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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 30, 2012

WARNING! There are SPOILERS ahead!

I went into the Hobbit movie blind, which is, perhaps, the best way to go see a movie. Unlike many of my friends, I had not waited for months and months in feverish anticipation, poring over every trailer and every sneak peak and every twitter from Peter Jackson. I even passed up the chance to see it on the opening night in order to work on a final paper. In contrast to what seemed like 99.9% of the population, I was ambivalent to The Hobbit. And, in retrospect, I feel like my ambivalence was warranted.

There are poetic films of great beauty. The first two Lord of the Rings movies, at their best, were movies of great beauty. The casting was stellar. The action scenes were memorable–the Cave Troll scene is the best action sequence that I have ever seen. The cinematography and special effects set a new standard for fantasy movies. And the dialogue was some of the best ever written. The writing for Lord of the Rings not only achieved the spectacular feat of keeping the movie from becoming cornball, it was also poetic in its own right–watch any of Boromir’s speeches and you will see what I mean. Lord of the Rings became a special movie, a movie that you could watch over and over. It was one of those movies that changes the viewer’s way of life.

In contrast, The Hobbit is one of those movies where people survive impossible falls.

You know those sort of movies. Pirates of the Caribbean. Transformers. Not-Amazing Spider-Man. They are not terrible movies, merely movies where the people making them tried too hard. The battle scenes are so over-the-top that they become generic, the characters are either forgettable or insufferable, the writer tries to craft an epic story, but lacks the talent to do so. They are thudding and awkward, but lack the comic value that terrible movies have. And The HobbitAn Unexpected Journey is one of them.

In every book-to-movie adaptation, there are always going to be changes made. Some things need to be cut and some things need to be added for emphasis in order to make it a good movie. This can be done in ways that don’t compromise the book’s integrity, as the first two LOTR movies showed.The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn’t have been as good as it was if it had devoted thirty minutes to Tom Bombadil. Replacing Glorfindel with Arwen sped up the pacing and allowed Arwen’s character to be established. And having Aragorn refuse the ring at the end of Fellowship showed important aspects of his character, as well adding a human dimension to a character who is a little larger-than-life. However, there are changes that compromise the integrity of the story. A movie does not have to follow the book exactly, but it does have to be true to the spirit of the book. An example of this would be the moment in Return of the King where Merry says, “I want to fight.” No good character would ever say this in a Tolkien story. Tolkien was not a pacifist, but he abhorred violence (having witnessed it firsthand in World War I) and the difference between using force and being violent is a recurring theme in his books.

The Hobbit violates the spirit of Tolkien’s work consistently. It plays up tension where tension isn’t needed, and defuses tension where it isn’t needed. Thus, there is crude humor, slapstick humor, and decidedly non-British humor. Peter Jackson adds a totally unnecessary subplot involving an uninspired villain simply to speed the story along, and another unnecessary subplot involving tensions between Bilbo and Thorin. Bilbo seems to be playing several roles at once. Sometimes he is a brave warrior, sometimes he is a timid English gentleman, sometimes he is the lead character in a Harry Potter-esque bildungsroman,  and sometimes he is a hallmark card. The movie is awkwardly inconsistent–grim where it should be whimsical, silly where it should be serious.

The worst part, however, is how it seriously botches important points in the story. As someone who read The Hobbit multiple times as a kid, I felt betrayed when I saw how these scenes and characters were botched.

First, the troll scene was completely messed-up. The original scene was a funny set-piece that showcased Bilbo’s general ineptitude. Peter Jackson turns it into a vulgar farce. Bilbo shows much more resolve than this in the original, which makes no sense in terms of his character development. (This is part of the greater problem of Bilbo’s unconvincing character development.) The joke that Gandalf plays on the Trolls is completely erased, and not only is his final dispatching of the trolls cheesy, it looks like it was ripped off the first Narnia movie.

Second, Radagast. There is a reason that he was not in the LOTR movies. This is because he is the lamest character ever created by Tolkien. Compare him to the other Istari. Gandalf fights Balrogs, steals the fastest horse in the world from the King of Rohan, and smokes a pipe. Saruman has his own personal tower where he plots to take over the world. Radagast hangs out with birds. He is essentially an uncool version of Tom Bombadil. The movie’s Radagast is far worse than anything Tolkien could have thought up in his wildest nightmares. Radagast feels like he was taken from a bad Harry Potter rip-off. His coming turns the movie into the worst sort of children’s movie, and I cannot possibly imagine this silly character having any relation to Gandalf.

Thirdly, the dungeons of the Goblins in the misty mountains looked silly. The Goblin King was not at all scary, and the computer generated orcs looked like something out of a lackluster video game. I would have preferred if Jackson and co. had spent the extra money to make the orcs look at least somewhat real. The entire sequence was quite underwhelming.

Fourthly, the final confrontation with the wargs. This scene was done wrong on so many levels. By changing the aggressors from the orcs of the misty mountains to the orcs of who-knows-where under the commmand of the added villain from the subplot, the filmmakers messed with an important plot point relating to Beorn. Also, all the whimsy of this scene was taken out and replaced with cookie-cutter suspense. I dearly wish I could have heard Gandalf tell the orcs that boys who play with fire get punished, but instead, I had to sit through some heavy-handed “epic” action instead. The wargs were not the demon-wolves of Norse Mythology and Tolkien’s mythology–instead, they were those strange creatures that Nathan Wilson called “puffy-faced happy-meal hyenas.” Finally, Gandalf’s fire-pinecones weren’t nearly as cool as they seemed in the book. If you’re going to go overboard on special effects, at least give the wizard something really cool to do.

Finally, the ending was horrendous. Tolkien hated tacking on a moral to a story, and the filmmakers do just that. It is one of the most treacly, group-hug endings that I have seen in a long time, and it is nauseating.

Three more complaints, and I’ll stop. The 48-frames-per-second style of shooting made everything look like a videogame, albeit a lame videogame that no one would want to play. I was disappointed in the lack of the small touches that gave Lord of the Rings its veracity–like the hobbits and Aragorn camping amidst the petrified trolls. How come Glamdring and Orcrist don’t glow blue when there are orcs nearby? Why don’t the elves sing? And finally, why on earth do the filmmakers assume that the rock giants that Tolkien briefly mentions are made of actual rocks? Tolkien was a huge fan of Norse Mythology, and as everyone knows, frost giants in Norse mythology aren’t made of actual frost, nor are fire giants made of fire. Rock giants are giants who live around rocks, not actual rocks. And when Tolkien mentioned them playing football, he meant European football, i.e. soccer.

Current Listening: “Youth Is Wasted on the Young” by Young Galaxy, “Always Looking (Dum Dum Girls Cover)” by Cuff the Duke

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2012 2:58 am

    You convinced me yet again that I don’t want to watch this movie. Not in a movie theatre, not in the privacy of my home, not anywhere.

  2. December 30, 2012 5:31 am

    You mentioned how that the other elf swords didn’t glow, but that is not as odd as the fact that Sting, Bilbo’s sword, must have needed new batteries. It often didn’t glow when orcs were near, or directly upon, Bilbo.

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