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The Hobbit - a philosophical review
Much of the early discussion of Peter Jackson's new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, has focused on Jackson's use of the latest 3D technology by shooting at 48 frames-per-second. Some viewers complain that the picture quality is so eye-poppingly clear that it becomes distracting and even disquieting. Jackson himself has remarked that it may take the average filmgoer half the movie before he or she feels truly comfortable.
Comfort, in fact, is a major theme in the film, as it is in the classic children's book on which it is based. Bilbo, 'a Baggins of Bag End', spends a good portion of the film praising, then longing for the comforts of home. On the first page, author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that Bilbo's home meant 'comfort'. For French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, the 'house allows one to dream in peace'. Without a house, 'man is a dispersed being'. In the climactic scene of the film outside Gollum's cave, Bilbo finally commits himself wholeheartedly to the quest, telling Thorin that because he likes his home so much he wants to help the Company take back their own home from the dragon who made them refugees.
Having already survived a difficult childhood, Tolkien lost several of his closest friends in the trenches of World War I. Tolkien, like Bachelard, understood that 'home' can have conflicting psychological resonances. Home can connote warmth, comfort, security, but also stagnation, risk-aversion, and constraint. In the film Gandalf warns Bilbo that when he returns from his journey he will be changed and may not be so comfortable at home as he has been.
The Hobbit has long appealed to psychologists for its obvious correspondences to the process of maturation. As the book opens, Bilbo is effectively a fifty-year-old child nestled in his comfy hobbit hole. By the end of the tale Bilbo has achieved Jungian individuation or Maslowian self-actualization by stepping out of his comfort zone, resolving his inner conflicts, and growing in courage, self-confidence, and self-understanding by confronting challenges and dangers.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a flawed but very good film. It is over-long, the dialogue occasionally limps, and there is too much dwarfish and trollish clownishness.
Otherwise, the film triumphantly succeeds. It is visually and technologically stunning, the action scenes are terrific, Andy Serkis' Gollum is brilliant beyond words, and (unlike The Lord of the Rings films) the many changes Jackson makes to Tolkien's original storyline are nearly always effective.
Our advice, then, is to step outside your own comfy hobbit hole and see Jackson's Hobbit film the way it was meant to be seen: as a cutting-edge work of art in 3D format. It will be an adventure.
- Gregory Bassham is a Professor of Philosophy at King's College Pennsylvania. Eric Bronson is a visiting Professor in the Humanities Department at York University Toronto. The pair are editors, with William Irwin, of The Hobbit and Philosophy (Wiley, 2012).
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