Working up my review of The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey. Should post just in time for Christmas. Meantime, please enjoy this post from October 2010, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Middle Earth, which I wrote when I learned that Martin Freeman would be playing Bilbo Baggins. Turns out, I guessed right about how good he’d be and in what way he’d be good as the Hobbit.
You’ll note I did not predict that Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing the villain in the next Star Trek.
The only person for whom the house was in any way special was Arthur Dent, and that was only because it happened to be the one he lived in. He had lived in it for about three years, ever since he had moved out of London because it made him nervous and irritable. ---from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses have lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is the story of how a Baggins had an adventure… from The Hobbit: or, There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien.
“Nothing ever happens to me.”---Doctor John Watson.
Got a big kick out of Sherlock on PBS' Mystery! Sunday night and got another big kick out of it last night when I watched it again online. I’ll be writing about it, but right now I just want to mention how much I particularly enjoyed Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Watson.
I’ve always been happy to see youthful, intelligent, active, determined, and even dangerous Watsons, even before Jude Law got into the act. It’s the plodding, middle-aged Watsons I’ve always had to adjust to. Robert Duvall and James Mason were fine in their ways. But the only way I was able to accept the change from David Burke to Edward Hardwicke was to tell myself that Watson had been worn down by grief, care, and boredom during the three years he thought Holmes was dead. Conan Doyle’s stories seem very clear on this. Watson is a young, romantic adventurer and the only reason many of the refined lady clients Holmes is rude to stick around to continue to confide in him is they’re intrigued and charmed by Watson.
Watson needs to be young and active because Holmes is younger and more active and an older man just couldn’t keep up.
So I wasn’t surprised to see an active, determined, and dangerous Watson. What took a little getting used to was seeing an active, determined, and dangerous Martin Freeman.
As the melancholy and passive-aggressive Tim on the British original of The Office and then as Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, his biggest movie role to date (a bigger one’s on the way, and that’s where this post is actually headed), Freeman made a strong play to have his picture put in the dictionary as the illustration for the definition of diffident.
Activity, determination, and danger were present in those characters mainly as qualities Tim and Arthur hated themselves for lacking. Both men were moved to whatever degree of boldness they could manage by their love for smarter, braver, more active women who you had to suspect were attracted to them because they reminded them of puppies they’d loved when they were little girls.
Jude Law’s Watson has it well over Freeman’s Watson in the departments of activity, dangerousness, and charm. mainly because he exists in a Guy Ritchie universe---and because he’s played by Jude Law---but Freeman’s Arthur Dent is a lot farther away from Freeman’s Watson than Freeman’s Watson is from Jude Law.
So Freeman’s Arthur Dent did not prepare me for his Watson.
He, Freeman’s Dent, did prepare me for Freeman’s next big movie role though. In fact, he made it seem like perfect and inevitable casting.
After all, Arthur Dent is a hobbit.
Think about it. How hobbit-like is it when you’re whizzing back and forth across the universe, bouncing through space and time, solving the secret of life, the universe, and everything, to have as the primary thought occupying your mind, “Where can I get a good cup of tea?”
Actually, Arthur and hobbits grew out of the same caricature of the non-London-dwelling, British middle-class. Dents and Bagginses are homebodies, live and let live sorts, who prefer the company of a small circle of friends and relatives, happy just to be warm, well-fed, and comfortable in their own homes, without any wish to go adventuring.
Arthur and Bilbo are yanked out their doors and set on their respective roads to adventure by forces beyond their control and that they never suspected existed.
The comparisons end there, except in identifying similarities in their roles as the main characters in archetypal heroes’ journeys, and those depend on which version of Arthur Dent we’re talking about, the Arthur of the books, the Arthur of the radio shows, the Arthur of the television mini-series, or the Arthur of the movie. Douglas Adams was constantly tinkering with his own story. Basically, however, Arthur and Bilbo are alike in learning that they have talents, skills, resources, and virtues they never knew they had because their previous quiet and boring lives didn’t require them.
Neither one completes the hero’s journey in unmitigated triumph. Bilbo’s task is left for Frodo to finish and it takes him three more books to finish it in.
But those similarities are the result of plot points, not character.
The difference between Arthur Dent and Bilbo Baggins is that although Arthur is like a Baggins, Bilbo isn’t. Not deep down. He has too much Took in him.
As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit---Bilbo Baggins, that is---was the famous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbitlike about them, and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer.
The uncontrollable force that yanks Bilbo out the door and sets him on the road to adventure is his own pride. He’s infuriated and roused to action when the dwarfs scoff that he’s not up to the job Gandalf’s recommended him for.
There’s no Took in Arthur Dent. He’s pure Dent, through and through. Mr Prosser, the civil servant in charge of bulldozing Arthur’s house for a bypass, is tormented by memories of fire, violence, and blood he’s inherited from his distant ancestor Genghis Khan, but apparently Dents have spent millennia dreaming of tea.
When the situation demands it, Arthur is capable of acting heroically or at least bravely. But usually he deals with the situation by trying to reason with it or with whatever sentient being that’s brought the situation about and dragged Arthur into it.
Arthur’s typical line of argument is that since he, Arthur, has no business being where he is, does not want to be where he is, and is only where he is because of a galactic-sized mistake, he, Arthur, and the situation have no basis for engagement and they should part company immediately with he, Arthur, allowed to continue on his way unharmed and unbothered to find his way home. Which of course is part of the problem. Arthur can’t go home. His home and the planet where his home was have been obliterated to make way for an interstellar bypass.
Arthur never quite gets his head around the fact that the Earth has been destroyed. So he never adapts. He often makes do but he never resigns himself to things as they are. He persists in acting as if, if he walks far enough and in the right direction, he will eventually walk home. Which, in the books, he more or less does.
This is admirable, but it’s not heroic.
Bilbo, on the other hand, has no trouble adapting to life on the road to adventure.
He does a fair share of complaining and wishing he was back in the Shire, safe, warm, and well-fed in his hole at Bag’s End. But in his encounters with the trolls, with Golem, with the goblins, the spiders, the elves, and finally with Smaug, he’s active, resourceful, determined, and even dangerous. He quickly gets down to the business of saving the day as if he was born to be a hero. Which, as Gandalf knew, he was.
And that brings me back to Freeman as Watson.
If his turn as Arthur Dent prepared me to see him as a hobbit---he even looks like a hobbit---now his Watson has prepared me to see him as a hero.
When we meet Watson in the first episode, A Study in Pink, he’s home from the war in Afghanistan and apparently wishing he’d never left for that particular adventure. But he soon shows that Mrs Hudson is wrong, he’s not the sit at home type. As one shadowy character says, correctly, “You are not haunted by the war, Dr Watson. You miss it.” This Watson is an adventurer by nature.
He may look like a Baggins. But there’s a lot of Took in him.
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and carry a sword instead of a walking stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Then suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up…and he thought of plundering dragons…
The song that wakes up the Took in Watson and calls him to adventure has only one line, slightly rewritten for the series, and I’ll quote the original:
“Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot!”