Why I Enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

copyright 2013 by Dave Van Domelen

    This is not a movie review. In fact, I don't have much to say in specific about Peter Jackson's latest work here, other than a couple of examples to illustrate points. Rather, it's more in the way of an examination of the nature of fandom and my place in it, at least as far as J.R.R. Tolkien is concerned.

    First, a little background. I read The Hobbit for the first time when I was 7 years old, having gotten the book as a Christmas present in 1977. I then used my First Communion money to buy a box set of an anniversary box set of the Lord of the Rings a few months later. While my first attempt at reading it was halted as a result of Nazgul nightmares, I did end up reading the entire trilogy front to back three times over the next decade (plus the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, although I only read those once). I haven't completely read anything longer than a novella more than twice, and very few things that length more than once. In fact, since reaching adulthood, I don't think I've reread more than two or three things of novel length, and those were expanded editions with new material. So, suffice to say, Middle Earth was a significant part of my development as an SF/F fan. I'm not coming into this as someone who's only had casual or passing exposure to the source material.

    And yet, I can't really say I've ever been a Tolkien Fan in the serious fandom sense. I don't mean "I don't cosplay an elf and learn to speak Sindarin, I'm not one of THOSE fans." I mean I don't think I'm into Middle Earth seriously enough to be considered part of the fandom at all. I've gone a bit deeper than with other culturally pervasive works like Star Wars or Star Trek, and it's certainly got its metaphorical fingers in a lot of the media I consume, but I'm not into Middle Earth the same way I'm into, say, Transformers. When Peter Jackson rearranges some bits of the story or even drops them entirely when making movies in Middle Earth, it doesn't bother me the way it bothers a lot of my friends.

    Why is that?

    As shown above, it's not that I lack knowledge of the property. Granted, a lot of my knowledge is rusty, and I simply didn't notice some of the omissions in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But even when they're pointed out, I don't really mind.

    Nor is it that I have attained some sort of Nerd Satori in which I'm never bothered by inconsistencies within a canon, or changes made in adaptations. It's certainly something I work at, but the fact you don't see me frothing in Nerd Rage very often has more to do with how my temper in general flares and passes quickly enough that I cool off before hitting "send" and as a result don't publicly display my ire unless it's a big deal or I've got Facebook open the instant my dander gets up.

    Having given it some thought, I think it's just that there's a critical element that separates casual fans from serious ones. Probably more than one critical element, come to think of it, but the one that's relevant here is the infamous "head canon": a set of firm opinions on How The Story Should Be Told. It fills in gaps around the official canon, explains away inconsistencies, and suggests ways that an adaptation or extension should be done.

    This is why fannish sources often complain about really popular adaptations of their beloved properties. It's not that the movie or TV show is necessarily bad (although one could argue that the Transformers movies really are pretty bad), or that the director/writer made poor choices on how to adapt a book to the big screen or a comic to the small screen.

    It's that the choices disagreed with the movie or show running on a tiny screen in the fan's head canon.

    In the case of the Hobbit, we're primarily seeing Peter Jackson's head canon. He's well-established as a major Tolkien fan, it's unfair to claim he doesn't understand the property or what makes it work. It's just that his head canon does not match your head canon. Frankly, it's really unlikely that any two head canons will ever match up 100%, that's why we have internet flamewars over stuff like whether female dwarves really have beards, or if the music in the Rankin-Bass cartoons accurately reflects the styles of music in Middle Earth.

    Here's why I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It met minimal standards for quality on even its weakest points (and was really good in many areas), and I don't have a head canon horse in this race. Or shaggy dwarf-pony, in this case. I haven't given a lot of thought to how the book "should" be adapted to the big screen...as long as it doesn't omit the bits that made a strong enough impression to be remembered half a lifetime later, I'm happy with Jackson's choices. (For the record, the relevant bits from my memories of this segment of the story were troll cuisine, flaming pinecones and riding the eagles, all of which made it into the movie.)

    Generally speaking, this is one of the big reasons that fandom is rarely completely satisfied with any adaptation. It's not the one they would make, which means it always starts off with one or even two strikes against it. It can't possibly match up with all of the head canons out there, even if you ignore the patently impractical ones that would result in a 20 hour marathon.

    Let me digress for a moment to answer an obvious criticism here. I'm not saying that you have to lower your standards to enjoy something. Bad is still bad. But there's a difference between standards and expectations. Fans tend to have specific expectations for how things should be done, and conflate those expectations with evaluations of quality. In other words, if it doesn't match a fan's head canon, it's considered wrong and bad automatically, even if it's a well-crafted story. And if it matches the fan's head canon, it's right and good, even if the actual execution is garbage.

    Obviously, there's exceptions to the idea that fans have trouble enjoying another person's interpretation of a property. I know at least one person who did his doctoral thesis on Middle Earth, and he loved the LotR trilogy (haven't seen his opinion on the Hobbit yet). Perhaps when you get deep enough into a fandom, it's possible to gain the perspective necessary to let you set aside your own head canon. Going pro should include this shift in perspective, but sadly tends not to these days, instead just becoming an opportunity to force your head canon onto the other fans (as seen in a lot of comics over the past two decades or so). It's possible Jackson is even ignoring his own head canon preferences in many places because he knows they'd make the movies worse, much as he'd like to see the children of his mind up on the big screen.

    But, when you get right down to it, people who care about the property usually make better adaptations and official extensions than people who don't care, even if they can't set aside their own head canon. People who care a lot just tend to make for dissatisfied audiences.

Related essay: Toyhacks - "The One I Had As A Kid" and One True Way-ism in fandom

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