Like many fantasy fans out there, I was eager to see Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I had some misgivings, though, since he had had to condense the weighty Lord of the Rings in many ways to make it fit into three still-epic movies (which I enjoyed), and seemed to be doing the opposite with The Hobbit — a slight volume aimed at children — by expanding it into, well… three epic movies.
If you followed along last year as a cadre of bloggers were Puttin’ the Blog in Balrog, you may have picked up on the fact that opinion is divided among Tolkien fans over Jackson’s handling of Middle-earth. Speaking for myself, I love the books and am thrilled that Christopher Tolkien has managed to polish many a story of his father’s into publishable form, whether in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales or Children of Hurin. But I also love the movies for what they are, and I think they’re great movies, whether they stick to every detail of the books or not.
But I’m not sure how I feel about the new movie of The Hobbit.
There are many things Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens (and, in the earlier draft, Guillermo del Toro) changed and added, and as much as I liked and even loved some of them, I can see now why Tolkien abandoned later attempts to completely rewrite The Hobbit to make it fit better with The Lord of the Rings.
For one thing, the differences in tone are vast. The Hobbit is more whimsical, friendly, and folksy, with a fairy-tale sensibility that moves from one plot problem to the next without any urgency beyond avoiding being devoured by, say, trolls (or wargs, or Gollum, or lycanthropic bear-men, or a dragon — actually, the threat of being devoured seems to serve Tolkien’s narrative needs fairly often). That’s quite at odds with The Lord of the Rings, in which the menace of The One Ring drives most if not all of the plot.
But Tolkien later built up a lot of context for Bilbo’s adventure and how important it was not only for the future of Middle-earth (as he provided a much deeper story for the Ring, Gollum and Mordor in The Lord of the Rings) but also for Thorin and the dwarves, and indeed, their entire people (which he expanded on in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings and in Unfinished Tales).
This is great as far as it goes, and it’s like crack to any Tolkien nerd: backstory for the backstory. But it’s also a lot of baggage to saddle a narrative like The Hobbit with.
Jackson frames his movie with an older Bilbo looking back, explaining his adventures to Frodo — something that then allows him to have the elder Bilbo comment on things the younger Bilbo of the story was completely unaware of. So up front we get the history of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and Thorin Oakenshield’s place in it, which is crucial to understanding why Thorin’s quest matters, but it immediately pushes Bilbo into the background. And this is supposed to be his story!
The effect is deepened later, when Balin tells Bilbo, Gandalf and the rest of the dwarves about Thorin’s valiant stand at the gates of Moria against the orcs who had overrun it. Never mind that Jackson has changed quite a lot here — I think he shows the bitter hatred between the orcs and dwarves quite well and also just how much Thorin has lost in life. (I was fine with this until it turns out Azog the orc leader — slain, in Tolkien’s account of the dwarf-orc wars — is also now a kind of cyborg hunting Thorin and company.) The problem with this quasi-flashback is everyone except the movie audience and Bilbo must already know this; and it makes Bilbo’s part in the adventure all the more irrelevant.
However, I’m not going to quibble too much with that, annoying as it may be, because the movie needs that kind of historical heft if it’s going to fit with the movie versions of Lord of the Rings. It can’t be just a light adventure if it’s to seem part of the same world, cinematically.
On that note, for all the weighty context brought in, Jackson seems more interested in ever-more-ludicrous set-pieces, whether that’s the dwarves and Bilbo hanging off gargantuan stone-giants, evading on foot riders mounted on wolves, or falling what looks like hundreds of feet through dark caverns with barely a bruise. It’s a well-known tool for suspending disbelief that if you want audiences to buy into the existence of dragons and trolls, you don’t also expect them to forget basic physics.
As for what I think the movie did well — I loved the grandeur of the dwarven kingdom in Erebor, the growing relationship between Bilbo and the dwarves (the warmth between him and Balin, mentioned briefly in the book, shines through here) and, as ever, the art direction. I also enjoyed the madcap bunny-driven sledge of Radagast, though I doubt it’s something Tolkien would have ever envisioned.
The score by Howard Shore is beautiful, and it was nice to hear the incorporation of some of the songs from the book into the movie. I loved the dwarves singing about their lost kingdom — it hit just the right mix of pride and sorrow. The performances were generally quite good, I thought, as well — especially Martin Freeman as Bilbo, though I felt his part in the story kept getting buried, as well as Ian McKellen as Gandalf, though he didn’t seem quite as irascible as I would have liked! (The performance I am really looking forward to, however, is Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug the Magnificent.)
I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, though not as much as I expected to. (Perhaps my experience was the inverse of sj‘s, who liked it more than she thought she would?) I’ll reserve total judgment until I’ve seen all three films, and then decide whether it a) is something I enjoy as much as the book and b) fits with the existing film trilogy.