In the last week I have watched the Hobbit twice, first with my partner and then as part of an end-of-year party with my players. In both cases, the people who attended the movie with me gave it the thumbs up – we all really enjoyed it – and I can definitely say that it maintains Peter Jackson’s tradition of getting Tolkien right. However, it got a much more mixed critical reception from my friends than The Lord of the Rings did, and although it was very good I think there was a lot wrong with it as well.
The first thing to say is that Jackson appears to have taken on the special – and in my opinion exemplary – project of properly binding the two stories together. He has taken crucial material from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings and incorporated it into the movie, so that there are actually a lot of scenes in the movie that aren’t in the book, but are taken from cross-references in other parts of Tolkien’s work. In my opinion this is an excellent idea, and it improves the story, since instead of being a stand-alone adventure with hints of background darkness, it meshes into what we already know about the war of the ring. When we first read The Hobbit we blundered through all that stuff, not even knowing it was there, but Jackson has made a wise decision in not pretending that the previous movies weren’t made, and explicitly linking the two stories. The extra material he puts in is related to the larger plot: it shows how the timeline of The Hobbit links in with events in the appendices and the other books (I think the Unfinished Tales) by inserting events like Radagast the Brown’s investigations of Mirkwood, and Gandalf’s councils with Elrond et al, into the narrative flow of the main story. He also gives lots of hints as to the nature of Gandalf’s schemes and plans, so that we now know that certain actions he took were not simply due to happenstance, but part of his bigger plan.
The downside to this project, though, is that the movie doesn’t stand alone, and the main story of The Hobbit sometimes takes second place to the bigger events of Middle Earth. Precisely one of the charming points of The Hobbit is its sense of stand-alone adventure, that nothing really grand is happening and it’s just a bunch of bumbling dwarves getting on with their lives. In this movie they’re a bunch of bumbling dwarves whose desire to get on with their lives is being manipulated to a bigger purpose by Gandalf. It’s not an innocent “adventure” anymore, but a grim and serious quest being played out by a group of innocents.
For those of us who enjoy the broader sweep of Tolkien’s history, this is just grand. But for The Hobbit‘s original audience – children – and all those people who see fantasy movies as a pleasant distraction, this bigger picture stuff may be a little tedious. It also runs against the other chief artistic goal of the movie: to make it accessible to children. Because the reality is that a movie with Gollum in it is not for children, but the book was written for kids, and Jackson obviously intended this movie for a youthful audience. It doesn’t have the grimness and sense of hopelessness of The Lord of the Rings, and there is no gore: the party mash their way through a thousand trillion goblins but you never see a drop of blood, and even the trollish grotesqueness tends towards the hilarious rather than the disturbing. It is carnivalesque rather than grotesque, which is fine – until you meet Sauron or Gollum or Smaug, and then suddenly it’s nasty as hell, and not for children. The scenes with Gollum, particularly, are very disturbing, and Gollum – done brilliantly as ever – is if anything scarier than he is in The Lord of the Rings. At times he is close to being as horrifying as the grey men in The Descent, killing in cold blood and openly contemplating cannibalism, balancing on the knife edge of his two personalities and always close to doing bloody murder with his bare hands. So the movie is swings and roundabouts, taking us from silly Sinbad-style adventure thrills to sudden bubbles of grim darkness, and no real way to balance the two. I guess if he had made the whole thing genuinely grim and perilous he would have been criticized, but in attempting to convey hints of the bigger and darker story to come, he creates occasional jarring shifts in tone and theme. Maybe this is a flaw of the book as much as the movie, but I found myself wishing for the whole thing to have been grim and perilous – not just the odd moments.
One thing that Jackson has done to rescue the book from its more foolish moments, however, is he has made the dwarves genuinely steely, adult figures rather than the laughable stereotypes that they have always previously been portrayed as. There was a lot of complaining on some websites about how terribly wrong the dwarves are, but the source material gives us precious little to go on, and it certainly seems like a lot of fanboys’ images of Tolkien’s dwarves are based on how they imagined dwarves when, as 12 year olds, they read the book. i.e., their image of Tolkien’s dwarves is heavily corrupted by Disney. But Jackson has escaped that trap, and gives us real, serious dwarves. Dwalin, particularly, is excellent: he looks, sounds and acts like he is from a race that was spawned from stone and spends its life working in iron. Thorin is genuinely a warrior, and those who are not warriors are genuinely not warriors. It’s a motley bunch, well aware of its own limitations, but united in a quest and doing its best in a hard world. The dwarves are not comedy figures like Gimli sometimes was, and they are designed to make us respect them as wandering heroes looking for their home.
The same probably couldn’t be said about Radagast the Brown…
A few other minor points about the big problems with this movie are below, with dissenting views from my friends where I remember them.
- 48 Frames Per Second is bad: I have seen the movie with and without this “innovation,” and all I can say is that in 48fps it looks like you’re watching a fantasy version of The Bold and the Beautiful. Many of the scenes look like they’re on a cheap set, and Jackson’s penchant for facial close-ups really works against him when the film medium has the effect of making everything look like a soap opera. Avoid 48fps if you can. One viewer disagreed with me on this and thought 48 fps was better, but he is a designer, so what would he know about art?
- Smaug is great: One of my pet hates about big budget movies is they always fuck up the dragon, but Jackson has avoided that. You don’t get a clear look at Smaug but it’s clear that he’s huge, hideous, and evil. This is a dragon that will terrify you to death, not a wagon-sized lizard with Sean Connery’s face.
- The troll scene is disappointing: there are two moments in the movie where Bilbo has a chance to prove himself and rescue the group, and on both occasions Jackson fluffs it. The troll scene has some great parts, and the trolls themselves are hilarious, but Bilbo’s role was disappointing. Others in my group said the trolls were not so great, either, and one viewer suggested Bilbo’s agency had been stolen from him in these scenes in order to enhance the sense that he didn’t fit in …
- Bilbo was controversial: I really like the actor who plays Bilbo, and I think he was great for the part, but others said he had overdone the depiction of Bilbo as reluctant adventure. The consensus appeared to be “Yes! Alright! I get it! You don’t like adventuring! We know that! Now can you start doing stuff???!!!”
- Galadriel and Gandalf’s relationship is great: Jackson really has an eye for the things that Tolkien hinted at but didn’t deliver on. His depiction of gollum as evil but pathetic is superlative, and he really explored Frodo and Samwise’s relationship beautifully. In this movie he gives us more hints of the long and special relationship between Gandalf and Galadriel, and also of her unique power and influence; this is one of those times when overdoing the facial close-ups works. Cate Blanchett is perfect as Galadriel and Ian McKellen has really got Gandalf down to a T. The two of them together are electric.
- The orcs haven’t lost it: Orcs in Middle Earth are not cannon fodder, and the orcs in this movie are really tough, scary bastards. The worgs aren’t as good as those in The Lord of the Rings, though.
So, overall I don’t think those who enjoyed The Lord of the Rings will be disappointed with The Hobbit, but I do think it tries to do too many things at once: it tries to be a rollicking kids’ adventure, an insight into the machinations and schemes of those who fought the growing shadow, and a grim and stern introduction to a great battle between mighty powers, all at once. These three things don’t fit together, and I would have much preferred it was the last two rather than the first one. A truly mature version of this movie would be as sinister as The Fellowship of the Ring, and just as desperate, but this movie flits between that world and the sunny children’s adventure too much. I shouldn’t really complain because I wouldn’t have liked it that much if it were just a Disney-esque romp (though it would still have been fun). Nonetheless, I don’t think it works entirely to mix the three themes.
Still, it’s a worthy addition to the canon and arguably rescues The Hobbit from itself (and Tolkien’s bad sense of content placement, as well) by moving the bigger story into the interstices of the plot. I recommend you don’t miss this movie!