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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
A New Year, Another Look
The 2D difference, and Tolkien's vs. Jackson's Bilbo

Jackson's BilboLast night I took my wife to see the Hobbit movie. She was not able to accompany me to the screening, and has been wanting to see it. I also have been wanting to see the movie in 2D. As much as I wanted to just sit back and enjoy the movie, I had a hard time removing the critic’s hat. Watching it without the 3D distractions was helpful, but it didn’t take away what I found most disturbing about the film. The eruptions of laughter around me at various points in the film reminded me that this is probably a much more enjoyable film than my “expertise” often allows, so I will try to keep that in mind as I share a few more thoughts about the movie. I also feel a bit more free to discuss details of the film, since many have been able to see the movie now. So beware; there are some spoilers below. (You can find my previous comments in my review and preview of the film.)

I must say that this time I actually enjoyed much of the first sequence with the destruction of Dale and Smaug’s takeover of The Lonely Mountain. During my first viewing of the film, I was too distracted trying to get used to the 3D, and I missed much of what was going on. Yes, it was that distracting for me. I was able to take in a few more details this time. I’m pretty sure I saw some bearded female dwarves, something Lord of the Rings fans have been looking for since Gimli made his famous comment in The Two Towers film.

I have said previously that I appreciate that Peter Jackson is including some of this background information, but I don’t like the emphasis on battles instead of the character development of the main protagonist, Bilbo. As I said in my review:

In dividing the story into three parts, the writers had to make choices on how to make each part complete—an entire story within a story. This affects the character arc of the protagonist. Specifically for An Unexpected Journey, by the end of the movie Bilbo reaches a point of being admired by the dwarves that he does not attain by that point in the book. Which is not so bad in itself, if it were not for the way in which he attains it.
Tolkien’s Bilbo is no warrior, and he never becomes one. He earns the dwarves’ respect in more subtle ways. Jackson’s Bilbo, on the other hand, has a rather berserker-like moment, gaining him the admiration of Thorin.

It is true that in the book Bilbo does play the hero later with the giant spiders. But he has also gained the use of the ring at that point, so it is not quite as heroic an act as Jackson’s Bilbo taking on an orc. The sequence has some other problems, such as the inconsistency of Azog telling one of his orcs to cut off Thorin’s head after specifically telling his cohorts that Thorin was his to kill. Jackson and crew rightly decided Bilbo was not ready to tackle Azog, but the way this plays out just does not make sense.

Movie screencap - Frodo and BilboPart of what has made The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so great, in my opinion, is the “everyman” character of Bilbo, Sam, and, to a lesser extent, Frodo. I was reminded of this as I was reading the fifth chapter of Colin Duriez’ new biography of Tolkien, The Making of a Legend. He comments how Tolkien was pleased with (fellow-Inkling) Charles Williams’ evaluation of what would become The Lord of the Rings. In a letter to his son Christopher, he comments upon the roles of Bilbo, Sam, and Frodo (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 105-6):

Cert. Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit. Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation. The book will prob. end up with Sam. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures; but S. will settle down to the Shire and gardens and inns. C. Williams who is reading it all says the great thing is that its centre is not in strife and war and heroism (though they are understood and depicted) but in freedom, peace, ordinary life and good liking. Yet he agrees that these very things require the existence of a great world outside the Shire – lest they should grow stale by custom and turn into the humdrum….

For Tolkien, war and heroism are on the periphery. They are part of the story, and a catalyst for change in his protagonists, but they are never the main focus. Jackson makes them the main focus, with “freedom, peace, ordinary life” at the periphery. It is probably a subtle difference to many fans, but I believe it is an important one. When the focus is on heroism and war, too often the result is an attitude of “winning at any cost.” As Jesus said, “what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” [Mark 8:36 NLT]

Movie screencap - Frodo and BilboJackson’s prologue, besides being a shift in emphasis from the mundane to war, fails because it is not Bilbo’s story. Why does it start with Bilbo saying he hadn’t told his whole story to Frodo, and then proceeding with a history lesson from long ago? There is a jarring disconnect there. The later flashback, continuing the dwarves’ story, works much better coming out of the mouth of Balin, who was actually there. I also still felt rather uncomfortable when we finally get back to where Bilbo actually comes into the story. The famous first few lines of JRR Tolkien’s book, written in a narrative, third-person style, sound strange coming from the Hobbit’s mouth. As much as PJ and company wanted to meet fans’ expectations by including those words, I should think they could have come up with a better way to present them. (Would a hobbit actually call his home a “hole in the ground”?)

The Unexpected Party sequence of the film, despite having some brilliant moments, I found to be rather tedious and drawn out. The rest of the movie is rather well paced, but once Thorin arrives on the scene, the mood becomes somber for too long. Even Bilbo’s fainting spell, while getting a few chuckles from the audience, falls a little flat.

There are some other problems, like the over-the-top video-game-like fight sequences in the goblin tunnels, and the anti-climatic demise of the Great Goblin. Corey Olsen, “The Tolkien Professor,” sees this unfortunate scene as a result of the screenwriters’ attempt to combine both the darkness of The Lord of the Rings and the whimsy of The Hobbit.* I’ve said elsewhere that Jackson did a great job in The Lord of the Rings providing comic relief while telling a dark story. His attempt at whimsy this time around sometimes comes off as childish rather then whimsical.

Movie screencap - trollOne whimsical sequence that did work rather well was the Trolls. Some fans have complained a bit about the crude bathroom humor, but I didn’t really find anything offensive at all. They are Trolls! The scene finds the perfect balance between tension and comic relief, and gives Bilbo a chance to show his quick wit, even if it was Gandalf’s wit that saved the day in the book. If you are going to change things, more of this, PJ, and less of the video game fluff and crazy heroics.

Well, I’ve been pretty negative. But I hope I’ve been fair. Peter Jackson certainly has the right to change what he will to try to make the story work on film. Much of what he has done works well. But I guess I have the right to say when I think what he has done doesn’t work. And what doesn’t work for me might work for someone else. That’s the subjective nature of art.

Maybe next time I write a review of this first Hobbit movie (when the DVD comes out?), I’ll try to focus on what PJ and company did right.

If you would like to exercise your right to express an opinion about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or my criticisms of it, please feel free to leave your comment below.

________________

*From a live webcast Olsen presented this afternoon sponsored by the Middle-earth Network.



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