The Hobbit in Retrospect: Tone, Structure, and Where It Goes Wrong

We’re nearly a year removed from the release of the final Hobbit movie. While the rest of geekery is moving on to the excitement of the newest Star Wars film, I want to look back and reflect on the films that used to occupy that huge mid-December release slot. The Hobbit films were a massive commercial success, as expected, but they did not receive the critical praise of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Looking back at an article I wrote nearly three years ago about the first Hobbit film, I can definitively say that I have mellowed a bit with age. And with that comes perhaps a more reasonable approach to evaluating these films, which I still love.

My primary concern in the original article was the tonal difficulty of adapting a children’s book into the world of an epic adult saga. While I recognize the challenge, and do think that Peter Jackson made The Hobbit feel like it belonged in the same world as LOTR, there are several aspects where Peter Jackson got it wrong.

By nature, The Hobbit was a whimsical tale with more footing in fairy tales than in the realm of high fantasy. Talking animals and such descriptions were the lifeblood of the quirky story. They provided the kind of charms that would probably not be appreciated in a movie nowadays – especially one supposed to fit into the continuity of LOTR. But here is where Jackson strays. While certain moments approach Tolkien’s original quirky tone – like Radagast’s bumbling and the opening scenes in Bilbo’s home – Jackson’s main response was to make the action way over the top. From the dwarves dropping a thousand feet before being crushed and then surviving (Dwalin’s line here, “You’ve got to be joking”, is the second worst line of the entire film, directly preceded both in time and horrendousness by the goblin king’s death knell: “That’ll do it”), to Legolas running on falling rocks, to the dwarves building a giant ineffective golden statue, the main storytelling change between The Hobbit and LOTR seems to be a ramping up of implausibility. That is something entirely different than embracing the silly, goofy humor of the source material.

Aside from tonal issues, it is worth considering how restructuring the story causes the emphasis to shift off of Bilbo. Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo is one of the highlights of the films, yet he finds himself an increasingly marginal character as the series progresses. He has some moments to shine, most of which involve rescuing the dwarves from their own stupidity, but the greatest part of the narrative falls toward Thorin’s quest to reclaim Erebor. The narrative thrust of the story comes from the dwarves’ insatiable drive. While this is theoretically the case in the source material – at least in that the dwarves’ quest is the reason Bilbo does anything in the first place – lengthening the story turns the focus more toward the dwarves. A single or two-part film of the Hobbit would have filtered the action through Bilbo’s limited perspective, leaving out a fair amount of the surrounding action – particularly in the second and third movies. But instead we have constant scenes of the White Council, elvish drama, the Master of Lake Town, and other diversions aimed at expanding the world to the proportions familiar to fans of LOTR.

Some of these additions, like the White Council, provide a valuable insight into the background of the story, and connect the films in a positive way to LOTR. But, unlike the members of the White Council, Thranduil and the Master of Lake Town are not important characters going forward. Thranduil is interesting only for his relationship to Thorin, and the drama with Legolas and Tauriel is unnecessary and uninteresting in terms of not only the overall story of the ring, but even within The Hobbit itself. The Master of Lake Town and his obnoxious lieutenant, Alfred, is another instance in which Peter Jackson’s perception of the source material’s humor is oddly tone-deaf. The characters’ crude humor is not in line with Tolkien’s, and the caricatured portraits don’t fit into the continuity of the longer series. In fact, I find the scenes involving the two characters to be the most anomalous and out of place in the entire set of six films, much more so than Azog, one of the most maligned characters in The Hobbit. The corrupt and conniving Master of the books would have been a nice complement to the story unfolding with the dragon. However, despite my admiration for Stephen Fry, the Master and his sidekick should have been handled differently.

There’s another problem inherently tied to the three-movie structure. The dragon. Oh, Smaug, the great and terrible! Where the hell did you go? The three best performances in the films, in my opinion, go to Martin Freeman for Bilbo, Andy Serkis and the visual effects department for Gollum, and Benedict Cumberbatch and the visual effects department for Smaug. When Smaug is on screen, the combination of the dragon’s physicality and Cumberbatch’s excellent voice work make him a truly commanding presence. I consider him to be one of the best screen villains ever created. That said, the way he was utilized deprived him of the attention he deserved. Bilbo’s initial conversation with him is remarkable, and flawless (as tends to happen when Bilbo has one-on-one conversations anywhere in the films – it’s not a coincidence). The action that follows with the dwarves, however, is overplayed and relies too much on Smaug’s physical abilities rather than his intelligence. Smaug is supposed to be scary not only because he can crush you under his scaly foot, but also because he can trick you into standing there while he does it. Deconstructing him into a sort of embodied natural disaster cuts down on the true greatness of the character. That said, the action scenes with him (minus the exploding golden statue) are well-crafted and tight. His assault on Lake Town at the beginning of the third film redeems him greatly, as we are able to see how his pride gets the best of him.

But Smaug’s utilization reveals some soft spots in the construction of the stories. Having Smaug simply fly off after their initial encounter in the halls of Erebor is not a strong ending for the second film. Likewise, his death feels out of place as essentially a prologue for the third movie. The death of the dragon is the emotional climax of the book, with the battle of the five armies serving mostly as an afterthought. With the trilogy structure, Smaug’s death finds itself in an unfortunate no-man’s land.

Does Peter Jackson deserve some flak for some of his choices in The Hobbit? Probably. Should it have been three films? Definitely not. But do these movies deserve the unfortunate – if inevitable – comparison with the Star Wars prequel trilogy? Trick question. Read this (lengthy) essay to see why the prequels are secretly brilliant. But overall, as I essentially said in my original review, these are good movies. They’re not amazing works of cinematic genius, but there’s enough of Tolkien’s charm and Peter Jackson’s devotion to the material to redeem them. It was an impossible dream from the beginning. Just choose to remember Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and to forget Legolas running up falling stairs.

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Time Capsule: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

206858-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-poster-artNote: I wrote this review in late 2012, after the release of the first Hobbit movie. It was originally published through the now-defunct Yahoo! Voices service. The views represent my thoughts of two and a half years ago. With the dust fully settled from the last Hobbit movie, I want to take a little time to reflect on the trilogy. I thought it best to begin with my initial reaction, which should provide a good basis for discussion. Next time, I will look critically at my own review in the context of the entire trilogy and my own growth and development as a writer and a student of film. For now, enjoy my younger, more hyperbolic thoughts.

Here is the most important fact about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: by taking on the project that is the latest installment in Middle-Earth’s every-growing film opus, Peter Jackson tasked himself with adapting a children’s book into the world of an epic fantasy masterpiece that, both factually and tonally, were completely different than Tolkien’s first book. I do agree with critics that much of the action was overdone (and don’t even get me started on the corny pale-orc Azog), but what were you expecting? It’s Hollywood. Excitement sells tickets, not strong storytelling, although there is plenty of both here. What Jackson has done, rather than taking the super-stripped-down approach of The Lord of the Rings (yes, stripped-down. As with many long fantasy series there could have been twelve four hour movies instead of three) he has decided to allow all of Tolkien’s world to flow into the story, providing us with the whole extent of Tolkien’s world, rather than the limited scope of the original tale. Be assured that, had Tolkien written The Hobbit after LOTR, when his world was more fully realized, the tone would have been different, the book would have been at least 500 pages, and you would certainly have heard a great deal about the rise of Sauron. Peter Jackson has decided to take an approach that Tolkien tried and gave up on many times: blending the worlds of the two masterpieces together.

Many critics have complained about the pace and abundance of expository dialogue, but the same critics ask Jackson to stay more true to the source material. This is, of course a paradox, because Tolkien’s work contains pages upon pages of dialogue and songs that the average moviegoer would snooze through. That said, for most people the dialogue would be a bit daunting. It is all necessary, however, as the entire back-story would take hours to set up with other storytelling techniques. Again, there is a paradox between two complaints by critics, the expository dialogue and the length of the film. Cutting the former would leave the latter even more bloated than it is now. Such competing tensions were no doubt always on Peter Jackson’s mind as he made the film, and I am sure every decision he made was extremely intentional in an effort to walk the line between the two.

Some critics express that they do not understand what is going on in the movie. This is a complaint I’ve heard from critics of LOTR, to critics of Inception, to critics of The Wire. Always critics will disparage works that they lack the attentiveness to understand. One critic wrote in his review that he did not understand who Radagast was, or why he was important. If it were not for Gandalf blatantly saying who Radagast was moments before we meet him, or a long section of dialogue that explains exactly why he is important directly after, I would understand his confusion (so… why do they want to destroy that nice shiny ring again?).

To maintain fairness I will put down here what I disliked about the movie. I feel I cannot offer a defense of the film without first pointing out its obvious flaws. The most notable of these is the overall levity of the action sequences. It is almost as if Peter Jackson could not decide which style he wanted, and the result was ferocious wargs chasing bunny sleds. Also, if we are to grant any weight to the action of the movies, then the characters cannot feel “immune.” This was a particular concern in the scenes in Goblintown, where thousand foot falls, hordes of stormtrooper-incompetent orcs, and hundreds of arrows barely fazed our stout heroes. That said, however, the action scenes in The Hobbit are much tighter than those in LOTR, due in large part to the predominantly digital nature of the fight scenes. Some other issues that bothered me include the addition of Azog as a pacing device, the absolute butchering of Saruman’s relationship with Gandalf, and the overdone thunder battle (this scene brought to you by Michael Bay). In this way I suppose I agree with some critics of the large CGI effects, but to focus on such things shows an attachment to preconceived notions that, upon further inspection may not be all that useful (please see this article to see what I mean: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Tolkien-Nerds-Guide-to-The-Hobbit–185546102.html?c=y&story=fullstory)

Overall, this is a very good movie. A plethora of touching and iconic moments remind us that while this is at its heart a children’s story, there is real emotion to be found here. The wonderful scene of Bilbo running out his door, contract in tow, to the delightful fiddles of the Shire’s theme music and followed by his ensuing concern about forgetting his handkerchief, reminds us that while the quest is serious, we are still in a world of hobbits and dwarfs. A wonderful scene in a mountain cave creates a deep emotional empathy for the homeless dwarfs. And by far the two best scenes of the movie both link The Hobbit to LOTR, and establish Bilbo’s character. These scenes, Gandalf’s touching explanation of “why Bilbo?” and Bilbo’s gut-wrenching decision to spare Gollum’s life, set up the fundamental goodness of the characters. And that is what Middle-Earth is all about, the battle of absolute good versus absolute evil. It may seem trite in our modern world fraught with shades of gray, but every once in a while we need a hobbit to remind ourselves that there is always something we can establish as wholly virtuous.

Perhaps what many critics are responding to is the lack of any sort of finality in the events of the movie. I suspect this is the reason that The Return of the King won Best Picture when The Fellowship of the Ring, the best of the LOTR films, did not. We live in a society that craves conclusion. Even 22-minute TV shows need to be formatted for syndication  to a point where each episode is barely contingent on the one before. But what is often forgotten is that it is the best shows and movies that take time to set up the action and build the story – just think of Lost, Game of Thrones, and of course LOTR. Many of the things that reviewers call fluff or mark as deviations from the book are intended to set up the other movies. There is a great deal of dialogue in The Hobbit concerning the Necromancer, who some reviewers call just a casual allusion to Sauron. Anyone who is following production of the films knows that the story with the Necromancer is more than just an allusion – the wizards driving Sauron from Dol-Guldur will likely take up a large portion of at least the 2nd film. The same reviewers who decry all the setup will have a hard time justifying their words when the entire journey is completed. To validate the large amount of setup one needs to look no further than The Fellowship of the Ring, which contained more setup, whether realized or not, than The Hobbit did. Just think about the rise of Saruman, which impacts the movie only at the very end, and is not even fully realized until midway through the second film. Add the love story with Arwen, the fellowship’s pursuit by Gollum, and the journey ending in a similar place to The Hobbit, and it begins to sound ludicrous to criticize the setup with the Necromancer. It seems the critics are willfully oblivious of the nature of a three-film story.

Another, perhaps not surprising reaction, is aimed at the length of the movie. Such complaints are certainly contradicted by public reaction to LOTR. For most fans the four-hour extended versions are the accepted version of the films. The three-hour movies were not long enough. Personally, I enjoy long films because they provide a more immersive, full experience. The two-hour formulaic design does not allow for the character development and, yes, expository dialogue, that is necessary to create a truly great story. I would point to the critical negativity surrounding the release of Cloud Atlas earlier this year. The film handled one of the most ambitious plots ever undertaken in cinema, weaving six stories brilliantly into an immersive blend of past, present, and future. Whereas critics complained of the length, and a hard-to-follow plot (a plot, like Inception, that is confusing only for its many layers, and requires merely continuing attention), I applaud filmmakers with the guts to put out lengthy films that do not skimp on the stories of their source material. A six-hour movie would have been completely appropriate for the adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel. It is a sign of mature viewers that they are willing to invest in long movie experiences like these, rather than limiting themselves to movies that adhere to the standard two-hour attention span.

High Frame Rate is one of the most often criticized aspects of The Hobbit. Yes, the daring cinematic move, for which Peter Jackson had to delve into his own coffers, and that is not available in most theaters. Seriously, the main objection from CNN, which said The Hobbit was the worst movie of the year, was a simple viewing choice.[i] Just think about that or a moment. The HFR itself has been causing controversy from the beginning, with responses ranging from physiologically negative to tepid at best. My reaction was a bit different. The HFR made the first fifteen minutes or so of the movie seem as if it was speeded up, and made everything look hyper-realistic. After the first fifteen minutes, however, I found that my eyes adjusted to the speed, and the result was beautiful. The action sequences looked incredibly smooth, landscapes were breathtaking, and facial expressions and character movements were incredibly vivid. Some have said the HFR causes a lack of connection to the characters as well as making everything look like a play. I found neither to be the case, as the entire crowd laughed at nearly every joke (bad or not), and the visual effect was that of a very smooth movie, not the oddly-lit appearance of Blu-Ray. There may have been an age component to the enjoyment of the new technology in the ability for the brain to adjust to a different viewing style. From my experience younger people tend to complain of visual issues less than their older counterparts. Scientifically, it’s worth looking into. Overall HFR did not vastly increase the viewing experience, but neither did it detract from the film in any way. So, why the negative reaction? I attribute it to a lack of foresight, ignorance as to the overall work of Tolkien, and the inability for critics to adjust to new technology. It is heartening to know that audiences, who give The Hobbit an 81% on Rotten Tomatoes,[ii] responded differently than the critics. Maybe they realize the immensity of the task Peter Jackson has undertaken, and that An Unexpected Journey is just the first in a complete, rich saga. [i] http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/28/showbiz/movies/10-worst-movies-2012/index.html [ii] http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_hobbit_an_unexpected_journey/

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Welcome!

Welcome to epnthoughts, my brand new blog/website. Here you will find a repository of pages and posts written by me, Ethan Peterson-New. I am a writer and author (sort of) from the Northeast, and I am looking to share my thoughts, opinions, and rantings with the infinite audience of the interweb. I will write about whatever pops into my head, and try to update the site as frequently as possible. My interests are vast and varied, so you never know what direction I will be going. One minute I could be writing about movies, then I could be writing about sports, then I could be writing about the mid-century degradation of Sino-American relations. You never know. I hope you enjoy my blog, and check back often, because I always want to share my thoughts.

-epn

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