The Hobbit, the Chase Scene, and the Suspension of Imagination
The first cinema installment of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was visually stunning, technically faithful to the book (even in its revisions), and benefited from having at least a few serious Tolkien geeks working on the project. Notwithstanding, everyone who collaborated with the film, and this goes for Lord of the Rings as well, deserves to be hung from a tripalium and flayed to death, as any reasoning person would agree. For its fundamental faithlessness goes far beyond its replication of the original plot, although The Two Towers struck out on those grounds alone, when Aragorn fell off a cliff (in a part of Middle Earth where, I’m pretty sure, there are no cliffs) just so he could come back in a touchingly Hollywood, “Hey bra, I’m not really dead!” scene; when an army of elves marches (lockstep, no less) up to Helm’s Deep to help fight off the Uruk-hai; and when a fickle Faramir kidnaps Frodo and Sam and hauls them all the way back to Osgiliath before having a change of heart (“Oh Faramir, I knew you wouldn’t let us down!” the seasoned reader and the unread moviegoer are meant to say in unison).
Nor is it the weakness of two central characters: Bilbo, whose particular mix of timidity, decor, and wanderlust is missed entirely by the screenwriters and actor Martin Freeman; and Thorin, whose actor looks far less like a dwarf than Richard Lee Armitage looks like a troll; nor the juvenile subplot of mistrust and acceptance that passes between them.
This last defect, however, points to a deeper problem. The cheap Hollywood fake-out infests these movies like orcs plague Moria. It is there when Aragorn falls off a cliff in The Two Towers, it is there in The Hobbit when the dwarves ride a collapsed scaffold down about a hundred meters of chasm in the bowels of the Misty Mountains with nary a broken bone, a veritable roller coaster ride that may have been, a friend suggested to me, deliberately inserted into the movie in preparation for the inevitable theme park attraction and video games. It is there when the stubby-legged protagonists successfully outrun warg-riding orcs, as the faster villains close the distance only to lose it again each time the camera cuts. And it is there when a human-nosed Thor (did his agent stipulate that he got to act without any facial prosthetics?), looking more like Rasputin than the son of Thrain, approaches a newly heroic Bilbo as if to rebuke him, only to embrace him in a painfully predictable repeat of that well known Hollywood ploy.
The fake-out is everywhere. It is hard to imagine Indiana Jones, and most other action movies, without it. In the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, for which the book’s own author writes the screenplay, one of the few deviations from the original comes in the form of a chase scene fake-out. Instead of encountering the wolf creatures at the relative safety of the “cornucopia”, Katniss and Peeta encounter them in the woods and have to outrun them, something they can only accomplish through the munificence of the camera work.
The only tasteful occurrence of a fake-out I can think of comes to us in The Empire Strikes Back, when an estranged Lando Calrissian berates Han Solo and then suddenly hugs him. In this case, neither the audience nor Han knows how old friend Lando is going to receive him, and Lando is introduced as someone both dangerous and mysterious, qualities which his subsequent affability does not erase.
Bilbo, on the other hand, has just saved Thorin’s life (this never happens in the book, so the whole scene is gratuitous from the get-go), so we all know that honorable Thorin is going to thank him, not mistreat him. Nonetheless, we are forced to sit through a long moment of contrived tension as the dwarf approaches Bilbo in apparent anger before suddenly embracing him. Likewise, when Aragorn falls off the cliff or the dwarves fall down the chasm, we all know they are going to live, not only because most of us have read the book, but because the movie has signaled to us from beginning to end which genre rules it follows; in this case, that no character will be killed off until a sufficiently dramatic, conclusive point in the narrative.
The real Thorin is too grave a person to toy with the poor hobbit’s emotions, for the same reason that he is too gruff to spare Burglar Baggins the emotional conflict the filmmakers have unfortunately decided to exaggerate. The relationship between Thorin and Bilbo given to us by J.R.R. Tolkien is already full of strife. Why invent petty conflicts to exaggerate it, or bring it up to an infantile surface?
The puerile emotional play of the fake-out reaches its cheapest extreme in the Hollywood chase scene. The minimum requirement for an intense chase scene is the close getaway. If the villain travels at 30km an hour and the hero at 15km and safety is 100 meters away, why start them off at a distance of only 10 meters? Is the audience assumed to be sensorily incapable of realizing that the warg travels much faster than the dwarf? Kropotkin outran his faster guards and escaped imprisonment in St. Petersburg using geometry, the problem of the hound and the hare. Movie heroes only ever outrun orcs, T-Rexs, avalanches, and meteors, thanks to the fact that every time the camera cuts, their pursuer loses at least a good 10 meters.
By contemplating the largely subtextual conflict between Bilbo and Thorin, by imagining Kropotkin’s escape, a reader may have as much excitement as their imagination permits. But imagination is precisely what the movies kill as they provide stimulation through an almost mechanical milking of the viewer’s adrenal gland, offering up stimuli at the most basic reactive and chemical levels: a vision of falling, the image of pursuit, raised voices and gestures of anger suddenly reconciled. Why the atrophied adrenal glands, when most viewers have lived far less adventurous lives than Bilbo Baggins even before Gandalf carved a sign on his door? He at least gardens, an exercise in hope and suspense foreign to the most veteran players of video games.
One is reminded of the junkie, whose only pleasure comes in more frequent doses.
It is not disbelief that is suspended, but imagination itself, for a robust imagination finds no marrow in such petty provocations.
The true faithlessness of the movie derives from the use of cinema to fix imagination. Ours is not a caricatured Luddism that hates and fears the movie form itself. The movie as an art form can do things that the book as an art form cannot, even when the former is a rendition of the latter. No less than Edward Abbey said that Lonely Are the Brave was better than his book (The Brave Cowboy) in everything but the title. In recent years, the Coen Brothers have excelled in crafting original pieces inspired by literary works that are neither superseded nor trampled, that are left untouched on a parallel plane of artistic creation.
Ours is a principled and historic Luddism that strikes back at that which assaults us. The greatest strength of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are that these are tales within a mythical cosmos that is highly developed yet unbounded, known through completed stories and unfinished fragments rather than through encyclopedic certainty. They form “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths” in Tolkien’s own words. In truth, the movies are a greater travesty for the participation of Tolkien geeks who have been drawn to the power of the silver screen like Easterlings to Morgoth. For those geeks can fill in the backcloth, bring it closer, define it and thus limit it. Radagast and Dol-goldur unmet were left to the imagination. They were a distant mystery both to wee Bilbo and to the reader. Brought into the foreground of The Hobbit‘s narrative, however, they are cast in megapixels, frozen as though in the dragon’s gaze.
The movies have surpassed the might of the old books. Now, there is a website, thehobbit.com which opens with Martin Freeman’s face and music from the film. Googling any of the characters from the books will bring up interviews and images of the actors from the movie. An image search for “The Hobbit” brings up, in the first hundred hits, only images of the recent film. None of the amazing book covers that have appeared over the years, none of the hundreds of renditions of characters and scenes from various artists, not even stills from the 1977 cartoon movie, which, despite a few factual errors, is far truer to the book.
Evidently, the idolization of The Hobbit is nothing new. But contrary to how the earlier engravings did not preclude a reader’s own imaginings—and those imaginings retained sovereignty—the new movie overwhelms all the prior renditions and imposes a definitive set of images.
In one of the important philosophical debates of the 5th Century BC, idolization was attacked in part because it fixed divinity in a bounded, concrete image. A counter to this argument is that the attempt to universalize divinity as an amaterial abstraction is to alienate the physical world and to flatten an array of places that had been defended from their subsumption to any rational, administerable grid through the exceptionality of localized relations of worship.
Curiously, both abstraction and idolization serve to substitute an active practice of spiritual commoning. Spiritual interaction with a boundless world requires one to take imaginative initiative in forging the intangible relationships they feel a need for. Interaction with an idol requires merely ritualized appeasement (which, it should be noted, is easily taxable—probably why the Catholic Church brought idolization back). Interaction with an abstracted divinity requires obedience to commandments. In this latter case, one no longer even chooses their relationship with what has become an omniscient higher power.
Once the abstraction of the divine had alienated the world of its divinity, free relationships take refuge in the imaginary. As the State advances, our imagination takes us to increasingly distant worlds. These worlds also need to be enclosed.
In the movie theaters, The Hobbit was preceded by an advertisement for tourism to New Zealand that tantalizes viewers with images of mystifying mountains, spiritual journeys, and constructions from the film itself, open to visitors. Just as an authentic hobbit village is constructed on fixed ground, the geography of Middle Earth is fixed to the film’s shooting locations. In a perhaps unconscious, perhaps inevitable twist, Tolkien’s explicitly European imaginary is imposed on colonized land.
In an alienated world, idolization becomes the process of fixing the imaginary, bringing the many flights of fantasy back into contact with the commodity form. But it’s not about making money. The reason the State is busily sending its apparatuses into the imaginary goes far beyond a vulgar economism or any simple need to take advantage of the success of Tolkien’s ouevre and make some money off of it. The present enclosure is every bit as much a measure of social control as the “strategic hamlets” set up in the Vietnam War. Even when imagination is used as nothing more than a harmless form of avoidance, apparatuses will arise to bring it back into the fold. Capitalism permits no escape.
A story well told encourages the audience to imagine themselves in it, and to invent stories of their own. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in particular, is a structure that invites fantasy, because rather than a story he created an entire world with the power to draw one into it. None of Tolkien’s narratives are closed structures; they all invite further exploration, opening more questions than they close. An active imagination is powerful precisely because it can create new worlds and allow us to travel between them, whether these are worlds of escape or worlds that contest capitalist reality and the State’s designs on our future.
A variety of institutions, from MGM, to Google, to the New Zealand tourism department, have converged to fix the imaginative world of Middle Earth to a specific geography and set of images. The result of all these maneuvers is to atrophy the mind’s eye under a barrage of hyper-produced, objective stimuli. And just as the commodity substitutes the satisfaction of a desire, the apparatus of the movie theater, with its immersive experience, now in 3D, substitutes the joy of imagining with the pleasure of sensory stimulation. The movie succeeds in this underhanded endeavor precisely because its representation of Middle Earth is so thorough.
Tolkien’s storytelling creates an intense longing to visit the magical place he has constructed. This longing is a special feeling, as it can never be satisfied. The reader will be enticed to imagine themselves a bridge to that world, but the visit cannot be definitive. The tension caused by uncertainty encourages further imagination, and the longing causes discontentment with the lack of magic in the present world. The sounds and images of the movie, convincing in their fullness and even backed up by a real hobbit village awaiting exploration in New Zealand, provide the illusion of visiting that unreachable world. Their effect is to extinguish longing. Just like a commodity, whose value is extinguished in the moment it is possessed, the movie appears to satisfy the desire to know a fantastic world when in reality it kills it. While this is happening, the viewer is overwhelmed by stimuli. But when the film is done, they are numb. The fantastic world has proved to be hollow. There is nothing left but to seek another fix. One more year until the sequel, and in the meantime, there seem to be some good apocalypse movies coming up, and of course, the video game.
The mechanical milking of the adrenal glands the movie accomplishes with its frequent use of the fake-out clues us to the fact that this imagination-destroying act is in fact a productive process. The apparatus of the movie theater uses its power to reproduce an unreachable world, and thus gives the audience the simulacram of the appeasement of their longing, to create an emotive bond. This is a case of power/affect. By allowing themselves to be enticed by the idolization that is accomplished within the theater, relieving themselves of the need to formulate their own relations with the imaginary, the audience surrenders their fantasy world, they turn their imagination over to the proper authorities, allowing its enclosure and alienation.
The result is not merely the chance to make a few million bucks off a story that before was only minimally commoditized, or a few million more off of tourism to New Zealand. What is produced is a generation of captives who are incapable of imagining other worlds, and who are dependent on a host of apparatuses to manage their yearnings.