Feb 08 2013

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, or “Been There, Done That, and Back Again”

Published by at 11:00 am under Editorials,Movies

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I was first introduced to The Hobbit in junior high school. The Language Arts instructor taught from a textbook that included the short story Riddles in the Dark. It was actually a condensed version of the chapter from a novel called “The Hobbit” by some fellow named JRR Tolkien. It told the story of Bilbo Baggins entering into a riddles contest with some subterranean creature.

Intrigued, I asked the teacher about the book. He gave it a hearty ‘thumbs up,’ so I checked out a copy from the school library. When I finished reading it, the teacher wanted to know what I thought. I distinctly remember telling him that I only had two reactions: (1) dwarves sure like to sit around and sing a lot; and (2) so far as wizards are concerned, this Gandalf character is pretty useless.

Of course, anyone who knows a Gamgee from a Brandybuck knows that The Hobbit works best when considered a stylistic back-story to Tolkien’s truly epic work, The Lord of the Rings. That’s where the action’s at. That’s where the magic really happens. It’s no wonder that so many scholarly academics cite LOTR as one of the greatest imaginative works of the twentieth century (if not all of mankind).

martin-freeman-bilbo-baggins-the-hobbit

In fact, I’d argue that’s precisely what Peter Jackson had in mind when he launched his campaign for the motion picture trilogy adaptation of the LOTR: why not tell the part of the massive Tolkien library that’s most adventurous, most relevant, and most relatable? Sure, it may be out of chronological order, but there’s just so much more to sink your teeth into with the tale of Frodo, the One Ring, and the fate of Middle-earth. Plus, LOTR has Gollum as a pivotal character, not just an aside for a single chapter exploring the who, what, where, when, and why of Bilbo’s discovery of the ring.

He did it. New Line pitched in. And the rest is cinema history.

Now that the franchise was proven wildly successful, talk immediately sprang up about bringing a filmed adaptation of “The Hobbit” to multiplexes.

Jackson and New Line had suffered a falling out that was being resolved legally, so it appeared he’d be an unlikely candidate to helm this new adventure. A handful of names were thrown around, but the only one that rose to the surface (and stayed) was Guillermo del Toro. While he remained attached for some time, del Toro eventually dropped out of the project (though he retains a writing credit on the first of the completed films). Jackson was back in the director’s seat, and, thus, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey began as Part 1 of an all-new trilogy.

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The film premiered domestically on December 14, 2012, mostly to mixed (though largely positive) reviews. Much of the critical hula boo centered on Jackson’s decision to photograph his picture in 48 frames per second, perhaps bringing Middle-earth alive with too much reality. This being only the first part of a trilogy, many reviewers seemed a bit reticent to discuss the actual story or, even worse, Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s original story. I think that’s a shame because, for my tastes, that’s where An Unexpected Journey comes apart slightly at its 48fps seams.

Now, I’ve no doubt that there’s no one better suited on the planet to take audiences back to Middle-earth than Peter Jackson. What he did with the LOTR was phenomenal – paradigm-shifting, even – especially when you consider that Jackson was a largely unheard of name in Hollywood. Yes, he had a few modest hits on his resume, but his wasn’t a name commonly shared in the same breath as a Spielberg or a Lucas or a Zemeckis. He proved it should be, and here we are.
Methinks the problems Jackson and his writing peers had centered on adapting “The Hobbit” into a truly cinematic experience. Anyone who has read it knows that, unlike the LOTR, the novel entirely focuses on Bilbo, his adventures, and what scholars ascribe as “his maturation in an outside world.” While he’s among a company of dwarves, the point-of-view focuses entirely on Bilbo, even when that means the Halfling only observes the action from afar.

Furthermore, unlike the LOTR’s central theme of saving life as we know it from extinction, “The Hobbit” is more a personal fable exploring greed – the dwarves spend countless pages coveting food, drink, song, and their jewels. Even Bilbo gets into the act toward the end of the book – I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but Mr. Baggins finds a way to use the Arkenstone to accomplish what he believes as proper and just (which can be said to be another form of greed).

The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey Gandalf Goblin King

In bringing this story to the screen, I thought Jackson had to take far more artistic license with the material than he had to do before. Many sequences – while derivative of events from the book – almost feel as if they were made to copy, reflect, or echo moments from the first trilogy. Isn’t much of the visit to Rivendell a bit too familiar to the same sequence from The Fellowship of the Ring? Doesn’t much of Gandalf’s rescue of Thorin and company from the underground kingdom of the goblins feel and look very much like the vastly superior (and much less hokey) Mines of Moria sequence? And, thematically, how does Boromir’s stand-off with Lurtz and the Uruk-hai truly differ from Thorin’s throw-down with the orc leader Azog?

I hate to nitpick (though fellow readers know I’m far from above it!), but I expected a bit more from An Unexpected Journey than a visual throwback to a greatly superior film. I reserved judgment for awhile (that’s why I took so long to pen something about my sentiments), and, as a fan of the films, I’m willing to give Jackson some time to prove me wrong.

But I’m warning you: if Smaug starts talking to himself, I’m outta here.





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8 responses so far

  • tehashi

    So instead of judging The Hobbit (the book) as it was made, which was a children’s book, you look at it as backstory for LotR?

    The Rings books came out 16 years after the Hobbit book and were made to be a sweeping epic, so of course they don’t have the same tone.

    Same goes for the movie, it is not intended to be the epic that LotR is, but to be a good adaptation of the Hobbit book, with extra story filled in to tie it into the greater world that the Rings movies introduced.

    Now, i am not saying you are wrong in your thoughts on the movie, i just ask that it be judged as it was, not against another book/movie that was drastically different stylistically.

  • monstrinho

    I haven’t seen the hobbit in the cinema despite being a fan of LotR and that is because like an American drama series, it’s too damn long with too much filler. It could have been a tight, pacey film, but instead i hear it’s a baggy, saggy, exhausting 3 films. life’s too short. Instead of making 3 times as much money from me, they’re made none. Sorry Mr Jackson, less is more.

  • GrandWazoo

    @monstrinho

    That’s a good sentiment, but you do realize that you are in the extreme minority of people who aren’t paying money to see the films, right? So instead of maknig 3x the money, they’re making 2.999999999999x the money without you paying for tickets.

    @E Lee

    You say you read The Hobbit starting in middle school. Did you ever read anything beyond that one condensed chapter? It doesn’t sound like you know what you are talking about in the least. I have to agree with everything tahashi said. It really sounds like you’ve either never read The Hobbit, or you read it immediately before starting LoTR.

  • beorach

    W/r/t the latest movie release, I disliked what I have always disliked about PJ’s adaptations of Tolkien. Nobody should go see them if they’re expecting marked improvement from the trilogy. If I had to make one broad statement regarding one thing that did disappoint, it’s that PJ’s trying too hard to make this adventure story tie in with the trilogy. I understand that’s what you’re getting at above. I don’t think it allowed for any improvement on the narration of the story. I’d have preferred the spirit being more akin to that of the book. What I told myself before going to the theater, though, was that I should just be happy these are being made and that George Lucas wasn’t in charge.

  • trashcanman

    Great write-up about the novel, but not much of anything about the actual film here. Two short paragraphs actually touching on the content of the film after such a massive build up of backstory is kind of jarring. And really, your complaints are as much Tolkien’s fault for writing similar situations. A ggroup off heroes including a hobbit, dwarves, and a wizard in a cave battling goblins. Yeah, there are bound to be some visual similarities. And the final battle actually had nothing whatsoever to do with Boromir seeing that it took place at night with an apocalyptic forest fire surrounding him and was largely a one-on-one affair where Thorin was intent on selfishly avenging his father whereas Boromir was selflessly redeeming himself by taking on an army single-handedly, giving the hobbits time to escape and itt took place in the middle of the day. How can you see any similarities there other than that there was a guy fighting with orcs? If that scenario is off the table then I’d say no Tolkien film after Fellowship was going to work for you.

  • E. Lee Zimmerman

    @tehashi: Good grief, where to start … Tolkien himself is on record as saying that his book, “The Hobbit,” was stylistically always intended to be a backstory for LOTR. IIRC, he wrote “The Hobbit” for his grandchildren b/c he believed it’d be more accessible to them. Also, of course they’re supposed to be different — all one has to do is read them to know that they’re different — so, if that’s the case, why does so much of The Hobbit film FEEL and LOOK like the LOTR? Plus, my article is not directly about the filmed version of “The Hobbit” so much as it’s intended to speak to the decisions Peter Jackson made in adapting it … hence the title of the article. Methinks you missed my point.

    @monstrinho: for the most part, I think you’ve hit on the problem many Tolkien fans have with Jackson at this point — there’s clearly not enough material in “The Hobbit” to comprise three film, though two are quite possible.

    @GrandYoohoo: when you learn to actually read what I wrote, I’d be happy to engage you. All you need to do is check out my first two paragraphs to see how far you are in left field. And by left, I do mean ‘left.’

    @beorach: agree entirely with what you wrote.

    @trashcanman: uh … based on my count, I see five paragraphs dealing with The Hobbit film. I’m talking about “thematic” similarities and not “literal” similarities, hence the “been there, done that” of my title. And, no, I’m not blaming Tolkien — I’m blaming Peter Jackson. If you’re read The Hobbit and LOTR, then you’d have to agree that “thematically” they’re two very different tales; why shouldn’t the films be “thematically” different? If I wanted a ‘been there, done that,’ then I could just sit down and watch LOTR. My point — in short — is that I wished Jackson had done something different in telling this story than revisiting so much of territory he’d already plumbed.

    As always, thanks for reading, those who did!

  • http://fatpie42.livejournal.com fatpie42

    “Tolkien himself is on record as saying that his book, “The Hobbit,” was stylistically always intended to be a backstory for LOTR.”

    That is impossible, since Tolkein wasn’t originally intending to write “The Lord Of The Rings” at all. He originally intended to write a book just explaining the language of the elves and the history of the various creatures in Middle-Earth. He then came to be informed that no one would actually be interested in that, and would much rather have more actual stories.

    If he originally wasn’t even going to write LOTR, how could he have originally intended “The Hobbit” as a prologue to it? Rubbish!

  • http://fatpie42.livejournal.com fatpie42

    “there’s clearly not enough material in “The Hobbit” to comprise three film”

    I think Tolkien has already proven you wrong on that one…

    Though I think he also proved that LOTR couldn’t possibly be reasonably compressed into just three movies.

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