The Hobbit: An Unexpected Review

 

I took Nicole and Kate to see The Hobbit last night. I had been looking forward to it for a long time, and had attempted to learn as little as possible about the production beforehand. Only when we saw Skyfall last month did I even see a trailer. I wanted to go in fresh without preconceptions. I also made sure to re-read the novel beforehand.

My verdict: it was…good. I wish it had been great though.

Spoilers for Book and Movie Ahead!

I should say right away that I do understand the problems faced by Jackson and his writers. The Hobbit is very different in tone than the Lord of the Rings. It was a children’s book after all. If they did The Hobbit as written, it would have been a lot more light-hearted and well, goofy than the previous three films. Tolkien was a serious world builder though, and the story of The Hobbit has an important place in the history of the Third Age of Middle Earth. What Jackson and crew were trying to do was put the story in its proper context by bringing in a lot of material from Tolkien’s other writings. Obviously, they want these three new movies to serve as a lead-in to the original three to form a larger epic. I don’t have a problem with this approach. In fact, as a Tolkien nerd, I applaud it but it did have some consequences in the way they changed things.

As you watch The Hobbit, it’s hard not to notice the way the film is similar to Fellowship of the Ring. Thorin is in the Aragorn role. The actor they picked and the hairstyle they gave him reinforce the point; he looks like mini-Strider. In the Fellowship, Jackson and his writers created a new villain specifically for the film: Lurtz, the Uruk-Hai leader. His purpose was to give the climax of that movie a villain that could be overcome. The audience could thus have a little satisfaction at the end of the movie, even though the Fellowship was broken and the heroes’ fates uncertain.

In The Hobbit, they use Azog in this role. He is not in the novel, and for very good reason: he’s dead. Azog, you see, was the King of Moria and he did lead the orcs against the dwarves in the Battle of Dimrill Dale as depicted in the film. However, Thorin’s cousin, Dain Ironfoot, beheaded Azog in that battle. It’s Azog’s son Bolg who appears in the novel and leads the orc forces in the Battle of Five armies.

I find it strange that in order to give the broader backstory of The Hobbit, Jackson changed the story simply so he could have his Lurtz for the movie. Lurtz himself was a made up character and few people minded because adding another Uruk war leader didn’t seem like a stretch. It would have been wiser to follow that lead here than muck things up so badly with the lore. Bolg is King of Moria in the novel. Will he just be shoved aside by Azog in the next movie? If not, why is he king when his father still lives? And why let Thorin steal Dain’s thunder when he’s likely to be an important character in the next two movies?

We see more echoes of Fellowship in the Rivendell sequence. In the novel here’s what happens there. Thorin’s company arrives and the elves feed them and their ponies. Elrond identifies the swords from the troll lair and reads the moon runes on the map. The elves give them fresh provisions and wish them farewell and good luck on their quest. That’s all. In the movie, however, there’s a whole subplot about how Thorin doesn’t want to go there and doesn’t trust the elves. Elrond doesn’t think their quest is a good idea, just as he had doubts about Aragorn in Fellowship. I did not mind the impromptu meeting of the White Council (as this helps set up the action in Dol Guldur that’s presumably happening in movie three), but changing the original story again to echo Fellowship seemed unnecessary.

My other major problem with the movie the inclusion of many scenes of big things crashing into other big things while people leap like gazelles through the wreckage. This was  the sort of stuff that made King Kong tedious. He takes one paragraph from the book in which stone giants are throwing rocks at each other as a game and turns it into a 10 minutes action scene with mountain peaks swaying this way and that. Then it’s “crazy bridges” in Goblin-town, whereas in the book Gandalf simply slays the Great Goblin and all his minions freak the hell out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good fight scene and some of the bits were cool, but those sorts of scenes are to Peter Jackson what white doves are to John Woo.

All my annoyances came together in the climactic battle. The scene that takes place in a forest in the novel is re-positioned on a crag so now trees can crash into each other until one (populated, of course, by all the protagonists who have just leaped from tree to tree!) hangs over the edge. Azog the already dead arrives to kill Thorin and then we don’t even get the satisfaction of having the mini-villain killed. The whole climax was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. At least there were giant eagles though.

I suppose this all makes it sound like I hated the film but I didn’t. Much of it was enjoyable and if you are not a lifelong Tolkien nerd like me, you won’t really give a shit whether it’s Azog or Bolg in the Battle of Five Armies. I will say I thought the riddle sequence with Bilbo and Gollum was terrific. And man, Gollum technology has advanced a lot in 10 years. I must note though that Jackson and his writers do in fact make Bilbo a thief. In the novel, he finds the ring by accident while stumbling around in the dark. In the movie, he sees Gollum drop it and then picks it up. This actually gives Gollum a moral leg to stand on, which he certainly did not have in the books.

In the end The Hobbit is a good fantasy film, certainly better than the shit we endured in the 80s. I just think the choice, conscious or not, to pattern it on Fellowship of the Ring was a mistake. Now granted, I haven’t seen parts two and three. Seeing the trilogy in its totality may change my mind. Right now, I can’t see why certain things were done to the story but maybe that’ll be made clearer in the next two.

That’s my basic review. Now I’m just going to toss out a few nitpicks that only the hardcore Tolkien fans will have any interest in. You can stop reading now if you want; I won’t be offended!

  • From the moment Balin came I screen I thought he looked too old. This is the dwarf who’s going to lead the Moria expedition decades later. In the novel Thorin is actually older than him. You would not guess that in the film.
  • Elrond going on an orc hunting expedition? Sorry, but no. That’s the sort of thing his sons Elladan and Elrohir do.
  • Glamdring and Orcrist also glow blue blue when orcs are near but did not in the movie.
  • Radagast is not described in great detail by Tolkien, so the film’s depiction of him isn’t wrong per se. The wacky factor was amped way up though.

4 thoughts on “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Review

  1. I totally agree with this, Chris. Lots of mixed feelings but a good enough time.

    One minor correction – the fifteen birds in five fur trees fight sequence doesn’t take place in Mirkwood – it’s still on the slopes or near the Misty Mountains, pretty much right outside the goblin gate. Because remember, they go to Beorn’s place next and hear about how dangerous Mirkwood is, and then head on in without Gandalf.

    I personally missed the talking animals. I mean, I liked that the wolves were this own, separate intelligent group that the company stumbles upon and then the wolves team up with the goblins. Likewise, no talking eagles. Presumably Beorn’s house won’t have animals standing on their hind legs serving food.

    I totally get why Jackson didn’t do that stuff – it’s much more fairy tale than his take on middle earth. But I liked the idea of the different animal species as their own cultures – spiders too.

  2. Regarding the second bullet point — it seems pretty clear that in movie-land there is no Elladan or Elrohir. Given that Arwin takes Elrohir’s role in the movie of the Fellowship it would have been cool to see HER out on an orc-hunting expedition… but within the bounds of what had already been defined, I feel like Elrond was the next best choice.

  3. Chris, I also saw the movie. As a lifelong Tolkien nerd I was almost offended by this movie. Like you I found many of the departures from the story unnecessary and added little to understanding the book. In fact, if anything, they made a simple children’s tale much less comprehensible to . . . children. Jackson did a great job with the special effects-I actually thought the stone giants were kinda nifty. I’m sure I will see the other movies, but truly I was on the edge of walking out on this one. Though I admire his effort, I feel we’re creating the Middle Earth of JRR Tolkien and the Middle Earth of Peter Jackson. They share many elements, but they’re not quite the same. With young people reading less and less, which will be the version they remember?

  4. Glamdring didn’t glow in Fellowship, either, so it is consistent that it didn’t here. IIRC, they said they wanted to make that ability unique to Sting, and simplify the special effects. I think Glamdring got used more than Sting, after all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *