I went to a midnight showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and thoughts about the film have been rolling around in my head ever since. I don't think I can call this a review of the film (though I did really like it and encourage everyone to go see it). Instead it will be more musing on the process of adapting a work that has been much on my mind over the past several months. There will be plenty of spoilers for both the movie and the book.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the text actually made it into the movie. Peter Jackson gives us most of the "Good morning" scene from the first chapter of the book. The movie trolls are very similar to those in the book. We get the "Chip the glasses" song. Half the riddles made it into the movie and all were unaltered from Tolkien's prose. Bilbo loses his waistcoat buttons (though in a slightly different way). The goblins call Orcrist and Glamdring "Biter" and "Beater." And we even got Bilbo saying, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." All of these gave me a thrill of happiness when I saw them. (Though I was disappointed but not surprised that both the talking purse and the "Tra-la-la-lally" song did not make it into the movie.)
Of course the problem with Peter Jackson putting so much of the book into the film is that it makes for a really long running time. There were many times that I felt I was watching the extended edition of the movie instead of the theatrical edit, especially in the first act. Jackson opens with a fun scene of old Bilbo reminiscing about his past as he prepares for his eleventy-first birthday party. While it was a fun treat seeing Ian Holm and Elijah Wood again, the scene went on far too long and added nothing to the narrative other than saying, "This is a prequel, not a sequel." Then the Unexpected Party happens, and it also goes on longer than it needs to. It never stopped being entertaining for me, but it could have covered the same narrative purpose and had the same emotional impact at half the length. In the extended edition of Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo finally heads out on his journey about an hour into the film. I wasn't paying attention to the running time, but it felt like at least 45 minutes until Bilbo finally leaves Bag End. With so much narrative ground left to cover, I felt it was a misuse of the limited running time to give so much of it to the opening scenes that could have all been told more efficiently. The longer edits should have been saved for the extended edition.
In many ways, the pacing felt more like Jackson's King Kong than the Lord of the Rings films. In Lord of the Rings, there was so much story he had to tell that he was forced to be as efficient as possible. So even though the movies were all really long, they never felt long because of the fast pace. On the flip side, there was much less story to tell in King Kong, so he was able to fill it with all the extended action scenes he wanted. While it never got dull and only the dinosaur stampede scene seemed gratuitous or overlong, the movie had a bloated feel that could have been alleviated by tightening up the scenes by shaving a minute here, two minutes there, to reduce the whole running time by half an hour. The Hobbit could have used more fat trimming.
The idea of making Azog a major villain almost works for me. In the books he plays a pivotal role in the Battle of Azanulbizar, and his son, Bolg, is the leader of the goblins in the Battle of Five Armies. Conflating the two characters is something I don't have a problem with. What I didn't like was him tracking them across Middle Earth. It involves creating scenes that are nowhere to be found in the book, nor do they fit in alongside what is in the book. (And the shot of him being held back by his minions in the Battle of Azanulbizar was so out of keeping of my vision of goblins that it completely threw me out of the movie.) He is serving a similar role to that of Lurtz in Fellowship of the Ring. Lurtz was not in the book, but was added to give more drama to the climax of Fellowship. (And his death is one of the most satisfying decapitations I've seen.) But Lurtz was inserted more organically. There was already a group of orcs trying the find the fellowship and a showdown between Aragorn and an orc captain made a lot of sense. But the showdown between Thorin and Azog was a forced attempt at turning a scene that ends in a deus ex machina (or eucatastrophe if you prefer) into a more satisfying climax. If Thorin had defeated Azog I might have felt different, but as it stands, I felt like there wasn't much of an ending to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
I think the biggest flaw of the film is its structure. In my previous post I said I would end the first film with the battle with the spiders. The reason I chose that as my climax is because it is the first time that Bilbo really takes charge and becomes both a leader and an action hero. Also, it's the first point in the story that I felt was worthy of being the climax to a movie as being rescued by someone else doesn't make for a compelling climax. After seeing the ending of the movie, I am more convinced that I was right. They tried valiantly to make their climax work but too much of it just seemed forced. And my big worry is that making Bilbo be more proactive here will give his battle with the spiders less of an impact. And Thorin's "I didn't like you but now I do" speech was cheesy and too close to his powerful deathbed scene. I'm afraid when that scene comes in the third movie it will have less of an impact because of the climax of this movie.
But the structure issues go beyond the misplaced climax. There was an awful lot of setup in this movie, so much so that it felt less like a contained movie and more like part one of three. The second scene in the film is a flashback to the destruction of Erebor by Smaug, which delays even longer our introduction to Martin Freeman as young Bilbo. That could have been moved to later in the movie, doing what the animated film did and putting the flashback footage on top of the dwarves singing their song. That could have been really powerful, would have given us more of that awesome song, and could have kept the beginning tighter and less information-logged. And while it was cool that they incorporated the flashback to the Battle of Azanulbizar, it came so late in the film that I found myself wishing that they had moved it to another film. After all, the three Lord of the Rings films all start with some kind of flashback, and I think the Battle of Azanulbizar could have made a wonderful opening flashback. Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite of the Lord of the Rings movies largely because it has a tighter, more streamlined narrative. I have a feeling An Unexpected Journey is going to be my least favorite of the Hobbit movies because it is too concerned with the movies that will come later.
A few random thoughts:
When Bilbo had trouble pulling the dagger soon to be known as Sting from the head of the warg, was I the only person to think, "Who so pulleth out this sword of this skull is righwise born king of Middle Earth"?
Why are all the goblins CG?
The chin bag on the Great Goblin is disgusting.
When they showed Thror succumbing to dragon sickness, I half expected him to start turning into a dragon (and becoming Smaug) much like Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader or Fafnir in Norse mythology. (And possibly the dragon in Beowulf.)
Bilbo and a goblin fall down a crevasse. The goblin suffers serious injury. Bilbo is largely unharmed. The dwarves are also unharmed by their large tumble (and getting squashed by the Great Goblin's body). Mythbusters would like to have a word with you, Peter Jackson.
While the inclusion of the stone giants was cool, the sequence was overblown and added nothing to the narrative. It is as useless and contrived a scene as the "Nobody tosses a dwarf" sequence in Fellowship.
I was hoping Glorfindel would make a cameo in Rivendell. Oh well. There's still hope he'll show up in the later movies.
I've spent much of this post bagging on the movie, but I really liked it and there were lots of things they did really well. I think my favorite scene was the Riddles in the Dark scene. It is the longest scene in the movie and yet I didn't want it to end. Smeagol has never been cuter and Gollum never as nasty. However, Bilbo's mercy scene would have been more powerful had not Gandalf practically told Bilbo, "Don't kill Gollum when you meet him," way back at the beginning of the film. I also liked that they were able to keep things light, unafraid to occasionally go silly with the dwarves. After all, Tolkien does that all through the book. The dwarves' song is amazing and I liked that it wove a spell on Bilbo similar to how it happens in the book. The scene of Radagast spying out Dol Guldur was well done and provided a nice contrast for the character, showing him in a more competent and less silly light. Martin Freeman was excellent as Bilbo. I was already a fan before this movie, and when I heard he had been cast as Bilbo I thought it was a fabulous choice, but I liked him even more than I was expecting. I also liked how they played with the Took/Baggins dichotomy. This is a big theme in the book, but I was unsure if it would get any lip service in the film since it's largely an internal conflict. I'm glad they're doing something with it. And while I have serious problems with the end of the film, I really liked the moment when Bilbo pledges to help the dwarves get their home back. I am very pleased they only showed glimpses of Smaug, saving the big reveal for later. (I'm hoping we don't get a full look at him until Bilbo has his conversation with Smaug.) Smaug being covered up by the treasure was a nice visual touch. And of course it is a visually sumptuous film.
That's just about everything I have to say right now. I'm sure I'll have more to say once I see it a few more times, and my opinions are likely to change after more viewings allow me to better divorce the movie from the book, judging it on its own merits.