Why The Hobbit (and Its Siblings) are Inextricable from the Holidays
It’s official: Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit—long anticipated by Lord of the Rings fans, yet roundly criticized by skeptics for turning a single modest-sized novel into a trilogy of overlong movies—enjoyed the single highest-grossing December premiere weekend in cinema history. That hadn’t happened yet when I headed into the theater last week, though, and as both a lifelong Tolkien lover and a skeptic, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turns out, I side with the fans; the movie’s slow start isn’t a big enough flaw to outweigh the warm, fuzzy feeling of sinking back into Middle-Earth. And I should have known all along that would be the case—because there was never any real chance that The Hobbit could fail to continue The Lord of the Rings’ fundamental identity as Best Holiday Season Movies Ever.
But why? What is it that makes Tolkien’s tales so deeply resonant with Christmastime?
Like LOTR, The Hobbit is fundamentally not about its plot—rather, it’s about the yearning we feel for the comforts of home. That’s perhaps the simplest holiday sentiment there is, one shared by anyone who either had or wanted a happy childhood. The Shire, the pastoral quasi-English countryside that the hobbits call home, is painted early and lovingly in both stories. It’s a fantastical vision of simple, small-town neighborhood bliss: kids playing out front, cheerily painted front doors, gardeners happily trimming hedges. In LOTR, Bilbo Baggins’ family homestead, Bag End, was the story’s first locale; in The Hobbit, it doesn’t merely fill that same role again—it becomes a major character itself. The movie’s first act unfolds amid a half-hour-long warm-sweater-hug of a portrait of the domestic space, lingering on shots of cozy candlelit nooks, a bountifully stocked pantry, comfy chairs to lounge in. Bilbo’s home is an idyllic place to be happy—except for one little detail: He lives there alone.
Which brings us straight to the next point: Tolkien’s stories are also very much about enjoying company. Aragorn and Legolas didn’t become modern movie icons just because they were heroic warriors and studly eye candy, but because they became Frodo’s chosen brethren; the intensity of their shared experience journeying across Middle-Earth catapulted them into the role of all-but-family. Jackson carefully reconstructs this dynamic in The Hobbit, though it takes the entirety of this first episode to build Bilbo’s relationship with the wayward dwarf king Thorin into the sort of bromance we’re waiting for. Meanwhile, there’s another motif at work that can’t help but conjure feelings of family: the simple act of breaking bread together. Shared meals are evoked repeatedly and consciously through the Tolkien stories, from Merry and Pippin’s obsession with breakfasts in LOTR to the fateful dinner party that kicks off The Hobbit. It’s such an obvious ritual as to be almost invisible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a huge, if unconscious, part of the story’s appeal.
And speaking of ritual, that’s the third element tugging at our wintertime heartstrings: tradition itself. The sense of long history is built deeply into Middle-Earth. Key to engaging with Tolkien’s story is the idea that you’re picking up late in a saga that has been unfolding for centuries on end—just like the long holiday traditions we celebrate in the various millennia-old faiths of real life. Gandalf’s wizardly meeting with the elven queen Galadriel, while it’s one of the film’s much-noted divergences from the text of the novel, is central to that feeling of long history, both on the metatextual level—they’re the two wise old characters we loved from LOTR, and now we, the audience, meet them anew in their somewhat younger years—and in terms of the moments they actually share onscreen, as the tremendous chemistry between Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett quietly implies the sort of long, unseen intimacy we share with our nearest and dearest.
All that is why people who love Tolkien, and who mostly respect Jackson’s interpretation thereof, are willing to forgive the excessive-seeming runtime and the alterations to the book’s narrative. Because the ultimate essence of the story isn’t swordfights and magic rings and snarling creatures—it’s the bittersweet longing for things to be always like our fondest memories of them are. Like Christmas. —Stephen H. Segal
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in theaters now.
Quentin Tarantino Dials Up His Revenge Fantasy Fetish in Django Unchained
It’s not clear how well Quentin Tarantino’s public persona—hyperactive motormouth grossly abusing the phrase “you know”—succeeds in getting him funding, but it can succeed in making him seem far less intelligent than he actually is. The Tarantino “character” is as dumb as the real Tarantino is smart, and Django Unchained, like his others, is a deceptively thoughtful look into genre filmmaking in the guise of a mad scientist fanboy riff on the same.
Both Kill Bills and Inglorious Basterds are, apart from their many visceral joys, explorations into the nature of revenge. Tarantino has threatened to one day make a sequel to Bill in which the Bride is the villain, avenged by the daughter of one of her kills. Basterds rewrites history so Jews kill Hitler, but he subtly undermines the deed—QT couldn’t destroy the Third Reich before 1944?—and vengeance remains stuck on the screen. Death Proof—which he stupidly called his “worst,” as if he has one–is not a grindhouse pic, but a bizarro art film mash-up one friend convincingly compared to Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique.
On first viewing, Django Unchained seems less rich, though Tarantino films tend to grow with repeat visits. There’s still something there. QT borrows the name of one of spaghetti western’s most-filmed, stubble-faced badasses—first incarnated in 1966 by Franco Nero, who cameos—only to perform a racial recoding. This Django (Jamie Foxx) is a pissed-off slave who, with polite German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), seeks to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from a plantation owned by loquacious good ol’ boy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
One of Tarantino’s favorite films is Mandingo, Richard Fleischer’s notoriously sleazy 1975 exploitation film about miscegenation on a decaying plantation. Django borrows Mandingo’s habit of dwelling on oft-ignored aspects of the antebellum South. The persistent use of the n-word—surely a record—has caused outrage, but it’s a constant reminder of the whitewashing of the Confederacy that continues today. More questionable is that the real villain turns out not to be Candie, a cruel and charismatic yet ultimately impotent baddie, but his crotchety house servant (Samuel L. Jackson), who places master above race.
There’s a lot to sort through on first viewing, but even a surface reading is pleasurable. As ever, QT’s violence—flesh ripped apart by old-timey bullets—mashes swimmingly with fat blocks of euphonious chatter. His humor can go too far: Candie’s plantation probably didn’t need to be called “Candie Land,” and Mel Brooks is among the referenced auteurs. (Though a scene where Klansmen argue over hood eyeholes is hilarious enough to get a pass.) Some have postulated that the death of Tarantino’s longtime editor, Sally Menke, explains the length (165 minutes). It’s true that Django is narratively slender, with little structural density. (And the few flashbacks are atypically, worryingly awkward.) It’s a simple, longwinded origin story. Of course, the last time an “overlong” Tarantino movie opened on Christmas Day, people complained, too, only for many to subsequently discover its deep and unique pleasures. And even on first spin, Django Unchained is more fun than Jackie Brown. —Matt Prigge
Django Unchained opens in theaters nationwide on Tues., Dec. 25.
Tom Cruise as Badass? The Pulpy Jack Reacher Delivers—and So Does He
“I am going to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot,” Tom Cruise matter-of-factly explains during a preposterously entertaining moment in Jack Reacher, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s retro adaptation of one of Lee Child’s compulsively readable potboilers. It’s a deliberately lo-fi, old school detective yarn that, at its best, feels like a really good episode of a ‘70s television show. That’s fine with me.
But not since Cruise was cast as the vampire Lestat have we heard such outrage from a fan base. After 17 Reacher novels, readers have grown protective of this six-foot-five bear of a hero, a former military investigator who now lives off the grid, drifting from town to town dispensing justice. Obviously, Cruise is a ridiculous physical match for the role, but it turns out his patented, narrow-eyed “intensity” is a perfect fit for Reacher’s often hilarious single-mindedness. The character’s appeal is an uber-competence combined with complete indifference to social graces. Jack Reacher is always the smartest guy in the room. And usually the rudest.
Working from One Shot, the ninth book in the series, Jack Reacher finds our title character mixed up in the convoluted case of a Pittsburgh sniper who may or may not have been framed. There’s an idealistic lawyer (Rosamund Pike) trying to keep the guy off death row, but something about the airtight case feels too good to be true. As typical of Lee Child’s tales, Reacher meticulously pores over the evidence with an almost Asberger-ish focus, openly insulting the local authorities while periodically mopping the floor with folks dumb enough to start bare-knuckle brawls.
Calendar: March 25-April 1
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide