Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit
The ghosts have gathered outside Alexius’ window. They’re throwing little stones against it. Charles the hungry ghost knocks on the door three times.
Alexius: What do you want?
Charles: It’s Christmas day in hell, you delicious neighbour of ours!
Alexius: And you plan on making me your Christmas turkey?
Charles: No, we wanted to come in and watch pirated movies with you.
Alexius: I’m a tiger of principle. I prefer legal merchandise.
Charles: This is hell, monsigneur. Only pirated merch here. Also, we’re ever so hungry and we wonder how you’re surviving down here without food.
Alexius: I suppose the lack of a noticeable pulse has slowed my metabolic needs. You should be glad, since I’m a fierce predator from the surface who will devour you at first sight if you cross me.
Charles: Can we come in?
Alexius: How many of you are there and what movies have you brought?
Charles: We just have The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Alexius: What resolution did you get it at?
Alexius: OK. Come on in. Ah-ah! You have to promise that you won’t even try to eat me! You’re trying to earn redemption from the endless torments of desire, right? Start by not eating me.
Charles: I’ve been practicing for ten million years. I’m sure one day of not eating a tiger won’t kill me. Hahahaha!
Nearly three hours pass.
After the hungry ghosts all left, drunk and famished, I patted each of them on the back and wished them an animal, secular Merry Christmas. Charles, who I perceived was most likely the longest-suffering of them all, stood in the threshold with his hungry eyes looking, for a moment, slightly less ravenous than usual. A gleam came into those dead wide orbs. He lifted up his bloated sagging belly and let it fall with a loud slop.
Charles: That reminds me of an old rhyme I used to know.
Alexius: Thank you for coming over. No one even started trying to eat me until we had nearly finished the champagne. And that was just Jean-Claude sucking on my paw.
Charles: Maybe we can get to know each other a little better in the future.
Alexius: I’ll consider it. Good luck on your redemption.
Charles: If it ever happens, I would want it to happen in the winter. That way, I’ll be much warmer when I surface.
Contrary to some reports you might have read on the Internet, Peter Jackson did not adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s novel The Hobbit into a feature film. I don’t blame you for being confused. This tiger’s own agile brain was outmaneouvred by the deceptive marketing and media reports. As a matter of fact, the real truth did not sink in until long, long after the The Hobbit title card appeared, and that was after a long prologue filling the audience in on the history of the Dwarves of Erebor.
I read The Hobbit as a young tiger, one of the first “advanced” books I read in English. I have read it since then, once in heaven and once in hell. Each reading took approximately half the time it will take to watch all three of these films once they’re released. From here on, I’ll refer to the film by its title, The Unexpected Journey, to reflect the vast discrepancy that exists in terms of tone, content, and texture between the text of the book and the blockbuster film that wears its name.
To stretch a book that could be read in an afternoon into his characteristically lengthy epics, Jackson has inserted additional characters and subplots that were simultaneously occurring in Middle Earth’s history. Instead of focusing squarely on the character of Bilbo Baggins and his journey “there and back again,” Peter Jackson gets us about halfway “there” and contextualizes the events of the book as a small piece of Gandalf’s grander schemes for the salvation of Middle Earth. The reasons for doing so are obvious: Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a small-scale treasure hunt story. It has its own drama and a grand battle at the end, but it tends to be more quietly whimsical than the more Wagnerian Lord of the Rings. Jackson is clearly aiming more at creating Lord of the Rings prequels than an adaptation of the book itself. It’s what I have been dreading, fearing he would do since I heard that he displaced Guillermo del Toro from the director’s chair.
With that established, we must turn to the question of how well this approach works. The answer is slightly complicated. On a micro level, scene-to-scene, Jackson is able to achieve snatches of grandeur. I’ll admit to feeling emotionally involved in the overblown action climax and enchanted by much of the production design (I suspect that much of the beautifully grotesque design work on the Gundabad goblins is of del Toro’s making). That said, the whole thing teeters on the brink of disaster, being overlong, numbingly violent, and poorly integrated.
Let’s drill down from the general to the more specific. First, tone. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings had a wide tonal and emotional range. Battle scenes juxtaposed clever gags and slapstick humour with sacramental death scenes. Depending on the situation, the films were flexible and big enough to accommodate broad comic relief and grandiose tragedy. That’s part of the operatic quality, that indefinable charm that keeps me enjoying much of that trilogy of films despite their stretches of grinding monotony and occasional missteps into violent revelry. Jackson aims for a similar breadth here, and the material is often stretched threadbare to support it.
Take the first scene of the film proper (once we’ve cleared the framing narrative and the extended prologue that I’ll touch on later). Bilbo greets Gandalf at the front of his house, bemused and polite to a fault. The tone is light and whimsical. Why, a wizard has just shown up on a three-foot hairy-footed person’s front lawn! It works. When the Dwarves arrive, at first one by one, then in a massive dogpile, the lightness works. Thorin arrives and adds a bit of dramatic weight and gravity to the proceedings. Later scenes–the trolls by the fire–keep the spirit of the book most intact. When it comes to the actions scenes, however, the film slips considerably, repeating a problem to be found in the Lord of the Rings films as well. Truth be told, The Atlantic does a better job than I could explaining this dissonance, so I’ll encourage you to read further into that article and then come back.
“While your butt is in the chair and the 3-D glasses are on your noggin, you’re going to be treated to triumphant swelling strings and bloody spectacle after bloody spectacle. Tokien’s novel saw virtue in little things, but An Unexpected Journey is too obsessed with its own bigness for mercy.”
The tone is further scrambled by the insertion of a couple of linked subplots, each one on a polar end of the dramatic spectrum. First you have Radagast the Brown. A wizard from the woodland dwelling of Rhosgobel, he is a friend of all creatures and highly sensitive to changes in the forest, which proves useful to a council of Middle Earth’s guardians. That being said, he has as much dignity to his name as Pitch from that Mexican Santa Claus film where Santa fights the devil. Howard Shore’s noble attempt to elevate the material with his Ring Cycle-aping score are undercut by Radagast’s preferred mode of transportation. Stay with me here because it gets weird: he is towed around on a ramshackle sleigh by a troupe of badass rabbits who can outrun the swiftest Warg. A character so charming in theory proves to be irritating as a screen presence, and each of his thankfully few scenes prove to be some of the weakest in the film.
Speaking of wizards, there are other scenes featuring an assembly of Middle Earth’s most powerful beings. Saruman, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond, a sort of Tolkienesque United Nations Security Council, deliberate on solemn matters of great importance (the temptation to capitalize all the nouns in that last sentence was powerful). Introducing a thread that will pay no dividends until at least the next film, they consider the reports of the rise of a sorcerer known as the Necromancer in Dol Guldur, a black fortress in the southern reaches of the Greenwood (Mirkwood). While all of the actors involved reprise their characters with poise and aptitude, these scenes play out almost in their own universe, talky and disconnected from the bombastic actions set pieces and plodding walking scenes. The effect of these insertions is to polarize the tone in each direction, all in an attempt to turn up the grandiosity to concerning levels.
Another focal shift Jackson makes is to emphasize the Dwarves’ leader Thorin’s story more than the original material. This is no mere treasure hunt. This is about the reclamation of a lost king’s ancestral birthright, the land from which he was cast out. Wait, a minute…Yes, Thorin has been transformed into a less sympathetic amalgam of Sean Bean’s Boromir and Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings films. Carried by a strong performance by Richard Armitage, his character is perfectly acceptable.
Yet all of this shifting manages to displace Martin Freeman’s Bilbo for vast tracts of the two hour forty minute running time. Because the story ends in the middle of the journey, before Bilbo has had a chance to use the Ring and be of real help, he seems ineffectual, bumbling, and useless. And for this section of the story, that makes sense. Unfortunately, the arc of his character, while handled well for the most part, draws undue attention to its incompleteness. Freeman is perfectly cast and directed, and in the scenes where he takes centre stage he succeeds.
Do you know what film this reminds me of? The Fellowship of the Ring. Starts with a long prologue, goes to the Shire for some narration from our Hobbit hosts. The group is sent out East after a scene where Gandalf makes the room all dark, revealing his powers are no mere trifles. After resting in Rivendell where there is a council of Middle Earth’s greatest individuals, the group sets out east to the Misty Mountains. Forced by the elemental fury of the mountains to go underground, the group is beset by goblins. Gandalf bails them out (in The Unexpected Journey he doesn’t die) and the film finishes with the group having battled a posse of Orcs and overcome a significant impasse, including an important reconciliation.
Now, I won’t say that many of these parallels are there in the source material as well. However, some of those aspects were not present in the original text. This is more than an empty comparison between the source material and the “adaptation.” What I’m trying to show here is that Peter Jackson is trying to put the lightning back in the bottle. From the cinematography to the locations to the grandeur-filled production design to the cast to the score, this is almost a remake of Fellowship. For every sweeping emotional statement that lands, for every camera flyover that recaptures the dignified yet adventurous vibe of the first three Jackson Tolkien films, there is a moment of uncanny familiarity or outright monotony. I feel as though I just came back from a well-executed reinterpretation of a film I saw ten years ago. Comfortable family resemblance is one thing: this verges on falling into the uncanny valley. While the forms are there and the whole production is polished to a fault, the spark of life can seem smothered sometimes.
The Hobbit is a totally different book from The Lord of the Rings. With the exception of the encounter between Gollum and Bilbo (best scene in the film by a degree of magnitude–it really comes to life for a few precious minutes) in the cave, it is, for better and worse, a children’s book. Jackson’s tendencies do not work in that direction, and I understand the impulse to draw the connections between the two books more clearly. That said, the result is a film that fails to affect me the same way, and the same way is precisely what this is aiming for.