Steve Mentz has a great blog post (Just Get There: Hobbit 2 as Whitewater Epic) on the latest installment of the Hobbit trilogy. The piece is not only extraordinarily well written, it is hilarious. Read it! I want to reflect here a little on The Desolation of Smaug as (in Steve's apt words) "an epic whitewater serpent."
I knew what I was getting into when I signed up to go to the film, so I don't have any negativity about the thing -- yes, it is too long, too self-referential (return of the carrot eating man at the Prancing Pony!), too LotR part deux, too profligate in its gold, bad fan fiction, but, whatever. Steve notes that The Hobbit (the book) is not an epic and never aspired to be, and its dwarves are -- in Tolkien's own words -- "not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money." Indeed, Tolkien's narrative is classic anti-epic (small in scale, resolutely non-heroic, deeply ambivalent about war). So Steve asks a rather profound question of genre and the epic-addled Peter Jackson film:
But Peter Jackson and his machinery will not be denied, and Hobbit 2: Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities walks, quacks, and breathes fire like an epic. How does he do it? What can epic make of a furry-footed hero and his vertically-challenged if facially hirsute comrades?His blog post does an excellent job of mapping the story's progress as a flow: the there-and-back-again circularity of The Hobbit (novel) yields to the rushing rivers (of water, of gold) in the film. Steve's observation "Everything flows: is Jackson’s real Muse Heraclitus?" is spot-on.
As I watched the film I contemplated a related question, wondering if a children's book of such small scale (emphasized in its small characters) really could become an epic -- and then I wondered why I should wonder that. Who gets to be included in an epic, and who must be left out, or left to the edges? Why can't dwarves -- the characters Steve calls the "vertically-challenged if facially hirsute comrades" -- be epic heroes? Why are dwarves always, even in the sagas and medieval works, always bit players, never protagonists or heroes?
The dwarves have a much expanded role in the film, much larger than in the book, where they often seem like so much background to Bilbo's fussiness and adventuring. We all know that hobbits are not epic-worthy; that's the point of hobbits. They are the humane, domestic, tea-loving and diminutive figures around and for whom action swirls. Epic demands vastness of scale: wizards! trolls! ents! elves! oliphaunts! and other tall creatures! It also demands passion -- so we get the Aragorn-Arwen romance, much played up in the LotR films. Gimli son of Glóin tries his best to be part of the film's epic action, but he is always a little ridiculous, some light-hearted defeat of epic expectations offered in order to support those expectations. Gimli can't run as quickly as Aragorn and Legolas when they are reduced to a threesome and has to be scooped onto a horse. In one particularly awful scene at Helm's Deep he is hurled by Aragorn (that's the bar game of dwarf tossing being invoked; it's supposed to be funny but...). Gimli's love for Galadriel embarrasses even him -- and is cutely tame as well (he gets a single hair from her; she is impossible as love-object, and that's the point). Dwarves are not sexual: their short and non-handsome bodies bar them from desire. Aragon tells Éowyn in the extended version of Two Towers that dwarf women can't be discerned from the males because they also have beards. Dwarves are small guys and it is funny when they try to act big. Epic has small space for them -- unlike hobbits, who are beloved, the ones with the good hearts and the jolly reminders of embodied life; their quiet life in the Shire provides the reason Epic Guys do what they do).
Think of Tyrion "the Imp" Lannister, the dwarf from Game of Thrones: he is hypersexual, a trait that is supposed to be repulsive and attractive. He knows he is not supposed to be eligible for sexual attraction, and yet he keeps on desiring, to the horror of some and the delight of others. He's a violent schemer, a charismatic monster, a mini Richard III, and he's appropriately loved-hated for that. He is not a "mythic" dwarf, not a member of a race: he is the disabled body in a court full of beautiful if wicked people. His disability is what makes him a freak and extraordinary to be stared at (to use three of Rosemarie Garland Thomson's terms for the spectacular work of disability).
facial prostheses are used for the majority of the dwarves)? What of a world that might even allow one dwarf to love his wife and little boy enough to carry a portrait of them (Glóin), another to be a doppelganger for Strider (Thorin), and a third to be so smoking hot that an elf maiden and legions of fans (23,800 on FB) fall in love with him (Kili)?
Maybe Jackson's inability not to epicalize The Hobbit has actually accomplished something extraordinary: a tale in which non-normate bodies need not be ridiculous, and an adjustment of epic's point of view. Perhaps the cinematic gaze here re-orients epic, away from the tall and conventionally beautiful people who are its usual eye candy, thereby making it a suitable genre for extraordinary bodies. Instead of the well-blazed trail of anti-epic, Jackson forces the genre to recenter its point of view.