Some Thoughts on Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

Posted: January 21, 2013 in Film, Literature
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I planned to outline and put together a comprehensive and long review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; however, it isn’t going to happen. Too damn busy with other things. So what follows are some short(-ish) and haphazard observations about the film.

Two things to get out of the way first:

1. I consider Tolkien’s The Hobbit one of the most influential books on my development as a reader. My father (a fantasy and SF guy) read it to me when I was 6-7; and I read it myself at 8 (and again a few years later, and again, and a few more times adding up to 7 or 8 total). Having reread it last month, however, I have few romantic, nostalgic illusions about it overall. It is, in a number of ways, a flawed book, and it doesn’t engage me anywhere near as much as an adult as it did when I was much younger. I’m still a fan, though. I would venture that those who grew up as kids loving the Harry Potter books (which I read the first 3 installments of before deciding not to go further) will feel similarly rereading those books ten or twenty years down the road.

2. What is below the cut will contain so-called spoilers of the film and all of the novel (not just the section the film covers).

First, the main concern many had coming in was that there was no reason to stretch this out to three films and that there would be way too much padding that made the film(s) overly-long. While I tend to agree with the critique that two films would probably suffice, I did not find this first installment long at all and thought that Jackson did mostly a really excellent job pacing. It didn’t feel like a nearly-three hour movie.

Is there padding, sure. Did the extended old-Bilbo and Frodo scenes really need to be that long? Probably not. Will you fast-forward through them, or make a snack or whatever when it comes out on video? Likely. And all that subplot with Radagast? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

It was also known ahead of the film’s release that there would be several additions and changes to the novel’s plot. I am increasingly okay with such variations, even of works that I really care about, so long as they don’t change the spirit of the source material or go too far off on a tangent. Films adapted too closely are often nearly pointless viewing for fans of the original text (the animated film of Batman: Year One is a prime example), and I find fan outrage at relatively minor changes, especially when the make sense in the cinematic version, to be mostly annoying.

So, for the most part, I think most of the major shifts in An Unexpected Journey were fine choices. I’m happy with Azog being used as a major foil for Thorin and co. The expansion of the scenes, dialogue, and battles in the Great Goblin’s hall worked rather well (though I half expected to see Indy, Short Round, and Willie come blowing through in a mine cart). The stone giants were sick. More backstory on Dain and the dwarves of the Iron Hills, who refuse Thorin’s quest, and the elves under Thranduil who refused to fight Smaug is welcome, even if not exact to Tolkien’s text. And I quite liked the addition of the White Council scenes that add to the story’s depth and that are less developed in the original novel (but evident in other of Tolkien’s texts), with the exception of Sauruman’s unneeded total dismissal of Radagast.

There are, however, a couple changes that seemed like poor decisions:

The lack of Gandalf’s voice-throwing and subsequent troll infighting: Gandalf appears often as a kind of deus ex machina (or the means to summon one) in the novel, which some readers have complained about. Unless I totally missed it, in this scene in the film he appears even more so with his sudden appearance, rock-breaking, and sunlight turning the trolls to stone. Here credit is given to Bilbo for distracting the trolls (which levels his status since here it is his fault the dwarves are captured), but without the play for time on Gandalf’s part, it almost seems as if the trolls are too stupid and even that Gandalf brings the sunrise early. A minor gripe, but I can’t see why this was changed, especially given the humor involved, which I assumed Jackson would make full use of.

Radagast: I’m 100% all for an expanded role for this guy, but his overly-silly characterization was frustrating and betrays the importance and power of the Istari wizards (though this is somewhat redeemed, I suppose, by his “defeat” of the Witchking and taking of the Morgul blade). His role in the larger plot of the era is to fail, but, really, birdshit in his hair, mushrooms, the pipeweed thing with Gandalf, and the absurd rabbit sled?

Thorin’s increased degree of bellicosity toward elves: While this is set up in the film (and mirrors Gimli’s later/previous inability to shut up and be nice at the Council of Elrond and Lorien in LotR), it is way overplayed in the scenes in Rivendell. His behavior comes across as absurd and nearly comical. Thorin is a proud and stubborn dwarf, but he is also an experienced and intelligent leader, as well as a king in exile who should know a bit more about about courtesy and how to strategize about meetings with those who are not necessarily allies.

bilbo

The biggest changes (and those most griped about) are, of course, certain scenes with Bilbo (a masterful bit of casting and acting here). Personally, I don’t think the changes to his interactions with Gollum are all that important. Yes, in the film he sees Gollum drop the ring, which changes the ethics of his finding it; and the scene where he pities Gollum and doesn’t stab him seems overly long and melodramatic. Not a huge deal though.

However, the one change that seems actually major is Bilbo’s defense of Thorin against Azog and the orcs. As I said, I’m fine with the addition/expansion of Azog, and okay that these are orcs and not goblins (yes, technically the same species or whatever) pursuing them, but this selfless-defender-Bilbo (implied by the sword-baring promotional poster above) might be going a bit far from the spirit of the book. This is especially true because of Thorin’s thanks to Bilbo afterward, which allow him much higher status among the dwarves than he has at that point in the book.

I’m not willing to go too far and totally condemn this hero turn . . . it is a gamble and we’ll see what the next film has in store as far as Bilbo’s character development. What I am sure of is that there were dwarves in that tree who also could have got to Thorin quickly, and I don’t get why they weren’t there as immediately as Bilbo was. Puzzling.

. . .

As for other, more frivilous thoughts, what is the deal with “hot dwarves”? My wife laughed and said (quietly, as we were in the theater), “look, a hot dwarf” when Kili shows up at Bag End. This is apparently a memething now online thanks to how the young dwarves (Fili and, especially, Kili) and Thorin were made up (or mostly not made up). I gotta ask, how come certain members of the dwarf company get to not really look like the rest of the dwarves (ie, no major nose apparatus or big, bushy beards or the like)?

hotdwarves

Seems a bit like pandering to me. More importantly, why are the three dwarves who are apparently supposed to be sexy also the only ones who will die? That’s setting up some high pathos or something. Or maybe Jackson will let them live and really piss off fans of the book?

. . .

Overall, and despite the aforementioned complaints, I was impressed with An Unexpected Journey. I think that Jackson’s film is exceptional in character development, and, at least in this one way, surpasses the novel. Characterization is one of the weak points in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but you can’t do a film series of this size well with the relatively flat, uninteresting characters (excepting Bilbo) that you have in the novel. If this added length to the film, it is the right decision on Jackson’s part in the long run.

Also, will someone give Andy Serkis an Oscar or whatever already?

. . .

Also, have you seen the Legos they made for the film? WOW!!!:

goblins

Advertisements
Comments
  1. sarahsss says:

    Intriguingly, we actually mainly agreed (extra agree on Saruman’s over-the-top “I’m actually, secretly a baddie-whooo” performance). I did hate the Azog thing, agree that Radugast should have been better than it/he was, agree about Serkis. I think the real point of contention is the what you found engaging, I found dreadfully dull.

    • nightwork says:

      I did like how they made Saruman such a windbag though, as it is just great as character development for what he later becomes. It was just his dismissal of Radagast off-hand and obvious implications of him being “deep in the enemy’s counsel” before there is an enemy per se that seemed too much.

      Agree to disagree on the film overall. Better than the first LotR film in my book.

  2. Josh M says:

    Ditto on Radagast. I also thought that the expansion of Azog was handled fairly well, although the extended battle sequence near the end of the film could have been cut back quite a bit, and I couldn’t quite buy Bilbo’s “come to the rescue” attempt either. As far as Thorin and his increasingly angry toddler-like attitude towards the elves, I’m willing to place most of the blame there on Richard Armitage, who I have long found to be a completely one-note actor, and that one note is “Heathcliff.” Granted, Thorin hardly the most nuanced of characters in the book, but even so… To be honest, when I first heard that Armitage would be playing Thorin, I started having doubts about the movie. I ended up enjoying it overall, though I do think editing it down by about 20 minutes overall would have been beneficial. I’m almost dreading the inevitable extended cut, because I’m not sure that more material would be a good thing, unlike the LOTR trilogy.

    • nightwork says:

      Heh, I’d say there are really no nuanced characters in the book. (Seriously, Tokien’s devotion to world building and narrative voice kill anything on the level of “round” characters in it.) But the book’s Thorin is noble and smart in a few ways and Jackson handles all dwarves as bad Irish stereotypes or something. Don’t know enough about Armitage to comment on your point, but guy looks the role and so far can’t deliver anything besides an irritable child who will covet his toys/gold in what follows. Too bad.

      I could see cutting it down, especially the first 30-40 minutes, but I didn’t think it felt padded the way I do now about both Fellowship and Two Towers. Maybe repeat viewings will render it that way though. I watched Fellowship (extended) a few weeks back and felt it long and boring at times.