The Hobbit

Dave and our friend Trenton and I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Saturday night.

We all liked it a lot. The acting is terrific and the adaptation from the novel strikes me as absolutely brilliant. OK, if you go in wanting to see the novel literally and faithfully brought to the screen, you’re likely to be disappointed. That seems to be what is going on with a lot of the reviewers who have panned it: From their reviews, a lot of them seem to have gone in already having decided what an adaptation of The Hobbit has to be, namely a fairly short movie aimed at children, as the novel is. They came into the theater having made up their minds that the novel is too slight to support a trilogy of movies and that this was therefore obviously going to be an overblown movie disaster, and they wanted to write that review so badly that they didn’t notice that what was on the screen was the sort of movie they’d already decided could not possibly work, and it was working.

On the other hand, if, like me, you’ve always found The Hobbit to be an odd and somewhat unsatisfying prologue to The Lord of the Rings, a much slighter book and too twee by half, very Beowulf-meets-Winnie-the-Pooh, then you might be predisposed to be blown away. The novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may be set in the same world and be by the same writer, but they don’t really go together, don’t feel like they’re cut from the same cloth. And yet — at least judging from this first part — these two movie trilogies are going to end up feeling like two halves of one whole.

The filmmakers have found a way to retell the story of The Hobbit not as a children’s tale but in the style of the movie LOTR. The scenes they’ve added give the story and characters more weight and depth, make connections between what’s happening here and what will happen in LOTR, fill in linking pieces of the history, and so on.

They’ve changed some incidents so that they make use of the same visual language as LOTR, in a few cases even repeating an image to stress a point. For example, the first time Bilbo accidentally puts on the Ring, it happens when he stumbles and falls in a visual echo of the scene in LOTR in which Frodo falls in the Prancing Pony, and it seemed to me to be a wonderful stroke, pointing up the connection between the two events and making the point that here, too, the Ring is actually trying somehow to slip onto the finger of whoever it wants to be its next bearer. This is the sort of ominous point that is never made in the novel of The Hobbit — logically enough, as Tolkien didn’t know yet where he was going with the fantasy world he was creating. In the movie, though, the connections are made, and we can see how the things that happen in The Hobbit and the decisions that are made are eventually going to lead to the story of LOTR. Many of these connections are things that you’d only understand if you’d studied the two novels pretty carefully and/or read the various appendices and ancillary books. I think it’s a good thing to incorporate them into the movies.

The score has plenty of new music, along with new leitmotifs for Thorin and Erebor and Radagast and so on, so I have no idea what some of the reviewers are talking about saying that it’s all just recycled music from LOTR. The score does use themes that are familiar from LOTR for the Ring and the Shire and so on, but even then, they’re often varied in new ways.

We saw the movie in 3-D at 24 frames per second. I didn’t think the 3-D seemed to be adding anything. From what I’ve heard, I’m just as happy not seeing the movie at 48 fps.

The one way in which the movie felt overmuch to me was the number and length of the battles. (This was true for me of the movie of Return of the King, too. For that matter, it’s true for me of the book of Return of the King. In a technical way, I appreciate how skillfully Tolkien’s prose takes on more and more of the noble manner and form of Old English poetry à la Beowulf in the battle scenes in ROTK; but in practice, I find that it makes for some especially draggy reading to place so near the end of a very long book).

But still — the battle with the goblins underground is brilliantly and intricately planned and executed, like a huge comic set piece out of a Jackie Chan martial arts movie (only with probably twenty times the budget). And the battle at the end does make for a very strong finish to the movie. The filmmakers make it more important than it is in the novel, and move a crucial incident from later in the novel to this point, so that the movie ends with some emotional weight, some significant development in a couple of the central characters. It totally worked for me as a strong ending to the movie.

So even though my overall feeling at the end of the movie was that my appetite for battle scenes had been more than sated, I’m not sure exactly what I’d want to trim away, either.

(My experience as a writer has been that when there’s too much of one element like this, the natural reaction is to want to start cutting at the point where the audience begins to tire of it. However, this is — in my experience, anyway — usually where you shouldn’t cut much. Instead, you want to be trimming things away much earlier, even though this is the section of your story where that element is still working well, so that if you lose any dramatic weight as a result, you lose it in your early scenes and keep it in your late scenes. So maybe there’s some battling early on that could have been shortened. It would probably take several viewings of the movie, though, to begin to have a worthwhile opinion about what exactly to trim.)

Later: I appreciate the new visitors to this site, but please note that this website is a personal online journal, and that neither this entry nor any other you find here is a review. If you can’t deal with the fact that I’m writing here pretty much off the top of my head and that I ramble whenever I feel like it and often don’t take the time to shape my entries into cogent formal arguments, then you’re probably looking for some other website, not this one.

Also, you may like to know that I have seen The Hobbit a few more times and no longer feel that there are too many battle scenes or that they go on too long. I can see why it felt that way on my first viewing, because the movie is complicated and has many layers, and I didn’t catch a lot of the subtler stuff the first time through. So a lot of the richness of the story didn’t fully register with me, the simpler elements like the battles made a stronger effect, and I wasn’t seeing the movie’s proportions very well. On more viewings, however, I have come to understand more of the many threads that are woven into the movie, and I find that the battles now feel right to me.

I hope that the extended version will use the extra screen time to point up some of the subtler elements more. If those things had been spelled out better, I think the movie would not have felt a little battle-heavy to me the first time through.

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