Saturday 15 December 2012

Good Scot, Bad Scot: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Trilogy

I wouldn't give it much thought except that so many of its reviewers have praised it as faithful to the book, or even superior to it, all of which adds insult to injury and is demonstrably wrong.
 - Wayne Hammond, Tolkien Scholar

... I watch the Jackson films with my facial muscles rushing back and forth between Comedy Mask and Tragedy Mask on almost a line-by-line basis...
 - Steve Tompkins, Howard & Tolkien Scholar

It surely hasn't escaped your notice that The Hobbit will be out this month across the world. Most of geekdom is ecstatic, and rightly so, since this is an adaptation of one of the most celebrated fantasy novels in the last hundred years. I had mixed expectations.

Well, I saw it. If you want to know what I thought, click on. Be warned: lots of details about the film, just so you know. Might spoil this adaptation of a 75-year-old book.

Are you sure you want to know what I thought?

You might be surprised.

"Ambivalence" aptly describes my feelings on Jackson's Lord of the Rings saga. When it's right or near enough, it's brilliant: the might of Sauron in the Second Age, the menace of the Nazgul, the plight of Gollum, Christopher Lee's Saruman, the beacons of Minas Tirith being lit (superfluous but beautiful), the terror of Shelob. Generally, whenever the films hew closest to the book, that's when they're at their best: it's when they deviate that things start to go awry - frequently very awry. Plenty of Tolkien fans disagree, including many I hold in great respect like Brian Murphy and the late, great Steve Tompkins, who spoke of some of the film's finer moments:

Two scenes in just one of the Jackson films, Bernard Hill’s “Where are the horse and rider?” recitation and Miranda Otto’s singing of the (Anglo-Saxon) dirge at Théodred’s barrow capture more about heroic cultures than all the flexing and surfer-dude self-actualization in CtB... I think Howard Shore’s LOTR-work is career-capping, even better than his long collaboration with David Cronenberg, a breathtaking use of Wagnerian techniques to achieve reassuringly non-Wagnerian ends. I’m sorry the “Irish” instrumentation doesn’t work for you; he was musically sketching the Shire as a mostly rural, bucolic society, and for long centuries in the Anglo-American imagination the “Celtic” has connoted the peripheral, the out-of-the-way, the non-up-to-the-minute. Shore leaned heavily on Scandinavian instruments for the scenes that introduce Rohan in The Two Towers, the sonic equivalent of the Northern European design motifs for Edoras and Meduseld; we’re being tipped to the fact that this is a Germanic asterisk-culture. As you know, I watch the Jackson films with my facial muscles rushing back and forth between Comedy Mask and Tragedy Mask on almost a line-by-line basis, but many, many pages of Tolkien’s dialogue are powerfully performed.

While I don't go to quite the same level of intense dislike as, say, Leo Grin, at the same time, I'm not quite as appreciative of the high points: as far as I'm concerned, the bits the films got right are right because, generally speaking, sticking to an evergreen, beloved book as closely as possible tends to work out pretty well. So for a while I was caught between intense appreciation of the sheer artistry of the filmmakers, and intense disdain for the ham-fisted insertions and alterations, which reminded me nothing so much as what The Last Supper would look like as restored by Cecilia Giménez.

"But Al, don't you realise all adaptations have to make changes? In fact, I think the changes are an improvement - they look better, more cinematic, more exciting!"

And then I found DM of the Rings, a parody comic which presents LotR as an RPG campaign, complete with jargon, abbreviations and stroppy player antics stalling and derailing the Dungeon Master's attempt at storytelling. It hit me: that's exactly what the Jackson films are to me - not a straight adaptation of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (though they are, all things considered, far more faithful than a good number of other adaptations) but the after-action report of an RPG campaign based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

It works so well to explain so many of the problems I have. The forced Aragorn & Arwen romance angle was forced in because the Dungeon Master's girlfriend wanted to have something to do, and her strident granola-feminist who has her own post-modern opinion on the source material. The constant pointless action scenes that don't add anything to the story are random player encounters so the adventurers don't get bored. The simplification and stripping of moral ambiguity and subtlety in the characters was a necessity for the gamers - they obviously couldn't read the book since it'd ruin the whole game, so they got the bare bones of the characters and built their own personality around them. And then weird decisions like making Sauron a floating eyeball can be chalked up to the DM simply misunderstanding the sourcebook.

The Hobbit, then, is the prequel to that RPG campaign, which came about ten years later. Most of the gang got back together, having gotten married or divorced or whatnot, as well as a few from the first game who wanted in on it despite their characters not appearing in The Hobbit. The DM wanted to play, but didn't want to DM it: he got a friend of his who had some awesome and bizarre ideas, before he had to drop out to do an Evangelion RPG with some other guys. So he reluctantly became DM again, and his girlfriend and her buddy demanded the insertion of female characters into this woman-less campaign. At first it was just bringing back Galadriel to put in a cameo, but then they started inventing "she-elf warriors," and gender-bent several characters like Thorin, Kili and Fili into female dwarves (how else do you explain their barely-admissable beards and photogenic features?) Of course, just like the previous session, there'd have to be a lot more fighting, chasing and nonsense, as well as tie it into The Lord of the Rings so the gamers could feel included and go "oh, I remember that!"

Before I go into more detail, I'll discuss my general opinions on the film free from any major spoilers. I am in Good Scot mode, after all.

The Short Version (Good Scot)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has seen a rather mixed reception. Some say it's just as brilliant and spectacular as the previous films; others that it's "good, but not great" like the previous films; others still that it's this generation's The Phantom Menace, and an incredible betrayal of the previous films.

Me? I thought it was just like the previous films.

There were parts that were so close to the books, I grinned like a madman: the infamous Troll scene was the unquestionable highlight for me for this reason; while the Unexpected Party was rougher around the edges than I'd have liked, but it hit most of the right notes; "Riddles in the Dark" was near pitch perfect; the little we saw of Smaug was just right, even if I doubt there's any way Jackson & company could mess up Smaug. There's also a lovely little piece of Tolkien fanservice regarding Bilbo's family history that I won't spoil, and another very cheeky reference to something they shouldn't really be referencing due to copyright concerns - even though I'm skeptical of this sort of thing, I loved it.

The cast was good, but special mention must go to Martin Freeman, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Barry Humphries and Conan Stevens. Freeman made a very good Bilbo, even if he was far too athletic and attractive (a sacrifice made in the interests of fidelity to the previous films). Ken Stott was fantastic as Balin, by far the role I considered most accurate to the book in terms of appearance, acting and writing. James Nesbitt surprised me as Bofur, as I found him one of the more memorable of the dwarves outside of Balin, Dwalin, Thorin, Bombur, Fili & Kili. Barry Humphries & Manu Bennett aren't immediately recognizable, but they are excellent as the goblin/orc villains of the film.

The visuals are breathtaking. Now, they aren't what I think of when I think of Tolkien - certainly the film's take on several scenes from the book are wildly divergent - but they're undeniably visually arresting, and I'm positive that this is Del Toro's influence, particularly in the creature designs. The goblins, orcs, wargs and trolls are reminiscent of the creatures in Hellboy, and frankly, I think this works in the film's favour. The orcs and goblins of the previous films were too obviously just stuntmen in make-up: the orcs and goblins of this film seem like twisted, inhuman creatures, utilizing a mixture of puppetry and CGI. The CGI was spotty at times, particularly with the Great Goblin (who had far too little screentime in a 2 hour 45 minute film), but even then, the beasties of this film had a lot more personality and life about them than their cinematic predecessors. The wargs were also a marked improvement, in that they looked like demonic wolves instead of the hamster-hyena mutants of The Two Towers. The props, naturally, were fantastic, though turning Orcrist into a machaira of some sort drove me batty.

The music is predictably lovely, great work from Howard Shore, and I think in many ways an improvement on his work in the trilogy, since it's not as repetitive. Even the common "Shire" leitmotif has some variation in musical styles and instruments used. Fans of the previous films' themes will instantly recognize them when a familiar character, event or reference appears, and they're used fairly sparingly, maximising their impact. It might be the musical equivalent of when they use a chapter title as dialogue ("Hey, that's just like in the book!") but it's an appreciated bit of fanservice, for all its brass. And hey, they had a lot of the songs in it, and what do you know, it didn't remotely detract from the film!

On the other hand, it also suffered a lot of the same problems as the previous films: pacing, fixing what ain't broke, weird out-of-place humour, and some really dire writing. Now, most of my criticisms of the first three films have been addressed very eloquently by others. I'd like to highlight these ones in particular, and go on to discuss how they affect The Hobbit in more detail.

The Long Version (Bad Scot)

 Two concepts Tolkien mentions in his criticism of the script are "anticipation" and "flattening".  Tolkien defines them this way: "One of [Zimmerman's] chief faults is his tendency to anticipate scenes or devices used later, thereby flattening the tale out" (Letters 271) . For example, Zimmerman has Eagles landing in the Shire before the hobbits' journey begins, thus reducing the surprise factor of the Eagle rescuing Gandalf from Orthanc, as well as ruining the folkloric "third time pays for all" aspect of the climactic rescue of Sam and Frodo.  Over-using this device throughout the script makes it stale and predictable.  "Flattening" can also describe what happens to a character arc when a writer "anticipates" later character traits in earlier scenes.

For an example of "anticipation" and "flattening" from the Jackson films, consider the hobbits' first encounter with the Black Rider in the woods near Hobbiton.  In the book, Frodo's only conscious desire is to make himself disappear, primarily out of annoyance at being followed, and his hand barely touches the chain the Ring hangs from before the Rider turns away (Tolkien, Fellowship 84) .  In the movie, however, Frodo is seized by an uncontrollable urge to put on the Ring; his eyes roll back in his head and he appears nauseated, and Sam reaches out to stop his hand just before Merry throws the bag of mushrooms to distract the Rider (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scene 10) .  In the book, Tolkien subtly and slowly strengthens Frodo's compulsion to put on the Ring.  When the Ringwraiths are close by, or as Frodo gets closer to Mordor and grows physically weaker, the temptation builds.  Sam does not have to help him resist it until they are on the slopes of Mount Doom itself (Tolkien, Return 220) .  By anticipating the Ring's later effect on Frodo, Jackson has left himself no room to build up to this later pivotal scene.

Also, consider the hobbits' first glimpses of Bree and The Prancing Pony.  In the book, it is a clear, starry night, and Merry's family at least is familiar with the town and its inn.  Unsophisticated Sam is nervous about the height of the buildings, but Frodo reassures him that the inn comes highly recommended.  From the outside, the inn "looked a pleasant house," and there are lights shining through the windows.  They can hear singing inside, and they get a friendly welcome from the innkeeper and the hobbits who work for him.  The first hint of anything sinister is Frodo's glimpse of Aragorn smoking quietly in a corner with his hood concealing his face (Fellowship 168) .  Aragorn's revelations and the later attack by the Black Riders are all the more frightening for happening in such a seemingly safe and comfortable place; this contrast is important to Frodo's decision to accept Aragorn's guidance.  In Jackson's movie, however, Bree is threatening from the start.  It is pouring rain when the travelers reach town; tall Men jostle them in the streets and a cart nearly runs them down.  There is harsh laughter in the bar, and an intimidatingly tall reception desk.  The customers are unpleasantly dirty, and sloppy drinkers to boot.  And when the Ring slips onto Frodo's finger, we get the "Ring effect" of blue light and rushing wind, along with Sauron's searching Eye (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, scene 12) . In the book the Ring has absolutely no effect in this scene but to make Frodo disappear from sight (Fellowship 172-3) . Again, this anticipates Frodo's experience of the Ring's effects on Weathertop and his vision of Sauron's Eye in Galadriel's mirror, making their later use stale and repetitive rather than startling and new.
 - "Anticipation and Flattening in Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring"

There's a lot of this in The Hobbit. First of all, "anticipation": there are far too many references, homages, or downright duplications of scenes from the trilogy: Gandalf bumps his head in Bag End, 'cause that happened in Fellowship; the dwarves are encircled by incomprehensibly hostile elves on horseback, just as the Three Hunters are surrounded by incomprehensibly hostile Rohirrim in The Two Towers; there's a montage of Thorin's company marching over the mountains in a manner needlessly evocative of the Fellowship's journey from the same place across the same terrain; a group of orcs pursues the group, just as the Fellowship were hounded by the Uruk-hai; Bilbo first puts on the ring in the exact same circumstances as Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, by falling on his back, reaching his hands, and watching the ring guide itself onto his finger; Gandalf confronts the gigantic Great Goblin on a bridge, which breaks, and sees the Goblin plummeting into the gaping chasm below in a very familiar manner...  I can understand wanting to tie the film into the other three (as if being set in Middle-earth with several shared major characters wasn't enough or something) but there's a fine line between reflection and repetition, and The Hobbit tramples all over it.

The story structure is also a major problem - it's far too similar to Fellowship. The movie, that is. Many of the choices and additions in the story actually make the film seem more like a dry-run of LotR than the original book ever did:

  • Both films start with a voiceover discussing a great conflict with a dark destructive power, the discovery of a glorious jewel deep in the earth, an ally's betrayal, the loss of kingdoms and more
  • Gandalf's first appearance seems to indicate conflict with the main Hobbit before the tension is broken
  • The companies are led by a tall, dark, brooding, serious warrior of noble heritage who is motivated by a sense of honour and duty to his ancestors
  • One of the company is a (nearly) clean-shaven, youthful, attractive archer
  • They are pursued by a pack of orcs led by a musclebound orc leader
  • There is a council involving Elrond and Gandalf in Rivendell about The Fate Of Middle-earth, the return of Sauron, and how a young Hobbit may factor into it
  • The company then move out of Rivendell to embark on their epic quest while the music swells heroically as they walk along mountain peaks
  • The company have a perilous trek across a mountainside with rocks and bad weather raining down upon them with extreme and openly malicious prejudice
  • The company fight a horde of goblins in a vast subterranean city and slay a troll (-like monster), with much collapsing of standing structures and running along thin passages, escaping into the light of day, where they are temporarily safe from pursuit (until nightfall)
  • They escape into the forest, but have a showdown with the pursuing musclebound orc who defeats one of their strongest warriors, but is thwarted
  • The film ends with our heroes standing atop a rise, looking off into the distance to their destination, a great mountain which houses a terrible evil

As many similarities as The Hobbit already has with The Lord of the Rings, I would've thought changes in the films would've made the films more distinct as opposed to less.

Secondly, the "flattening": for some reason, the story gets ahead of itself too quickly, bringing the danger and threat far too soon, making it unsustainable - for a 2 hour 45 minute film, Jackson & company had a hell of a time rushing some things. Bilbo's journey from staid little Hobbit to seasoned adventurer peaks by the end of this film - a third of the way through the book! He goes from being altogether uninterested in adventures without so much as touching a sword before, to fearlessly rushing to the aid of a fallen Thorin, killing a gigantic orc by himself. Bilbo's entire character arc is already done, and we haven't even met Beorn yet - what growth does Bilbo have left to do when he's already slaying orcs? Too. Bloody. Soon. A perfect moment to start it would be when Bilbo picks Sting out of the troll's horde - but no, for absolutely no reason I can discern, Jackson/Boyens/Walsh decide that Gandalf should give it to him, and that Bilbo would be all reluctant and nervous about it. They took one of the defining moments of Bilbo's development and inverted it, only to fast forward by the end. I just. You guys.

Related to this is the dwarves' development, or lack thereof. Early in the film, Balin says that they're just miners, traders, toymakers, and general noncombatants: only Thorin, Dwalin, Balin and arguably Glóin have any combat experience. This was the case in the books: they were a bunch of dwarves looking to con a dragon who get in way over their heads. They aren't seasoned veterans of many campaigns who wield their weapons with astounding skill. Well ya could've fooled me, since every single dwarf is not only armed with a different weapon (as opposed to the knives they had in the book), they're proficient in it: each one is a deadly one-man-army, rushing into combat without a moment's hesitation. Again, this is counter to the dwarves in the books, who undergo a somewhat similar development to Bilbo: they start out self-centred and averse to confrontation, but eventually become heroes and badass warriors when it counts. Here, they start out as badass warriors, and thus, have nowhere to go. By the time of the Battle of Five Armies, they'll have already kicked Goblin arse from here to Ered Luin. What's the point, other than to add more gratuitous action scenes that just dilute the impact of the existing ones?

Thorin suffers the most from this (and the fact that he's clearly a dashing, handsome, youngish chap despite being 14 years older than Balin): instead of being primarily concerned with simple greed - at least in the beginning - Thorin's pride in his father and the idea of taking back Erebor for Durin's line is changed to the primary goal of their quest. Again, I feel this is a significant loss, and removes the possibility of an ennobling character arc for Thorin, going from purely self-serving to self-sacrificing, where he conquers his greed. At this point, Thorin's a pretty ok guy. But here's the problem: if Thorin's already noble, then what's his arc? Well, that's how he gets over his distrust of elves after Thranduil's host apparently turned up at Erebor during Smaug's attack, only to do nothing - and just like the nobles at Falkirk in Braveheart, this is a complete invention of the screenplay - so he obviously has to learn that Elves Are People Too... just like Gimli had to get over his Elfism. The elf-dwarf emnity is in the book, but nowhere near as profound as this active betrayal by Thranduil. The other possible route is for lust for the Arkenstone to "corrupt" him and make him go mad - again, making it a leetle too similar to the trilogy.

The other dwarves more or less get the shaft - again, how is it that a 165 minute film couldn't spare the time to properly introduce the remainder of the dwarves? Dwalin, Balin, Fili and Kili get decent introductions, as does Thorin, but the others are effectively tossed into the background. Only Bombur's name is really memorable by virtue of his rotundity and preposterous doughnutache, while the others are too often pushed to the background. Would it have been so hard to give Ori, Dori, Nori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur a couple of seconds each in this 2 3/4 hour epic? And considering people were so concerned about differentiating between 13 short bearded big-nosed folk, I'm astounded they actually leave out several distinguishing features (even if you're not going to use the hoods, would it have killed them to at least incorporate the colours in some - any - other way?) But then, they don't seem to care that much about the other dwarves anyway, so what can you do.

The White Council

We already knew that the film would supplement the story with elements from the appendices and unused chapters of The Lord of the Rings, which led to Radagast and the White Council, by far (to me) the weakest part of the film. What should be the gathering of legends to discuss a great evil was more like a sad high school reunion: Gandalf the popular kid, Elrond the geeky friend, Galadriel the bookish girl he had a platonic relationship with while everyone wondered why they never dated, and Saruman the irritable nerd who always had it in for Gandalf for his popularity. Just like with Denethor in Return of the King, the film stripped away any remotely heroic, noble or admirable qualities from Saruman even when he was ostensibly a good guy: he's rude, snide, distrustful, dismissive, pompous and generally ignored by Galadriel and Gandalf as the obfuscating bureaucrat that he was, going so far as to suggest that Sauron could not possibly return - even though the destruction of Sauron is the reason the White Council exists in the first place!

It baffles me how Boyens, Walsh and Jackson made Saruman such a boring, one-dimensional pre-villain when they go on and on about Aragorn and Faramir needing to "go on a journey": surely this was a perfect opportunity to show Saruman as a wise, if brusque and haughty, man whose arrogance, paranoia and pride led to his downfall. Saruman was certainly going down the road by this point, but he had his reasons: he feared not only that Galadriel and Gandalf were conspiring against him, but that Gandalf wanted the Ring, which made him even more eager to find it without the Council's knowledge.* This eejit can't fall, he's already hit the bottom. What a shame, to waste Christopher Freaking Lee in such a pointless, gutted role. Perhaps he'll show some admirable qualities in The Desolation of Smaug and/or There And Back Again, but I sincerely doubt it. And my fellow Ross points out the absurdity of "Christopher Lee, a man with a set of teeth like yellow tombstones, saying another character has horrible teeth."

The threat of the Necromancer is simultaneously too late, and too early: too late because the Necromancer has apparently only been infecting Mirkwood for a short time (as opposed to the two millennia in the book, and the White Council knew that Sauron was the Necromancer for a good ninety years), too early because the scope of the threat was presented too soon in the context of the film's narrative. Yet the danger is introduced at roughly the same time as Radagast, and the less time I spend talking about that demented oaf the better. Let's put it this way: Radagast, the Istari, one of Tolkien's Wise Men, definitely quirky but always depicted with dignity and more than a little mysterious awe, has a little bird nest in his hair which is dripping with bird faeces.

Almost a metaphor for the entire film franchise, if one were so inclined.

He also rides a sleigh pulled by giant rabbits, but frankly, that's just so ridiculous that I love it despite itself. It's one of those harebrained (heehee) ideas the player came up with, and the DM just decided to go with it. He also has a hedgehog named Sebastian - a name with a long and storied history in Middle-eaaaahahaha - then he had a puff of Gandalf's Old Toby, and we suddenly wandered into a Cheech & Chong movie. I still don't really know what to make of Radagast, really.

Radagast is far from the only bit of weirdness: Thranduil rides a Megaloceros, for no discernable reason other than it looks cool (it does look cool, but it reminds me a little too much of several non-Tolkien sources for my liking); there's a bizarre legless goblin courier-type-thing that flies on a zipline; the giants causing the storm are interpreted as gigantic ambulatory chunks of rock like that rock monster from Galaxy Quest. I'm almost positive Del Toro was responsible for these elements, but unlike the other creatures, I'm not as keen on these.

What was I talking about? Oh, right, Slender Man - I mean the Necromancer. Actually, no, I mean Slender Man. Because that's how they choose to depict the Necromancer, as a far-too-skinny black, faceless shape. I'm sure they'll show him in more detail in future, but as introductions go, this was a bit of a wet blanket for me. They also throw in the Witch-King and some nonsense about the Nazgul being tossed in a bunch of tombs (how can you entomb what is not dead?) which just further muddles the chronology and adds to the flattening repetition. Oh, right, the ringwraiths, haven't seen them before. The film even manages to ruin the spiders after giving them a really cool bit of foreshadowing: you see vague silhouettes crawling over Rhosgobel, a menacing chattering, and a few legs stabbing through the roof... then they're gone. A lovely, foreboding tease - until Jackson decides to show them lumbering off in the distance in daylight, completely ruining the tension and menace.

Azog Lives

I foresee a lot of people having various reservations about the obvious stuff - the White Council/Dol Goldur insertions, "pretty" dwarves, whatnot. But for me, the biggest problem was the presence of Azog, which is - I think - one of the baldest changes for the sake of "tension" in the film franchise so far.

See, all throughout the film, the dwarves are being pursued by a pack of orcs, supposedly to add a level of urgency to the quest which already has enough urgency. Still, since we're going with the expansion of the book into a trilogy (which I still think is a horrendous idea), it makes sense for some of that expansion to go into providing a villainous presence. Logically - I foolishly thought - that would mean Bolg's role would be expanded. Bolg, of course, was the leader of the goblins at the Battle of Five Armies, who had a particular grudge with the dwarves after his father, Azog, was slain at the Battle of Azanulbizar. Azog had murdered Thror, Thorin's grandfather, and added insult to injury by branding his name onto Thror's forehead, tossing it down the mountain. When it was found, King Thrain (Thorin's father) attacked. Thrain and Thorin were incapacitated before Azog came on the field. When he did, Azog killed King Nain in a duel, and was in turn killed by Nain's son, Dain. So it would make sense for Bolg to have a bigger presence, perhaps also make Dain more prominent, to make their final meeting at the BoFA more compelling for a nine-hour movie marathon.

But they don't go that route at all. Instead, they have Azog slay Thrain (how on earth does Gandalf get the key and map, then?) and Thorin cut off Azog's hand. Years later, it's discovered that Azog did not die, but has fostered a grudge against Thorin for the dismemberment, and he's the main antagonist for the film. Riddle me this: why is this better than what Tolkien wrote? The orcs and dwarves hate each other enough, you don't need to add the tiresome cliche of the main villain killing the hero's father! And even if you did want to provide a more personal connection between Thorin and the orc leader, you had Bolg right there! Have them battle, Thorin defeats or at least stalemates Bolg, Bolg retreats when he sees his father slain, swearing vengeance on Dain for slaying his father, and Thorin for resisting him in combat. Years later, the Great Goblin is killed, and Thorin is suspected to be involved: Bolg's had enough of these dwarven invasions of "their" lands, and goes out for vengeance - only to find Dain's there too. Boom. Not complicated.

And ridiculously, the one potent link Azog and Thorin do have (Azog's murder of Thror) is nowhere to be seen in the film. WHAT. The only reason I can see for Azog's presence is that he dies sometime in the next film, and Bolg swears vengeance, following the dwarves to Erebor - and yet for that to be worthwhile, you'd have to actually establish Azog and Bolg's relationship. As far as I could see, there is no inkling of Azog even having a son, since I can't recall Bolg appearing at all. This needless connection of protagonist and villain is as false and artificial as when they made the Joker responsible for Thomas & Martha Wayne's murder in Tim Burton's Batman: you don't need it.

Last time, I promise: it's a two hour, forty-five minute film, and it still manages to rush some things. The main villain is less fleshed out than Lurtz; there's barely any time given to characterisation of the dwarves; Saruman is wasted in a glorified cameo; the Great Goblin appears and is dispatched within half an hour with about five minutes screentime; there is nowhere near enough explanation for the significance of several things like the Arkenstone or Morgul Blade. Most baffling of all, the Battle of Azanulbizar - which you'd surely think would be given pride of place as an epic scene in this particular franchise - was given barely a fraction of the scope and time you'd expect, and would be a rare case of a big action scene having a justifiable place in an expanded narrative. And it's all in slow motion. I just... I don't know what Jackson wants.

And last but not least: they found time for Radagast, the White Council, Azog, and countless other expansions, yet they didn't take what I thought would be the most obvious choice of inserting a LotR character into The Hobbit who would actually work, as Glorfindel isn't in the film. Let's be blunt here: the LotR film (and I'm sure some of the book) fandom love their sparkly elf-boys, and Glorfindel would've been one of the sparkliest of all. It amuses me that they insert Legolas and even bloody FIGWIT into these films, yet somehow put an embargo on one of the most badass characters in the entire mythos.

 Then again, given Decipher's interpretation for the trading cards, maybe we dodged a bullet here.

What? I liked Glorfindel, is all.


Well, I've quite rambled enough on this. No doubt some enterprising website will put down all the myriad differences between book and film, and we can look forward to the next one. And if I've made an error in my assessment, by all means, address them in the comments.

What astounds me is the reception of the film. I really can't see how this film can have only 66% on Rotten Tomatoes (at the time of this writing) while The Two Towers, easily the worst of the film trilogy - and I'd argue inferior to this film - has 96%. Some critics say it's due to the material not being suited to the LotR film franchise (I'd counter that Tolkien isn't suited to the LotR film franchise), others blame spreading the butter of the original book over too much running time, and too many to link blame the 48 frames-per-second thing which I can't comment on. But through many of them, they exalt the original film trilogy as a masterpiece utterly faithful to the source material**, and deride this one as a cash-in bloated with extraneous fluff. I see it as nothing so much as an encapsulation of how I saw the original trilogy: brilliance and balderdash in equal measure. Evidently, they think the balderdash is stronger in this one.

That said, as ever, there's always hope for the future. The fact that there's so much opposition to the very idea of a Hobbit trilogy, combined with the very disjointed reaction, suggests to me that the stranglehold the New Line interpretation of Middle-earth has wrought for the past decade may be slipping, even just a little. I have no illusions, of course: the film will make a preposterous sum of money, fans will likely adore it, and it might even result in even more Tolkien film stuff. But Tolkien's work is too good to be restricted to one adaptation, and certainly none can be considered "definitive." Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings did some things better than the trilogy. Rankin Bass' The Hobbit did a lot better too, not just in terms of fidelity, but in pacing and structure - at 88 minutes, it at least had an excuse for its brisk pacing.

The Hobbit should have many interpretations and takes. Why shouldn't it? It already has a plethora of radio dramas, plays, musicals, comics, video games, bizarre pop songs, and of course animations. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just one way of doing it in cinema: it shouldn't be the only one.

*Oddly enough, the film does a good job of showing Saruman's point of view despite itself, as Gandalf and Galadriel have little secret telepathic talks while Saruman drones on, which hardly seems respectful, and actually gives Saruman's concern over Galadriel and Gandalf's conspiring some legitimate support. I'd be pleasantly surprised if this came up in the sequels.

**"There has almost certainly never been an adaptation of a novel more studiously, scrupulously and strenuously faithful as Peter Jackson's film of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Spending nearly three hours of screen time to visually represent every comma, period and semicolon in the first six chapters of the perennially popular 19-chapter book, Jackson and his colleagues have created a purist's delight, something the millions of die-hard fans of his Lord of the Rings trilogy will gorge upon...." HELP HELP MY CAPILLARIES


  1. Thanks for the hard work of sitting through the movie. There was a discussion over at Grognardia last year when the dwarves were revealed. Turning the miners, smiths, etc. into silly, bat'leth wielding warriors was pretty indicative that Jackson and Co. would be hewing to the path they took with LotR. Your review only clarifies that to a deep, and depressing level. Someone needs to take Jackson's money away and force him into making something as inventive and nuts as "Dead Alive" again.

    1. I had held out hope that the images of the dwarves were from future films: I was hoping that those publicity stills were from later in the series, and that they would be more "dwarfish" in this one. I also foolishly thought that Fili & Kili lost their beards when they had to cut them out of the spiders' webs in Mirkwood, but no, they started off like that.

  2. Been waiting for your review, if ever you were going to watch it.

    I'm not watching these movies because the whole approach turns me off. Fanfiction, fanservice, continuity porn, stretching, padding, retrofitting, call it whatever.

    It's not "The Hobbit" to me. More like "The Lord of the Rings: Origins" or "Adventures in Middle-earth Before LOTR Happened". That's not enough. I don't want to give them my money or my time.

    Yet I might watch The Legend of Conan. Sometimes an empty glass is better than one half full/empty. And as you said, it will be the end of that matter.

    But I doubt we'll see more film/TV adaptations/"reboots" of The Hobbit/LOTR for a long while. Comic book material has it quicker. Another Conan reboot is more likely, as is stuff from The Silmarillion (now that is a proper outlet for their fanfiction urges, since a lot is compressed...).

    1. I can understand your distaste to the approach, not least since *all* my problems are from the fanfiction/fanservice/whatnot.

      Still, one really good thing that came out of all this is that, after viewing, my young cousins bombarded me with questions: who was the Necromancer, what happened to the Blue Wizards, what was Ungoliant? Then I could settle down and tell them the "Real" real story.

  3. Great post.

    My main problems with the film were: The duplication of old tricks from LotR.
    Goblin-town's action was too silly and they spent too little time there.
    The dwarves attack everytime from the side of the frame with the same music playing in the background.
    I wasn't annoyed that much with Radagast except he just disappears from the film (and feels unnecessary). The are also some other unexplained and unresolved things within the movie. I believe that this film will stand better with the next part released than alone.

    I was surprised how little we get to know the dwarves especially after I read in some interview where the actors described their characters and really none of that was transformed into the film. I think Bombur doesn't even have lines although still he is more memorable than, say, Nori.

    I'm pretty sure that Azog's slays Thror in the film and they say that Thrain became mad with grief and was then killed or disappeared or something like that.

    And yeah, Glorfindel gets shafted everytime when it comes to adaptations. He is along with Cirdan my favourite elf who appears or is mentioned in LotR.

    I liked the HFR 3D very much. It was the first time I found 3D not annoying. (Ofc, I saw it in 2d first :)) After first viewing I enjoyed but was quite annoyed after the second.

    1. I'm pretty sure that Azog's slays Thror in the film and they say that Thrain became mad with grief and was then killed or disappeared or something like that.

      You're right about that: a bit more research proves that Thrain will be seen at Dol Goldur, so it was indeed Thror. The film didn't do a very good job distinguishing Thror and Thrain, but I guess it's too much to ask for a 2 hour 45 minute film to be a bit clearer about the differences between Thror and Thrain. Heck, I was sure that they had just cut out Thror entirely and replaced him with Thrain. Argh.

      And yeah, Glorfindel gets shafted everytime when it comes to adaptations. He is along with Cirdan my favourite elf who appears or is mentioned in LotR.

      That's another thing: where the blazes was Cirdan?!?

  4. Al, thank you for confirming my decision to skip this in the theatre. Instead, I'll wait for the DVD release, with all the deleted scenes reinserted and fully produced effects (I DO NOT like paying serious coin on a Readers Digest condensed version of a film!)

    So the perpetrators (I mean producers) don't get that much coin off me, I'll get the DVDs once they show up in a pawn shop, or someone gives me theirs.

    During the meanwhile, I'll just re-read the book.

    (but I will get the soundtracks since, like that of CtB82, they will be GLORIOUS)

    1. I'd wait for the purist cut, but they'd probably lose Sebastian and Zippie Zibulon, who I love despite myself.

  5. Great review, Al. I can't really disagree with much of anything you said, though I did enjoy it quite a bit despite the flaws. Although, I have to agree with ripa in that I'm pretty sure it was Thror that was beheaded by Azog and the mention Thrain goes mad. Then at the end Azog hints that he did something to Thrain as well but it isn't explained. I'm guessing they will use this to link Azog and the Necromancer in the future films. I'm also assuming that they are just conflating the characters of Bolg and Azog and it will be Azog that leads the orcs at the Battle of Five Armies. Thorin will kill him but be mortally wounded. Blah blah...

    I'm glad to see I wasn't the only one that didn't like the fast forwarding of Bilbo's arc. I hinted at this in my review, but was trying to avoid spoilers. Having him kill a orc this soon ruins his character build up for the rest of the film. Think about this. He's already killed an orc---why would he think killing spiders later on was such a big deal that he would name his sword "Sting" afterwards. That really irked me.

    1. I enjoyed it, too, I just don't think I enjoyed it as much as you or others. That said, Conan Stevens is credited as Bolg, so he is going to appear in some respect. I guess Thorin's going to kill Azog, though, so Dain can still kill Bolg, or some such.

      And agreed on Bilbo, naturally. Maybe the giant spiders'll be bigger than Shelob in Mirkwood: wouldn't surprise me, given how they tried to out-Moria Goblin Town.

  6. Glorfindel sucks balls. So what if he gets forgotten, Tolkien himself forgot that he killed this prat off in the first age. "Oh...I did...well...ummm....elves go to the West if killed and get new bodies and he ummm....came back".

    What did he miss Taco Bell?

  7. These films might make me give up on the Tolkien fandom "community" and send my inner fan into dormancy (again).

    I don't want to support these movies, nor do I want to be in a fandom that includes supporters of these movies, whether they be casual moviegoers or hardcore readers. I guess self-ostracism is the way to go. Nothing personal to all of you who've watched it.

    It's much the same for LOTR, each movie after the first one soured on me more and more I haven't touched those movies for years.

    At least there is always other stuff of interest which doesn't quite have the same emotional baggage. Oh high school.

    After some time, Conan filled that void... too bad about the reboot.

    1. Martin, I've been having exactly the same feelings. It seems everywhere I go, people adore the films unconditionally, and even a hint of objection is shrugged off as "oh, you're one of *those* purists, who wouldn't be happy unless they had Tom Bombadil and all the films were 12 hours long." It's grating, because I do think the films have plenty going for them, I just wish people could accept that they aren't perfect.

  8. Hmmm! Interessting! It's been decades ago that I read the book, but I can't summon much enthusiasm for something I see as an exercise in self-indulgence...

    Your analogy of the film(s) being like RPG-ing is spot on, and does explain much - it seems that is exactly what Jackson and his co-writers have been doing - they seem to have role-played the whole thing, then transcribed their session.

    I'm sad to see though that your review doesn't come in 3, overly long, parts ;-)


    1. Well, you'll have to wait until next year for Part 2: The Commercialisation of Smaug!

  9. I finally get why the Hobbit additions and reconfiguring seem to hit too close to home for me, in a very relevant way to this blog.

    Much of the Hobbit film(s) is pretty much Jackson and co.'s idea of Tolkien pastiche! More than the additions and changes in their LOTR ever were.

    In other words, something dressed up as official or "canon", based on - most often inspired by - some original text when in a sense it's really not. How many times have we heard "they added stuff Tolkien wrote", as if it was straight from the page? In another sense, of course, it is canon to the previous films.

    And the reconfiguring of the Hobbit tale itself as no longer Bilbo's story but "The First Part of the Middle-earth saga" sort of mirrors De Camp, Carter and successors expanding REH's Conan tales into "The Saga of Conan".

    Of course this is undercut by Jackson and De Camp working with different media, but still...

  10. It's soooo easy to criticise. Why don't you all have a go at filming Hobbit and Lord of the Rings yourself. And they we will judge your work.

    1. Hey, give me several hundred million dollars and I'd happily give it a shot. And I'd take any criticism which came my way, because I got to make my adaptation of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

      It is indeed easy to criticize, but I'd love to think that people can agree to disagree on art. Certainly there are plenty of people out there who LOVED the films, so what's a few lone voices of dissent like my own?