Yes, like most fantasy writers, I’m a hopeless, committed, Tolkien fan. When I saw Fellowship of the Ring, I loved every minute with no reservations. I saw changes happening, but I also how they were a wise idea when changing book to film. In fact, I’m fine with changes, IF they make a good story. I enjoyed The Hobbit, but this time, some of the film’s issues were more heavily pronounced, so I can’t approach this in such a head-over-heels delighted manner. Of course, I realize Peter Jackson was somewhat backed into a corner. The studio insisted on three films, while he thought (correctly) that he had the material for about two. There must be a giant franchise or nothing, it seems. Well, it seems the franchise has returned, but a bit shakier this time around.
The movie begins with a hefty prologue explaining what happened with Thorin and Smaug’s invasion. THEN there’s a second prologue, as older Bilbo chats with Frodo and writes his book. Yes, we get to see Sting, the party sign, Frodo, and the Hobbit hole that looks incredibly messy over the dialogue about its snug tidiness. We even get Ian Hom uttering “In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit” and see Frodo set up the events in Fellowship. But none of this is really a part of the story.
I grew up loving the cartoon pair of The Hobbit and Return of the King (I was less thrilled with the oddly filmed LotR part one). Their catchy music and silly cartoons made them Disneylike, though as I learned later, they were reasonably faithful retellings. In the cartoon movie, as with the book, we are introduced through the simple, fussy, homebody of a Hobbit who hates adventures. He is us, the reader unused to the wider world. The dwarves and Gandalf usher him and us through the wider world of Middle Earth together as we come to empathize more and more with Bilbo. The cartoon Return of the King (which skips the other two books) introduces Bilbo as a heavy frame – he is celebrating his 111st birthday (or something like it) with Gandalf and Elrond (introduced to us in The Hobbit movie) and the four younger hobbits, and Frodo tells him about his epic quest in Return of the King. Gollum and the ring provide another heavy link, as do repeated songs and themes.
In this film series, LotR was our introduction, so it’s oddly framing The Hobbit, rather than the more logical reverse. Gone is our introduction to the fussy little nearly-human character, and instead, we’re introduced to the large foreign world of “Erebor,” home of the dwarves. This is a land unseen in LotR, and even for book fans, the name comes oddly to our ears –the book dwarves are obsessed with “Lonely Mountain” as they call it.
Then comes the link with the previous movie trilogy: Ian Holm and Frodo are our guides, the party scene is just about to start, and Bilbo remembers smoking smoke rings long ago…cut to the actual story. This has been a terribly long introduction to give us a summary of past events and then link us with the other tale. All this, especially the scenes in Erabor is beautifully crafted with cgi and the amazing detail that made LotR a favorite. But the scenes have little place in the story. As we continue, we’re thrust into D & D style dungeons and complex, unhelpful subplots. In the attempts to be epic like LotR, the story is less linear and thus less charming.
This trend continues through the film, a voice crying, “Look, it’s the same story over again, please go spend on collectible rings and goodies from the franchise. Look how every moment matches the other so well!” Some scenes like Bilbo’s green door or meeting Elrond must match up with Fellowship, that was inevitable. Even the new scenes are filmed in similar locations in New Zealand. Casual references to Bree and the First Alliance of elves seem unnecessary, but make sense. But the number of new scenes and filming choices that ALSO echo Fellowship are truly numerous, so much so that they turned from cute to tedious:
- Gandalf whacks his head on the iron chandelier in Bag End
- Thor’s goblin battle in Moria seems nearly identical to Isildur’s battle in which he took up the shards of Narsil and avenged his father.
- Thorin himself, the deposed dark-haired king filled with nobility, who risks his life for bumbling hobbits and seems a born leader, is much more like Aragron than book-Thorin.
- Balin seems the replacement Gimli, with an older, settled wisdom. He says “laddie” a lot.
- The fact that they’re being hunted, Gandalf’s demands to know who our heroes told.
- A mass of bad guys converges from all directions in the same scenery as the Nazgul scene, our heroes flee into Rivendell
- A morgul-blade warns that Sauron is about
- The wargs attack in what looks like the LotR warg setting
- Gandalf says, “This way, you fools!”
- Saruman criticizes Radagast’s mushrooms like Gandalf’s smoking in Fellowship
- Galadriel, mysterious and somewhat imposing, offers vague comfort and strokes a hero’s hair
- Gandalf praises “the everyday deeds of ordinary folk” – this is why he recruits Bilbo in this one and Sam in Fellowship.
- After Rivendell, montages of trudging single-file over snowy mountains and other scenes.
- The storm giants versus Cruel Calhedras
- The goblins’ hole resembles the goblin factory of Fellowship
- The ring flies up into the air and lands on a finger
- The shadowy ring-world
- They all race down narrow bridges that are collapsing
- Gandalf uses the moth to summon the eagles, complete with music
- They end in the forest, as our hero makes a tough choice of what he stands for, then they’re attacked
- Azog is like the Head Uruk-hai, a big bad guy created to give the part one movie some closure. Aragorn/Thorin has the epic battle with him.
- Boromir dies against the Head Uruk-hai, Thorin gets semi-squished.
- They look far across Middle Earth to their final destination, say something optimistic, and end part one.
- The narrow-pupiled eye (admittedly Smaug’s) that’s seeking them
Most of these moments share the same music with the original trilogy. As a fan, I enjoyed the musical allusions, but they do emphasize the repetition of the scenes. Also, after offering us these three time periods: Bilbo’s birthday, Smaug’s invasion, and the “present,” no dates are mentioned. This is also a bit disconcerting for those trying to stay focused. Much worse was the 48fps speed, which gave me a headache. More oddly, when the camera panned, everything looked blurry to me. I truly pray this style doesn’t catch on.
Returning to the story, the setup in Bag End irritated me a bit. Bilbo fails to mention Gandalf is most famous for dragging Hobbit kids off on crazy adventures, so it’s less than clear why Gandalf is there harassing him and why Bilbo assumes that’s why he’s around, until much later. The revelation that Gandalf knew Bilbo was adventurous as a child and has adventures in his Took blood is a bit too late, only after they’ve been arguing over the adventure part for some time. In the book, Bilbo invites Gandalf to tea, so there was an appointment on some level – again, this made a tad more sense in the story than the unwitting invasion in this one. The invasion itself was played quite well, however, from teasing Bilbo about his plates while juggling them expertly and singing, to our hero in his Arthur Dent bathrobe acting completely kerflomoxed, yet determined to stand up for his precious doilies.
After this, the dwarves gather to sing of Smaug’s destruction and their need for vengeance. In book and cartoon, this was the opportunity to explain to Bilbo (with colorful flashbacks in the cartoon) what exactly happened in the past. But we’ve already had the out-of-nowhere lengthy summary, so when they sing, the story just stops. Creative writing students like myself recognize the exposition moments and talking (or singing) heads scenes that do not advance the story, and thus interfere with the plot moving along. Sadly, however, Peter Jackson has left them in place. Fellowship cut a twenty-year gap between Bilbo leaving and the ringwraiths coming for Frodo (Frodo also moved house, hiked, and sang songs in the bath, all worthy of cutting). This added action and urgency to the story, changing it to a desperate flight. The Hobbit seems to have added those twenty years back in.
Radagast the Brown is partially responsible for this. As in the book LotR, he shows up to spout dire warnings of unspecific direness. He’s amusing-looking as he drives his wonderful rabbit-powered sledge (not, as far as I know, canon from anything) and loses track of all his thoughts. But again, when he comes onscreen, the plot basically stops. In LotR, when Gandalf leaves, he has a wizard war with Saruman. Even when Frodo just wanders, he stumbles into Faramir’s small-scale battles. But Radagast doesn’t take on the Necromancer — he plays with hedgehogs. (And he could’ve fought the Necromancer and gotten somewhat creamed, thus giving his plot arc a plot). Instead, he just strolled. Gandalf’s white council with Galadriel and Saruman, while a treat for fans, is just as bad. It’s no wonder the dwarves ditch in the middle of it.
The dwarves themselves aren’t very individual. In fact, most of them don’t have much dialogue at all, with nothing that sets them apart. There’s Thorin the Aragorn ripoff. Kili the hot archer. Balin the wise advisor, Dwalin the messy eater, Bombur the fat guy. Even after Bilbo has a long conversation with Bofur, the dwarf says nothing to particularly individuate him from his fellows. Granted, they’re all dwarves, all with the same mission. We don’t have the obvious differences of LotR with a dwarf, an elf, a man of Gondor, etc. But Merry and Pippin made an effort, to say nothing of Sam. Aside from different weapons, these dwarves don’t seem to have different personalities. Admittedly, book and cartoon don’t separate them much either. But with this scope, there seems a missed opportunity. In canon, Balin dreams of restoring Moria, and Gloin is father to Gimli. There must be more to show.
This film also seemed to have too many villains. Azog hates Thorin’s family, the Necromancer is filling the woods with evil, the goblin king (played by the Marshmallow Man?) knows all about Thorin and hates him on principle. The storm giants are too long and too realized for a force with no personality and no foreshadowing, who, it seems, is out to get them too. The moose-riding wood elves hate the dwarves; they’re just waiting for movie two. And of course, the dragon’s coming. While there are hints a dark evil may have sent the dragon, we lack the certainty of LotR –you are either on the side of life (though elves and dwarves may squabble a bit) or you work for Sauron (like Saruman the traitor and his spells on Cruel Calhedras). In this one, everyone’s out to get Thorin, who, let’s face it, isn’t actually as important as Aragron. Only the meeting with the elves, wary but courteous, felt like a normal encounter. The book has the dwarves mostly encountering strangers and having isolated adventures with them. There are hints of a larger world and backstory (“Bilbo, the Necromancer’s so nasty, I know even you have heard of him” or “We punished Azog for what he did to my grandfather”) but they don’t tell all those stories – that would distract from the main plot. Here, all those stories have been added. It’s cluttered.
Fans will be happy to note that Gandalf’s silvery scarf appeared. However, he seemed rather a bumbler. “Is he [Radagast] a great wizard or is he more like you,” Bilbo asks, and after Gandalf’s not very persuasive of anyone back in Bag End, he seems to deserve that. The flaming pinecones he hurls at the wolves are a disappointment, as I expected colorful fireworks or at least small explosions (he’s a wizard, not Bilbo with a matchbook!) His light-filled rescue in the goblin cave likewise lacked much of special effects or pyrotechnics. Sting glows, but it seemed a disappointment that Glamdring doesn’t.
This seems like a lot of negativity, but honestly, I enjoyed the film and would see it again. Unlike some fans, I’m not desolated by heresies committed on the adaptation. It was fun and clever, with great tie in moments to the first set of movies. Thorin is very different (and very Aragorn) but noble and likeable as he risks his life repeatedly for the useless hobbit, since that’s what a king does (like Aragorn). While Thorin’s and Bilbo’s relationship isn’t identical to the book, it has some interesting room to develop, and I can’t wait to see how they feel about each other in the War of the Five Armies. Our hero, who played befuddled terribly British Arthur Dent and terribly puzzled British John Watson seems ideal for proper English gentleman Bilbo. I’d always pictured Bilbo as pudgier, but there was enough roundness to get the point across. His power of “hiding” is not really addressed with the LotR hobbits, but it works well here, laying the groundwork for current and future heroic deeds.
Gollum seemed straight out of The Two Towers, with his split personality and fish song. That said, he was fantastic and delightful in every way. The riddle game was realistic, with the right blend of playful and truly creepy. The moment where Bilbo showed pity was beautifully done…though Bilbo somewhat spoiled it by kicking him in the face. Nice pitying.
There were other delightful moments: The elves were not as “silly” as in the book, but they did try to entertain the dwarves with fresh salads and graceful harping, to predictable results. I loved that the dwarves wanted chips (though those seem more British Hobbit than Germanic dwarf to me). The White Council was believable as they bickered over whether the current peace was real, or foreboding of darker times to come. And I’m sure fans were thrilled to see this scene, which was absent from the book but important in the bigger picture. It was also interesting to get into Gandalf’s touching reason for recruiting Bilbo (and presumably other hobbits): “[It’s] the small things – the everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay.” Very nice, and it links with LotR themes and Bilbo’s future.
Should you see this film, LotR part four? Sure, if LotR part four’s what you’re in the mood for. But I should warn you, its attempts to be “more epic” and tell a “big LotR story” have robbed it of some original Hobbit charm.