I like to reread books in December.

January is all about devouring the books I got for Christmas and studying the release calendar while preordering waaaay too many new titles. But in December, it’s nice to revisit old favorites.

Most recently, I’ve been rereading The Hobbit. And yes, everyone has a lot to say about it recently, with the third film leading the box office and fans and critics weighing in all over the interwebz. I haven’t seen Battle of the Five Armies and frankly I don’t plan to while it’s in theaters. I was fed up after the second movie and its 20-minute action sequences.

Rather than face further disappointment, I went back to the novel. It was nice to remember why it’s such a great story–in many ways more appealing than The Fellowship of the Ring, which takes ages to get going and doesn’t really know what it’s about until the last third of the book. The Hobbit knows what it is: an adventure.

The Lord of the Rings has adventures in it, of course, but I will always think of it as a war story. There is much of the political and social to be considered. It has a huge cast and arguably multiple protagonists. The Hobbit is about Bilbo Baggins. Full stop.

Yes, the dwarves are quite important. So is Beorn the bear-man and the elf king and Bard and Gandalf. Even the Necromancer is somewhat important, although not as important as Peter Jackson would make him. (Yes, I know he’s Sauron. The Hobbit is not about Sauron.)

But without Bilbo none of them matter. He shapes the story. It’s his adventure. His development as a hero. And as such, it’s not terribly dark or gritty. Sure, frightening or upsetting things happen. (An awful lot of ponies seem to get eaten in The Hobbit. There’s also the spiders. And the fate of Lake Town.) But tonally it’s incredibly different. It’s charming. It’s funny. It’s whimsical.

Some of that whimsy showed up in the first film. It’s hard to bleed out the good-natured fun of the dwarves’ arrival or the encounter with the trolls. Martin Freeman is hilariously stuffy as Bilbo. And the addition of Sylvester McCoy as Radagast was pretty wonderful. But in his attempts to tie everything neatly to the Quest of the Ring, Jackson saps a lot of the inherent joy out of the middle section of the book. And the third film looks downright depressing. (Yes, yes, yes, things go poorly at the end but it’s not all dragon-song and corruption, is it?)

I have often wondered how Guillermo del Toro’s vision might have been different: whether we would have had two neater films which explore the wonderful weirdness of Middle Earth through Biblo’s eyes, whether the allusions to the plot of Lord of the Rings would have been smart and subtle instead of so ham-handed and overbearing, and whether an extra character like Tauriel would have felt meaningful instead of pandering. Because The Hobbit could have been a great movie (or two). Instead it just feels forced.

But this also seems to be characteristic of epic fantasy recently–particularly in film and television. It seems that in its quest to be taken seriously, fantasy has committed itself to a particular tone and format, à la Game of Thrones. It’s leached itself of fun–of whimsy.

And mind you, it’s not impossible to retain that sense while still addressing weighty topics, e.g., Beasts of the Southern Wild. (It may be, in fact, that the answer to this issue lies in magical realism.) But it seems a shame that heroic fantasy be reduced to one tragic note.


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