For me, the modern movie-going experience is hideous so it’s quite the occasion when I visit my neighborhood theater. In this case a number of factors conspired to bring it about. First, of course, it’s The Hobbit. I’ve been a Tolkien fan for 35+ years, since my father bought The Two Towers for me one weekend. (I was a bit clueless at the time so hadn’t realized that the book was the second in a trilogy. The opening threw me for a bit until I realized my mistake, which was soon rectified.) By the time I was 11, I had read The Silmarillion and now I have a bookshelf dedicated to Tolkieniana – including at least seven volumes of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth. Second, I had a free-movie pass (no expiration date) that a friend had given me several years ago. Third, my theater is only two blocks north of where I live. Fourth, I’ve been on vacation for the last week and so had copious free time on my hands and could go to the matinee. And, fifth, a friend had gone to see the film and e-mailed me with his impressions about it.
My going was inevitable.
Overall, I would give Jackson’s Hobbit a moderately positive thumb’s up.
Among the good points:
- Without a doubt, the best thing about the movie was the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Once you’ve seen him acting, you realize that there could have been no other actor to play the part.
- The Dwarves. I was impressed that Jackson managed to make many of Thorin’s Company reasonably distinct. I can’t claim to be able to identify all thirteen but I did know who Fili, Kili, Balin, Dwalin and Bofur were by the end of the film. (I exclude Thorin, for obvious reasons, and Bombur, since he’s always been “the fat one.”)
- I liked the fact that Jackson was able to shoehorn “Blunt the Knives” and the lament for lost Erebor into the “Unexpected Party” scenes. But I was disappointed that he didn’t include the Elvish ditty “Down in the Valley” when the Dwarves reach Rivendell. Though considering how the Elves are presented here and in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, I can see why he didn’t (I’ll have more about my dissatisfaction with Jackson’s Elves in the “bad points” section of this review below).
- I liked the Troll scene. Again, there was a certain amount of disappointment that Jackson excised the part where Gandalf bamboozles them with ventriloquism but his solution – Bilbo distracting them until morning – was OK.
- I wasn’t bothered by the Thorin/Azog thread Jackson introduced since there is some basis for it in the books. Azog does kill Thror and mutilate the body; however, that sets off the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs, it doesn’t happen at the final battle. Azog is killed at the final battle (by Dain, not Thorin) and it’s his son, Bolg, who leads the Goblin army at the end of the novel. But that may be too complicated for movie-going audiences to follow, so I’m OK with streamlining it.
- I interpret the character and appearance of the Great Goblin as an homage to the character and appearance of same in the Rankin/Bass animated version from 1977. Now, if only Jackson could have shoehorned the “Down, down to Goblin Town” song into that scene.
- The riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum is terrific. Not much more to say, except that it captures what happens in the book perfectly.
- There’s a scene when the Dwarves have escaped from Goblin Town and Bilbo has caught up with them (having eluded Gollum). Thorin asks Bilbo why he came back since he has a home to return to and no reason to continue on with the quest, and Bilbo says (I paraphrase): “I have a home where – indeed – I should be; but you don’t, and I would be a poor Hobbit if I didn’t help you recover yours.” It’s not from the book but it’s certainly Tolkien, and whichever scriptwriter is responsible for it deserves kudos.
Among the bad points:
- Radagast. This was probably the biggest mistake of the entire film – at least as far as characterizations go. He’s not made up out of whole cloth. Radagast does make a brief appearance in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as the unwitting messenger of Saruman to Gandalf. Even in that fleeting encounter, however, the reader can see that this is a real person with real wisdom. In Jackson’s hands, he becomes a cartoonish caricature covered in bird shit. It’s similar to what he did to Denethor’s character in LotR, who was so much more believable and complex in Tolkien’s hands.
- Elves. Elves are not metrosexual vegetarians. Somehow, in the years since Tolkien wrote, vulgar fandom, most role-playing games and now Jackson have turned the Professor’s complex and unique creatures into sexless, tee-totaling, arrogant, obnoxious jerks. Elves, like Men and Dwarves, are not just creatures of spirit but of flesh and they are capable of all the desires and evils the latter two races exhibit. In The Silmarillion they’re rapists (Eöl/Aredhel), attempted rapists (Celegorm/Luthien), murderers (the sons of Fëanor), and – yes – even hunters (Beleg Strongbow), i.e., people who kill animals for food. And in Tolkien’s Hobbit, Bilbo manages to free the Dwarves from the Wood-elf king’s dungeons because the wardens get drunk! Here and in LotR, Jackson mischaracterizes them shamefully.
- The fight scenes. This may be a paradox, but the fight scenes needed to be more realistic. It was better in LotR, but every fight in this movie lasts too long and is so over the top as to descend into the realms of the cartoon or the wuxia flick. In the latter genres, the viewer expects to see outrageous feats of derring-do and utterly unbelievable fighting but that style just doesn’t work in this genre. It’s a tired cliché, but in this case “less is more.”
There’ve been discussions on the internets about the “padding” Jackson has resorted to, to make a three-film epic. Based on this first film, I found the extras and the background info reasonable. It didn’t detract from the story too much, and it’s probably necessary to make sure non-Tolkien geeks can follow what’s going on. I reserve final judgment until I see what Jackson does with the rest of the series.
So, I imagine that – in the end – my relationship to Jackson’s Hobbit will mirror that of my relationship with his Lord of the Rings – A love/hate situation. There’s so much Jackson can get right in translating Tolkien to the screen but – oh, boy – when he gets it wrong (which he does often enough), he really gets it wrong.