The Hobbit (Movies)
I spent most of last week beset by illness, a situation further exacerbated by a serious case of the busies. The result? Blog neglect bordering on the criminal. Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel, though I suppose it’s possible that said light is an oncoming freight train.
Anyway, one more reason I have written less is a new cable connection to the Attic. I finally gave in, mostly because Spring is coming and I enjoy the daily background noise of Mariners baseball. There are other bonuses, free HBO for two years among them. I may or may not try Game of Thrones, but Mrs. Pep and I were quick to pounce on two Hobbit movies available for streaming. Shameful for a Tolkien fan like me to admit that I hadn’t yet seen any of the three, but that is the sad reality of my cinematic life.
I guess anyone who lives above ground knows that the movies are quite different from the books. While watching, I found it best to divide the changes into two groups: those made for cinematic convention and those made to give the movies the tone and weight that The Lord of the Rings more naturally holds. In general, I disagreed with the first, but have few complaints with the second. I haven’t read The Hobbit in a good twenty years or so, which leaves me somewhat less qualified to condemn much. I have a fear of writing, “I can’t believe that Peter Jackson did such and such, which no doubt left Tolkien spinning in his grave,” only to find out that the scene I ranted about was lifted word for word from the book. Stranger things have happened.
Let’s dig into the groan inducing bits first. I don’t do well with cliché or convention at the best of times, but movies drive me battier than most. The Hobbit manages to avoid many of the narrative excesses of typical Hollywood fare, but I suspect that has much to do with Tolkien’s willfully obtuse storytelling. (LOTR is notorious for violating rule after rule of good novel writing.) The films cave in to other flaws though. I don’t know if it’s the condensed run time to blame, but drama and action seem dialed up to an unreasonable degree in most mainstream movies. The pernicious influence of James Cameron and Michael Bay, perhaps? Unfortunately, The Hobbit is no exception. The action sequences are breathtaking to be sure, but everything seems more kinetic than it needs to be. I wouldn’t mind a few more less dramatic scenes, notably the trolls and the chase leading up to Rivendell.
Related to this is the constant fever pitch of conflict that must be drummed up at all times in cinema. Does Thorin really need to be pursued by Azog all the time? Does Laketown really need a moustachio-twirling and villainous mayor who opposes the brave and democratic, if surly and disreputable, rabble-rouser? Do the wood elves have to be not just aloof and isolationist, but full-on antagonists? I would have preferred a slightly more placid tale, though this is something I find myself saying almost every time I watch a movie or TV show. (I should note that most of my complaints about LOTR, particularly The Two Towers, fall along similar lines.)
On the other hand, there are changes I can get behind. The Hobbit is a pleasant book, but always feels like a light appetizer to me. This is especially true when one thinks about what is really going on in the background; something Jackson can’t avoid now that he’s unleashed LOTR on the world. Bilbo’s ring may have been a random trinket at the time, but we know what it really is and can’t possibly be expected to say something like, “Oh, well lucky Bilbo! What a convenient and useful little thing that ring is!” (Or Tolkien may have known full well. I’m uncertain, but I don’t remember any foreboding in the book.) The ring is the most obvious example, but there are others.
The throwaway line in the book about Gandalf going out to evict The Necromancer from Mirkwood is the biggest addition, and deserves the expansion Jackson gives it. In some ways, this is the real story of the time; dwarves and dragons are much more of a sidenote. Another point of interest is the opinions other factions show about the dwarves’ quest. Again, nothing much is said about this in the book, but re-establishing a powerful dwarven kingdom is a politically unsettling act. The wealth and industrial power of Thorin’s scattered people is going to rearrange the balance of power with humans and elves and, as Gandalf casually mentions, will attract attention in the coming war with Sauron. All of this is glossed over in the book, but adds a deeper context and perhaps a reason why Gandalf is engaged in the first place. I suppose it’s not in keeping with the happy go lucky tone of the book to talk about global economics or the imminent rise of Sauron, but I prefer it.
So this is probably the worst movie review anywhere, with no references to camera work, direction, acting, or anything. Trust Two Dudes to turn Hollywood movies into politico-economic analyses of imaginary places. Though at this point, I am just happy to be posting again, so I trust that loyal fans will roll with it all. I enjoyed The Hobbit, or at least what I have seen thus far, though I admit to preferring LOTR. I’ll watch the third as soon as I can, and may post more, if further reaction seems warranted.