I got a great surprise on Monday when Lorri got home. She will have next week off. We’ve promised each other we’ll run off to see a couple of movies, Lincoln and Les Miserables. However, I felt I owed it to myself to see Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Because Lorri is not a fan of Tolkien, finding it a little too complex and violent, I decided to take today, the first day of our winter break to see it at the local multi-plex.
The Hobbit is the prequel to Jackson’s magnificent adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. Written as a children’s story for his kids, Tolkien introduced the world to Hobbits, the Lonely Mountain, and the Arkenstone in 1937. The three volumes of the Lord of Rings Trilogy followed in the middle 50’s. Tolkien’s original tale was a pretty simple story of a hobbit named Bilbo that adventures to the Lonely Mountain with a party of dwarves. They encounter many adventures, including trying to trick trolls, defeat goblins (not orcs), deal with giant spiders, unfriendly elves, defeat the dragon Smaug, and finally to hold on to their home and their treasure. Without giving much away, Bilbo returned home a mysteriously wealthy man with his magic ring that sets the stage for the magnificent trilogy. Really, it’s that simple.
For those who are seeking a movie similar in scope and grandeur as the Lord of the Rings, this is indeed the movie for you. Filmed in New Zealand, The Hobbit features many of the stark, beautiful landscapes that appeared in the LOTR trilogy or were created by computer animation. The battle scenes are spectacular. I was particularly taken with the Great Goblin and the continuing fight with his forces inside the Misty Mountains. They are reminiscent, though I would not say derived from, the Moria battles in the Fellowship of the Ring. The introduction of the Dwarvish kingdom of Erebor and the town of Dale as well as their fate are beautifully rendered. However, my favorite scene is the dwarf meeting at Bilbo’s house which is portrayed with a nice mix of fun and seriousness, much as it is in Tolkien’s story.
I also really enjoyed the characters. Jackson did absolutely the right thing by returning Ian McKellan to the role of Gandalf. He does a superb job of offering some continuity to the story, as well as a steadying influence in the wildly tumultuous movie. Martin Freeman plays the reluctant but resourceful Bilbo quite effectively. Though I didn’t quite see Thorin Oakenshield quite the way British actor Richard Armitage played him, it was still a great performance showing Thorin’s persistently stubborn imperiousness, but maybe giving him a bit too much gravitas. The supporting cast members are great, with Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchet, and Christopher Lee making reprises of their role from LOTR. Jackson’s portrayal of the Great Goblin, and Andy Serkis’ return as Gollum were both super.
Despite that, this movie had serious problems for me. I confess to being a Tolkien devotee. I liked the original stories, and I’ve written about my frustration about the LOTR‘s straying from the story in important ways. My chief concern is there will emerge from all this the Tolkien version of Middle Earth, and the Peter Jackson version of Middle Earth. Because fewer people read, especially young people, the written record will begin to be forgotten. I was frustrated that Sam and Frodo were carried off to Osgiliath in The Two Towers. It was silly that the Battle of the Pelennor Fields was essentially won by the army of the Dead. I thought the prominence of Arwen in the movie was nauseating. But the worst is the presence of Elves at Helm’s Deep. It simply invalidates the War of the Rings as a dynamic, Middle-Earth wide event.
My quibbles with Jackson’s portrayal of The Hobbit are many and they are serious. Rather than tell the simple tale Tolkien wrote, Jackson desperately tries to connect the earlier story to the later monumental saga. He does a nice job setting the stage in the early part of the movie. But in the meeting at Rivendell with Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, all I could think of was the words Scout Finch uttered, “what the Sam Hill is he doin’?” I was pretty much ready to leave. But more about that later.
My other big beef is the liberties he took with the story. The blood feud between Thorin and Azog the goblin is one that just makes me crazy. It’s right there with the elves at Helm’s Deep. Azog gets about two lines in the book, but there’s an entire time-consuming sub-plot that is wholly created by Jackson. It has nothing to do with the story. Yes, it makes good video, but it’s not Tolkien. Another one of these events is one Radagast the Brown, another wizard in Gandalf’s order, meets the party in the wild to tell them about changes in the “Greenwood” (Mirkwood in the Hobbit and LOTR. A geographic region of some importance.) In the book Radagast is referred to in passing. In the movie Radagast gets a fair amount of screen time, more as a bit of comic relief with his rabbit-powered sleigh than as a meaningful character.
I am not a purist. I can enjoy Peter Jackson’s movies and kind of put them in boxes, Tolkien here, Jackson there. But in the case of The Hobbit the changes seem so much more egregious. Jackson’s LOTR was a grim tale, much as Tolkien’s was. This was a classic story of good’s desperate fight against evil, with ordinary characters doing heroic things. This is not the tone of Tolkien’s Hobbit. It is a light hearted tale, with odd moments of humor. The story focuses on Bilbo as he is transformed from reluctant burglar to peacemaker and then has to return to his beloved Shire to try and resume the life he had before isolated from the big world at large. Tolkien’s touch was light, full of fun songs, some of the bad guys, such as the Great Goblin were almost caricatures. In Jackson’s movie, there isn’t much light. Everything that happens is part of a bigger, badder story that Tolkien hadn’t even envisioned in 1937.
My last criticism, and perhaps the most damning of them all is the length of the movie. And I don’t just mean the nearly three hour running length of this movie. There will be two more movies, each about the same length. This first movie felt long. Maybe because I was so disappointed in the storytelling. There were a couple of times when the thought of leaving crossed my mind. Telling the tale of the Hobbit should be eminently doable in one three hour film-maybe two if you’re going for the whole nine yards. The Lord of the Rings is three books over 1,200 pages long if you exclude the wonders of the Appendix. The Hobbit is a children’s story, really written for sixth graders, that weighs in at just over 230 pages. Why three movies? Why alter the story? I always like to believe the best about people, and it pains me to suggest that Jackson, a man I have great admiration for, would simply reduce himself for milking this for the big bucks. But for the life of me, that’s all I’m left with.
If you loved Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and can forgive some pretty big departures from the story, you’ll like this movie. I expect I’ll see the two follow on films, but it will pain me to hand over my admission.