Some Thoughts on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

16 Dec 2012

Original Blogger Tags: Reviews, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Tolkien

Note: contains abundant spoilers.

One of the challenges of adapting a well-known book into a major film is that to earn back its cost, and turn a profit, a film must attract a far larger audience than just the book’s fans. Because of this it is probably actually much easier to adapt a lesser-known book, such as Cloud Atlas or The Children of Men. Peter Jackson faced this challenge when he adapted Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings 3-volume novel (note: it is really one long novel in six parts, not a true trilogy in the modern fantasy trilogy sense, where in-universe time usually has passed between volumes).

I’m one of those fans of The Lord of the Rings, the novel, and a big Tolkien fan, having read all his works repeatedly. I’ve even studied his outtakes and rough drafts in the form of the 12-volume History of Middle Earth books, and while I don’t claim to actually be conversant in Elvish, I can wipe the board with anyone around me in a quick game of The Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit. If you feed me some lembas and an ent-draught I’ll talk of the Silmarils and Feanor and the Nírnaeth Arnoediad until the Eldar come home.

Even as a fan of the books, I enjoyed Jackson’s earlier trilogy films a great deal, and I’ve watched them repeatedly, especially the extended editions released on DVD. I recognize that the language of film has a different grammar than the language of a novel, and that a slavish adaptation of Tolkien’s novel simply would not have worked well, even as I might quibble with Jackson here and there over changes to plot and character. Comparing the two film versions, I can appreciate the way Jackson provided both a faster-moving theatrical release and an extended edition that allows the story to stretch its legs a bit, revealing more subplot and back-story, perhaps at the expense of boring the less-hardcore fans. In addition, Jackson’s films have stood up well with time: although some effects might look a bit dated after a dozen years, the storytelling is not dated at all.

In this first film of Jackson’s new trilogy, though, he seems to have gotten things backwards. It seems as if he’s released the extended edition in the theater first. It feels long. But mere length in minutes shouldn’t necessarily make a film feel long — the extended Fellowship of the Ring film, at 219 minutes, is still a very exciting film, despite the addition of a half-hour’s worth of material to the theatrical release. But consider that, at 169 minutes, this new Hobbit film is actually shorter than Jackson’s theatrical release of Fellowship, which clocks in at 178 minutes. Viewers and critics for the most part did not feel that those 178 minutes felt slow. I certainly did not. The film retains an impressive 92% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes review site.

Meanwhile, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey drags to an extent that is really surprising.

It’s not that this is just a terrible film — it isn’t — but it is a disappointment, and not just to the hard-core Tolkien fans. It fails to engage the audience as deeply as any of the previous trilogy, even the dark and difficult middle chapter, The Two Towers. It smells of mediocrity and feels like a missed opportunity. Peter Jackson has produced a hugely ambitious film that sets for itself a number of contradictory goals, and in attempting to meet them all, does not entirely succeed at any of them. It weakens itself in ways that are frustrating and even a bit heartbreaking. The result is not a terrible film, but a muddled film, a nearly-magnificent film, a film that should have been better. I’m sure I’m not the only one disappointed. The animators, costume designers, actors and artists who worked on this film did amazing work. The film’s visuals are stunning. But these artists should feel indignant that their work was showcased so poorly.

If the film wins any awards, they will be strictly technical awards. It feels to me like the biggest failures were in the screenwriting and editing. I believe the release may have been rushed, the film frozen in this cut to meet the release deadline. Perhaps Jackson just stretched himself too thin. This actually gives me some hope that a possible re-cut film could be stronger. It might be wise for Jackson’s team to consider pushing back the next two films to give the screenwriting team a little breathing space to reassess their storytelling — if indeed there are the bones of a good film in the miles of digital video recorded during principal photography.

Three Dimensions

The attentive reader will be able to discern my feelings about the cinematic importance of the 3-D technology used in that version of the film by counting up the number of times I refer to it.

48 Frames

Much has been made in the press of this film’s hyper-realist 48-frames-per-second technology. At the risk of making myself seems blind or dense, I don’t think this change is nearly as startling as some are making it out to be. I think the bigger transition was to go to digital projection, and this 48-frame technology is an incremental change beyond that. It is gorgeous in daylight. Rivendell surely is clearer and more vivid than I’ve ever seen it. Outdoor scenes are brilliantly lit, filled with amazing contrast and color. Night scenes lit by campfires are brilliantly lit, filled with amazing contrast and color. Bilbo’s scenes in the pitch-black depths of goblin caves, at the very root of the Misty Mountains, are brilliantly lit, filled with amazing contrast and color. Hmmm. I see a problem here. I see it all too clearly, in fact.

I realize that a film is a painting made with light, and so you can’t actually film a scene in complete darkness. I wouldn’t advocate that. But the fact remains that Bilbo’s amazing sojourn with Gollum in the depths is far too bright and clear. It is a brilliant scene because the performances are truly impressive, and when Andy Serkis is on the screen in the guise of his digitally-puppeted Gollum, it’s impossible to look away from his luminous computer-generated eyes. But yet there is an aspect of fright and darkness in this scene that has gone missing. The producers succeeded in bringing in a little creepiness using some terrific audio effects — Gollum’s taunting voice movers around the surround-sound stage in an eerie, disconcerting manner — but the fact that we can always see Gollum very clearly represents a lost opportunity.

To try to give the film as fair an assessment as possible, I went back to see it again a couple of days later. This time, I was in a different theater, and saw it projected using a conventional film projector, at 24 frames per second. The difference was noticeable — flames flickering, in particular, appeared to “stutter” visually a bit more, and some of the micro-expressions on the actor’s faces might have been lost. The big camera moves were a little jerkier. But honestly, I prefer the look of the film — on film. The 48 frames per second might have made a bigger improvement in the look for the 3-D version, but I haven’t embraced either the 3-D ticket price surcharge or the effect itself.

I don’t imagine myself to be a reactionary conservative in matters like this, but perhaps I am. On film, in 2-D, the image isn’t always in perfect tack-sharp focus, as the digital projection is, but I didn’t find myself spending nearly as much time staring at the way Gandalf’s makeup job keeps changing, or the way the producers apparently enhanced the contrast of his face under his wizard hat, or the artificial pores in the dwarf noses.

I don’t consider myself a Luddite, but I also have reached an age where I no longer embrace technology that doesn’t really enhance my life. I do have a cell phone, but I don’t have an iPhone. I like the way computer graphics allow Jackson to bring Gollum to life in incredible resolution, but a perfectly vivid medium is actually a step backwards for storytelling. Many rightfully famous and historic films noir teach us that not every scene needs to be fully lit. Smoke, fog, film grain, lens flare, chiaroscuro — all these things make the projected world less sharp and less clinical and precise, not more — but yet, we embrace them as part of the art of cinema. A Gollum that is not quite visible would be awfully menacing in the dark. But it almost seems here as if Jackson’s desire to showcase the new technology and make you see every dollar he spent on the amazing sets and computer graphics work against the dramatic potential of film. Pixar films fake lens flair; can’t Jackson fake the frightening darkness at the root of the Misty Mountains? It seems that he did this far better in Moria. Was a dark dark considered too scary for The Hobbit?

A Children’s Movie?

The Hobbit is much more a children’s book than The Lord of the Rings. The moral themes and occasional frightening scenes aim it at, perhaps, ten- to twelve-year-old children. Jackson honors this, to some extent — there is violence, but the gore is toned down. When Bilbo pulls his sword out of a dead warg, it comes out clean, not coated with blood. The Hobbit, the book, has some notable deaths — but no bloodbaths, and no orgies of killing.

Consider one chapter — the chapter in which the party is captured by goblins and dragged in chains down into the caverns deep under the Misty Mountains. In the book, Gandalf kills two or three orcs by “lightning,” right as the party is captured, and then kills the Great Goblin, in a dramatic scene; later, as the party flees through the tunnels, they turn and fight, and Gandalf and Thorin in the rear kill a couple more to defend the escape of their comrades. There is no mass slaughter; this isn’t the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Only these two hardened characters kill; most of the dwarves are not presented as fighters, at all. The dwarves don’t go on a frenetic killing spree, dumping dozens of goblins off of cliffs and bridges and ladders.

Adding scenes of adult violence while sanitizing their trauma and consequences is something that gives me pause. There are revisions, and then there are Revisions. This one is just appalling. I can understand the impulse to make the goblins more threatening, to ratchet up the dramatic tension and the sense of danger. But this sequence absolutely fails to do that. From the moment that the dwarves fall through the floor of their cave into the Goblin lair, you feel that you’re in a Universal theme park ride. The whole sequence is on rails; to use a video game term, it’s a cut scene. The slaughter of goblins, while the dwarves basically sled their way to safety, is presented as comic fun. That’s morally despicable. I usually look forward to hearing the Wilhelm scream, and chuckle at it. This time I cringed.

When I went back to take a second look, I took my 18-year-old son and my eight-year-old girl, to see what they thought of the film. My son is a Tolkien fan and he’s read The Hobbit, and studies Elvish for fun. He found the movie serviceable, but not thrilling. My daughter wasn’t frightened. Watching the good guys get captured by goblins and threatened with torture ought to be scary to an eight-year-old girl. This sequence just isn’t. It’s boring.

About halfway through the film, my eight-year-old daughter started to squirm in her seat, and put her head on my shoulder. She didn’t actually fall asleep, but her eyes were glazed. What was really striking about this moment was that my wife had done the exact thing a couple of days earlier, at approximately the same point in the film. Both my wife and daughter loved Radagast, and loved Gollum’s riddle-game with Bilbo. Both came out of the film saying that they enjoyed it. But given the millions of dollars — hundreds of millions of dollars — poured into this film, we all should have come out cheering. That, perhaps more than anything else, points out the magnitude of the this film’s failure.

A Seamless Tapestry

Jackson knew there were going to be a lot of fans of the first trilogy coming out to see the film, and so he pieced together some subtle changes. His screenwriting team discovered some fairly elegant ways to begin weaving this story into a unified tapestry with The Lord of the Rings and even The Silmarillion (for example, Radagast refers to the giant spiders of Mirkwood as children of Ungoliant). This intermixing of the texts is something Tolkien never really did, as the Hobbit was written quite a bit earlier, and was not truly a “prequel.” Tolkien did not know, because he had not yet created, the history of the ring when Bilbo picked it up; Tolkien does not seem to have decided, at that point, that the Necromancer was the Lieutenant of Morgoth, Sauron, later to stand as the villain of The Lord of the Rings, although he does do a little bit of “retconning” — he creates “retroactive continuity” — in The Lord of the Rings, to join those pieces together.

The Hobbit does not have a clear primary antagonist other than Smaug, the dragon. It is episodic — there are minor villains that impede the company’s progress to Erebor — and Smaug remains buried in gold under the mountain until the company arrives to dislodge him. Jackson seems to have decided that a clear and obvious imminent-threat bad guy must be brought on to the screen every few minutes, and so he elevates a minor Orc character, Azog, named in an appendix, the slayer of Thorin’s grandfather, to the position of full-blown nemesis of Thorin himself. By all rights this “pale orc” should have died centuries earlier, but Peter Jackson made him nigh-immortal. I don’t really approve of this change, although I suppose I can see the need for it — and in The Lord of the Rings, Jackson made some of the minor orc characters into more clearly differentiated bad guys, with personalities, and that was a move that improved the visual storytelling. But Azog is unconvincing, and feels unnecessary.

I found the way Jackson brought back Galadriel, and Saruman, to be mostly interesting and skilfully done. However, making fundamental changes to the story like this causes a serious continuity challenge. In The Lord of the Rings, we learn that back in the time of The Hobbit, Galadriel and Gandalf and Saruman worked to drive the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur. But this only asks the reader to imagine that this happened. Since The Hobbit is also silent on the details, whatever images the reader comes up with is just fine. But when you try to explore that part of the story too closely, it becomes clear that it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If the powers-that-be in Middle Earth are all fully aware of the identity of the Necromancer, and they cast him out of Dol Guldur, how is it that they then decide to essentially sit on their hands for the next sixty years and allow him to strengthen his forces and rebuild the armies of Mordor?

Jackson has also introduced a weapon that proves to Galadriel that the Necromancer is something more than a human sorceror, because he is apparently working with a Ringwraith. But Saruman seems to be in denial, co-opted by, and covering for, the Necromancer. Does he have his palantír already? If so, Gandalf can’t find out about it, or he can’t be surprised by it in Fellowship. Now that Gandalf knows that Saruman is a Sauron sympathizer, how can he be taken by surprise by this sixty years later? The answer is that he can’t, unless at the end of this trilogy he is convinced that Saruman is free of Mordor-ous thoughts. If not corruption of his mind via the palantír, what is driving Saruman’s apparent desire to downplay the Necromancer’s threat?

In any case, it seems that Jackson has set up a confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman in this film that can’t wait sixty years to come to a head, and so he now needs to expand on the expansion. In the next two movies, he won’t be able to put the genie back in the bottle and simply tell the rest of the story told in The Hobbit, the book — not by a long shot. Saruman probably already has the palantír, and the audience must find this out, but Gandalf can’t find this out. By the end of this new trilogy, Saruman will have to convince Gandalf that he is not actually corrupted by Sauron, but the audience must know that Saruman remains a one-wizard “sleeper cell.”

It’s even worse than that. At the very least, we’ve got to get the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur, and the Witch King’s blade back into his hands, so that he has it, later, to stab Frodo (unless we’re to believe that there is an endless supply of morgul blades somewhere). Maybe we even have to get the Witch King himself back into his tomb for a few more years, so he isn’t out and about while waiting for the Necromancer to get his act together again — there’s no basis for it. And a screenwriter can’t simply introduce a morgul blade in act one without someone getting stabbed in act two. Who will it be? The only plausible character seems to be Gandalf, because we already know that Galadriel will come to his aid, as she promises in act one. But no man may slay the Witch King of Angmar, so will we see a fight scene between Galadriel and the Lord of the Nazgûl? Does the Pale Orc shit in the woods? Now we’re in the realm of complete fabrication; Tolkien never even scrawled this plot-line on the back of a napkin. I can only hope I’m wrong, but whatever happens, it’s going to be something Tolkien never dreamed up. Will these necessary scenes, whatever they are, be any good? Changes beget changes; will this story still be The Hobbit when all is said and done? Hell, is it even The Hobbit now?

Jackson wisely ditched a lot of Fellowship (no Barrow-wights, no Bombadil, no hot baths, no hearty meals of mushrooms) to ratchet up the dramatic tension. He knew that for the audience to stay awake, the Hobbits would need a sense of urgency, or they would take their own sweet time to get to Rivendell. But now we’ve got the opposite problem — fabrication of new scenes to flesh out a trilogy. How can all this rewriting fail to to derail the rush to reach Erebor by Durin’s Day, in order to present a complicated sub-plot that Tolkien didn’t write? While I like these scenes as they appear in the first film, they introduce a lot of moral ambiguity, damage the continuity of the characters, and work against the structure of the Hobbit as a relatively simple moral adventure story for children. In and of itself these attempts to do what Tolkien never even tried to do — make his Legendarium truly consistent and continuous — are tempting, but may wind up draining away a fair amount of drama as the film struggles with its own identity and purpose.

It Isn’t a Big Thing

In addition to these big changes, there are small changes that seem to work against the very continuity Jackson is trying to achieve. Let me cite one example. In the introduction to Fellowship, old Bilbo is telling hobbit children about the events in which his party defeated the trolls, sixty years earlier. Bilbo’s storytelling follows the book closely, in which dawn creeps up on the trolls as Bilbo and the dwarves keep them so distracted that they do not notice; Gandalf, arriving, heralds the dawn by calling “dawn take you all, and be stone to you!”

In this film, the sun has already risen, but is obscured by a wall of stone. Gandalf uses his magical powers to split this stone dramatically, so that the dawn sun is suddenly revealed. It’s a small change, and it gives Gandalf more to actually do in the scene, but it’s inconsistent with both the book and the earlier film, and watching Bilbo tell the story in Fellowship now causes cognitive dissonance. How did it go again?

Add to this that Jackson’s re-telling of the confrontation with the trolls throws out most of Tolkien’s original and highly amusing banter between Bilbo, the trolls, and the dwarves, modernizing the language, and it seems again as if a scene that could have been quite brilliantly presented has been made overly complicated, and for no good reason other than the egos of the screenwriters.

It’s a Ring Thing

Another minor matter winds up obscuring a fairly important plot point. In the prologue to Fellowship, the film, we see Bilbo stumble across the ring by chance, and this is how it is described in the book:

His head was swimming, and he was far from certain even of the direction they had been going in when he had his fall. He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along for a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment. He did not go much further, but sat down on the cold floor and gave himself up to complete miserableness, for a long while.

The odds against Bilbo, in the pitch-black miles of tunnels under the Misty Mountains, just happening to come across the ring by touch, are astronomically high, of course. Or they would be, unless the ring, as Tolkien described it, really is trying to get back to its master, Sauron — it “wants to be found.” It can’t walk, of course, but it can choose to drop off a finger at an opportune time; in the same prologue, we learn that it betrayed Isildur. But in The Hobbit, the movie, Jackson undoes this “retconning.” Bilbo actually sees the ring drop from Gollum’s pocket. He knows immediately that the ring belongs to Gollum. He knows immediately that he’s basically stolen Gollum’s lost property — and he doesn’t care.

There’s more to this matter. There actually is a storytelling discontinuity between the books of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo initially claimed, to Gandalf, that he won the ring from Gollum in the riddle game. He later acknowledges that he lied about that. In the first edition of The Hobbit, Bilbo bargains with Gollum over winning a “present” in the riddle game; Tolkien changed this in the second edition, retconning it to make it clearer to the reader that Bilbo’s version of the story contained a self-protective lie. Bilbo’s lie, the notion that the ring was a reward for winning the riddle-game, was his self-justification for his cruelty in keeping it from Gollum, the story he told himself until he believed it, or at least seemed to believe it — the same way that Gollum, many years earlier, justified his murder of Deagol to take the ring, telling himself he deserved it, as his birthday present.

It’s part of a larger pattern in these books, in which events from different ages — myth, legend, and history — prefigure one another. It’s a major theme in Tolkien’s work, echoing across his whole Legendarium; Iluin, the silver lamp of Arda begat the Tree of Valinor, Telperion, which begat the tree Galathilion, which begat the tree Celeborn, on Tol Eressëa, which begat Nimloth, the White Tree of Númenor, which begat the four generations of the White Tree of Gondor. Morgoth begat Sauron; the ring betrayed Isuldur, and later Gollum. Gollum made an excuse for taking it, and even convinced himself it was true, as did Bilbo.

So in Tolkien’s own writing we had two versions of this story, the self-aggrandizing, self-protective lie — and the truth. The screenwriters had an opportunity to hang a lampshade on this inconsistency, but this opportunity was lost because contradictory stories were not included in Fellowship, the film. And so the least confusing path would have been for the screenwriters to simply stick with the prologue version of events, in which Bilbo seems to stumble across the ring by “chance,” and does not know it was Gollum’s, until he suspects so when Gollum realizes his “precious” is missing.

But now instead we have a third version of events, that contradicts visually, not just in a verbal account, the earlier film. Did the producers think that the audience would not understand that it was Gollum’s ring, unless they actually saw him lose it? I can think of lots of ways to clarify this, without blatant revision. So much effort went into trying to make this film a seamless part of the story of The Lord of the Rings. So why insert this blatant inconsistency, demean Bilbo’s character, and lose the opportunity to mention the way that the ring is actually an actor in trying to decide its own fate?

The Book of Exodus

Jackson mostly gets the feel of the dwarves right. That’s tricky. They are comic, but some must also be excellent fighters, and some must show wisdom, and all must ultimately display courage. Jackson gets this effort going by setting up Thorin Oakenshield’s character in a neat bit of visual storytelling about an earlier attempt to retake the Mines of Moria. We learn there that the hair-covered dwarves are not merely cute, but can be fierce and deadly.

In one of the commentary tracks in his earlier films, Jackson comments that when creating Orc faces, he had a rule: “no Witchiepoo noses.” Witchiepoo is the witch character in the Sid and Marty Kroft TV show H.R. Pufnstuf, and her nose resembles a piece of putty that has been squeezed to make it long and pointy, almost like a carrot. Jackson’s point was that he wanted his Orc faces to appear varied, realistic, scarred, and scary, each with its own character, and to not just made an extra into an orc by adding putty to the nose. And yet most of his dwarves have big, hooked prosthetic noses. But only most. What is going on here? My wife, with Semitic ancestry, asked me why they were all Jewish.

I noted with some discomfort that in fact they didn’t all look Semitic — the heroic dwarves, like Thorin Oakenshield, look Nordic, while the cruder, clumsier, less heroic dwarves do look vaguely like the cast of “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” Hell, Nori’s hair and beard actually forms a pretty blatant six-sided star of David. That seems like a pretty strong hint to me. It’s perhaps not as egregiously anti-Semitic per se as, say, George Lucas’s Jar Jar Binks, but it makes me wonder, just a bit, whether Jackson considered that some folks might be offended, as they were by the goblin bankers in the Harry Potter movies — goblin bankers with Witchiepoo noses, and faces that looked like they came straight out of anti-Semitic propaganda posters.

But it raises a deeper question — seriously, did Tolkien intend to make his dwarves the Jews of middle earth? There is a dwarvish diaspora, and a movement to re-colonize their ancestral homeland, and the leader ultimately does not get there with them. So perhaps this is deliberate, and perhaps it would not be alien to Tolkien, and what I know of Tolkien suggests that he would have found anti-Semitism in any form absolutely repugnant. In any case, it’s almost certain to be lost on young viewers, while taking on a certain risk of reinforcing stereotypes.

Who’s That Dwarf?

I will give Jackson some credit: it was a big job trying to create thirteen separate recognizable, developed dwarf characters, while also pairing them up as they are in the book, as pairs of brothers: Fili and Kili, Ori and Nori, etc. But despite the really impressive prosthetic and makeup and acting work, Jackson did not actually succeed in creating thirteen separate, recognizable dwarf characters.

The second time I saw the film, I tried an experiment — I did my best to identify the dwarves and remember who each one was, trying to say their names to myself each time I saw them on screen. It didn’t really work. By the end of the second viewing, some of the dwarves were still a jumble. Keep in mind that I had watched these characters on screen for upwards of six hours, but still couldn’t easily tell them apart.

Oh, I could readily recognize Thorin, of course — he’s taller, because he has to be able to use an Elvish sword effectively — and Balin, and Dwalin, and Fili, and Kili, and maybe Ori — or is that Nori? And Bombur, of course, the fat one.

But the rest remain a bit of a blur. I think that’s Bifur, in the hat with wings. But that leaves a half-dozen that aren’t clearly differentiated. I’m expecting to eventually buy the DVD release, so maybe I can finally get them all down. But it shouldn’t be that hard.

It isn’t just me. I showed my children a picture of all the dwarves and asked them to name them. They could only pin names on four or five. Kids have great memories. My son is the same young man who can rattle off the names of, literally, hundreds of Pokemon. The dwarves aren’t properly introduced and differentiated. Jackson rushes their introduction. The first few arrive in pairs, following the book, but then he unceremoniously dumps seven or eight of them into Bilbo’s foyer in a heap. Jackson’s got time to have Bilbo and Gollum play pretty much the entire riddle game from the book, but we can’t take the time to properly get to know the dwarves, who are going to be our companions for the next nine hours?

The unexpected party at Bilbo’s home is quite funny in the book. The dwarves are unkempt and have drunk a lot of ale, so it is not horrifying to see a few dwarves try to out-belch each other. But the washing-up scene, where the dwarves sing a song about smashing up all of Bilbo’s antique dishes while not actually breaking any of them, is surprisingly weak in the film. Bilbo is nervous about his plates, but the audience isn’t, because they pretty clearly aren’t real plates. Jackson could simply have made the dwarves very good at throwing and catching dishes. They could and should have shot the sequence by tossing real plates. So maybe the actors aren’t so great at catching plates. Are you going to tell me with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on this film, the budget couldn’t stretch to cover a hundred extra plates, a plate-throwing choreographer, and a few hours of practice? The kids have a word for this kind of thing: it’s “lame!”

Bilbo’s Arc

In another change, Bilbo’s departure the next morning feels much less abrupt than it should. In the book, Gandalf actually meets Bilbo at his home the next morning, the dwarves having left him a note on his mantelpiece, which he has not yet dusted. Gandalf shoos Bilbo right out the door. When Bilbo starts to object, Gandalf just shouts “no time for that!” And so he doesn’t exactly jump, but is pushed.

In the film, Bilbo wakes up and realizes that he actually does want to go, and takes his time thinking about it; his change of heart, at this point in the story, feels a little unconvincing. It’s not the actor; it’s the screenwriting, here.

In Tolkien’s book, Bilbo really does not act with decisive, unforced initiative until his final lonely epiphany at the head of the tunnel leading down to Smaug’s lair. But just like Jackson feels he has to produce a conventional fantasy villain, he also feels he must provide a story arc for Bilbo across the first film. This makes Bilbo’s development as a character feel rushed. Bilbo’s whole appeal to the audience is that he is not a conventional hero, but truly a homebody; he wins mostly by luck, the ability to hide, and reserves of courage that are a surprise even to him. But it takes him a long time to get there. By the end of this film Thorin has already recognized Bilbo’s courage. I don’t like what this implies about the growth of Bilbo’s character in the next two films — can there be any?


Now to a change that my wife really liked, and I didn’t like quite so much. In the book, Gandalf’s fellow wizard, Radagast, is briefly mentioned. He never appears in person. He has no dialogue. Jackson has made Radagast a much more significant character. He is a comic St. Francis, protector of birds and animals, and he gets a crazy wooden sled to ride, pulled by a team of animated rabbits. This gets silly fast, which brings us to further issues of tone. This film tries at times to combine the comical or childish with the terrifying directly, in ways that don’t really work well, and aren’t true to the book emotionally.

I like Radagast in this movie; he’s a nice bit of comic relief, and he serves to remind us that the evil growing in Middle Earth really is dangerous, without harming any of our major characters yet. And yet he’s put into a sort of confrontation with wargs, and our pale orc antagonist. These wargs are every bit as dark and frightening as they were in the first trilogy. The juxtaposition of overtly comic and deliberately scary feels odd, and seems to derail both Radagast’s ability to provide comic relief and the warg’s threat level, as if they were terms of an equation that simply cancelled each other out.

I’m assuming Radagast will return in the second and third films; I just hope he is used a little bit better, in ways that are more integral to the plot, rather than the way Jackson has given him this apparent make-work.

Inaction Heroes

The sequence where Bilbo helps rescue the dwarves from a band of trolls has a similar problem — in the book, it takes the time to build up more dramatic tension, while here in the film it is frenetic, slightly disjointed, and yet takes a long time to watch — cancelling itself out to some extent. The sequence afterwards, where the party discovers some ancient Elvish weapons, ought to be just a brief epilogue to the troll scene, and yet feels much more interesting.

Next up, we get a very uneven sequence in Rivendell, in which the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings clash awkwardly with the animosity of the dwarves. In the book, the dwarves stay two weeks. In the movie, they can barely stand staying a single evening in Rivendell before they bolt.

There’s a funny line that is true to the book — Bilbo is wondering if his sword Sting has any special significance. Balin tells him not to bother, as it’s not likely to have achieved renown in battle, and he’s not even sure it’s really a sword — more of a “letter opener” (the hobbit-sized Sting is described in the book as a dagger).

The scene in which Elrond decodes Thorin’s map is gorgeous, and Gandalf’s awkward scene with Elrond, Saruman, and Galadriel is intriguing, but Thorin’s scowl and the other dwarves’ rudeness clashes badly with the beauty of the sets. A gag that implies the elves are vegetarians falls utterly flat. Are we really supposed to believe that the elves invite dwarves to dine with them, and the legendary hospitality of the Last Homely House East of the Sea is such that they offer their warrior guests only salad and — what are those other things on the screen, sushi rolls? It’s one of the film’s truly cringe-worthy missteps, as opposed to merely weak or unconvincing moments.

A sequence follows that shows the party traveling through the Misty Mountains in which they are literally clinging to the bodies of fighting stone giants. This ought to be visually exciting, and I’m sure it cost a great deal, but it just isn’t convincingly threatening. It just isn’t credible at this point that any of the company might be killed or badly injured, and without that, there’s no drama. And so this is another point in which deviating from Tolkien doesn’t do the storytelling any favors.

There’s a very long sequence as the dwarves fight their way out of goblin custody under the Misty Mountains. I wrote earlier about the moral implications of the violence in this segment. Just in terms of the senses, all the falling wood and burning torches and swinging weapons and narrow escapes really just pile on until you reach a sort of visual overload, and a corresponding loss of emotional significance. Again, we don’t believe that any dwarf is going to be seriously harmed in this sequence, and so it is robbed of much of its weight.

In the book, the scene is a sort of high-speed forced march, under the lash, through the caverns of the goblins, centered around a confrontation with the Great Goblin. The kernel of that scene is here, but it’s rebuilt into a long fight scene that merges the visual look of the orc-forges at Isengard and the daring escape from Moria. But with everything going on at once, for the whole scene, and no real sense of danger, the result is a sort of emotional cancellation.

Things to Like

So with all that, lest I seem too harsh on this film, let me talk about some things that I like. The introduction has been criticized as too long. I thought it was just fine, and very vivid. It is setting up a lot of things that I can’t wait to see played out fully, like the sub-plot involving the Arkenstone. I could have done without an elf riding a moose, but you can’t not have everything you don’t want, at least not when Peter Jackson is involved.

I didn’t want to cheer at the end of the movie, but when Frodo casually walks out of one of the rooms in Bag End, I was surprised to find myself tearing up a little bit. The instant jump across sixty years, merging the beginning of this present film with the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, really did make me want to cheer.

Some critics have mocked the dwarvish singing in Bilbo’s house, claiming it goes on for far too long. But this is a beautiful scene, and wonderfully convincing — and it takes only a minute or so. They don’t sing all of Tolkien’s lyrics, by a long shot. I think these critics are criticizing the wrong scene. This scene is not boring. It’s the debate about whether Bilbo is going to come along or not that gets tedious; that, and the unconvincing washing-up scene. And the (yawn) battle to escape the goblins.

In the book, the goblins sing as they chase the dwarves into trees and ignite the trees. Like the Tom Bombadil sequence in Fellowship, that’s probably something that would out better in your imagination, or in a fully animated film, rather than a live-action film, even one with a lot of computer graphics. The goblins have to be menacing to drive the plot, and it’s hard to make them menacing when they stop to sing songs. So I can understand why the filmmakers did not attempt to literally make the goblins sing. But if you think that goblin-singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars, look up the Rankin-Bass animated special from 1977. In fact, if your plan is to take your ten-year-old child to see this movie, you might do better just to show her that wonderful animated version instead, at least for now, and hope for a better cut of the film on DVD.

High Hopes

Despite this mixed review, and my general dissatisfaction with this film, I must say that I’m still really looking forward to the next one. There’s a lot more story ahead, including the visit to Beorn’s hall, the spider attack on the company in Mirkwood, the barrel-riding sequence, Bilbo’s daring burglary, the dramatic defeat of Smaug, and the Battle of Five Armies. It might seem ridiculous at first glance to think that a relatively thin book like The Hobbit really justifies a trilogy, but in fact a great deal happens in the book, and Jackson’s great opportunity to film all of it is one that fans really should be excited about. So let’s hope Jackson and crew doesn’t screw up the next one.

I believe Jackson can overcome some of the problems in this first film and do a great job with the rest. Bilbo’s riddling conversation with the dragon Smaug, if it is played out pretty much as written, as his riddle game with Gollum was, will be brilliant. Jackson’s trick will be to try to balance the elements. He’s opened a can of worms, in trying to link up Tolkien’s great tales, and now he has to get it closed. The quicker he can do that and get back to telling Tolkien’s story itself, the better the next two movies will be.

But he’s got to get the tone right. He’s got to decide whether he’s telling a children’s story or dumping the appendices from The Return of the King to the screen. Both could be interesting films, but the films can’t truly do both. It is perhaps the odd paradox of this somewhat self-defeating film that the slow scenes that follow the book line by line are the ones that are exciting, while the invented scenes to link the stories together are less so, and the conventional action sequences that elaborate and speed up the action for the sake of drama are not dramatic.

And so I find myself excited by the prospect of a special Condensed Edition DVD release. Perhaps a re-cut really would be possible. But it’s not urgent. Get the next two films right, and viewers will look more favorably on this episode. But if the next two films let their ambitious screenplays outweigh the actual effective visual storytelling that I know Jackson can do, history will not be kind to this Hobbit.

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