The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
December 17, 2012 § 5 Comments
It is hard to go into a cinema adaptation of a book that you have read, much less one that you read over a dozen times between 12 and 23. There are mental images formed from the prior reading that colors impressions, making it harder for the viewer to replicate what the reader experienced. Add to that memories of watching the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit and it was always going to be difficult for the three-film, Peter Jackson-directed version of The Hobbit to live up to expectations.
I am no “purist” when it comes to book-to-cinema adaptations. I understand the two media differ significantly when it comes to narrative modes and exposition. Although I preferred David Mitchell’s narrative as it made for a very strong, thematically-unified novel that covered quite a few issues simultaneously while playing with the English language over the past and possible future, the cinema version of Cloud Atlas developed its own narrative formula that if it could not replicate all of Mitchell’s themes or techniques, it at least chose a few of them to tell a story that I thought was stronger than what several other viewers did, mostly because of the Intolerance-like usage of parallel scenes that switched back and forth rapidly to create a narrative stronger than any of the individual subplots. So when I went to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I suspected it might be a narrative that was closer in tone and tenor to Jackson’s versions of the three Lord of the Rings films than to the children’s classic. For the most part, this was the case, although there were some questionable decisions made here.
One issue that Jackson’s team faced was that of the three The Hobbit movies coming out a decade after the LotR films. For the “casual fan,” the one who may have watched the movies without having read the books (my dad, who watched the movie with me, is one of them), there is a need to establish this “prequel” within the context of the LotR flicks rather than vice versa in case of the books. Therefore, the opening minutes, which showed the older Bilbo and Frodo around the time of the Party 60 years after Bilbo’s adventure, was a good way of establishing a connection between the two stories. Add to that the scenes of Hobbiton life and the film begins well in establishing links between the two sets of trilogies. Yet there is a cost to this, as it takes several minutes to go from the montage of flashbacks (the Smaug attack, then the Bilbo/Frodo scene) to the cinematic “present.” However, this may have been one of the more necessary decisions in a film where the director took rather unnecessary roads to reaching specific plot plots.
The characterizations are uneven. Although the main characters (Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf, and in his brief time, Gollum) are fleshed-out in terms of character traits and action, most of the other dwarves receive only broad characterization stroke or none at all. Of course, the book itself does not devote much time to the bands of brothers and cousins that make up Thorin’s entourage, but at times it seemed what distinguished one dwarf from another were their accents (so many different ones for those who were mostly close kin to Thorin) and occasional slapstick humor rather than anything substantive. This is not a major flaw, as the cinematic narrative eschews close characterization in favor of focusing on developing a sense of “epicness,” yet it was a missed opportunity here and it could affect the next two films if the landscape and action sequences fail to sustain a strong narrative force.
As for the enemies, it too is a mixed bag. Although I have little problem with having Azog survive the battle outside Moria (seen in a flashback sequence) and having him instead of his son Bolg be the orc/goblin seeking revenge, his revenge story does not make all that much sense within the context of them actively hunting down Thorin’s company without there being any apparent word given outside of the Blue Mountains and the Iron Hills that Thorin intended to march east to Erebor. This lack of clarity is compounded by the dubious relationship between Azog and the goblin king, as the latter seems ready to defer to Azog once the latter arrives. This felt like Jackson made an unnecessary and complicating departure from the books, as Azog could have easily taken the role assigned to Bolg in the book and that the goblins could have been those of the goblin king alone and that someone from that party could have merely escaped to warn Azog/Bolg and let the troop buildup begin then rather than having a couple of extraneous action/fighting scenes just to have more of those within the first film.
In general, the action scenes did not appeal to me. Much of that is due to my general loathing for CGI-laden fight scenes, as these feel so artificial that there is little amazement and much annoyance that comes of them. The fighting within the goblin hall was just so ridiculous even for the very low standards of this subgenre of cinema that its tedium led to answering of emails and checking time. It just felt too drawn-out. It didn’t help that it followed just after the Bilbo/Gollum scene, which perhaps was the best scene in the movie, as it preserves most of the spirit of the riddle game from the book (both editions) while providing a bit of a hint about the Ring’s shifting power between this movietrilogy and the LotR trilogy with the coloring of the Ring/Ghost world. Sadly, after this there was almost thirty minutes of near-continuous fighting, interspersed with maybe five minutes of the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo reuniting.
By the time the movie ended, it felt as though Jackson tried too hard to stretch elements from the LotR appendices into what amounts to a medium-length children’s novel. It is hard to fault him for trying to create a cinematic cohesion with his earlier LotR movies, but there were times were there was a dissonance between the source material’s lighter tone and the more action-oriented tilt of this movie. Although much of this is due to audience expectations, I cannot help but be annoyed to see that the cinematic Bilbo ends up killing in this movie, as that will likely diminish his later abhorrence of the impending violence between the dwarves, elves, and men over Erebor. The dwarves go from near-silly to almost deathly-serious in blinks of the eye frequently enough that at times it becomes hard to tell which is predominant for the movie. In the end, that perhaps is the most fitting commentary on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: it is a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be and that it spends an inordinate amount of time trying to waffle between preserving the feel of the LotR films and the tone of the original book that the whole is left wavering between a good cinematic experience and a flawed one that may get worse in the following two films.