16 December 2012

The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Disappointment

The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Disappointment
My Review of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"


*CONTAINS SPOILERS*


I’ll be perfectly honest: I was more nervous than excited as I walked into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. After reading numerous articles about the inclusion of old characters, the creation of a new one, and seeing photos of the Dwarves in all their sexy glory, I fully expected to see my favourite childhood story ruined. My apprehension was especially increased when, during The Colbert Report’s “Hobbit Week” special, I realised that Stephen Colbert knew much more about the material that would be taken from The Lord of the Rings’ appendices than the film’s own director – and that lack of knowledge, unfortunately, is the film’s greatest weakness.

Visually, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is impressive – Jackson and his team prove that even a decade after making The Lord of the Rings trilogy, they are still masters of digital effects. And the high frame rate was extraordinary. The landscapes looked incredibly realistic, but not overly so, as many critics had previously suggested. As someone who suffers from chronic migraines, I had had some reservations about seeing the film in 3D and at 48 frames per second, but within the first five minutes I was swept up in the beauty of it all. The only instances in which I felt any visual discomfort were close-up scenes of characters running across the screen, at which points my eyes strained to keep up. Thankfully, these scenes were few and far between. For the majority of the film, however, it felt as though filming The Hobbit using this new technology and recreating a Middle-earth just as beautiful as, if not more than, The Lord of the Rings was Jackson’s sole interest.  

Had I not read the original version as written by JRR Tolkien, I might have enjoyed this film more. It began at a rapid pace, which it maintained for most of its nearly three hour span (thus making it a bit more enjoyable to sit through). It countered the Lord of the Rings trilogy in that there were few moments that really seemed to drag on; but at the same time, it mirrored the trilogy in the sense that it was similar, if not darker, in tone. While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not necessarily meant to be a children’s movie, it has all but lost the spirit contained within the book and seems to be more of an attempt by Jackson to one-up his previous trilogy.

In addition to changing the tone of The Hobbit, Jackson and his fellow writers took many unnecessary liberties. Numerous characters who did not appear in the original tale managed to make their way into the film – Frodo, Galadriel, Saruman, and Radagast all make appearances, no matter how brief, out of place, or needlessly comical. But perhaps the most reprehensible character to make an appearance was Azog – or, as I like to call him, the Orc incarnation of Merle Dixon (which is a bit of a stretch, and I’m not criticising; but as a Walking Dead fan, I couldn’t help noticing the similarity). For those who have not read any of Tolkien’s work, Azog was killed by Dáin Ironfoot in the Battle of Azanulbizar nearly 142 years prior to the Quest of Erebor. And yet, as if wargs, goblins, spiders, and Smaug were not enough, the writers felt that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was in need of another obstacle – so, while Thorin believed that Azog had died from his wounds in battle, the Orc somehow managed to break free from captivity and recover enough to seek revenge. Thus the first film seems to be more about Thorin’s struggle with Azog than about making it to Erebor.

But the biggest issue I have with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is its portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. While Martin Freeman certainly looked the part and did an excellent job in the role he was given, the writers almost completely missed their mark, failing to illustrate the very essence of the original novel – that is, Bilbo’s transformation from reluctant adventurer to burglar-hero. With the narrator who explained much of Bilbo’s behaviour within the book absent from the film, the writers should have made up for that loss by really setting the scene at Bag End. From the very beginning, Bilbo seems to change his mind almost instantaneously and with no real motivation; one minute he’s wishing those obnoxious Dwarves out of his home, and the next he’s eager to tag along on their little adventure. The childlike spirit that the film lacks in tone is almost made up for by Bilbo’s eagerness to please. Yet this, too, is slightly off target: where in the book, Bilbo spends a majority of their adventure desperately trying to prove to both himself and the Dwarves that he can be the burglar they need, in the film he seems completely focused on pleasing Thorin only. This, of course, takes not the entire journey, but only the first film to achieve; by saving Thorin from becoming a trophy for the Orc-chieftain Azog, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ends on a happy, yet sappy, note, with the Dwarf taking back every nasty thing he ever said about the hobbit.

One of my favourite moments in the film, however, was the game of riddles between Gollum and Bilbo. Though luck plays little to no role in Bilbo’s victory (discounting another important theme from the book), the portrayal of Gollum is extremely well done. Not yet wholly corrupted by the ring, he is so far the most heart-wrenching character in the film; with those sad, puppy dog eyes, I felt more of an emotional connection with him than any of the other characters. Once again, Andy Serkis has proven that not only is he the king of motion capture, but he is a brilliant actor worthy of some serious recognition.

Overall, I enjoyed the film for what it was – a well-coordinated visual interpretation of JRR Tolkien’s classic meant to entertain for a few hours. The action, digital effects, and score were all worthy of praise, but the story itself left much to be desired. I’m slowly getting to the point where I dislike sitting through lengthy movies (or paying an arm and a leg for tickets) unless they’re absolutely worth it, and unfortunately, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was not entirely what I had hoped for. Sure, I’ll probably go back and see this film once in IMAX – and maybe once in 2D, 24fps – so I can compare the viewing experiences; and if the few glimpses here and there were any indication, Smaug will be absolutely worth coming back next December for The Desolation of Smaug. But for now, my fear that The Hobbit trilogy is nothing more than a horde of gold being sat upon by a greedy dragon who has no use for it still holds true.


What did you think of the first Hobbit film? Share your thoughts in the comments below or Tweet me @TolkienBritta

13 comments:

  1. Wow, the best review I have read so far, you've just nailed it! I completely agree with you: the movie by itself is great, but they took too many liberties, and changed too many things, and what's most bugging me is how most Tolkien fans positively accepted these changes!

    First of all, Bilbo as you say takes the decision of joining the Dwarves on his own, which is utterly contrary as in the Book! Some may see it as a small change, but Bilbo's reluctance is central in The Hobbit, the novel! Also Bilbo saving the Dwarves by outwitting the Trolls heads into this direction. Terrible decisions, in my opinion.

    Azog's inclusion, the hatred and fear the Dwarves have when they arrive at Rivendell, the Dwarves leaving Gandalf behind, Bilbo saving Thorin, Radagast, Orcs and Wargs before Rivendell, unDwarvish Dwarves... all of this is nonsense to me, and let's hope the rumours of Tauriel in the second movieare not true at all, but by the taste of the first movie, I think we can fear for the worse. They even changed the scene of the finding of the Ring!!!!

    I've been thinking of writing a review myself, but your opinion summarizes mine! I'm glad I found someone who shares my thoughts about this movie.

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  2. Even though I had a totally different reaction to the film than Britta (I loved it) I think this is an excellent analysis of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Some of the liberties Peter J & Co. took with the film were just plain idiotic and unnecessary. Writing a screen adaptation, however, is ridiculously hard. And if you read Tolkien's letters you get a glimpse at the atrocious Disney-esque screenplay written for The Lord of the Rings in the fifties. A treatment that infuriated Tolkien with its stupidity and lack of respect for his story. Now, I'm sure Stephen Colbert does have a deeper knowledge of Tolkien's universe than most people in the world, but I'll bet you he wouldn't have been able to create a better screenplay. I guess I'm saying that the Wingnut Films people approached this with a lot of respect and enthusiasm. Some of their efforts failed. But the parts that work rise far above almost all other movies getting made. I think when all three pictures are done we'll all be hailing it as a masterpiece.

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  3. Interesting, I'm thinking maybe I had a more positive reaction to the movie because it has been a while since I read the book, since your issues mainly seem to be tonal and character differences, and my memories of such things are more hazy.

    Azog is an interesting case. Because it really seems like he's there just to be this installment's "final boss." And that is an unfortunate film convention I think, that when you have a multiple part saga, there is always this need to have a primary milestone antagonist who will be fought and defeated at the end of each of the installments, even if he wasn't in that part of the source material. It was the same in Fellowship with that Uruk-hai commander, wasn't it? I mean, they did fight Uruks in the book, but I think that commander was just an original creation for the film, to give a clear, identifiable face to the enemy, simultaneously personifying and personalizing them for both protagonists and audience. And, of course, so Aragorn could have a little boss battle with him at the end :p

    I'm no film expert; maybe there is a legitimate reason they need to make this change when adapting a source that might lack that type of centralized final villain for each of its entries. Maybe Azog really is a necessary evil born of film conventions. I don't know, but at the very least I do wish he'd looked less CG.

    I am surprised though, that you didn't like the White Council gathering. Sure it wasn't in the book, but it still happened, didn't it? It wasn't necessary to the main plot, but I thought it was an enjoyable glimpse of Sauron's return to power. I had always wondered how Peter Jackson might handle Dol Goldur and the Necromancer, and I liked seeing the result. Plus, seeing Galadriel and those other three together was pretty cool.

    I also wasn't too much a fan of the Radagast parts. The actor was good, but the character himself and the situation felt out of place, like extra comic relief when we already had a whole company of dwarves to fill that role.

    One last bit, you said "With the narrator who explained much of Bilbo’s behaviour within the book absent from the film, the writers should have made up for that loss by really setting the scene at Bag End." I'm curious what you mean by that. Obviously, when you're going from written word to screen, it's going to be harder to get a character's private thoughts, since you don't want them randomly monologuing and explaining how they feel all the time. I think Jackson was aware of that here, though, and the way I saw it was that their attempt to circumvent this in this situation was by having Gandalf talk to Bilbo about how he wasn't the same fearless adventurous spirit he'd been when he was younger, or mentioning his Took blood. I think that was the point of that conversation, to try to provide some basis for Bilbo's change of mind later, since we couldn't directly hear his thought process for ourselves. Still, though that might have been good groundwork, there wasn't really a resulting trigger that effected his desire to go with the dwarves, so it did seem a little abrupt. Although, now I'm wondering if the book itself had a trigger...? You'd know that probably.

    Those are my thoughts on it anyway. I forget if I had others.

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    1. It just seemed silly that what may have taken only a few lines to tell in the book or in the Lord of the Rings appendices were turned into lengthy scenes, while things that should have been more fully explained were overlooked.

      I didn't feel that they had fully explored Bilbo's sudden change of heart. In the book, the narrator tells us that as he heard the Dwarves' song, "the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick."

      However, that Tookish thought doesn't stick: "very quickly he was plan Mr Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again." He did not suddenly change his mind and turn into an eager adventurer, as the film suggests; rather, it was Gandalf who arrived the next morning and scooted him out the door.

      In the film, however, they make one reference to Bilbo being Tookish, as if that makes all the difference.

      Essentially, it's a matter of "show" vs. "tell." With the narrator ("tell") absent, I would have liked to have seen the writers compensate by "showing" us more.

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    2. (don't know why this says Anonymous on the preview, it's still me)

      Oh hey, I remember that passage. Well, the book's version does sound more interesting now that you mention it, and I'm a little concerned with how they're going to handle Bilbo and Thorin's characters and their relationship in the next two, since they seem to have reached mutual amiability a bit prematurely by the end. But still, I loved what I saw, and I definitely want to see it in IMAX next. Just wish I had some Tolkien friends who lived nearby.

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  4. I just saw it. Your review is spot on. I may have liked it less than you, however; apart from a couple of scenes and its stunningly gorgeous depictions of Middle-earth, I thought it was a shit film. I know that's not a very thoughtful review, but I'm so disappointed in how it turned out that I don't want to dwell on it.

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  5. Very nice review, Britta- as well thought out and as clearly articulated as are all of your pieces. Nicely done.

    I liked it more than you did, it appears. Although somewhat a Tolkien purist myself, I also understand that telling the same story in two different media will of necessity result in changes. For the most part, I believe these changes to be relatively harmless and not a detriment to the story as a whole. (Felt the same way about the first trilogy, too.)

    I, too, was hoping for a more gradual and clearly delineated transformation from Baggins to Took, though I did think it was clear that Bilbo listening to the song (SO hauntingly done, my daughter and I have been humming and grumbling it all weekend, adding serious gravitas to all of our household chores!) was the turning point for him, and what finally pushed him out the door.

    Azog is more troublesome for me. Like you describe, I feel sure that the writers want to include all the required elements of an individual movie - protagonist, antagonist, conflict, resolution, etc. - while maintaining the overall arc in the entire trilogy, too, and so felt the need for more of a villain in this first one than the shadowy form of the Necromancer, but it's one of the few core changes that actually alters the History as laid out by John Ronald. I know, for example, that Dain Ironfoot is to be played by Billy Connolly (really looking forward to that!) and unless I missed him at the Battle of Azanulbizar I wonder what role he'll play now? And how he'll get his name unless he does end up stepping on Azog's neck after all?

    But that one big area aside, I thoroughly enjoyed it and can live with the other deviations, especially when describing scenes that had either been glossed over or which had taken place "offstage" in the original story. That being said, though, there was something lacking in the White Council scenes for me, but I need to see it again in order to put my finger on what it was, exactly. And while Radagast was fun, he wasn't really necessary to advance the story, in my opinion, except in showing that the influence of the Necromancer is spreading. 

    Being back in Middle-earth was glorious, and if a few of the scenes felt a little forced or crammed into the "oh, yeah, it started as a children's story..." almost as an afterthought by the writers and directors, I can forgive them. I know my daughter loved it as much as I did, and that we'll be seeing it again later this week with my oldest girl- I think she'll like it just as much.

    And, as you rightly point out, all of the other elements were transportive - the score and the sweeping vistas and even the other songs, so prevalent in the book - all of these were reminiscent of the immersive qualities of the LOTR movies, for me. Likewise, the riddle scene was one of my favorites, too, and was deftly handled.

    So, again, valid points all, but I'm not worried. I trust PJ to treat the canon with the tender care it deserves, and to deliver again on helping us visualize a tale well told, one that's been close to our hearts for a long, long time. (Though more changes will likely be coming, too...)

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  7. Overall, it was an enjoyable film. There were parts I absolutely loved, such as all the initial scenes at Bag End, and the riddle game in particular. I couldn't have asked for anything better for those scenes. However, I had three issues with it. Fix these three, and I think you go from a good film to a great film.

    1) Azog was completely unnecessary. The journey itself is enough of an antagonist. Cold, rain, hunger, trolls, wolves, goblins, mountains, forests, etc. I also thought he was just too cliche, a cookie-cutter villain. I would have liked to see the Necromancer portrayed as the main villain, a mysterious power calling all the evil forces out of hiding to trouble the world. This would make the work of the White Council more of a critical part of the story, rather than an afterthought. I really enjoyed seeing the interaction and politics of the White Council, by the way.

    2) Radagast was just all wrong. Yes he's described as a foolish bird-tamer by Saruman, but I feel they just took the character off the deep end in that direction. I just found him rather hard to watch. And I hated the rabbit-sleigh. I mean, really? And how convenient was it for PJ to forget that for Radagast to travel from his home in Mirkwood to where he met Gandalf, he would have had to cross the Misty Mountains? He's a bird-tamer; why not just send a bird to tell Gandalf what was up? I would have preferred a quiet, serious, thoughtful Radagast instead of one that dashes around like a madman everywhere he goes. This point goes along with my next one.

    3) Pacing. It is VERY fast. You get the sense that the characters are simply sprinting from one hectic battle to another. I want to get a sense of the journey. Walking along singing traveling songs, sitting around the campfire, dealing with the weather, etc. We should see Bilbo longing for his chair by the fire and second breakfasts. Having a climax in the action is good, but when you make the whole movie a climax, it's just exhausting. And the constant attacks by Azog and a rabbit-powered Radagast don't help.

    But despite these things, it was great being back in Middle-earth, and I'll probably end up going to see it again. I usually like movies better the second time anyway :)

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    1. Tyler, you're absolutely right: had they made the Necromancer the main antagonist in the film, rather than Azog, I would have been okay with it - after all, he's the main antagonist in The Lord of the Rings, so why not build him up in The Hobbit? I didn't have much of an issue with the White Council, but I'd love to see them continue with it throughout the next two films so we can really get a feel for Saruman's treachery.

      Radagast bothered me as well. I LOVED the way he was depicted in The Lord of the Rings Online - completely devoted to his animals, but not riding around on a bunny sled, ingesting "too many mushrooms," and walking around with bird poop in his hair and beard. While he wasn't necessarily the "Jar-Jar Binks" of The Hobbit, I agree that Jackson and Co. seemed to take one minor comment and go crazy with it.

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  8. I agree, the riddles between Gollum and Bilbo was absolutely outstanding. Generally, a great film. I really enjoyed it.

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  9. Late, but better late than never. Great review! I didn't stop to think about the Merle Dixon part haha... so true! and we can trace it back to Darth Vader and other villans... Captain Hook? (no, going to far hehe). But yes... what is going on with arm amputated villans?

    No doubt Peter Jackson, as expected, used a lot of today's trends in The Hobbit. Come on, we were all expecting a more comercial movie with this one after the initial preasure about the lore was consumed almost to zero with The Lord of the Rings.

    Anyway the visuals, effects and the atmosphere were amazing and immersive. Following the line in LotR with updated sharpness and the use of purples and blues (specially in Rivendell) were amazing.

    I wasn't able to see the 3D version but I think I didn't miss anything... I've read the guest reviews in this blog and thought about those added (invented) epic fights in Goblin Town not only to serve an adventure seeking audience but the 3D consumers also. So just funny and action movie-moments there.

    I agree that Bilbo's character is not like the one in the book, anyway this guy Martin Freeman has created something there. For some reason, while watching his performance, the movie "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" crossed my mind a couple of times.

    All in all is a great movie and new classic, I think. It is an adaptation... more than the LotR. Maybe overfilled with hollywood constants but in a sober way.

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