The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
There are many good things about this film, but unfortunately also many things that are oh so wrong. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, both the novels by J. R. R. Tolkien and the films by Peter Jackson, are monumental achievements in the annals of imaginative storytelling. Tolkien was able to do what very few writers have ever done, create a completely fictitious world that to its admirers is just as real, lived-in and believable as the mundane world they see in their everyday lives. Yes, we know there are no hobbits or goblins, elves or wizards (today at least), but through Tolkien's words it is easy to imagine that those elements are simply lost in the tracks of time, and that ages ago Middle Earth did exist. Jackson was able to capture that epic sweep of historicity and bring it to life for millions who had never read the books.
The Hobbit, on the other hand, is a much simpler story, enjoyable for adults but primarily an adventure tale for younger readers. It was the literary introduction of Middle Earth, but it did not delve into the history of the people and creatures that inhabited that ancient land. That would come later with LotR and its appendices, along with The Silmarillion and other works that expanded on every element and historical turn of events. Instead of a straight adaptation of the relatively short novel, Jackson chose to include a lot of those extras, both events and characters, and in so doing has cluttered the narrative of this prequel film well beyond what was necessary. I think it is safe to say that anyone who has not read any of the books but liked the previous films will enjoy this more than fans of the books, but even then some might find a few of the action scenes are repetitive and go on far too long. Those who have read The Hobbit, even if it was years ago, will constantly be remarking to themselves that this or that event or character was not in the book.
The novel starts with the introduction of Bilbo Baggins, followed shortly by a visit from the wizard Gandalf who invites Bilbo to go on an adventure, which does not interest the hobbit at all. Then the dwarves arrive and Bilbo's hobbit hole and his life are turned upside down. He is off on that adventure whether he wants to or not. The film begins with a tale of the dwarves' loss of their mountain kingdom when the dragon Smaug invades. That short intro is understandable, giving the audience information about what the quest is all about, but it devotes ten or so minutes of screen time to what was described in just a sentence or two in the book. Later, there are flashbacks to the wars between the exiled dwarves and the goblins who had taken over the mines of Moria. Those scenes do set up and explain several characters that will figure into the narrative of the film, but in most instances they are not from the book. Two characters, Radagast and the Necromancer, are just briefly mentioned by Gandalf in the book, but their stories weren't told in print until LotR and/or The Silmarillion, and yet they take up considerable time in the narrative of this film. I believe the Pale Orc, Azog, is only mentioned in the appendices to LotR. He had killed the dwarf king Thror during a battle in Moria, and was later killed by another dwarf. But in this film, Jackson shows a scene where the current dwarf leader Thorin, grandson of Thror, believes he has killed Azog, later to learn that the orc survived and is out to seek vengeance against Thorin for cutting off his arm. The Elf Lord Elrond is in the book, and he appears here again portrayed by Hugo Weaving, but Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) was not, so what is she doing in the film? It seems obvious Jackson included some of them (including Ian Holm as the elderly Bilbo, Elijah Wood as Frodo and Christopher Lee as Saruman) to make it more accessible to those who so far are only familiar with the previous films.
There is perhaps another reason for all of these extras, although I am basing this just on something I read online recently. (Of course we know that if it is on the internet it has to be true.) Supposedly the Tolkien estate has said that they were not going to allow any further film adaptations of any of the books after this trilogy. If that is true I don't know when that decision was made. The production company obviously still has the rights to the LotR novels, including the appendices, or else some of these elements would not have been allowed in the screenplay, assuming the Tolkien estate has been kept informed about all aspects of the production. If Jackson was aware of this he may have decided he had to include a lot of these characters and scenes now since he may have regretted not doing so in the previous trilogy. Another possiblity is that Jackson just doesn't know when to stop, and no one else involved has the clout to tell him that sometimes less is better.
I did start out saying there are good things about this film. Two stand-out scenes are the "unexpected party" when the dwarves take over Bilbo's home and kitchen, and then later the "Riddles in the Dark" when Bilbo meets Gollum in the dark depths of the Misty Mountains. The latter is quite possibly the best scene out of all four of Jackson's Middle Earth films, a near perfect evocation of Tolkien's words. Andy Serkis again provides the voice and did the motion-capture work for the pitiful Gollum, and the CGI rendering of his emaciated body and bulging eyes is fantastically good. Almost all of the CGI is as good as anything I've ever seen, and I saw just the standard 2D version. No telling how vivid the 3D + 48 per second frame rate on an IMAX screen would be. Then again, just because you can do practically anything you want or can imagine with CGI these days, it doesn't mean you have to. Take the dwarves and Gandalf's escape from the goblins for instance. A scene that was not described at all in the book becomes a very long, and inappropriately comical, chase through the mines that seems to go on forever. It may have only been five minutes, but it seemed like thirty.
One must expect some alteration to story and character when a book is adapted to film, but I'm afraid Jackson almost lost me for the final two films of his trilogy because of something that happens toward the end of this one. I won't spoil it, just say that he has Bilbo do something that not only is not from the book, it is something that Bilbo never would have done. I would have thought Jackson had more respect and reverence for the source material than that.
To sum up, when it is good it is very, very good, as beautiful and breath-taking as Middle Earth must have been at the dawn of the Third Age. The bad could have been avoided if Jackson would have reigned in his ego and made the film as straight forward as the book. I feel there are great things to come in the second and third films, but I also worry there will be more to disappoint me. Go see it for sure, to make up your own mind, but lower your expectations and you might not be as frustrated as me.
[Update] Related Links:
My reviews of the other Hobbit films, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies.
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