous rock face, no one has the presence of mind to say: “Not to be ungrateful but couldn’t you have dropped us on the mezzanine level?”

Set pieces are cut together fashionably fast without any cost to clarity. The attack by Smaug the dragon on the dwarf kingdom is staged without showing the beast itself: we glimpse nothing but its stomping feet, its slashing tail and the rippling tease of a dragon kite dancing above the rooftops. Through the wonders of motion-capture, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the monster, but we will have to wait until next year’s episode (The Desolation of Smaug) to see whether those layers of concealing pixels will throw his many amorous admirers off the scent.

Most caveats about An Unexpected Journey will pertain to Jackson’s use of 48-frames-persecond 3D technology (as opposed to the standard 24). It brings a polished clarity to the nocturnal scenes but looks appalling during chases through a sunlit forest, worse even than the fuzzy blue-screen effects that used to crop up during old flying-carpet movies. Many scenes appear unforgivingly bright. Even then, it’s not a deal-breaker, though there’s always the risk that audiences will wonder why these epic battles for the soul of Middle Earth are lit like The Only Way is Essex.

Watched together, Jackson’s six Tolkien films may eventually reveal poignant continuity glitches: McKellen will surely age in reverse, while special effects and make-up will be more sophisticated in the pictures that figure earliest in the narrative. The seedy, pasty-faced look is very in among this year’s ghouls and grotesques: a trio of trolls resemble lardy likenesses of Steven Berkoff, while Barry Humphries is in Les Patterson mode as the Goblin King, whose distinguishing feature is a floppy scrotal chin.

As usual, the CGI scene-stealing honours go to Gollum (Andy Serkis): the shoulder blades saw beneath his unkissed skin, the moist eyes strain imploringly at the limits of their sockets. Gollum has achieved the status of Special Guest Star now – I could feel the audience on tenterhooks when he scampered into view – but An Unexpected Journey is not merely the victory lap for Jackson that it could have been. He may be back in the familiar surroundings of Middle Earth but as a film-maker he’s darting off in new directions. I’m happy to follow.

Martin Freeman as the titular Hobbit.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Why can you change gender but not race?

Marina Benjamin on the curious logic of modern identity politics. 

At my daughter’s state girls’ school, many of the students see themselves as gender fluid. Some feel more like boys than girls. Others feel like boys on some days and girls on others. A lot of the girls are out, with many identifying as gay and quite a few as bi- or pansexual. No doubt, in time, a small minority of them will migrate across the gender spectrum entirely, crossing permanently from one side to the other.

Such freewheeling thinking about gender and sexual identity was unimaginable until just a few years ago, yet in this brave new world of gender mutability, most teens are as fluent as they are fluid. It is a testimony to the speed and success with which gender­queer and trans activists have challenged societal norms around masculinity and femininity, bringing about the kind of meltdown in gender roles that feminism was unable to achieve despite 50 years of trying.

This is a world in which, controversially, subjective feeling reigns supreme. If you feel male and wish to be known as “he”, then that is your prerogative, regardless of your sex. As Frank Browning points out in The Fate of Gender, US colleges (those ever-sensitive barometers of social change) now routinely ask students for their preferred personal pronoun. They provide “gender-neutral” toilets and free counselling for transsexual students. One elite college recently cancelled a production of The Vagina Monologues after some students protested that “not all women have vaginas”.

Browning’s interest is in the way “gender radicals” have “[upended] the routines, rituals and rules of gender”, leading to radical transformations in how we live. Like a disaster tourist travelling through an earthquake zone, he finds his eye drawn to “upheavals”: to kindergarten ­teachers in Oslo, dedicated to eradicating what they see as gendered behaviour in the very young children they teach; to same-sex couples negotiating new ways of parenting post-­surrogacy or adoption; to a voyeuristic drive-by past Naples’s femminielli – street-walkers famed “for their beautiful legs, their sumptuous breasts and their large penises”; to discussing masturbation with a middle-aged Shanghai sociologist who offers classes in self-stimulation to empower women.

The politics of the transgender movement skids in and out of the narrative but never moves centre-stage. Browning is more interested in gender equality at work, or how the Catholic Church is and isn’t adapting to gay marriage.

Browning spent many years working as a radio journalist and his book resembles nothing so much as a mid-morning magazine programme. There’s a bit of chat, a bit of travel, a sprinkling of interviews with academic experts and some sharp insights that get somewhat lost in the babble. The result is a loose collection of gender-busting exemplifications, rather than a tightly argued thesis. You could reorder half the chapters in the book and still enjoy the same mildly entertaining reading experience.

Some of the most fascinating subjects that Browning touches on remain underexamined. He notes, for example, that at least one in every 1,500 (some suggest the figure is more like one in 150) children born in the US and Australia is intersex: that is, they possess genitalia and a chromosomal identity that admit of ambiguity. Until very recently, doctors in the US would perform sex reassignment surgery on such newborns, at the risk of leaving them infertile and, just as dreadful, in bodies that they would often grow up believing to be wrongly sexed.

Browning doesn’t interview anyone who has had such an experience, or mine literary works for perspective, or link the intersex phenomenon into broader identity politics, or discuss the painful subterfuges that hermaphrodites such as the late Olympic track and field star Stella Walsh resorted to in order to “pass” – in her case, as female. Instead, he makes a rather tenuous link between the horrors of institutional surgical reassignment and tribal female genital mutilation. Cutting is cutting, of course, and always reprehensible, but readers never get to grips with what it means to be intersex.

It’s a shame, because, as Rogers Brubaker argues in his pacy and stimulating extended essay Trans, it is in the in-betweenness that our binaries break down, whether we are talking about nature v nurture (where discoveries in epigenetics are busy dissolving firm oppositions); male and female (those tired categories with which trans politics is playing havoc); or, most interestingly, black v white. Following social scientists such as Alondra Nelson of Columbia University, Brubaker takes up the case that race has little basis in genetics: it is an epiphenomenon, or, to use the lingua franca of anti-essentialists, a “social construct”.

Brubaker’s book was inspired by the media’s synchronous pairing of Bruce Jenner’s rebirth as Caitlyn and Rachel Dolezal’s outing as white in 2015. Dolezal had lived as a black woman for years, braiding her hair and darkening her skin. She identified as black and became head of her local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Yet in most quarters her claim to be black met with angry ridicule. Her reception was in pointed contrast to Jenner’s, whose debut as Caitlyn was heralded by a sexy Vanity Fair cover and a reality TV series. If public legitimation could be ­extended to Jenner, why not to Dolezal?

Dolezal’s teacher memorably called her “a white woman with a black soul”, but this was not enough, Brubaker says, to counter the flurry of negative commentary about “passing, choice, authenticity, privilege and appropriation” – which are precisely the themes that animate his lively book. He makes a persuasive case that the trans movement belongs to “a much broader moment of cultural flux, mixture and interpenetration”, of a piece with the “burgeoning discussions of hybridity, syncretism, creolisation and transnationalism in the last quarter-century”. Simply put, Trans illus­trates a sharpened tension between the language of choice and that of givenness.

The nub of Trans’s argument is that we are culturally primed to be more receptive to transgender journeys, whether male to female or vice versa, because these are framed as identity or even civil rights issues, whereas racial identities are still categorical. In public discourse today, there is no such thing as a racial spectrum: you can’t be a bit black or a bit white. You have to choose and you certainly can’t cross over to the other side. As Brubaker sums it up: “Dolezal was living a lie; Jenner was being true to her innermost self.” Dolezal was guilty of “cultural theft” (in contrast to Michael Jackson, who was deemed a race traitor, she was a “race ­faker”); Jenner was fighting gender oppression.

I remember getting flamed on Twitter when I asked why the hell Dolezal couldn’t be considered black. The hot-button term, it turned out, was “transracial”. This expression emerged in adoption circles, where activists concerned that adoption “could lead to changes in racial identity – in particular to the loss of one’s authentic identity for want of social support for it”, sought to strengthen racial categories. I also received a dozen tweets telling me that Dolezal hadn’t suffered enough to be black – a line likewise pushed by some feminists critical of the territorial claims made by transgender women.

With respect to Jenner, I was sympathetic to views expressed with wicked humour by Germaine Greer, but more acceptably by ­Lionel Shriver, who, in response to Jenner’s claim to have a “female brain”, railed against the neo-essentialism of the trans movement for relying on and reinscribing outmoded gender stereotypes. Pointedly, Brubaker also notes “the remarkable power of the binary gender system to adapt to and reabsorb transgender people”. Better to make a show of taking in migrants than to acknowledge that your borders are fundamentally weak.

With its push-me-pull-you politics, gender fluidity understandably creates controversy. The irony is that, in theory at least, transracialism ought less to do so. Not only is there no genetic basis for racial difference, but the boom in genetic ancestry testing, which tests autosomal DNA (inherited from both parents, and accounting for the full, multi-stranded range of one’s genetic ancestry), often reveals complex mixtures of biogeographic lineage, thus leaving considerable room for what Alondra Nelson calls “affiliative self-fashioning”.

Genetic ancestry testing gives credence to the likes of Dolezal, who might wish to see herself as environmentally, psychologically, culturally, emotionally and intellectually black, even if the “technologies of migration” which support transgender journeys – institutionalised in legal, medical, social and activist bodies – are not yet in place for transracial journeys such as hers.

However mind-bending such ­determined migrations might seem, the brouhaha over race and gender shows that we are primed to understand categories of identity in ways that are legibly embodied. In this, we are not so different from our intellectual ancestors the ancient Greeks, who, as Adrian Thatcher reminds us in Redeeming Gender, championed a “one sex” theory on the basis of bodily homologies between men and women that saw female genitalia as mirroring male genitalia. Only inside out.

Marina Benjamin is the author of “The Middlepause: on Turning Fifty” (Scribe)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times