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The Hobbit Pt. 1 – A Review

Published: December 29, 2012, in CommentaryFilms

FBCover_Bilbo

When I first read that Peter Jackson was going to be shooting The Hobbit in 3D, I immediately wondered if that would become the first film I saw in (modern) 3D.  For the most part on principle, I’ve avoided seeing anything in 3D before now.  I’m not entirely sure why; I think it has a lot to do with not risking the purity of an important experience with what might prove to be a throw-away gimmick.  I have not yet been convinced that 3D is something that will become part of the movie-going experience for the long haul.  I hear mixed reports.  And especially now that I have two kids, getting to the theater is something akin to a major holiday outing.  Am I really willing to risk that event being ruined, or even negatively influenced, by what might prove to be a distracting candy coating?  Up until The Hobbit was released, my answer to that question has been “No.”

When The Hobbit came to town, though, I took the plunge.  Because The Hobbit is important.

This is somewhat contradictory, of course — perhaps even hypocritical.  I’m not willing to risk the purity of my movie-going experience by seeing any film in 3D…except a really important one?  How does that make any sense?  It doesn’t, really, except that maybe I was only willing to lay something on the line for something I really care about.  There’s greater potential that way — for ruin, to be sure, but equally as much for glory.  I don’t really care about James Cameron’s giant blue native American hippie people.  Bilbo Baggins?  That’s another story.  What if 3D turned out to be a revelation?  Would I want my first experience with it to be with a film I forgot about a year later, or one that I might remember forever?  That was the setup in my mind, at least.

The Hobbit probably has to be cited as my all-time favorite book.  I have lost count of how many times I’ve read it.  As a kid, I would return to it again and again.  I read it once a year at least, growing up, sometimes more.  I’ve probably read it at least thirty times. ... [1] ... In adult life, it’s been outside of my consciousness somewhat, but I have been looking forward to the day when my eldest daughter is old enough to enjoy a book without pictures on every page, so that we can read it together.  It is, in the end, a kid’s book.  One of the greatest ever written, in no small part because it doesn’t really read like one.  Nor does it pander to its assumedly juvenile reader.  It tells its story like someone’s grandfather might — because, of course, it’s written by a 111-year old hobbit.

It wasn’t until the film started rolling that I realized how high the stakes were for me.  I hadn’t really had the time to give it a lot of cognitive thought in advance.  I just knew it was important and that I had to go see it.  We decided to see the 48-fps 3D version.  I was not convinced that it was the right decision, for the reasons I’ve already stated.  As we examined our awkward, plastic 3D glasses, I had the feeling that we were taking a big risk.  We were jumping into a big, dark swimming hole, and we had no idea what was at the bottom of it.  It might be great.  But it might also be really, really horrible.

It turns out that holding out on the 3D experience may have been a mistake — not because it was a revelatory event (it wasn’t), but because I was not very well educated about what 3D is like.  As a result, I have a certain amount of difficulty explaining my reactions to the technical aspects of the film’s presentation, because I am not sure whether certain things that I saw resulted from the higher frame rate, the 3D, or the combination of both.  I think that if I had seen a 3D film before this one, I’d have a better idea of what was causing what, and could talk about it more intelligently.

The fact is, though, I’m here talking about “the things that I saw” and “what caused what.”  Ultimately, I was distracted.  At times it was definitely the 3D that was doing it (the opening back-story sequence looked like a puppet show to me, almost like a live-action South Park, if there could be such a thing, and I had a hard time not being completely detached from it); at other times it was the high frame rate (it was much easier to follow high-action scenes and wide shots retained an enormous amount of clarity — both positive things, I think).  More often than not, though, I just saw things that looked weird, and I’m really not sure what made them look that way.  This most often happened in the smaller, quieter moments — which are usually the ones that impact me the most in a film.  So although the technical advances did not always result in negative consequences, and sometimes created positive ones, I noticed them either way and found it to be pretty distracting.  Which is, of course, counter-productive to the goals of an epic fantasy film.

To be clear, it never looked “cheap.”  It wasn’t like seeing a low-budget TV movie with horrible effects.  That’s an entirely different thing.  The Hobbit does something that nobody has ever seen before, so it’s pretty hard to make any comparisons elucidating what it’s like.  But it does retain the high level of visual quality you expect from a Peter Jackson film.  It never looks “bad;” it just looks like something completely different and new.  Even the “puppet show” opener never looked cheap, per se, just kind of strange.

Wow, it’s really difficult to explain this.

I suppose this is probably what Jackson intended, or at least expected.  He is innovating, putting new things into the world and challenging our traditional expectations of what film is and should look like.  I respect him for that, and while it remains to be seen whether his vision of our film-watching futures will prove true, I don’t think anyone can call what he did a “mistake.”  It’s just not clear whether it’s going to catch on or not.  Is he Tesla or Edison?  Only the future knows.

I do know that by the end of the film, I had lost interest in the 3D.  I stopped really noticing it was there, and eventually started kind of wishing it wasn’t, because once the story was rolling, it was my imagination doing most of the heavy lifting to immerse me in the story, not the actual projection of the film.  That’s a mark of a good film, of course, and it makes me think that 3D will only really have its place in certain sorts of films that need that kind of help, because they can’t draw you in fully on their own.

As far as his treatment of the story goes, Jackson gets a B from me.  I didn’t realize it until the scenes were happening, but I actually have a lot of the dialogue from the book memorized.  It’s almost written in my bones.  So I noticed, and cringed, when Gandalf did not say “Dawn take you all, and be stone to you!”  (He said something close to the first part of the phrase, but left out the stone-turning part).  I don’t know why, but that line is one that has stuck in my mind with great clarity over the years, and I was disappointed when I heard it mishandled.  I suppose it probably wouldn’t matter to someone who didn’t know it already like I did, but I do think that it had an influence, however minor, on Gandalf’s character.

Here’s why: Gandalf, we are told, is a wizard.  Yet how much magic do we ever see him actually do?  You can count the instances in LOTR on your fingers and still have some left over, and that’s probably even more than actually happens in the book.  He’s actually closer to an illusionist, really, and in The Hobbit (the book)  in particular, his identity as a wizard is presented in the form of stories and legends about him, not overt demonstrations of magical power.  The magical power that he actually routinely wields is charisma, plain and simple.  This creates a sort of ambiguity about his character, where as a reader you’re not entirely sure what he is responsible for.  Things sort of happen around him, and whether he’s the cause of them or not is never fully explained.

So when, in the book, Gandalf says “Dawn take you all, and be stone to you!” it first strikes you as a spell.   Hearing that, you might think that Gandalf caused the sun to accelerate its rise and shine on the trolls before they were expecting it, through sheer magical will.   But the truth is that Gandalf has actually been throwing his voice and speaking in a way that sounds like one of the trolls, to keep them talking until he can call out a dramatic phrase at just the right moment, when the trolls would have been turned to stone anyway, because the sun edged far enough over the horizon.  It’s only after all is said and done that Bilbo understands what happened.

“Excellent!” said Gandalf, as he stepped from behind a tree, and helped Bilbo to climb down out of a thorn-bush.  Then Bilbo understood.  It was the wizard’s voice that had kept the trolls bickering and quarreling, until the light came and made an end of them.

Jackson’s Gandalf, however, knocks open a big boulder with his staff, through an undeniably magical act, so that the sun will shine through and hit the trolls.  The ambiguity of the moment is completely removed.  He doesn’t need to say “be stone to you” because there’s no questioning that will happen — he’s making it happen through magical powers, an overt display of wizardly action that directly contradicts the Gandalf portrayed by Tolkien.

It’s really not such a large difference, I suppose, but because of how intimately I know the book, it mattered a great deal to me.

Another, arguably more significant problem was Bilbo’s character.  First of all, his decision to join the dwarves’ party.  In the film, Bilbo is apparently suddenly seized by a fit of Tookishness, channeling the un-hobbit-like adventurousness of the relatives on one side of his family, and simply changes his mind about joining the party, throwing aside all doubts and racing gleefully through the Shire after the group.  Although Tolkien does allude to Bilbo’s Took heritage many times in the book, and cites it as a reason for many of his braver moments, it’s not the reason he joins the party in the beginning.  In the book, he sleeps in, and thinks himself rid of the dwarves, to his relief.    But then Gandalf appears, all a fluster, and rushes him out the door before he even knows what’s going on.

“That leaves you just ten minutes.  You will have to run,” said Gandalf.
“But–,” said Bilbo.
“No time for it,” said the wizard.
“But–,” said Bilbo again,
“No time for that either!  Off you go!”

He’s much more oblivious in the book than in the film, which I think creates a more interesting character development arc because the journey is not only a literal journey, but a journey of personal discovery and growth for Bilbo.  Whereas Jackson turns Bilbo into an adventurer with a snap of his fingers, discarding a lot of that juicy tension.

Later, Bilbo rushes to Thorin’s aid in a completely fabricated scene that Jackson inserted.  He saves Thorin’s life by using his sword.  This is before Mirkwood, before they’ve even left the Misty Mountains.  In short, it’s way too early for Bilbo to be finding his “hero self.”  It completely undermines the gravity of his naming his sword (“Sting”) after he stands against the spiders — scenes presumably to come in part 2 of the film adaptations.  In the book, I think that’s the first time he even uses his sword.  He’s forced into it, finally having no other choice, and not yet believing he can even do it.  Yet he does, and overcomes, and grows.  In the film?  He just already knows how to use a sword and fends off a giant monster with it, like the sword and his use of it are of inconsequential importance.  I hated this scene and I wish it had never happened.

The fact that Jackson included Sting in LOTR with such prominence (as it should have been) makes it surprising to me that he would have taken the wind out of the blade’s sails like this.  Perhaps it will be redeemed by the spider encounter in part 2.  We’ll have to see.

Conversely, he handled other scenes and dialogue perfectly.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard the moon-letters recited accurately, and the riddles that were included were spot-on (a few were missing, but there weren’t missed).  The whole scene with Gollum was expertly done, I thought — putting aside my complaints about what happens just beforehand. ... [2] ...

It’s not a perfect adaptation.  I wouldn’t say it’s nearly as successful as an adaptation as LOTR was.  However, LOTR was ideally suited for an epic film adaptation (see footnote #1), whereas The Hobbit is less so.

No adaptation is perfect, and evaluating film adaptations by how well they adapt their source material is problematic.  Is The Hobbit a film worth seeing?  The ultimate answer for me is “Yes.”   If I could do it over again, though, I’d probably take a pass on the 3D and the high frame rate.  Though it has its problems, it’s good enough to involve me completely into its world without them.

  1. I read The Lord of the Rings, too, but let’s face it — those books, when you get right down to it, are pretty boring.  Once you’ve read them and you can take a step back and look at the over-arching storylines and focus here and there on the great moments, you see the genius of them and can appreciate them.  But actually slogging through them is not exactly a riveting experience.  That’s why they were perfect for adaptation on film.  Filmmaking is 50% or more editing, and if there’s one thing those books needed, it was a good edit.  Jackson took the good parts and crafted the epic story that matched the one we hold in our memories from the books, not the actual books themselves.  For once, a film adaptation distilled the source material in a way that enhanced it. []
  2. In the book, Bilbo spends hours and hours wandering into the depths of the mountains in nearly complete darkness.  It is a moody, almost scary episode, which I loved to encounter each time I read the book.  Jackson shortened it considerably, and I understand why, but I missed it. []

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