Detailed analysis: The Hobbit – At long last, here it is: the promised “spoilerific review” of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It has turned out to be significantly longer than I expected it would be, and took me ten days to write (although I only wrote on eight of those ten days). I’m also not sure if it’s really a “review” anymore. I think it might be more of an analysis, along with some comments in defense of the film. Whatever you want to call it, you should know that there are some serious spoilers here—I will basically be spoiling every major plot point (and most of the minor plot points) in the film.
Before I begin, I want to address some of the disappointment with the film I’ve been hearing about (and to make sure that any spoilery content appears well below the fold). Disappointment is what we feel when something doesn’t live up to our expectations, so by definition there are two factors involved: our expectations and the target’s performance. I’m not saying that people don’t have the right to be disappointed, but I get the impression from some of the reviews that I have been reading that this disappointment doesn’t necessarily come from what the film delivered, it comes from unrealistic expectations. Of course, this is not always the case, but it does seem to be happening a lot.
One of the reasons I wrote my pre-viewing entry was to get my thoughts out there so I could come back later and see how the film stacked up. But I was also trying to come to terms with the reality of the film, and to align my expectations with that reality. If I haven’t made it clear, I’m not entirely happy with Jackson’s decision to turn this into three films. Yes, it does mean that I get to spend more time in Middle Earth, but I don’t think it will make for a better set of films. However, it is now an immutable fact that The Hobbit is going to be three films. It is also an immutable fact that it is going to be a sequel to the Lord of the Rings films. These two facts, along with Jackson’s own particular style, will dictate what we will see in The Hobbit. I will address the specifics as they come up in the scene-by-scene analysis below, but the bottom line is that I think a lot of people forgot these three facts. (You’ll notice that the three areas I discussed in my pre-viewing entry mirror these three facts—although in retrospect the dwarf thing was only one aspect of Jackson’s style. In hindsight, the bigger picture is now clearer.)
If that sounds like an apology (apologia), that’s because it is. I don’t think The Hobbit was perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but given what we knew about the film going in, I think it is a bit naive to say that Jackson & Co. have somehow let us down or desecrated Tolkien’s memory. I feel it necessary because, in the lines that follow, I intend to tear apart the film and rip the blood-soaked flesh off of its bones with my bare teeth, and I just want you to know that I actually did enjoy the film.
Oh, and there is one last thing I want to get out of the way before I dive into this. Since my initial review, I have seen the film again, this time in 2D, no IMAX, no HFR. I was not bothered in the least by the lack of 3D, which suggests to me that it wasn’t entirely necessary. I did notice that the HFR version was much crisper, but if I had not seen that version and just seen the 2D version, I would have been perfectly happy. The only thing I was concerned about was the possibility of excessive motion blur in some of the swooping camera moves (that was one justification for HFR that I heard), but that was not a problem. I did not get nauseous or dizzy or otherwise discombobulated. So, in the end, all those tech acronyms? Fancy bells and whistles as far as I’m concerned.
Now, let’s get this party started...
Here at the beginning of all things
There is, of course, a lot that happens in Tolkien’s Middle Earth before Thorin & Company enter the picture, going all the way back to the creation of the world by Ilúvatar at the dawn of the First Age. Thankfully, Jackson did not find it necessary to go back that far in the history of Middle Earth. We do, however, get a prologue. I don’t know why this surprised me, seeing how all three of the LOTR films had prologues. Nonetheless, I was surprised. I guess I was so looking forward to hearing “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...” that I did not even think of the possibility. As with the LOTR prologues, I thought this prologue was handled pretty well, giving us some background on the dwarves and their quest, even if I was expecting to get this background later, in the dark of Bilbo’s hobbit hole with a group of dwarves gathered around the tables (which is how the information is presented in the book).
Besides the location of this information in the story, we get our first hints at how the film is going to differ from the book. In the book, Thorin and Balin are away from the mountain when Smaug attacks, and so they escape the wrath of the dragon. Later, they are surprised and delighted to be joined by Thror and Thrain, Thorin’s grandfather and father, who escaped from the mountain through the secret passage that will play such an important part later in the story. In the film, though, Thorin and Balin are in the mountain when the dragon comes, and Thorin directs the defenses on the walls. Thror rushes to his throne room to get the Arkenstone and is saved from the dragon by Thorin, who pulls him away. This brief sequence alone told me that Thorin was going to be a far more heroic character in the film than he was in the book.
There are other elements to the prologue worth mentioning. For one, we are told about the Arkenstone. In the book, Thorin does not tell Bilbo about the Arkenstone until they are already at the Lonely Mountain, and all he says is: “It was like a globe with a thousand facets; it shone like silver in the firelight, like water in the sun, like snow under the stars, like rain upon the Moon!” In the film prologue, though, we are shown the Arkenstone as it is unearthed by the dwarven miners, and we see the bewitching effect it has on Thror. This is no doubt intended to explain how Thorin will act in the final film, and I have to admit that makes sense in light of how heroically Thorin is portrayed in the first film.
The other thing that struck me about the prologue was the appearance of the wood elves under King Thranduil. When Smaug attacks the mountain, Thranduil just happens to be passing by with a troop of mounted elves. He looks down into the valley before the mountain, and Thorin looks up and sees him as the dwarves are fleeing. Instead of helping, though, Thranduil and his troop turn away, leaving the dwarves to fend for themselves. I understand why this was done—to explain the enmity between the elves and dwarves—but it seemed a little forced. For one, what was Thranduil doing there before the mountain with an army in the first place? Was he coming to attack the mountain? Or was he coming to aid the dwarves but then changed his mind? Neither of these possibilities really make that much sense, and the mountain is too far away from Mirkwood for Thranduil to simply be out on patrol.
Overall, though, I found myself enjoying the prologue. Even though the information came earlier than expected, it was exciting to see the sacking of Erebor there in 3D on the IMAX screen (and later on a normal screen in 2D). To give you an idea of how engrossed I was, even though Peter Jackson had already revealed that he had a cameo in the “first six or seven minutes” of the film, I completely forgot to look for him and didn’t even remember this fact until after the prologue was over. (Although I must say that I was unable to spot him even in my second viewing of the film, when I was deliberately looking for him. Hyunjin, who is better with faces than I am, couldn’t spot him either, so his cameo must have been very subtle—unlike his cameos in the LOTR films.)
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Return of the King, for all its departures from the book, ended on the same line as the book, uttered by Sam: “Well, I’m back.” So I was really looking forward to seeing The Hobbit somehow begin with the famous opening line from its source material. If you don’t count the prologue, the film did indeed begin with this line, using the same technique employed in the FOTR: Bilbo writing in his book. Not only is he writing in his book, but he is doing so on the day of his eleventy-first (that’s “one hundred eleventh” for you non-hobbits out there) birthday party. I liked that they decided to do this, as it creates a close connection between The Hobbit and LOTR.
The choice to begin the film at roughly the same time as FOTR does cause a few continuity problems, though. The Hobbit begins with Bilbo writing the opening line of the book version of The Hobbit, whereas FOTR has him writing the prologue of that book anywhere from five minutes to a few hours later. (I should note that I am basing this on the extended version of FOTR; I’m pretty sure that the theatrical version did not begin at the same point, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen that version that I honestly do not remember for sure.) It’s a bit odd that he would begin writing his story and then go back and write a prologue only a short while later. Then again, I suppose it’s not out of the realm of possibility. What is confusing, though, is that Frodo comes in, talks with Bilbo, and then—when he hears that Gandalf is coming—tells Bilbo that he is going to the East Farthing woods to surprise the wizard. Yet at the beginning of FOTR, Bilbo calls for Frodo when he hears a knock at the door and then starts complaining that he is not around. He also looks genuinely surprised to see Gandalf at his door, despite the fact that he told Frodo only a few hours before that the wizard would never miss the party.
Ultimately, though, these things are minor quibbles, and I only mention them to show that the filmmakers were not about to let some minor continuity issues get in the way of the story. This is important to note because, although these continuity issues may be minor, there is a pretty huge continuity issue that we will have to deal with later—namely the Ring. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us get back to the story at hand, which is almost a line-for-line recreation of Bilbo’s encounter with Gandalf. It could not have been closer to what I had always imagined when reading the book, and my happiness was marred only by the syncing problem I mentioned in my initial review. I am pleased to say, though, that this problem seems to have been a problem with the cinema—in our second viewing, there was no such issue, and I saw complaints from other CGV audience members about the problem but no complaints anywhere else. Still, you think with the money we paid for those tickets (13,000 won, or roughly twelve dollars—and yes, I realize that this would cheap for a 3D IMAX ticket in the States, but it’s expensive here) they would have been able to avoid such a basic problem.
Enter the dwarves
The next we see Bilbo, he is minding his own business when the dwarves start arriving at his door. The scene plays out much as it does in the book, except that the dwarves help themselves to Bilbo’s larders and pantries (in the book, they have him running around like a waiter with all their requests). The big difference, though, is that Thorin does not show up with the twelve dwarves—he is at a council seeking aid from the other dwarven tribes on their quest to defeat Smaug. This makes sense, I suppose, but the real reason that Thorin is absent here is to give the rest of the dwarves an excuse to be comical. To be honest, I was wondering how they were going to film the scene where Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur fall on top of Thorin. I just couldn’t picture Richard Armitage at the bottom of a pile of dwarves. Apparently Peter Jackson couldn’t, either. We get an abbreviated introduction to the dwarves, with Dwalin arriving first, followed by Balin and then Fili and Kili together, but the remaining dwarves are all lumped together into a pile of eight that tumble onto Bilbo’s doormat when he yanks open the door. Conspicuously absent, though, is Thorin.
The twelve dwarves they run around Bilbo’s hobbit hole acting like (for lack of a better term) a bunch of frat boys. They eat like pigs and are apparently unable to drink without spilling beer all over the place. I suppose this is in keeping with the image of dwarves we got in the character of Gimli in LOTR, but it seemed to be a bit much. After they down their beers (with a good portion streaming down their beards instead of their gullets), one of them lets out a belch, and a brief belching contest follows. Yeah, I get it: dwarves are uncouth. Let’s not overdo it, shall we? I know we’re being consistent with the mood and characterization of dwarves in LOTR, but it’s interesting to go back to the original book and see how Tolkien described their feast. I was actually surprised to see how simple it was: “The dwarves ate and ate, and talked and talked, and time got on.” Granted, there is certainly room for imagination and embellishment, and I don’t mind that... but I think I would have drawn the line at the belching contest.
On a positive note, we do get the cleaning up song (“Chip the glasses and crack the plates”), and we get to see the dwarves clean up in a jiffy without chipping the china. There were hints of this in the previews and trailers, so I was expecting it, but it’s a nice scene in the book and I think they did a really good job with it in the film. It definitely lived up to what I had always imagined. As soon as the song finishes and Bilbo is standing there gawking at the stacks of miraculously clean crockery, though, the mood changes with a knock on the door. Everyone grows silent, and Gandalf (perhaps a bit too) solemnly intones, “He is here.”
The “he,” of course, is Thorin Oakenshield. In the books, Thorin is portrayed as an aristocrat through and through, but Tolkien slyly pokes fun at him as well. Richard Armitage pulls of the aristocrat part without a hitch, but not once in the film do we see Thorin be anything but heroic. Of course, this is not Armitage’s fault, but just as I wonder how the casting of John Rhys-Davies influenced the character of Gimli in FOTR, so I have to wonder how the casting of Armitage influenced the character of Thorin. It is pretty obvious that Peter Jackson never had any other intention than to make Thorin a tragic hero, but the fact remains that Armitage is not a comedic actor. Whatever the case, the shift in mood when Thorin shows up is rather abrupt, and the earlier low-brow comedy suddenly feels rather incongruous. Some of the other dwarves, in particular Bofur (I didn’t actually know who he was until my second viewing—as in the book, the minor dwarves (e.g., anyone who is not Thorin or Balin) kind of blend together), do provide some light moments, but overall the mood is much more grim and serious than before Thorin arrived.
It is not, of course, entirely a bad thing. The “forgotten gold” song (“Far over the misty mountains cold”) is a powerful moment that is paired with some very evocative visuals. The book hints at things and stirs emotions in the reader’s heart, but music and film can be more effective in some ways, and this scene is a good example of that. In the book, Tolkien describes what is going on in Bilbo’s head as follows:
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hears of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.
We don’t get any of this in the film, of course, because you can’t get inside a character’s head without using voice-over, dream sequences, hallucinations, or other such cheats. What we do get, though, is lyrics on the page springing to life, being sung by dwarves in the light of a hearth fire, and a look on Bilbo’s face as he listens that says it all. I realize that my exposure to the books means that I will read certain things into the film because I am expecting them to be there, but I think even without that you would have to be a stone giant (more on them later) not to be moved by this scene. I don’t think I could have asked for anything more here.
The next morning, Bilbo wakes up and the dwarves are all gone. His reaction in the book is a mixed one: “Indeed he was really relieved after all to think that they had all gone without him, and without bothering to wake him up... and yet in a way he could not help feeling just a trifle disappointed.” Perhaps it was because I know the book so well, but I got this from the film as well. The amazing thing here is that Bilbo is not even facing the audience—he has his back turned to the camera, and we only see the side of his face, but you can still see him give a sigh of relief, followed in the very next moment by an ever-so-slight droop of his shoulders. Again, this is something I was looking for, but I think it would come through whether you had knowledge of the book or not. And what happens next just reinforces this.
In the book, Thorin & Co. leave a letter on Bilbo’s mantelpiece saying that he should meet them in Bywater. Bilbo never finds this letter, though, and simply spends his morning eating a leisurely breakfast and then sits down to a second breakfast. It isn’t until Gandalf comes by that he finds out the dwarves are waiting for him. Bilbo is never given a chance to respond, other than to say “But—” twice. Gandalf rushes him out the door, despite his protests: “To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out.” The film handles this scene differently, though. Gandalf never shows up; instead, Bilbo finds the dwarves’ contract lying on his table and, after long thought, makes the decision to join the quest himself, with no prompting from anyone else. After Bilbo finally catches up with the company, the dwarves begin tossing small sacks of money to each other. Gandalf explains that they had taken bets on whether or not Bilbo would come. When Bilbo asks Gandalf how he bet, the wizard says nothing—but then a small sack of money comes flying through the air and lands in his hand.
I understand why Tolkien wrote this passage the way he did: by having Bilbo be a reluctant adventurer, it makes his ultimate heroism that much more powerful. But I must admit that I also really like what the filmmakers did here. In the book, Bilbo probably would not have gone on this adventure without Gandalf’s push out the door, but here we see the Tookish part of him rise up long enough for him to make the monumental decision. Yes, it paints a different picture of Bilbo, but I like that picture. I don’t believe a more faithful interpretation would have worked any better.
Burglars and heroes
With Bilbo now tagging along, the company enter the first stage of the journey. We get the usual travel montage—and when I say “usual” I mean “usual collection of fantastic scenery shots that make me want to drop everything and go to New Zealand right then and there.” I think everyone knows by now that New Zealand is a beautiful place, so I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that every travel montage in this film (and presumably in the coming films as well) is brought to you by the beautiful New Zealand scenery and the dedication of Jackson and his locations team.
The next set piece, though, and the first real peril the company face, is the scene with the three trolls, recorded in the second chapter of the book, “Roast Mutton.” Fili and Kili are told to guard the ponies, but when Bilbo brings them their dinner, they tell him that two of the ponies are missing. They scout about nearby and see a fire, where the find the three trolls and their missing ponies. Fili and Kili send Bilbo to check it out, telling him to hoot twice like a barn owl and once like a screech owl if he gets into trouble. That line, of course, is from the book—actually, it is the only thing in the lead-up to this scene that is from the book. In the book, Gandalf suddenly goes missing, it is raining and they cannot get a fire started, one of their ponies leaps into a river and has all his baggage washed away, and the whole company is cold, wet, tired, and hungry. So when they see the fire, they all go to check it out together. Of course, they send Bilbo in, with Thorin telling him to hoot like an owl.
But these are fairly minor differences. It isn’t until Bilbo sneaks up on the trolls that things start to go further astray from the book. Instead of stealing a troll purse and getting caught when the purse yells out (because troll purses are mischievous and magical, you see), Bilbo attempt to take a knife off a troll’s belt so he can cut loose the ponies. That makes sense, I suppose, since a talking purse wouldn’t really fit the mood and atmosphere of the film. Of course, Bilbo is caught, but in the film he is caught when the troll reaches around for a handkerchief and grabs Bilbo instead. Then he sneezes right into Bilbo, covering him with troll snot. It’s pretty disgusting, but this is the sort of thing Peter Jackson gets a kick out of. And if I could stop being a curmudgeon for a moment, I would have to admit that the scene is kind of funny because the troll is convinced that he just sneezed out Bilbo. I chuckled, at least.
What happened next, though, was my first big surprise of the film; instead of the dwarves coming in to see what happened to Bilbo and being waylaid and stuffed into sacks by the trolls, they rush into the clearing with swords drawn and begin stabbing and slicing the monsters. (I suppose it is worth noting that, even in the book, Thorin is not taken by surprise and attacks the trolls, but he is no match for three of them and is eventually captured.) If the prologue was a hint that the dwarves were not going to be depicted as they are in the book, this scene was a two-story billboard with flashing lights around it. Now we know for sure that the dwarves are formidable fighters and not just blowhards. As I watched I found myself wondering: how is this going to end with the dwarves all in sacks? And then the trolls grabbed Bilbo and threatened to tear him limb from limb unless the dwarves surrendered. Well, I suppose that will do it.
The next we see of the dwarves, half of them (plus Bilbo) are lying in sacks (strangely enough with their heads sticking out—you would think the trolls would have stuffed them in head first) and half are tied to a spit that is being turned over the fire. Bilbo gets up, looking like he is getting ready for a sack race, and tries to delay the trolls by telling them that the dwarves need to be seasoned before they are eaten. Then he sees a flash of gray—Gandalf has returned. So when the trolls don’t fall for his seasoning ruse and pick up one of the dwarves to eat him, Bilbo tells them that the dwarf is infected with worms. For their part, the dwarves protest until Thorin, who sees what Bilbo is doing, kicks them. Then they all claim to be infested with worms.
Suddenly, Gandalf appears standing on a boulder over the clearing and shouts his line from the book: “Dawn take you all, and be stone to you!” Then he brings his staff down on the rock, splitting it in half (mimicking what he does on the bridge of Khazad-dûm) and revealing the rising sun, which turns the trolls to stone. It’s all very dramatic, and not really like what happened in the book at all. In the book, Gandalf returns but stays hidden, and he uses his talents as a voice actor to mimic the trolls’ voices and get them to fight amongst themselves until the sun rises. Bilbo plays no part in the scene at all, other than to lie around inside a sack. But the reasoning here is clear: Bilbo doesn’t do anything heroic (or even useful) in the book until they reach Mirkwood, and it is clear by this point that the film is not going to cover Mirkwood. Thus we need to have a scene where Bilbo saves the day, or at least proves himself useful. This is a direct result of deciding to break up the story into three films—instead of being able to follow the original plot progression, you have to invent new plot elements so that each film is a self-contained story. After all, you can’t have a film where the alleged hero is useless the entire time. So although I was really hoping to see a mimicry performance by Gandalf, I do understand why the filmmakers decided to go this route.
Once the company is freed they search about until they find the trolls’ cave. I suppose this is one point in the book when Bilbo is not completely useless, as he has the key to the door of the trolls’ lair. But there is no door to the cave in the film, and the company needs no help to gain access. As in the book, Thorin and Gandalf find two Elvish swords (Orcrist and Glamdring). Bilbo also gets a sword, but only because Gandalf finds it lying on the ground on his way out of the cave, and he gives it to Bilbo outside. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing Bilbo in the cave at all, even after two viewings. I wonder if this scene was shot without Martin Freeman. At any rate, this is the part where Gandalf gives Bilbo the advice I mentioned in my pre-viewing comments. I wasn’t any happier seeing it in context, but at least I was expecting it, so it did not bother me too much.
Radagast the Brown and the race to Rivendell
As the company travels on, it begins to rain—a clever ploy by the filmmakers to segue into an introduction of Radagast the Brown. One of the dwarves asks Gandalf if he can get the rain to stop, and Gandalf replies that if they want the rain to stop they should have brought a different wizard. Bilbo asks if there are any other wizards, and Gandalf mentions Saruman, the two blue wizards (Gandalf claims to be unable to remember their names), and Radagast the Brown.
We then cut to an eccentric woodsman running through the forest—the Dr. Doolittle of Middle Earth. As he runs along, we see that the animals of the forest (what we will later know as Mirkwood) are dead or dying. He rescues an opossum and brings it back to his house, built between the boles of a great tree. When normal medicine doesn’t work, he realizes that the animal has been affected by witchcraft, and he makes his way to the old fortress of Dol Goldur, in the south of the forest. There he is attacked by the ghost of the Witch King of Angmar, and he somehow manages to defeat the malevolent spirit. He sees the Necromancer and flees on his rabbit-drawn sledge.
I was eager to see how Radagast would be portrayed in the film, because we never get to see him in the books. We know that he is not a great wizard like Saruman or Gandalf, but that he is a powerful wizard in his own right. At first, it is hard to see him as more than a crazy old man who has spent a little too much time alone in the woods. I knew that he didn’t die at Dol Goldur, but when the spirit of the witch king took form behind him, I was wondering how he was going to defeat him. After all, is this not the king of the ringwraiths, the one for whom Gandalf was no match? Granted, he has obviously not reached the peak of his strength yet, but it still stretched the imagination a bit that this eccentric old wizard would be able to defeat the spirit so easily. However, the witch king drops a very particular sword that becomes important later, so I suppose it was necessary that he be there; I just find myself wishing that Radagast had been portrayed as slightly less of a crazy old coot from the start.
We then return to the dwarves, and when Fili and Kili make a joke about orcs around a campfire at night to scare Bilbo, Thorin grows angry and Balin explains that Thorin has more reason than most to hate orcs. We then get another flashback, this time to a dwarven assault on Khazad-dûm (Moria) in an attempt to retake their old kingdom. Thror, Thorin’s grandfather, is slain by Azog, the chief of the orcs, and the dwarves are routed. Balin tells how Thrain was driven insane by his father’s death and was never seen again. But then, a young dwarven prince—Thorin—attacks Azog and chops off his left hand. The dwarves rally, driving the orcs back into Moria. They win the battle, but fail to recapture the halls and suffer great losses.
This content is also from the appendices, but provides important background information for the character of Thorin. For one, it is where he gets his name, Oakenshield: during the battle, he loses his shield and takes up an oak branch to use as a shield instead. This is something that we had to see—I think the filmmakers would have done us a great disservice not to show us the birth of the legend, and I’m glad they made the decision that they did.
However, there are significant differences from the original story, and once again we see the efforts to make Thorin a more heroic character. For starters, while Thror is killed at Moria, he is not killed in a great battle to retake the halls. He travels to Moria with Dain (of the Iron Hills—check) and enters the halls alone, where he is slain off-camera, so to speak, and his head is tossed back outside. To revenge Thror’s death, Dain leads an army against Moria, and it is Dain, not Thorin, who kills Azog. However, Dain plays very little part in The Hobbit, only appearing at the very end, so it is no surprise that he is eliminated here and the story is condensed somewhat. I don’t have a problem with this scene in particular, except that it sets up the only thing I didn’t really like about the film by having Thorin only maim Azog and not kill him (although Thorin believes that the orc is dead).
The purpose of this flashback, though, is to show that Thorin is a heroic leader who inspires loyalty and courage in his company. In the book, the dwarves are not given much motivation for following Thorin beyond the desire to reclaim their gold and their kingdom. While those are both strong motivating factors, they are only a small company heading out to take on a feared dragon. Seeing Thorin in such a heroic light makes it somewhat easier to believe that the dwarven company would set out on such a journey in the first place—and I imagine it will make what happens in the third film that much more poignant.
After this flashback, the story of the company and the story of Radagast collide. The company is attacked by warg scouts, which Thorin recognizes as a harbinger of an orc attack (although I have to say they are pretty lousy scouts—a scout’s job is to locate the enemy and report on their movements and strength, not to launch an under-manned assault on the enemy and alert them to the threat they face), and immediately after they defeat the beasts Radagast comes crashing through the trees on his sledge. He tells Gandalf of the evil in Dol Goldur and gives him a long, narrow package wrapped in soft leather. Then he offers to draw off the orcs on his sledge, which he boasts is pulled by “Rhosgobel rabbits.” My geekery does not extend far enough to tell you the significance of this appellation , but I presume they are very fast rabbits that would prefer not to be eaten by wargs.
The tactic works for a while, but the company is discovered when they shoot a lone outlier instead of hiding and waiting for him to go away (another poor tactical move—although I suppose it makes for a more exciting story). The main body of the orcs turns away from Radagast and begins chasing after the dwarves. With nowhere to run, Gandalf leads them down into a cave—right before a troop of elves appears and kills the orcs. The company follows the passage, which leads them to the hidden valley of Rivendell.
It was definitely nice to see Rivendell again. It’s the sort of place you wished actually existed so you could go there on vacation. In the book, this is where Elrond discovers the moon runes on the map that reveal the secret of the hidden door into the Lonely Mountain. This happens in the film as well, but Rivendell also serves as a meeting place for the White Council. Present are Gandalf and Elrond, of course, along with Galadriel and Saruman. We already saw in FOTR that councils make poor film fodder—even the greatly abbreviated Council of Elrond seemed to stretch a bit. The meeting of the White Council is also short, but the difference is that it does not appear in the book, so I was actually interested to hear what would be said.
In brief, the filmmakers use the meeting as a way to tie together the dwarves’ quest and the greater struggle (what will later become known as the War of the Ring), and they do this by having Gandalf voice his fears of Smaug allying with Sauron. Gandalf is apparently sincere, but this claim stretches credibility—dragons do not ally with other forces. Smaug is like Shelob in LOTR. Shelob is evil, but she does not serve Sauron, even if Sauron thinks of her as his pet. Smaug would not serve Sauron either, so Gandalf’s argument sounds exactly like what Saruman says it is: a baseless call for war. I’m not sure if there is a feasible way of linking the quest with the greater war, because the two don’t really have anything to do with each other—Tolkien envisioned the quest long before he wrote the tale of the war. If I were to make an argument, though, it would be that Smaug’s presence has made Middle Earth a wilder place, where orcs and goblins roam free, and this danger in the north makes the Necromancer’s position in the south that much stronger, as he basically has free reign. That sort of argument would have made a lot more sense to me than absurd idea of Smaug siding with Sauron.
Saruman, of course, is resistant to the idea that Sauron is a threat at all, even after Gandalf mentions Radagast’s testimony and presents the blade (that long, narrow package wrapped in leather) as proof. Saruman immediately dismisses Radagast as the crackpot he appears to be, but then he says something interesting: that Radagast is addicted to mushrooms. At that moment, it all came together. In FOTR, when Gandalf visits Isengard to tell Saruman that the one ring had been found, Saruman tells him that the “hobbits’ leaf” has dulled his senses. When Radagast crashes out of the woods and into the company, he is so distraught that at first he cannot spit out what he has to say. Then Gandalf gives him a puff or two of his pipe, and Radagast clearly becomes more mellow—maybe he had ingested too many hallucinogenic mushrooms? Notice also that we never see Saruman smoking in the LOTR films. Is it not obvious what’s going on here? Gandalf and Radagast are just two laid-back dudes trying to get through the day, while Saruman is “The Man” trying to harsh their mellow. I’m only being half-facetious about this; Saruman is definitely being portrayed as the stiff square opposite Gandalf’s hip frood. (Alas, as we see in the LOTR films, Gandalf eventually becomes the thing he hates—when he adopts Saruman’s color, he suddenly becomes a much less fun person to be around.)
Under the Misty Mountains
Wet blanket Saruman concludes that he cannot allow the dwarves to embark on their quest, but even as he says this, a telepathic exchange between Gandalf and Galadriel reveals that the company has already left Rivendell. This is handy because it allows the company to travel to the Mistty Mountains and be captured by the goblins there without the presence of Gandalf, thus making it more likely that they would be caught off guard. In and of itself, though, it doesn’t really make that much sense. Saruman is a powerful wizard—surely a head start of an hour or so wouldn’t be much of a hindrance if he were truly set on stopping the dwarves. And why does he forbid the quest in the first place? It’s one thing for him to say that he will not support the quest, but to forbid it? I don’t understand why he would do that. If there truly is no threat from Sauron, what does it matter what the dwarves do in their free time? And since when did Saruman tell the dwarves what to do anyway? It makes sense that the White Council would discuss Gandalf’s current diversion, but once again the attempt to tie the Necromancer plotline into the quest feels rather forced and unnatural.
In the meantime, Bilbo and the dwarves make their way to the Misty Mountains. I was curious to see how the filmmakers would portray the stone giants. In the books, the scene is depicted in the following sentence: “When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang.” I was expecting, well, giants throwing rocks. But leave it to Peter Jackson to kick things up a notch—we didn’t just get giants throwing rocks, we got giants made out of rock. It had never occurred to me to imagine the giants as being made of stone themselves; I had always assumed that they were so named because they threw stones. If nothing else, these massive giants that emerged from the mountains themselves made for a fantastic spectacle on the big screen.
As in the book, the company takes shelter in a cave. Unlike in the book, though, Bilbo gets up in the middle of the night to leave the company, mainly because Thorin has been so hostile toward him so far. Bofur, who is on watch, attempts to convince him to stay, but Bilbo explains that, unlike the dwarves, he has a home to return to, and that he doesn’t really belong on the quest. We see that Thorin is awake and listening in, but he shows no sign of emotion. Before Bilbo can leave, though, a crack appears in the floor and the two sides of the room open like a trap door, dropping the dwarves into goblin land. It’s definitely more dramatic than in the book, where a crack opens in the back of the cave and the sleeping dwarves are kidnapped by the goblins. The scene where Bilbo talks to Bofur about leaving, though it is not in the book, fits here, and it sets the stage for a decision Bilbo makes later.
Once the dwarves are dumped into the goblin kingdom, they are very quickly captured and brought before the Great Goblin (Bilbo manages to escape notice in the chaos). When Thorin steps forward, the Great Goblin reveals that Azog is alive and seeking Thorin’s head. Before anything too nasty can happen to the dwarves, though, Gandalf shows up and knocks everyone flat with a blast of light. What happens next takes up only a few pages in the book and can be described in very few words: Gandalf and the dwarves escape, killing the Great Goblin along the way. In the film, though, the scene takes up quite a lot of time, as the filmmakers treat us to an action-packed chase/fight scene through the goblin caves. It’s over-the-top, but it is also a lot of fun.
In the meantime, let us turn our attention back to Bilbo. And here I have a confession to make: the scene with Bilbo and Gollum in the deep caverns was something I was looking forward to for the entire film. The opening scene made me happy and the battle scenes were nice (when they were actually necessary, that is), but the “Riddles in the Dark” scene was the make-or-break moment for me. Because I am not one for suspense in reviews, I will say right now that this sequence really worked for me, and it made me very, very happy. Not all of the riddles that were in the book appeared in the film, and there were some minor differences in the way some of the riddles were handled, but overall I thought it was very faithful to the original. And I would even go as far as saying that some of the changes were for the better. For example, in the book, Bilbo squeaks out “Time!” when he is trying to say “Give me more time!” and accidentally gives the right answer. I think this is something that works in writing, but I’m not sure how it would have worked in the film. Instead, Gollum says, “Time’s up!” and gives Bilbo the hint he needs. This change makes Bilbo seem less terrified and slightly more competent. I suppose whether this is good is up for debate, but I thought it worked. It is also amusing to see Gollum inadvertently be the architect of his own defeat.
Probably the biggest difference between the book and the film is that Bilbo falls down a crevasse with a goblin that had attacked him, and when Gollum comes to drag the goblin away, the goblin suddenly regains consciousness. In the ensuing struggle, the ring flies out of Gollum’s pocket, where Bilbo spots it and picks it up. This is not really that significant a difference, but it certainly does make the scene more dramatic than Bilbo simply stumbling across the ring in the dark. Besides, the cave isn’t that dark at all, which isn’t too realistic, but I imagine it would be very hard to film the scene in near pitch blackness.
In the lead-up to the film, I was really looking forward to seeing how Peter Jackson dealt with two specific elements in this scene. One was something I mentioned in my pre-viewing thoughts entry—namely, I predicted that the film would feature a voice-over of Gandalf delivering his “True courage is not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one” from earlier on, right at the point where Bilbo makes the decision to spare Gollum’s life. I made this prediction based primarily on what happened in FOTR, when Gandalf’s line from Moria is repeated in a voice-over at the very end of the film. The “true courage” line seemed to have a similar import, and I could readily picture a repeat of the technique in my mind’s eye. I am happy to report, though, that Jackson decided to forgo the voice-over and let Freeman act, and it was a success.
One thing I did not foresee, though, was that the filmmakers would reuse the trick of the protagonist falling over backward, reaching out for the ring, and watching as it slipped perfectly over his finger. But they did, in an almost exact reproduction of the scene from FOTR. I was not as happy about this, because I have never liked that scene in FOTR—it just fails to convince me on every level. In a film where a completely CG cave troll is made to look very real, you would think they could make this look more real. But it looks incredibly fake, and the version of the scene we see in The Hobbit is no better.
Don’t get me wrong—I understand why they did this. In both instances in the books (that is, when Bilbo puts on the ring in the cave and Frodo puts on the ring in the Prancing Pony), the circumstances are very similar: the protagonist puts his hand in his pocket and the ring slips onto his finger. Of course, this would never work in a film because the audience can’t see what is happening. So I understand the reasoning behind it, and I don’t disagree with that reasoning , I just wish that the scenes had been more subtle and believable. At least in The Hobbit there is no one around to see the ring fly through the air; in the FOTR film the ring spins and glints, making it abundantly obvious to everyone in the tavern.
This discussion of the ring leads me to the second (and more important) element I was looking forward to: how the filmmakers would handle the “ring world.” That is, how would they depict what the world looks like when Bilbo is wearing the ring? In the LOTR films, this “ring world” is depicted as a very unpleasant place. The filmmakers used images of fire as distortion maps, making it look as if pieces of the world—and the Ring-bearer—are flying off in every direction. It is chaotic, and although it is possible for the Ring-bearer to see what is going on around him, it is much darker and everything is far less distinct.
Once again, I understand why the filmmakers did this: to heighten the drama and tension of the story, and to raise the stakes for the protagonist. But let us take a quick look at how Frodo’s experience in the Prancing Pony is presented in the book: “Frodo felt a fool. Not knowing what else to do, he crawled away under the tables to a dark corner by Strider, who sat unmoved, giving no sign of his thoughts. Frodo leaned back against the wall and took off the Ring.” Yep, that’s it. No fire-based distortion map special effects, no howling wind, no growled “I see you!” The only discomfort that Frodo feels is apparently embarrassment. The next time Frodo puts on the ring (on Weathertop), though, the description of what he sees and experiences is much more detailed.
Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black wrappings. There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel.
Critical here, I believe is this phrase: everything else remained as before. In other words, Tolkien explicitly stated that nothing changed when one wore the ring. This is important, because Bilbo wears the ring a lot more often and for a lot longer than Frodo does. In fact, when I read through The Hobbit again before seeing the film for the first time (a round trip by train to Busan gives you a lot of free time), I was struck by how often Bilbo puts on his magic ring and how long he keeps it on. From the point in the book when he finds the ring, the book explicitly describes him putting it on in the following instances: by accident when he evades Gollum in the tunnels under the Misty Mountains; then on purpose (after the ring treacherously slips off, exposing him to the goblin guards) to escape from the tunnels, keeping it on until he is reunited with Gandalf and the dwarves; twice when rescuing the dwarves from the giant spiders in Mirkwood (after which he is forced to reveal the secret of the ring to his companions); for a very long time while in the halls of the elven king; three times when exploring Smaug’s lair; once when slipping out of the Mountain at night; and lastly during the Battle of Five Armies at the end of the book.
Most of these instances are not very long, generally a few hours at most, but once instance in particular stands out—the time Bilbo spends hidden in the halls of the elven king. The book specifically says that he spent his time “never daring to take off his ring,” and we know that it was only after “a week or two of this sneaking sort of life” that he finally discovered where all of the dwarves were being held. From that point he likely kept the ring on until they reached Lake-town, which means that he had the ring on for at least two weeks straight, if not closer to three.
You can probably see where I am going with this: if the ring world is depicted as anything like what it was in the LOTR films, Bilbo will be stark raving mad by the end of the present trilogy. Indeed, it is doubtful that he would be able to do anything with the ring on at all. On the other hand, if the filmmakers choose to ignore the LOTR depiction, we have a serious continuity issue. Apparently the filmmakers found neither of those choices appealing, because they ended up taking the middle road: they retained some of the feel of the LOTR ring world, but they also made it a far less insanity-inducing place. Rather than using fire as a distortion map, it looks like they used water, or perhaps clouds, instead. In addition, the world does not turn black and white, as it does in the LOTR films—instead it turns a sepia tone that is not unpleasant. All in all, it is a much gentler and calmer place, although I still have a hard time imagining being in that place for two or three weeks in a row.
The question now, of course, is: “Why is the ring world in The Hobbit different from the ring world in LOTR?” I have a theory, something that I’ve been thinking about since I first heard the news that they were going to be making The Hobbit films. My theory is that the ring world only became a harsh, unbearable place once Sauron learned that the ring was found and bent all his will to finding it. The harsh environment that we see in the LOTR ring world, then, is a direct result of Sauron’s psychic assault—in conjunction with the ring itself—on the Ring-bearer. In The Hobbit, however, Gollum has not yet been captured and brought to Barad-dûr, so the existence of the ring remains a secret. This is the only explanation that I can think of that makes sense (even if it does feel a bit retconnish), and I won’t be surprised if I hear something similar from the filmmakers on the Special Extended Awesomeness Edition DVD.
Before we leave this scene and move on to the end of the film, there is one thing I would like to point out. In the book, when Bilbo is running around with the ring on in Mirkwood, stabbing the giant spiders and otherwise putting a damper on their spirits, we are told that the spiders can see Sting bobbing through the forest. Invisibility has always been a bit of a problem, but most modern expressions of the concept that I have seen have only the people themselves becoming invisible—that is, not their clothes or anything they might be carrying. Which makes sense. But I’m not here to argue about the semantics of invisibility—for whatever reason, Tolkien decided that clothes would also turn invisible, but not weapons. However, in the scene where Gollum is blocking Bilbo’s way out of the tunnels, he draws his sword and holds it to Gollum’s throat, but Gollum is completely oblivious. It’s just a minor quibble, of course, but it was something I noticed. And, to play devil’s advocate, it does make for a more dramatic scene than to have Bilbo simply standing there twiddling his thumbs. Chalk one up for drama over accuracy, I guess.
At journey’s end
At this point, the story—that is, what we read in the book—is just getting underway, but we have been sitting in the cinema for over two hours (and you have been sitting here reading this entry for longer than you probably expected) and it is time to wrap up this first film. When we last saw the majority of the company, they were fleeing through the caves after having killed the Great Goblin. Bilbo sees them run past and wants to join them, but crouching in his way is Gollum. This is where he pulls his sword and considers killing Gollum, but instead he leaps over Gollum and runs down the passage to freedom. In the book, Bilbo has to navigate a final challenge when goblins guarding the exit spot him (the ring has treacherously slipped off his finger), and he escapes by squeezing through a narrow opening, losing the brass buttons on his waistcoat. Although we do not get this scene, probably to save time and maintain the pace of the story, Bilbo still loses his buttons—earlier, when escaping from Gollum, he squeezes through a tight spot and the buttons come flying off. To be honest, I would have been a bit disappointed had I not gotten to see that, so I was glad they worked it in.
Once out of the tunnels, Gandalf and the dwarves run down the hillside, stopping in a clearing some way down to catch their breath and regroup. Bilbo follows, still invisible, and listens in as Thorin curses him for being nothing but a worthless piece of baggage. Then Bilbo takes off the ring and reveals himself. The scene is similar to what we see in the book, except that the grumbling from the dwarves about Bilbo is vague, and the only dwarf that utters a quoted piece of dialogue isn’t even named. By giving this dialogue to Thorin, the filmmakers heighten the tension between Bilbo and the company’s leader. As a result of this and other choices, Thorin felt much more hostile toward Bilbo in the film than he did in the book, which I suppose makes the inevitable reconciliation that much more touching.
There is another bit of dialogue in this scene, uttered by Bilbo, that does not appear in the book but is actually very important to the story. Thorin demands to know why Bilbo didn’t just leave and return home, why he decided to return to the company. And Bilbo replies that he has a home to return to but the dwarves don’t, and if he can help them reclaim their home, he will. This is one of those things that is not in the book but makes the film better, I think. When you’re reading the book, I don’t think you really wonder why Bilbo does what he does. You’re reading a story and you’re going along on the adventure. Of course Bilbo is going to rejoin the dwarves! Why wouldn’t he? One very simple reason for Bilbo to rejoin the company is that he stands the best chance of survival with them—he would be hard-pressed to make the journey home alone safely. But that’s not a very inspiring motivation for a character: to go forward simply because he can’t go back. Thus this change to the story is in the same spirit as the change to Bilbo’s departure from the Shire. It’s actually quite touching, and it makes Bilbo a more heroic character.
My good feelings toward the filmmakers take a hit after this, though, as the final sequence of the film is one of my biggest gripes with it. We have already learned that Azog the Orc is still alive and hunting Thorin. While they are in the goblin caves, the Great Goblin sends a message to Azog, letting him know of Thorin’s whereabouts. So, shortly after Bilbo is reunited with the company, warg-mounted orcs, led by Azog himself attack.
Now, the company is attacked in the book as well, but the circumstances are quite different. In the book, they stumble upon a clearing that just so happens to be where the wargs had arranged to meet the goblins for a raid. The wargs arrive and the company flees up tall pine trees. The goblins are late (because of the loss of their leader and the commotion caused by the company), but when they do arrive they set fire to the trees. Just as things appear hopeless, though, the company is rescued by Tolkien’s favorite deus ex machina, the Eagles.
The sequence in the film follows roughly the same format, but there are some significant differences. The first difference is the one I have already mentioned: it is not the goblins that attack the company, but Azog himself. The setting is also not a clearing but the edge of a cliff, which makes for a more dramatic scene. The final difference is how the encounter plays out. The wargs leap at the trees and knock them down like dominoes, until all of the company is clinging to the branches of the last tree at the very edge of the cliff. This tree leans as well, and two of the dwarves nearly fall off; one clings to the ankles of the dwarf above him, and that dwarf is left clinging to the end of Gandalf’s staff—conveniently taking the wizard out of the equation. But then Thorin walks down the trunk of the now-horizontal tree, sword and iconic tree branch in hand (although the only trees around are pines, so it can’t be an actual “oaken shield”), to face his old enemy—who wastes little time defeating him and knocking him unconscious. But just as one of Azog’s underlings is about to kill Thorin, Bilbo rushes forward to defend him. Then, just in the nick of time, the Eagles come by and save everyone.
There are a number of things that bother me about this. The whole idea of having Azog live and then hunt down Thorin strays so far from the book that it severely tests my patience and goodwill. Why couldn’t we just have the goblins come down from the Misty Mountains, as they do in the book? Why did we have to introduce a big baddie who will no doubt be pursuing the company throughout the trilogy? (Azog’s son, Bolg, appears in the final battle of the book and is killed by Thorin, although it’s pretty obvious now that we are going to get Thorin facing down Azog in the film.) Does the quest itself not provide enough dramatic tension? It just seems a bit too formulaic and obvious to me. Bilbo’s foolhardy heroics at the end also bother me. For me, the truly heroic moment for Bilbo was when he stepped out of his door at Bag End, and this resolve is emphasized once again during his speech about helping the dwarves regain their homeland. Did we really need to see him draw Sting and rush headlong into battle—or what would have been (no doubt a very quick and painful) battle had the Eagles not come along? Maybe in time I will come to accept this rather radical departure (like I eventually came to accept the changes in Faramir’s character in LOTR), but right now it rubs me the wrong way. (Also rubbing me the wrong way in this last sequence: the fact that Sting does not glow when Bilbo draws it, despite the fact that he is surrounded by orcs. This can only be an oversight by the filmmakers, and it is something I hope they fix by the time they release the DVDs.)
The Eagles set the company down atop the Carrock before flying away. Thorin gets up, apparently angry at Bilbo for foolishly putting himself in danger. But then he confesses that he was wrong about Bilbo being worthless baggage, and he gives him a big bear hug. Thus we get our emotional closure as the company looks off at the Lonely Mountain in the distance. Granted, the Lonely Mountain is not actually visible from the Carrock—at least the book gives no indication that it is—but I suppose we need something to wrap up the film and provide a preview of what is to come next. And... roll credits.
The road ahead
So there it is, the good and the bad. In the end, though, I think the balance sheet comes out firmly in the black. I know that not all reviewers have felt the same way, but I have to disagree with them. One criticism I have seen, for example, is that The Hobbit contains far too many frenetic battles. While the film does indeed have a lot of battle scenes, I was not surprised by this. In fact, I would have been surprised had their not been a lot of battle scenes. To those reviewers who complained about this, I can only say: Did you even watch the LOTR films? You remember how many fight scenes were in those films, right? One could say that the LOTR films are basically the chronicles of the extended War of the Ring, whereas The Hobbit is a single quest made by a small party of dwarves (along with a hobbit and—for at least part of time time—a wizard). And one would not be wrong. But I don’t think there were necessarily more battle scenes in The Hobbit, proportionally speaking, than there were in the LOTR films. The truth is that the battle scenes in the books are usually painted in broad strokes, but film is an opportunity to see them in all their glory. The big battle scene that most people seem to be complaining about—the chase through the goblin caverns—is The Hobbit’s answer to FOTR’s Moria scene. It is no less over-the-top and, in my opinion at least, no less fun to watch. But maybe I’m just a cretin. My point is that anyone who was expecting Peter Jackson to not make the most of every single opportunity for a battle scene was living in a fantasy world (and not the good kind of fantasy). The only battle scenes I had any problem with were the first one—with the trolls—and the last one—with Azog—and that was only because they departed so completely from the book.
Other than the fact that these films were directed by Peter Jackson, I think the factor that had the most influence on the way the films turned out was the fact that a single book is being turned into three films, not one. Yes, there is the extra material, but for the most part I was pleased to see this material—it is stuff that is hinted at in the book but stuff that we never get to see outside of the appendices. So it may depart from the book in a literal sense but it does not (in general) depart from the spirit of what Tolkien wrote. However, as I mentioned in my initial review, the flip side of the one-book-three-films paradigm is that each film has to be a self-contained unit. The first film in particular cannot simply follow the first third of the book for one simple reason: the first third of the book is just the opening act. More specifically, Bilbo does nothing “heroic” in the first third of the book. One could argue that his encounter with Gollum beneath the Misty Mountains was heroic, but what I mean here is that the only thing Bilbo does to prove his worth to the dwarves is to somehow escape from the goblins and rejoin the company. In a stand-alone film, that’s not going to work.
This is why Thorin feels even more hostile toward Bilbo in the film than he does in the book. And this is why we have that rather absurd scene at the end of the film with Bilbo facing down Azog—and facing certain death, since he has no idea that the Eagles are coming. This film needs to stand on its own, which means it needs its own emotional arc. Which is great for this film, but I hope Jackson does not feel the need to continuously “one up” Bilbo’s heroics. Bilbo’s heroics in Mirkwood are the real turning point in the book, but he’s already killed a warg (even if it was kind of by accident) and faced down the big baddie, so it would be easy for the giant spiders to become a little anticlimactic. After all, we’re not talking Shelob-sized spiders here; it is made pretty clear in the big that they are much bigger than regular spiders, but they’re not actually that big—probably smaller than a grown man—and when they do not have the advantage of surprise they don’t pose that much of a threat. In order to make this scene appropriately heroic, Jackson & Co. may feel they have to ratchet up the tension and raise the stakes, like junkies chasing an increasingly elusive fix. Tolkien’s original idea was to have Bilbo defeat Smaug himself at the end of the book, but then he realized how unrealistic that was and rewrote it so that Bard the Bowman shoots down the beast. If each film is forced to top the previous installment, and do so by a significant margin, we may just end up with a Bilbo who could take on Smaug himself. At least, this is the worst-case scenario. My hope is that the filmmakers will be subtle and find some way to hew close to the spirit of the book. My expectation is that we will fall somewhere in between the two extremes.
With the exception of how the “ring world is portrayed,” the “curse of the prequel” didn’t have as much influence as I feared it might. The fact that this is a prequel was mostly evident in echoes of LOTR in the film, some of which were welcome—like the musical themes and some of the scenery—and some of which were less welcome—such as the ring-slipping-in-finger-while-falling gag being repeated in an almost identical shot, and Gandalf calling the Eagles by whispering to an arthropod. In general, though, the success of LOTR no doubt played a part in The Hobbit becoming three films, so I suppose it all ties together.
I said at the beginning of this obscenely long entry that I got the impression that a lot of the disappointment with the film came from unrealistic expectations. To recap and summarize my thoughts on this, here are some things we knew about The Hobbit before going into the cinema.
- It was being directed by Peter Jackson & Co.—that is, pretty much the same group of people who did the LOTR films.
- It was going to be the first of three films, a trilogy that would incorporate material from the appendices of the LOTR books.
- It was following in the wake of the LOTR films.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I would have been perfectly happy with a single film for The Hobbit, and I’m pretty sure a single film would have kept the story closer to the spirit of the original. But this is what we have, and these conditions are not going to change. In the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, Jack Sparrow makes a little speech to Will Turner as Will hangs on the yardarm out over the ocean:
The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do. For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can’t. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you’ll have to square with that some day. Now, me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can’t bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesy, savvy? So, can you sail under the command of a pirate? Or can you not?
It might seem a little odd to be quoting Jack Sparrow in an entry about The Hobbit, but you probably see where I’m going with this. In a nutshell, you can accept that The Hobbit is going to be three films supplemented by material from outside the original story and directed by Peter Jackson, who is known for having a love of monsters (he cites the monsters as his biggest motivation for making the LOTR films) and blood and big battle scenes—or you cannot. Viewers and critics alike have every right to be disappointed with the film, but I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that many of those who walk away from The Hobbit disappointed were never really going to like it in the first place. If you can accept the parameters I outlined above, I think you stand a good chance of enjoying the film, but if you cannot accept those parameters, it is unlikely that any amount of wishful thinking will help you enjoy the film. Walking into the cinema knowing full well that there are certain immutable facts about this film and still expecting it to be something different is like piling your plate with your least favorite food and then expecting to have the meal of your life.
I know I’m harping on this a bit, but I’ve been a bit frustrated by some of the reviews I’ve read, mainly because the negative ones seem focused on things that we knew were going to be the case before even seeing the film. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if these things are deal-breakers for you, but I personally prefer to judge the film based on whether it succeeds at being what it tries to be, not whether it succeeds at being something it was never trying to be in the first place. I’ve made my peace with the situation and am taking the above conditions as my starting point.
So now that I am here at the end of way too many words, what is my final pronouncement? The Hobbit is definitely not my ideal vision of the film, even with adjusted expectations, but it is still very enjoyable. At times it did let me down, but when the film shines it manages to capture the spirit of the book so well that I sat there in the dark (twice) and said to myself, “Yes, that’s it. That’s what I always saw in my mind when I read the book.” In those moments I am very happy, and that happiness far outweighs any disappointment I may feel in other moments.
I said this in my initial review as well, but it bears repeating: for all of The Hobbit’s shortcomings, there were no “Ent moments” for me—that is, there were no moments that I felt blatantly and unnecessarily ignored the spirit of Tolkien’s original. Sure, there were scenes that I would have definitely done differently, but there were plenty of those in FOTR as well. Like the wizard duel. I was not a fan of that at all when I first saw the film, but I have since come to accept it as part of the interpretation.
In the end, both LOTR and The Hobbit are one group of fans’ interpretation of Tolkien. It is not my interpretation, but I can appreciate it for the blood, sweat, and tears—and love—that went into it. I will always have the books, and I still dip back into them every now and then. But having the LOTR films gives me another way to live that experience, and I look forward to being able to do the same with The Hobbit trilogy.
So there you have it. Much adventure still awaits us on the road ahead: the spiders of Mirkwood, the dungeons of the Elven king, barrels out of bond, Laketown, and Smaug on the throne of Erebor at journey’s end—not to mention all of the things we only ever got to read about in the appendices. I can’t wait to see how Jackson & Co. bring these adventures to life. I know I won’t be equally enthralled by all of them, but, having seen and enjoyed the first installment of this trilogy, I’m pretty confident I will enjoy the remaining two as well.
That wraps up 2012, I guess—have a happy new year, and I’ll see you in 2013!