The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Brevity: the soul of wit, and longtime arch-nemesis of director Peter Jackson.
Really Jackson is the ideal director to handle the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work; it would be difficult to find another director with the same attention to detail and general disregard for streamlined storytelling as Tolkien himself. This isn’t a slight against the author, I’ve read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings many, many times. But would be dishonest to say that the prose isn’t often cumbersome, and occasionally downright unwieldy. This works in novel form though, where one is free to take in the information at their desired pace. However, it’s the sort of thing that takes its toll on a theatrical audience. Tolkien was also wise enough to cut the exposition off at a certain point, and he confined many of the peripheral stories and character lineages to a set of very thorough appendices and a handful of other books pieced together for those who wish to delve deeper after the fact. Similarly, much of what was shot for the three Lord of the Rings movies was left out of the versions intended for general consumption, and later made available on DVD for the benefit of that smaller audience who were left wanting more. So what happened here? How did The Hobbit, more or less a children’s story and shorter than any one of the three books that follow, end up as an entire trilogy all its own with a very similar runtime? Since this isn’t a traditional film with a beginning, middle, and end, it’s hard to judge it on traditional criteria, so instead I’m just going to do my best to break the whole thing down and have a look at how it’s constructed.
The Lord of the Rings is a massive, sprawling epic with stakes as high as they get in any work of fiction. Literally the entire fate of Middle Earth hinges on the ability of a small group of volunteers, only half of them warriors, to trek into enemy territory and destroy the One Ring before Sauron reclaims it and ushers in an age of darkness. It’s a story with a massive cast of important characters and places, and battles of a scale impressive by either film or literary standards. There’s so much story to tell that even the nearly twelve-hour extended version of the trilogy leaves out a handful of notable segments. By contrast, The Hobbit has a straightforward plot in which Bilbo Baggins accompanies thirteen Dwarves on a mission to reclaim their stolen treasure and homeland from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo’s accidental finding of the Ring is the throughline that connects this tale to the bigger picture, but at its core this is a simple story about an individual learning the value of stepping outside his comfort zone. It should have been an easy “one and done” endeavor, especially since Jackson doesn’t shy away from making a three hour film. Nothing can just be a single movie anymore though, it’s all about building a franchise, even to the degree of franchises within franchises. So the streamlined narrative was cut apart and pieced back together with bits of Tolkien’s appendices in an effort to tie everything more directly into the previous trilogy of films. But that apparently only got things up to two movies, and why have two when you can have three, right? So again things were cut apart, and having exhausted the relevant appendices further bits of story were manufactured to either add more action or work familiar characters into places where they don’t really belong. Now we are left with a story that takes place over the course of a year endeavoring to bridge the 60 year gap between the end of Bilbo’s adventure and the beginning of Frodo’s.
How bloated could it possibly be, you may be asking? Well, the famous opening line of the book goes like this “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit”. That line is in the movie as well, but it comes after two separate prologues: one to make sure the audience remembers that Bilbo is Frodo’s uncle, and another to set up the backstory of the would-be Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield and his clan’s defeat and exile at the hands of Smaug. So by the time Thorin and company begin arriving at Bilbo’s house for an unexpected party, the film has already blunted the effective opening hook of the original story by not allowing the audience to be as confused by their motives as Bilbo himself. It’s a small detail, but it’s symptomatic of a film in which the audience is given far too much information for the story at hand because there are suddenly vast expanses of screentime to fill between point A and point B. Beautifully accurate moments like the faithful recreation of Bilbo’s encounter and ensuing battle of wits with Gollum are tempered by the knowledge that we could have been given a full rendition of the entire story in less than half the time allotted by the format of a nine hour trilogy. Here I’ve attempted to outline Peter Jackson’s three point plan to fill those nine hours.
First, employ the First and Only Prequel Commandment handed down on a stone tablet from George Lucas himself, and echo the original trilogy as often as possible. Gandalf’s crazy booming “serious wizard” voice in a moment that doesn’t really call for it? Check. Impromptu council at Rivendell in which Galadriel and Saruman for some reason are called in to debate whether it’s a good idea for Thorin to try rousting a dragon from his former kingdom when all Gandalf dropped in for was to get a map translated? Check. Analog of the Fellowship’s escape from the Mines of Moria complete with bridge encounter? Check. Ambushes by Warg-riders out in the open plains? A Hobbit falling on his back and having the Ring land perfectly on his finger? Ringwraiths, even? Yeah, if you were holding out for Ringwraiths to make an entrance before the Ring itself, you won’t be disappointed. The Witch King of Angmar is in the house. Regarding the cameos, it’s a mixed bag. As a huge Christopher Lee fan, and knowing what an admirer of Tolkien’s work he is, I was happy to see him reprising his role as Saruman, and it was nice to get to see him portray the character prior to Sauron’s corrupting influence. But even though I think Cate Blanchett is incredible as Galadriel, she felt incredibly tacked on here, existing solely to act as Gandalf’s lenient mother counterpart to Saruman’s role as a stern and disapproving father figure, when Gandalf isn’t really influenced by either; he tends to do what he wants. The whole thing is sort of like that: the comforting feeling of familiar characters coexisting with the sense that they probably don’t need to be there, like when we found out that baby Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO.
Second, throw in battles, battles, and more battles. Any time the characters are not fighting Orcs, it’s because they’re being chased by Orcs. As previously mentioned, the scope of The Lord of the Rings allows for several instances of large-scale combat, conveniently spaced throughout the trilogy. In The Hobbit, not so much. There’s a lot of walking, and when there is a fight Tolkien seems to sort of gloss over it more than he would in his later work. The action of the book lies primarily in the Dwarves finding themselves suddenly trapped on a few occasions, and Bilbo gradually proving his worth by getting them out of whatever mess they might be in. That’s fine if you’re experiencing The Hobbit first, as originally intended, but now they have to deal with an audience that’s seen Legolas parkour his way up the side of a giant rampaging elephant. So for the films, they expanded on what few encounters are already there, and finding that lacking, invented several more. The film gives Thorin a supplemental nemesis in Azog the Defiler, a massive pale Orc that long ago beheaded Thorin’s grandfather Thror. That little historical detail is indeed taken from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, but in that account he’s long dead before the events of this movie. In this version, Thorin is said to have cut off Azog’s arm after seeing him behead Thror, leaving the Orc presumed dead but actually plotting revenge. And although Thorin and company have been openly wandering Middle Earth for all the long years since their first battle with Smaug, Azog waited until this precise moment in time to begin his pursuit. Timing is everything, I guess. You could argue that adding extra enemies and battle sequences is necessary since audiences will be left waiting for around 18 months to see the book’s primary villain in action, but that’s a much more effective argument against making this a trilogy in the first place.
Finally, in the event that Tolkien has alluded to some side story but glossed over the details for the sake of the plot, look up those details and get them on film. I was delighted to see Gandalf’s cohort Radagast the Brown, a reclusive forest-dwelling wizards whose small role in The Lord of the Rings was excised from those films, show up here as a fairly important character. I’m excited that this trilogy will delve into Gandalf’s encounter with the Necromancer whose evil presence corrupted Mirkwood Forest, a story which Tolkien left largely to the appendices but nevertheless is an important detail in the overall lore. But then again, I am a gigantic nerd who can rattle off the various lineages of rulers in Middle Earth with far more order and precision than I could US Presidents. I know the names and origins of far more fictional swords than anyone should really be comfortable knowing. And that brings me to my point. At this juncture in my lengthy psuedo-review, I expect several readers may be wearing that “I’m trying to be polite but I have no idea what you just said” look like my girlfriend gets when I’ve thrown far too many fictional names and places together in one sentence, and it’s been nowhere near the almost three hours that you will spend being inundated with fantasy minutia just to get through the first third of this story.
If that thought bothers you, you may want to stay away. I would confidently recommend the Lord of the Rings trilogy to almost anyone without hesitation, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a different beast altogether. It is seemingly crafted for that small subset of Tolkien fanatics who eagerly devour every small detail, but who also don’t mind if many of those details are mixed up, out of place, or fabricated entirely. The pacing is uneven, and despite a decade of technological advances and a budget double that of The Fellowship of the Ring, the film looks oddly cheap in spots. I saw it in traditional 2D and 24fps format, but I couldn’t shake the occasional feeling that the process of shooting the film for 3D and the experimental 48fps presentation had left a lot of it looking slightly off. I think the feeling of authenticity was also strained by the unenviable task of developing thirteen distinct looks so audiences could tell the Dwarves apart from one another, leaving several of them looking quite unlike Dwarves at all.
On the upside, if you’re a devotee of Middle Earth lore with a long attention span and the capacity to accept a trilogy which is not in fact The Hobbit but rather a loosely organized catalog of everything not covered in Peter Jackson’s original trilogy, the film definitely delivers on that front. The performances are solid overall, with a lot less focus on Dwarven slapstick than I had initially feared. Martin Freeman is sufficiently Hobbit-like and I think perfectly captures Bilbo’s personality, even though the script is often at odds with the core of the character as portrayed in the book. Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin as a deposed king echoes a lot of Aragorn’s determination and focus from the previous films, but in a much more hard-edged manner and without the love story dragging him down. Ian McKellen of course continues to be God’s gift to nerd cinema and his portrayal of Gandalf lends some much-needed credibility at the points where the story does start to fall apart. It could have been a lot worse, but while I enjoyed the majority of it and will happily watch it again, I’d have very little ground to stand on when trying to convert anyone who just couldn’t get into it.
Posted on December 16, 2012, in Movies, Reviews and tagged An Unexpected Journey, Baggins, Christopher Lee, Dwarves, Gandalf, Ian McKellen, Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, Radagast, Saruman, Smaug, The Hobbit, Thorin, Tolkien, Why does everything have to be a trilogy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.