The Hobbit: A Better than Expected Journey

The Hobbit: A Better than Expected Journey.

At latest count The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a 65% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

That’s about right.  Disappointing, but not surprising.  If critics had gone into the film without knowledge of the novel’s length or of the films’ troubled production history, or of Peter Jackson’s last minute decision to turn two films into three, they would have graded it higher.  I can’t imagine seeing the film as it is and not recommending it.  Does it measure up to The Lord of the Rings?  Hardly.  (But to be fair The Hobbit the novel doesn’t measure up to The Lord of the Rings the novel either.)  

Jackson’s film is far from perfect.  I can’t think of one scene in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (theatrical version, at least) that’s truly off the mark.  The same can’t be said about The Hobbit.  The dwarves’ escape from the Goblin King in the Misty Mountains is just plain ridiculous, an ugly hybrid of some of the sequences in the second and fourth Indiana Jones films and those crappy Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.  Jackson tries to mix terror with humor.  It simply doesn’t work.  (Much like the Paths of the Dead scenes in the extended version of The Return of the King.)   The changes he makes to the stone trolls’ sequence falls flat as well.  The novel has Gandalf throw the voices of the trolls, tricking them into a long argument, and making them forget that dawn is nigh.  In the film, Bilbo suggests different ways in which the dwarves can be cooked, thereby initiating a very short, and not terribly compelling, argument.  Before this, the dwarves all rush in and slash up the trolls in very nasty ways, but by the time the trolls start to argue they don’t seem hurt at all.

The film begins with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles from LOTR.  The older Bilbo tells Frodo that he doesn’t know the whole story of his adventures with the dwarfs.  This becomes the hook into the film.  Problem is, at the end of LOTR Frodo adds his story to the very book Bilbo is writing in in The Hobbit…So yes, Mr. Jackson.  Frodo did know the whole story.  Logic aside, bringing back Frodo and the older Bilbo simply wasn’t necessary.  The history we get of Smaug the dragon conquering Erebor is one of the film’s strongest sequences, but we could have gotten it during the unexpected party with the dwarves.

Ironically (given Jackson’s ability to create awesome battles) two of the strongest sequences are relatively simple.  One critic pointed out that “The Riddle Game” between Bilbo and Gollum is worth the price of admission alone.  He is absolutely correct.  It’s stunning.  Even though other critics didn’t care for the appearance of Radagast the Brown, I thought it was great, especially when the wizard explores the old fortress of Dol Guldor and has a run-in with a not quite resurrected Witch King of Angmar.  In this sequence we are also treated to our first glimpse of the Necromancer, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  (Yes, Sherlock Holmes.  Martin Freeman, Bilbo in The Hobbit, plays his Dr. Watson in the current BBC series.) It’s a killer scene.  I only hope Sylvester McCoy (Doctor Who #7, by the way) appears as Radagast in the next two films.

A lot of critics complained about the length of just the film, since the novel is just a slim little thing.  In fact, when all is said in down, it’ll take longer to watch the trilogy then it will to read the novel.  I just reread the novel this week.  And you know what?  As is, it’s even more “unfilmable” than LOTR was perceived to be.  There’s very little characterization, and the plotting is crude, at best.  Most of the dwarves are just names on the page.  Characters only come into play when they’re necessary to the plot.  Some might not like the inclusion of the nasty orc that begins hunting the company in the film.  No, this is not in the novel.  Well, not exactly.  In the novel we find out that the orc army that attacks in the Battle of the Five Armies is led by an orc still pissed that Thorin (leader of the dwarf company) killed is father in Moria years earlier.  In the book you don’t find this out until the actual battle.  It’s presented as an “oh, by the way, the orcs are attacking, and this is why.”  You can get away with such things in a novel geared towards a young audience, but you can’t spring that on modern day film goers.   Jackson also knows he has to spend more time building his characters than Tolkien does.  In his LOTR, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Merry, Pippin, etc. are far more rounded than they are in the novel.

 Even though this first Hobbit film isn’t great, I’m willing to give Peter Jackson some leeway.  He understands something very important about Tolkien’s novels.  They’re not character driven.  They’re not even plot driven.  They’re world driven.  The films are about Middle Earth, not about individual hobbits.  Tolkien considered The Silmarillion his major work.  The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings?  Not so much.  He hoped those novels would simply be seen as a way into Middle Earth, with its history, its gods, its peoples, its cultures, its songs, its languages.  Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a sketch.  By the time he was half-way through writing The Lord of the Rings, he was already revising The Hobbit as shown through the appendices and the expansive back story in The Fellowship of the Ring.  In order to do The Hobbit cinematic justice, Jackson has to “flesh out” the story.  In doing so he’s doing homage to the genius of J.R.R. Tolkien.  So some people think nearly four hours was too long for the first Hobbit film?  I hope the next one is four.

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