With This Ring, I Thee Dread
By David Dalton

I am a self-loathing hobbit. I have fallen under Sauron's curse. I am a wretched cynic who cannot enjoy watching a band of hobbits (plus an elf, a dwarf, a wizard, and a brace of warriors) trouncing the Black Riders of Mordor. I am apparently immune to the simple pleasures given to the rest of humanity of seeing good triumph over evil. Okay, not all that simple—$300-million, cast of thousands, a year-and-and-a-half in the making—but, hey, joy doesn’t come cheap these days.

How, you ask, could I resist the epic blandishments? The special effects! The New Zealand panoramas! Everyone clapped as director Peter Jackson’s name came up on the credits. They cheered! They were happy! The goodness and rightness of the film’s message (what was it, again?) had made them ready to face another grim day in the real world. While I—with my foreboding theme music trailing behind me—slunk out of the theater overjoyed that the endless, dopey thing was over at last.

And I seem to be alone in my curmudgeonliness. The scaly thing has garnered nothing but raves in the press. Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times, David Denby in the New Yorker loved it, gushed about it. But, listen, I got my suspicions. To whom is an editor going to assign a review of The Fellowship of the Ring? You're not gonna give it to some poor slob who has to plow through thousands of pages of Tolkieniana just to get up to speed on all things hobbit. You're gonna give the job to a hobbit-hugger, right? Denby comes right out and admits to once being under the hairy-footed spell. It's a little harder to imagine Elvis Mitchell as a Middle Earth nerd, but then, what are we to make of that elfish Christian name of his? Tolkien is a cult—like the Grateful Dead. When a new Dead documentary or book comes out, who ya gonna call? Deadheads. So who gets to review Lord of the Rings stuff? Hobbitheads.

I've heard little complaint from hobbit-huggers about Fellowship, and no wonder. It's not only faithful to the books, it's a perfect fit. No procrustean bed was needed to turn Tolkien's tomes into a sword-and-sorcery epic. Tolkien's puppet-like characterizations and his schematic manichaeism (a pox, say I, on your light-versus-darkness symbolism, sir!) are reductive elements that feed effortlessly into the Disneyfication of Middle Earth. Which is why the movie from time to time gives the impression of watching a video game with spectacular production values. Tolkien shares with Disney and video games a sort of diagrammatic emptiness, an exotic blandness, and a substitution of allegory for plot that is somewhat disguised in the movie's lush panoramas and enveloping special effects.

As for the acting, what acting? But you can't really blame the actors. In a Tolkien epic, where in hell are the poor things to look for their motivations? (In an epic good versus evil doesn't count as a motivation; this would be a simple tautology.) Actors will search in vain for the inner life of their characters because people in Tolkien aren't characters to begin with. As C.S. Lewis long ago slyly pointed out: "Character delineation’s here done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, a hobbit. The imagined beings have their inside on the outside."

A lot of the movie's encomiums center around how well the director Peter Jackson dealt with his daunting task—his masterful compression of the endless, repetitive mock-battles that recur like medieval traffic jams in the books. For my taste these were not compressed enough, alas! How I dreaded yet another Dungeons-and-Dragons fray! The only compensation being the wonderful cosmetology of the villains. The drooling orcs with their bad orthodontistry possessed true Alien horror. And as for the Balrog, the Big Bad Beast jerking about in clay-mation stop-action in the dwarf cathedral, I felt sorry for the lumbering guy. Maybe, to paraphrase Flaubert, the Big Bad Beast, c'est moi.

Actually Christopher Lee’s orc factory was starting to look like a pretty productive operation to me—and who could ask for a better depiction of a capitalist slave driver than Dracula himself (Christopher Lee) as Saruman? Well, at least they were doing something, even if it was Eee-vil. What do hobbits do, exactly? The evil wizard’s joint, too, had the grotesquely appealing real-estate look of a Mad Max movie, a terrain I can easily relate to. Whereas the Shire is just a pixilated Thomas Kinkade painting. Somewhere in the second hour of the interminable saga, I found myself beginning to actively root for the bad guys. Go long, Black Riders of Mordor! Orcs rule! I knew it was hopeless but I felt I had to do my part, borne back ceaselessly against the tide of kitsch illumination and hobbit franchises….

Tune in next week for: MY HOBBIT PROBLEM