Peter Jackson’s Limitations Part The Second

Did you ever read The Catcher in the Rye?  It may have gotten its most famous shout-out through an attempted murderer and a dark comedy movie (wherein Patrick Stewart gets his nose nearly bitten off) but this book had been on school reading lists for ages before either.  Yes, I’ve read it.  No, I didn’t love it.  Was it well-written?  Sure.  Was it entertaining?  Not to me.

I didn’t love it because the main character, and, more importantly, the narrator, Holden Caulfield, is a jerk.

If you’ve been aboard ship for this entire blog-cruise of mine you’ll know how much character means to me.  Characters keep me interested, they make me feel, they fill me with angst or laughter or the absolute need to find out what happens next.  Give me a character that I can sympathize with, care about, encourage through change and hardship, or walk alongside of on a journey and I’m all yours.

Holden Caulfield?  He’s not for me.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

These are the opening lines of Salinger’s work.  Caulfield is the narrator.  He’s the focus.  He’s the figure about which Salinger’s world turns.  Depressed, confused, neurotic, psychotic – whichever term you choose, Holden is a mess.  Don’t get me wrong: messed up people can be fascinating, often are far more fascinating than so-called normal people.

So why does the tale of this perplexed young man send me back to the library bookshelf for another choice?

It’s all about tone.

The literary definition of ‘tone’ is “the attitude toward the subject which is communicated by the words the author chooses.” (Owl-Purdue)

Perfectly clear, right?

Okaaaaay.  Maybe not.  Let’s try the way I used to teach my students about tone.  Imagine a mother and her teenaged daughter having a “discussion.”


“I told you to clean your room before you could have the car.”

“I’ll call dad.”

Just based on the words alone, we’re not quite sure what is happening.  How about this?

(tearful)  “Mom.”

“I told you to clean your room before you could have the car.”

(nods head, defeated) “I’ll call dad.”

Hmmm.  Something going on here, right?  But WAIT, what about this?

(heavy sigh, disgusted eye-roll) “Mom.”

“I told you to clean your room before you could have the car.”

(arms crossed, smirking)  “I’ll call dad.” (flips hair over her shoulder)

Yep, as any mother knows, tone is attitude.  “Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady” is much more about the attitude of said lady than the key of C in which she’s speaking.

The tone of a work is expressed through the characters – especially the narrator, if there is one – through the mood of the words chosen, descriptors, adjectives, dialogue – it’s about how the characters move through the story, how they communicate, how the action is described.

There are lots of choices for an author.  Is he playful with his story?  Somber?  Formal?  Ironic?  Serious?  Casual?  Serene?  Outraged?  Sorrowful?  Whichever it is, this tone carries through the entire story – it holds everything together.  Even when there is a complete break – in time (history leaps forward), or in character (different POVs), or in circumstance (war ends, war begins), the tone will remain constant.  There will be ups and downs, moments of peace in the midst of conflict or joy in the midst of pain, but these limited scenes will be there only to provide juxtaposition, to emphasize the truly horrific or lamentable depth of the bigger tale.

Holden Caulfield gives the tone to Catcher.  An eye-rolling, smirking teenaged attitude combo of ‘the world owes me’ and ‘I don’t care’ and ‘I’ll do what I want’ that is just not my cup of hemlock.  However, Salinger is a great writer and is consistent and even throughout.

“But, Mary Ellen, why this sudden lesson on ‘tone’?  Do you miss your literature classes that much?”

Well, yes, I do miss my great students sometimes, but my point is this:  Tone is what is completely and totally screwed up in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

Leave now if you don’t want to hear about it again.

Tone is what Jackson gets so, so wrong.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien is a tale of a young hobbit, a race renowned for their stay-at-hominess, lack of imagination and curiosity, and meek nature, who learns that there is a great big world outside his door – and that, the farther away he gets from his door, the more he wishes he were back there.  There are songs and stories, hints of darkness, jokes, laughter, trolls, bear-men, and rides in barrels.  There are brief glimpses of a deeper story, of an epic that surrounds this crowd of 13 height-challenged individuals on all sides and yet is held firmly in the background.  Tolkien hints.  He makes sly references.  He peels back the curtain just a tiny bit and then puts all that away to focus on our hero – Bilbo Baggins, unlikely adventurer.

It’s fun.

Yes, Bilbo fights spiders (but he’s invisible at the time and singing “Attercob- Attercob!” at them.  Oops, spoiler alert.), and gets on the wrong side of some Wargs (which Gandalf throws flaming pine-cones at until they run off yelping), but he also talks his way around a serial-killer Gollum and charms a dragon to show off his one weakness.  Bilbo is not a fighter.  His story isn’t about fighting at all.  It’s about the fact that fighting is not the answer – at least for him.

Jackson, who has cut his teeth on the much darker, much broader, much more somber and hopeless Lord of the Rings can’t seem to leave that tone alone.  While Tolkien uses subtle hints and whispers, Jackson brings all the evil and horror right down through the center with a big huge marching band of death!  (I’m the Necromancer, this is my eye, this is me, this is me in my eye, I’m Sauron!  BWAHAHAHAHA!)  (Ahem – spoiler alert.)

The fight scenes are just as long – longer, even, in Jackson’s Hobbit – as the barrel riding light-hearted scenes.  (Wait, was that light-hearted?  I mean, Legolas was dancing on dwarf heads, that’s hilarious, right?)  He pairs horrific “white orcs” with ridiculous cartoon action sequences.  Flirting elves with deathbed dwarfs.

Tone lets the reader/viewer know how she is supposed to feel about all this.

The film’s tone is completely inconsistent.  Are we to be gut-wrenchingly worried about Gandalf or chuckling at Bilbo hanging onto the outside of a barrel?  Is it about the nine empty tombs or Bombur climbing a mountain?  Tolkien’s Hobbit is not the venue through which we can explore Sauron’s darkness.  Tolkien didn’t try – he could have, he was a master wordsmith, but that was not the tale he was telling in The Hobbit.

[DIGRESSION:  It takes a true master to combine laughter with nastiness – and it only works – it ONLY works when the filmmaker (writer) really, really wants us to laugh along with him.  When laughter is the point.  When we can be IN the moment, feeling the feels (angst for those who need a dictionary), and be crying because we’re laughing so hard.  The BAD has to be truly HORRIFIC at the same time as the FUNNY has to be UTTERLY SNORT-GASPING FUNNY.

Firefly’s “War Stories” comes to mind.  My daughter and I call this the “funny torture episode.”  Mal and Wash are being tortured – it’s bad, I tell you, very, very bad, and yet their banter makes you laugh so hard you’re peeing your pants.  Funny at the worst time has to be captivatingly hilarious.  HERE ENDETH THE DIGRESSION]

If I was asked to tell you what the tone is of Jackson’s The Hobbit, I would have no answer.  No clue.  It falls into no category – and, in this situation, that is not a good thing.  Tolkien – the true author of this story – kept his tone consistent and constant.  He knew what story he was telling.

Jackson simply wants to re-tell his blockbuster hoping for the same monetary result.

I’m not in.

One thought on “Peter Jackson’s Limitations Part The Second

  1. EmJay says:

    I think you’ve nailed the reason that I’ve never liked The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield’s a jerk, and I can’t (or don’t want to) relate to a jerky protagonist.

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