So, I know I’m a week or two behind the times, but I just got home from seeing The Hobbit this evening (Friday 12/28). Good Flick, faithful to the book in spirit if not always to the letter (though I’m not a hard-core authenticity fundamentalist when it comes to Tolkien) and a very enjoyable afternoon at the movies. However, aside from ogling Aidan Turner as Kili (he makes a hotter dwarf than a vampire, believe it or not) and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, my attention was on our shortest hero, Martin Freeman as Bilbo.
I’ll be honest—I didn’t feel the instant jaw-dropping awe for The Hobbit in the way I did Fellowship of the King, et al. If I had to guess, that’s because I was already well-acquainted with Peter Jackson’s Middle earth. While we were taken much deeper into the world of the Dwarves (and a fascinating world it is!) than we were in LOTR, much of the movie felt comfortable, like meeting up with old friends and having a pint and some pipeweed together in one of our hobbit holes. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the Hobbit—I loved it very much, intend to return to see it in 3d High frame rate, and actually started believing that Jackson and Co. could tell a story that might make sense as a trilogy. While that remains to be seen, I can tell you Peter Jackson got the best, if not the only, actor who could truly inhabit Bilbo’s very large feet. Bilbo Baggins is a respectable hobbit, indeed, but if you gently scratch the door to his soul with your staff, you uncover an adventurer who is surprisingly ready to bolt at the first opportunity. It’s a more complicated role you might think to balance, but Freeman manages to express Bilbo’s long-supressed Tookish nature while also staying true to his sensible homebody Baggins side, rather than simply abandoning it in the reckless dash to adventure. In fact, both his practicality and his boldness save the party at multiple points in the story, and one could argue that it’s the blend of these two traits that gives Bilbo the courage AND the compassion to spare Gollum in the cave (a choice that has profound implications for the whole of Middle earth in the end). And if you think about it, that balance between normality and adventure is the common thread between many of the characters Freeman portrays, and it seems to echo a similar tension in Martin Freeman himself, assuming as always the face presented in interviews and profiles bears more than passing resemblance to the actor’s “true” self. The portrayal of that inner tension was what first piqued my interest in Martin Freeman back in 2005, when another very unlikely adventurer found himself rousted away from his very comfortable home to make way for a new bypass.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was IMHO one of the biggest missed opportunities in Geek History* and broke my little nerd heart to a degree surpassed only by The Neverending Story 2 and the Willy Wonka remake. It reminded me a lot of the movie adapation of The Watchmen—it got the individual notes of the story right (mostly), but somehow the theme (not to mention the bulk of the comedy) was lost in the slavish and slightly worshipful attention to detail. All that said, the movie was cast pretty darned well (though some of the characters were written abominably). The flick also served as my introduction to one Martin Freeman, appearing as Arthur Dent. While the script seemed to miss the inner core of the character, Freeman did as best he could with what he was given, and I’d argue he got the closest of any in the main cast to embodying his character as we had been introduced to it in the five volumes of the Trilogy. And then I promptly forgot about Martin Freeman for about five years, when, with similar trepidations to those I felt when walking into HHGTTG, I cued up the new “modernization” of Sherlock Holmes from the BBC.
I think most honest Sherlockians would admit that the strength of an adaptation of the Canon depends, above anything else, on its Watson. Not that I don’t love me a good Consulting Detective. In slightly different ways Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch are my personal Holmeses, and I inevitably get sucked into all of their adventures. However, a good Watson is necessary to make a Holmes adaptation work, and I would argue that it’s probably the harder role to play. At the end of the day, a good Sherlock just has to be petulant, eccentric, aloof, and a master of observation and reasoning. However, the actor doesn’t have to be all THAT smart, at least compared to the character he’s portraying. He just has to read the script, and Act as If.
Watson, on the other hand, has to be Everyman, not too bright, not too dim, and able to simultaneously draw us into Sherlock’s world and adventures while connecting Sherlock to the humanity in and around him. In the canon and every good adaptation, he is Holmes’ link to the irritating and stupid real world that desperately needs his skills, and which Holmes needs more than he realizes in order to remain sane and compassionate. In other words, the role has Martin Freeman written all over it. With more savvy than Arthur Dent and more snark than Bilbo, Freeman walks the tightrope of John Watson as only he can, and both Sherlock and the world he has helped (and I know he will help again, for I believe in Sherlock!) are better for John’s service as Sherlock’s partner and friend.
So yeah, guess I just took about a thousand words to tell you what you should already know—Martin Freeman is awesome. The heroes he plays are quieter, and not always quite as heroic as the Thorins and Aragorns of the world, but each in their ways is a “small man” thrust into the great affairs of a great man, a great world, or a great galaxy, who uses his heart and wits (and a towel or two) to navigate an unexpected adventure. So my other hesitating geeks, it’s okay. You can go see the Hobbit without fear, and maybe take a moment to check out the UK version of The Office on Netflix—it’s now on my to-do list, actually. Because, y’know, Martin Freeman. 🙂
* I think I’ll skip my full HHGTTG rant, mostly because Flick Filosopher had much the same reaction as I did. Briefly put, whether or not one believes the source material was, y’know, filmable, I believe the movie was made both too late and too soon. The movie was too late, because I wonder if some of the plot and characterization flaws might have been avoided if Douglas Adams had still been with us, and possibly with the involvement of *ahem* a certain person mentioned once or twice elsewhere in this website who tried to develop the project in the early 90s. Of course, it’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback an imagined version of that movie, and it’s possible there are very good reasons why my fantasy adaptation didn’t get made aside from the commercial. As mentioned, Hitchhiker’s guide was also IMHO made too soon. It predated the full flowering of geek culture that would have made the movie a larger artistic and commercial success, and frankly it was made too soon after Douglas Adams’ passing to be a work of art in its own right rather than a slightly-too-respectful adaptation. Then again, it seems very possible that given the sordid development history, Douglas Adams’ death was the only thing that would get the big money off its butt and willing to invest in an adaptation befitting the source material. Of course, what the hell do I know? I’m just an Okie geek girl who wouldn’t touch Hollywood with a 39-and-a-half Mile pole.