(SPOILER ALERT: This post reveals a number of plot elements from The Hobbit, both from the original J.R.R. Tolkien novel and from Peter Jackson’s films. Some of these plot elements won’t be revealed until the second or third film. So don’t read beyond this point if you want to be surprised.)
So, on Wednesday, I finally succumbed to curiosity and saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in its entirety. And, compared to my previous take on the first twenty minutes, I can say that my opinion has significantly improved–and yet, I still agree with my big conclusions from before. I’d like to think that now I better understand what Peter Jackson was trying to do, but I remain unconvinced that he should have tried to do it. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed another big issue that’s connected to the other two.
So. Overall, The Hobbit looks and feels very similar to The Lord of the Rings–which is only logical, I suppose. It has much the same balance of visuals, action, and humor, as well as a similar overall pace. But the main problem is still that where LotR had an overabundance of story to work with, The Hobbit just doesn’t have enough in it to sustain an epic of this scale.
PJ seems to have been aware of this, and so he compensated by pulling in stuff from Tolkien’s appendices and other works–especially The Quest of Erebor–about the larger context of Thorin’s quest. If you’ve read this material, then you know that there was a lot going on in Middle-earth at the time, and Gandalf was involved in most of it; in particular, he was hoping that a revived dwarf-kingdom at the Lonely Mountain would interfere with Sauron’s plans in the East.
Yes, Sauron. (Here come the spoilers.) This touches on an important change that PJ made for the Hobbit films which is emblematic of the problems with his adaptation. As Tolkien wrote it, Gandalf discovered long before the events of the film–via a secret visit to Dol Guldur (also where he met Thrain, which remains as-yet-undiscussed in the film)–that the mysterious Necromancer was actually Sauron in disguise. In Jackson’s film, however, the Necromancer has just appeared, and nobody knows yet who he really is.
Now, I understand why Peter Jackson made this decision; compressing the timeline in this way allows the revelation of the Necromancer’s identity to come in the second or third film. Nice dramatic impact. However, it creates a major problem for Jackson, because now Gandalf has no reason to help Thorin. Granted, his reasoning was never given in the book, and only devoted fans will ever get around to reading The Quest of Erebor. But just because the kids reading The Hobbit don’t get the larger geopolitical context doesn’t mean you can change it with impunity–particularly when your entire movie rests on pulling in that context in order to expand your story.
PJ seems to have been aware of this problem to some extent, because he has Gandalf mutter foreboding things about evil growing in the East, and about how that evil might use the dragon Smaug and other nearby nasties. But by basing Gandalf’s motivation on an intuition, instead of a serious, known danger, PJ ensures that nobody else on the White Council understands what Gandalf is doing.
This leads to ridiculous situations like the scene in the new film where Gandalf meets with Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman, and is forced to try to explain himself. In Tolkien, Gandalf is the most loyal and trusted of the wizards, and while the others don’t always agree with him, they generally trust that he knows what he’s doing. (Even Saruman, who at this point is well on his way to his eventual betrayal, recognizes Gandalf’s motives and lets him be.) In Jackson, however, none of Gandalf’s peers understands his actions, and he’s unable to explain them.
For me, this demonstrates what’s been my biggest complaint about Jackson all along, including with the LotR films: when he improvises, he generally falls flat. There are many situations in The Lord of the Rings where Jackson had to make up something to get through a problem with the plot (often created by Jackson himself in the process of adaptation). When PJ sticks to the script, so to speak, he’s incredible; when he has to come up with something of his own, it’s often dumb, occasionally unbearable, and never in the spirit of Tolkien.
Take the whole bit in The Return of the King about the lembas crumbs on Sam’s coat. Pressed for time to show the corrupting influence of the Ring, Jackson created a completely artificial tension between Frodo and Sam by having Gollum plant crumbs on Sam, to frame him for stealing their food. In Tolkien, this doesn’t happen; the two remain steadfastly loyal to each other (until Frodo is finally overcome at Mount Doom), and the corruption is shown in more subtle ways at greater length. Jackson doesn’t have time for this, and the lembas crumbs were apparently the best he could come up with.
Now, this isn’t such a huge problem with The Lord of the Rings, because he has so much to work with from Tolkien. But with The Hobbit, Jackson is forced to improvise to a far greater extent, and so he has many more chances to screw up.
Another huge example is the wizard Radagast the Brown. Dear gods, what to say about Radagast?
Radagast is barely even mentioned in Tolkien’s works; I don’t believe his name is in The Hobbit at all. But in the film, he’s elevated into an important supporting character. He serves two purposes (so far): to alert Gandalf about the existence of the Necromancer, and to help the Company escape an attack by warg-riding goblins.
Well, okay, I suppose I could live with that, although the warg attack isn’t in the book in the first place. (In fact, the entire subplot with the orc-lord Azog is entirely invented by Jackson, in order to provide secondary dangers. All part of stretching it out into three movies.) The problem here is that Radagast isn’t anywhere near as funny or charming as Jackson would like him to be. In fact, he rapidly becomes cloying during the scenes at his house with the hedgehog. The actor, Sylvester McCoy, does a decent job for what Jackson wanted, but I question whether he needed to do it.
And what the hell is up with his mode of transport? A sleigh pulled by rabbits? Really, PJ?
These are just a couple of examples, but this sort of thing is pervasive in An Unexpected Journey. Peter Jackson tasked himself with making two, and later three, movies out of a 300-page children’s book, and even after dragging in everything he possibly could from Tolkien, he still didn’t have enough. So he had to improvise, and often his improvisations just don’t work.
(An aside: now that I think about it, this also happened in places with PJ’s version of King Kong; one example would be the cascade of brontosauri rolling down the canyon. I wonder if he just has a general problem with adapting other peoples’ work. I’m not going to read or see The Lovely Bones, but I’d like to know what people who are familiar with the book thought of his movie.)
So, it should be obvious that I still think PJ made a gigantic mistake in trying to stretch The Hobbit into what it’s become. I think he was under a lot of pressure to produce another epic, and he did all the same things he did with LotR–but he did it with a story that just couldn’t sustain his ambition.
Now, that’s not to say that I hated the film. Far from it. I said my opinion had improved, and I think there’s plenty in it to like. In particular, as I’ve said before, Martin Freeman was absolutely born to play Bilbo. And his riddle-game with Gollum is absolutely perfect; it’s not a verbatim adaptation, but I can’t imagine how it could have been done better.
And the action scenes are excellent; that’s one thing that PJ does know how to do. The fight in Goblin-town is fun and exciting. And I much liked the Great Goblin, who is voiced by the English comedian Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna Everidge. (Some very fun casting in the minor roles; I’m really looking forward to seeing Stephen Fry as the master of Lake-town.)
And, while it’s not in the book, I liked Bilbo’s selfless attempt to rescue Thorin from Azog. Richard Armitage’s Thorin is different from the character in the book, more noble and serious, and having him quickly come around in this way to trusting Bilbo works very well for his character.
Oh, and I love love love the stone-giants.
So, I’ve come around somewhat, and I have to admit, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the later films. I’m especially curious to see how Jackson handles Beorn, and also what Benedict Cumberbatch does with the Necromancer.
But I think it will help to set aside my memories of the book. My sweetie couldn’t do that, and is still terribly upset with Jackson for the changes he made. I don’t blame her, honestly.
Anyway. We know where this is going to go from here. Part 2 will be all about Smaug and Lake-town; Part 3 will be split between the Battle of Five Armies and the White Council’s showdown with the Necromancer. All of that should be fun to see, if nothing else.
But I’m being very careful not to let my opinions of the movies get tied up with my love for the book. It’s definitely easier that way.