Scum of the Middle-earth

Monday December 10th 2012

There’s a depressing moment about six minutes into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when the character of Smaug — the malevolent dragon antagonist of Peter Jackson’s new $450m Middle-earth trilogy — is first introduced, and you suddenly realise that the movie’s heroes aren’t even going to meet their aggressor until July 2014. Over the next eighteen months, audiences around the world will be drip-fed Bilbo Baggins’s nine-hour journey to the Lonely Mountain in much the same way that his nephew Frodo’s trip to Mordor was serialised back in the early noughties. Such an extreme piece of delayed gratification is a big ask of any audience, so it’s vital that viewers can at least relate to the travellers with which they share this epic journey. And personally, I’d rather spend nine hours with Smaug than another minute in the company of the insufferable fucks that pass for the film’s protagonists.

You’ve really got to feel for Bilbo. At the film’s open, he seems reasonably content with his quiet, picturesque life in the Shire. When Gandalf first turns up — insistently referring to Bilbo by his full name like a condescending headmaster with nothing left to live for — I felt inclined to share in Bilbo’s annoyance at the strange man who seemed so intent on making his presence known. When the wizard returned later that evening with a gathering of dwarves, even more so.

It’s difficult to express quite how arrogant, obnoxious and utterly unpleasant this company of cunts really is. Bundling into Bilbo’s home by force, they take advantage of his good nature to fuck the place up wholesale, like fatter, hairier versions of the teenage nihilists from Project X. Not just oblivious to social etiquette but actively engaged in flouting it, they couldn’t care less about Bilbo and his humble home, concerned solely as they are with their own perverted sense of merriment. They do, however, want to ask him a favour.

It transpires that Smaug has taken up lodgings in the dwarves’ castle, and now they want Bilbo’s help to reclaim their home from this fire-breathing squatter. At worst, that’s a property dispute. At best, a rodent infestation. But in either case, it’s a markedly similar situation to the one that Bilbo currently finds himself in. Except of course that Smaug has yet to display even a hint of the noxious self-entitlement of Bilbo’s unwelcome house guests.

When he quite justifiably declines their offer, choosing not to risk his life on a quest to take back a palace full of gold from a dragon, the dwarves have the temerity to accuse Bilbo of cowardice. And when — guilt-tripped into changing his mind by Gandalf — he does eventually join them, things don’t get much better.

Every single person that the dwarves encounter on their journey is treated with immediate suspicion and hostility — regardless of the level of threat they pose to the company. Happening upon a group of trolls in a forrest, the dwarves mock them for their stupidity (because of course, dwarfkind has shown itself to be a depthless font of wisdom), attack them with swords and then eventually turn them to stone. A subsequent encounter with a population of goblins results in mass genocide (delivered with gleeful aplomb by the continually quipping dwarves) and the destruction of an entire peoples’ homeland. The whole thing makes Smaug look positively tantric.

Bilbo, who incredibly has yet to sack the whole thing off and return to the Shire, gets little thanks for his participation in this parade of ruin. Instead, the dwarves chide him constantly, labelling him weak, timid and basically unworthy of their association. The fact that THEY’RE THE ONES WHO ASKED FOR HIS FUCKING HELP seems to have slipped their minds, and try as he might Bilbo simply can’t live up to their mountain-high expectations. Quite frankly, they’re hardly the Magnificent Seven themselves — it might be nice if they didn’t rebuke the guy day and night.

Even Gollum — who as far as I’m aware is meant to be the villain here — treats Bilbo with more respect, when he pops up for fifteen minutes in a cave-based dialogue scene reminiscent of Tim Robbins’s contribution to War of the Worlds.

A last minute deus ex machina that completely undermines the narrative of the entire movie is probably the most concrete example An Unexpected Journey has to offer of Peter Jackson turning to the audience and spitting directly into their faces. But it’s the behaviour of the supposedly affable dwarves that makes this particular ‘adventure’ such a punishing experience. And if Tolkien’s source material is more to blame for that than Jackson’s adaptation, then they can share my contempt equally between them.