Playing Sauron’s Advocate – A Quiet Defense of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Last weekend, I got the chance to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Alone. This is a double-anomaly, because I rarely watch movies in theaters anyway, and I’ve never done it all by my lonesome before. But don’t cry for me, dear readers. The lone-wolf theater experience is an incredibly relaxing one, for some reason.

OK, two reasons.

Anyway, there’s a very specific pretext for this solitary adventure, and it has everything to do with The Hobbit’s runtime. I asked no less than four friends (all LOTR fans) to attend this movie with me last Sunday, and each exchange went something like this:

TJ: Hey, want to catch a movie in a little bit?

Friend: Yeah, maybe…what do you want to see?

TJ: I was thinking The Hobbit.

Friend: Oh, yeah! That’s out already? I wanted to see that. How long is it, anyway? I heard it’s long.

TJ: Um, something like two and a half hours. Maybe three.

Friend: The fu—Dude, I just realized I have a load of laundry in. Two of them, actually. Rain check?

I really wasn’t expecting the universal reluctance, to be honest. After all, my friends and I had been anticipating this flick for months. (Plus there’s no way those assholes were all doing laundry at the exact same time). But 2 hours and 49 minutes is a tough runtime to swallow if you’re not in the mood for it, and upon perusing a handful of reviews after the fact, I found this to be one of the film’s primary criticisms: it’s long. Like, really long.

Well, no surprise there. But some critics’ gripes are already getting more than a little repetitive, which in turn is making me more than a little agitated. I mean, how over-entitled are we as modern movie-goers that we complain about how shooting in 48 fps instead of 24 fps makes the GODDAMN LARGER-THAN-LIFE TECHNOLOGICAL MIRACLE IN FRONT OF OUR FACES look “too real”? Sounds like chronic white-people problems if you ask me.

Runtime aside, there are a few other metaphorical stones the Internet has been throwing at The Hobbit, and some of them—however legit—have really been harshing my vibe this week. While I haven’t read the book since I was 12 or so, I neurotically Google the stuff that I like, and have become intimately familiar with the source material since then. So if you saw the movie and didn’t like it, I’m not super interested in hearing your complaints if any of them sound something like…

“Holy shit, this movie is three hours long? And it’s only the first of three??”

OK, this seems like good place to start. I’d say these are damn valid sentiments, being as the long runtime is what scared my friends away to begin with.  And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think the narrative lacked forward momentum from time to time. But movies with 2+ hours of movie in them are a trend we should all be pretty familiar with by now, particularly those based on popular, historically significant novels. (Plus, if you voluntarily attended this movie with working eyeballs and a tentative grasp on mathematics, you already knew what you were in for before the previews started. So shut up if you have those two things.)

Movies are also about escapism, by the way, and with all the dismal shit happening in this world lately, a three-hour vacation to a realm filled with dragons, elves, dwarves, Balrogs, necromancers, stone giants, goblins, and wizards is a welcome change of pace for my fragile psyche. Long story long: if Tolkien fans know what they’re getting into runtime-wise, I think most will get their money’s worth out of a movie ticket. Newbies too.

Which brings me to the trilogy stuff. Lots of reviewers and commenters seem to agree that Jackson’s tale could (and should) be summed up in one film. One book = one movie, right? What many don’t seem to take into account, however, is that The Hobbit is an adaption, not a retelling. Jackson didn’t pull all of his inspiration solely from Tolkien’s first book, either; there was a lot more source material to work with. After J.R.R. died in 1973, his son Christopher undertook the heavy task of editing/publishing his father’s unfinished works, and much of Bilbo’s homeland is fleshed out in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, The History of Middle-earth, and the various appendices in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien essentially created his own personal universe—complete with detailed history and unique languages—and I can’t respect Jackson enough for at least attempting to visualize said universe. Do all of these details translate well into a visual narrative? Maybe not, but do me a favor: read The Silmarillion cover to cover and then get back to me on how muddled and disjointed you think Jackson’s overall story is. I’ll wait.

Is three separate movies too much? For my part, I plan on reserving full judgment until I see the very last one.

“What’s with all the cheesy singing in an action-adventure fantasy flick? Lame.”

First of all, spontaneous song (and/or dance) is not lame. It’s awesome. And second, as I mentioned back in July, music is an incredibly central part of the Tolkien’s universe. For a look at how central, I’ll point you back to Middle-earth’s creation story in The Simarillion, in which a group of “eternal spirits” essentially create the world via song. The whole thing is a bit convoluted, so I’ll let Wikipedia take a crack at it:

“The first section of The SilmarillionAinulindalë (“The Music of the Ainur[5]), takes the form of a primary creation narrative. Eru (“The One”[6]), also called Ilúvatar (“Father of All”), first created the Ainur, a group of eternal spirits or demiurges, called “the offspring of his thought.” Ilúvatar brought the Ainur together and showed them a theme, from which he bade them make a great music. Melkor — whom Ilúvatar had given the “greatest power and knowledge” of all the Ainur — broke from the harmony of the music to develop his own song. Some Ainur joined him, while others continued to follow Ilúvatar, causing discord in the music. This happened thrice, with Eru Ilúvatar successfully overpowering his rebellious subordinate with a new theme each time. Ilúvatar then stopped the music and showed them a vision of Arda and its peoples. The vision disappeared after a while, and Ilúvatar offered the Ainur a chance to enter into Arda and govern over the new world.”

See what I mean about the density of Tolkien’s material? And hey, you know what people did to record history and amuse themselves back before the Internet and TV? They wrote stories, poems, and songs about stuff. Then they’d recite them sometimes, lest the memories of said stories be forgotten. Kind of like this:


At any rate, it would have been a little weird if there weren’t any baritone melodies in  The Hobbit at all. Some of these tunes might take away from the overall seriousness/epicness of the dwarves’ expedition, but guess what? That’s sort of OK too.

“This doesn’t feel nearly as epic as the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Ugh, it’s like Star Wars: Episode I all over again.”

There’s a reason the movie adaptions of The Hobbit and LOTR don’t feel like they’re part of the same story, and it’s this: The Hobbit and LOTR aren’t really part of the same story. When Tolkien penned the former in 1937, his novel was intended as a stand-alone piece, and the One Ring’s significance had yet to be extrapolated. In fact, it was only at his publisher’s request that Tolkien started working on a sequel, which didn’t come out until 1955. The resulting trilogy was a lot heavier than its predecessor, and Tolkien actually had to revise The Hobbit to make certain details fit.

So when I read about how The Hobbit movie doesn’t live up to the LOTR trilogy, a little voice in my head starts yelling, Who cares? Can’t we just enjoy this movie for what it is: another adaptation of a beloved children’s story that happens to share the same universe as Lord of the Rings? Honestly, if you check those expectations at the door, this movie is way more enjoyable. Here’s the takeaway: even if The Hobbit doesn’t live up to LOTR in the end, I don’t think it really has to.

[Also, I’m not really a Star Wars expert, but the first trilogy was out long before the prequels were even conceived. The more fact-checking I do, the stupider I think it is to compare these two franchises. Maybe I’ll expand on this at a later date.]

“Amazing as the special effects may be, creatures that sparked the imagination in the children’s book are sometimes ridiculous when given life on the big, big screen.”

I don’t know who the hell Richard Roeper is (besides a man with the most punchable face ever), but just read that sentence up there aloud a few times. Are you telling me, Mr. Roeper, that the imaginary werewolf-octopus I used to have tea parties with at the age of eight might seem a little…absurd if someone were to make a “big, big” movie out of it? Gee whiz, I guess I’ll stop e-mailing my Captain Wolftopus script to Miramax, then.


In the interest of full disclosure, had this been an official Unreality review, I’d probably have landed on 3.14 stars. ‘Tis the season for pie.

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  1. “read The Silmarillion cover to cover and then get back to me on how muddled and disjointed you think Jackson’s overall story is.”

    This cracked me up. If you haven’t read the Silmarillion, you’ve got no idea. ha ha

  2. You just kind of made my day with this, man. Metacritic has turned online reviewing into a goddamn wasteland. If someone sees a movie, has nothing interesting to say about it, but feels compelled to review it anyways in hopes of getting more hits on their site or whatever, they just read a bunch of Metacritic reviews and go with the critical flow. Honestly, I enjoyed this one more than The Two Towers, at least. Also, I don’t believe people know what “epic” even means. And anyone who balks at getting a double serving of cinematic running-time for the same cost is my definition of lame. Have fun with your….laundry.

  3. After also seeing the film yesterday I could not agree more, in my opinion this is set to be far better trilogy than the original LOTR one. And I like that Jackson spends so much time on the details in this film, it doesn’t feel over potty like the majority of films being made these days whilst the story is well paced and intriguing enough that you feel like you’ve only been sitting their for an hour anyway. The 48 framers per second looks fantastic after 10 minutes of adjusting to it although walking out of the cinema I did notice that reality looked a bit crap in comparison.

  4. @ Mark Miller

    Your review is awesome. I will see this movie this weekend. If only to see how crappy reality can be…does the same adjustment time hold true for reality?

    I am imagining a the seeing reality as an old silent one reel at 15 fps.

    Thank you.

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