Monday, December 17, 2012

A Few Stray Thoughts from a Grumpy Purist Regarding Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: Part One

I've let slip a time or three in the past that J.R.R. Tolkien's works hold a very special place in my heart; while I'm not blind to the flaws which others rightly point out in his writings, that does nothing to diminish the seminal stature of LotR and The Hobbit in my mind.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I hurried out to see the long-delayed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as soon as it hit the big screen.  What did I think?  Click below the break to read some of my more rant-worthy thoughts.

Oh, and just so there's no unpleasant surprises: I'm not going to make any effort to avoid spoilers here.  The book has been out for nearly a century; there's a statute of limitations on this stuff, guys.  And if you don't want to know about the stuff they added that wasn't in the book... well, maybe this isn't the commentary for you.  Fair warning.

First thing's first: I knew from the outset that this movie was going to leave me angry and disappointed.  In case the title of the blog post didn't tip you off, I don't have much tolerance for directors who toy around with source material in which I feel invested--even when that change is generally agreed to be a positive (or at least, necessary) one.  To give you an idea of the kind of person I am in this regard, I went to the midnight showings of Jackson's LotR movies dressed as Tom Bombadil as a particularly silly (and apparently ineffective) protest over his exclusion from Fellowship.  I skipped the costume this time--I'm getting too old to dress up for movies--but my general attitude remains unchanged.  So take everything I say with a grain of salt; realistically, this movie was never going to satisfy me.

Anyway, I went to the theater with a few friends, and although we made sure to get there early, the best seats were already taken.  We ended up about five rows too far forward and perhaps as many columns too far to stage (screen) left for best sound, which is always kind of annoying.  But hey, it's not like we were in edge seats or anything.  We saw a few previews, and then the movie began.

It started... poorly.  A long, rambling backstory of Eribor and Smaug's coming ate up the first ten minutes or so (estimated: it's not like I was checking my watch), and served no useful purpose.  In fact, it seemed designed to alienate all possible viewers: anyone who had never read the book would find the backstory thick enough to be incomprehensible, and anyone (like myself) who had read them would find it bafflingly redundant.  There's literally nothing in this intro that is even slightly necessary to understand what's going on throughout the rest of the movie, since the dwarves' motivations and such are spelled out quite clearly in their meeting at Bag End.  Also, having Thorin and his quest introduced before said meeting sort of spoils the effect of a bunch of dwarves showing up unannounced for anyone who's coming into the story fresh.

Once the intro was done, though, I was actually pretty happy with the next few segments.  Jackson thankfully kept the proceedings light and whimsical through to the point where Bilbo agrees to join the quest, rather than trying to match the heavier tone of LotR.  I was especially grateful that a couple of the songs were preserved; I know many readers skip over them, but I like Tolkien's verse (well, usually).  All in all, it was a solid stretch, which had me feeling much more positive about the story than I had at first.

Things went downhill rapidly from there.  I dislike changes to the source material regardless of necessity, but I'm both baffled and enraged by changes that serve no obvious purpose, and the scene with the trolls was full of them.  What's the point of replacing Gandalf's ventriloquism with Bilbo stalling for time?  I could at least understand that if it was supposed to make the dwarves trust him more, but it explicitly does not--that's saved for later in the movie.  Why replace the dwarves being captured piecemeal with a depressingly slapstick fight sequence?  It's not like the movie was hurting for action in the early going--we'd just come off an extended flashback of the battle outside the gates of Moria, and there was plenty more added content combat prior to Rivendell.  I may not like them, but some changes I can at least understand--books and movies are different beasts, and a certain amount of re-imagining is required to transfer a story from one medium to another successfully.  But pointless alterations like these are infuriating to me.

I'm not going to talk about Azog, because it will just make me angry.  Apparently, a quest to slay a dragon which is interrupted by hostile goblins, hungry trolls, vicious spiders, suspicious elves, and one skulking proto-hobbit wasn't interesting enough for Mr. Jackson.  No, Thorin needs an albino with a vendetta stalking him all across Middle-Earth, because why the hell not?

The whole bit with Sauron The Necromancer and the White Council I was more willing to accept, since at least it's mentioned that that all happened in the book.  I suppose if The Hobbit needs to be padded out to epic-length, then I'll take off-screen canon events over the incredibly stupid stone giants scene and @!#%-ing Azog, at any rate.  And I've got a soft spot for Radagast--one of the first fanfics I ever wrote was about him.  That said, they played up his wacky disgustingness far too much in his introduction.

Speaking of the Brown Wizard, it may be just a sign of how much the rest of the movie disappointed me, but I actually kind of liked the rabbit-driven sled.  If nothing else, it was one of the few wholesale additions which fit the tone of the book, rather than being either action-violence-y, or lowest-common-denominator comedy (or both--the escape from the Goblin King's lair was almost physically painful to watch.  The fact that people in the audience were cheering as Gandalf and the dwarves rode a collapsing bridge down a rocky slope like a sled only made it worse).

Best non-canon line/meta-joke in the movie: Gandalf being unable to remember the names of the two blue wizards.  I laughed out loud when he said that.

The Gollum scene was actually not bad--at least by comparison to the unspeakably awful capture by and escape from the Goblin King which surrounded it.  That said, the abundant lighting in the deep, forgotten caverns under the mountains really bothered me.  Andy Serkis does a very credible job with the role (again), though to be honest, Peter Woodthorpe's portrayal in the Bakshi LotR always fit my mental image of the character better (and that's probably the first and last time you'll hear me say anything nice about the animated LotR).

On the whole, I disliked The Hobbit (part one) even more than I thought I would, and I knew I was going to dislike it going in.  Every time I started to feel a little bit of nascent goodwill towards this movie--and I've done my best above to mention those occasions--Peter Jackson would throw in something that reminded me just how much I like the book, and how much this movie pales in comparison.  From special effects failures (such as The Necromancer's single scene, which I'm pretty sure used the same distort-expand effect as my friend's high-school Star Wars fan film did back in the day) to fight sequences that alternated between incomprehensibly dark/fleetingly-shot and painful slapstick, and Azog (my God, was the freaking dragon not enough of a villain?  We really need a "this time, it's personal" angle invented out of whole cloth, too?), there was an awful lot about this movie that left me upset.

And the worst part is that when part two rolls around, I'm going to shell out and go see it, too.  And I'm going to hate it--probably even more than I did this one, based on how their setting up the Thorin/Thranduil dynamic, and what Azog means for the Battle of Five Armies.  But I'll still go, because that's the kind of fool I am.


  1. The thing that struck me most about this movie was how, if the next two films are a similar length, it might just take less time to read the book than to watch it.

    It went pretty much exactly how I expected it too. Fun little bedtime adventure story for the kiddies gets epiced up for the Hollywood movie screen, because we needs lots of crazy special effects and enormous setpieces to keep the audiences interested and breathless from gasping in awe, right? I did like the songs though.

    You're right, that collapsing bridge scene was ridiculous. I mean, it would have been smashed to bits and they all would've died! Urgh.

    And agreed about the exposition in the beginning as well. Just seemed like an extra excuse to do epiccy special effects things. By the time we got to Frodo and old Bilbo I was getting a little annoyed that the story I came to see hadn't even started yet.

    I think part of the problem is that Peter Jackson didn't make The Hobbit first. Now that it's coming after the LotR trilogy, there seems to be this need (or at least the makers feel like there is) to raise the stakes and make it more "epic" like that was, which I think pretty much explains everything from why this is a trilogy instead of just one or two movies to the inclusion of Azog.

  2. I actually liked the intro. It might not have been completely necessary or the right place to put it, but it gave Dale a bit of life that it didn't quite have in the book. And while I do like the exploration and expansion of Thorin's backstory (and don't completely dislike Azog's inclusion), they could have done better than make it something with a design and quality better fitting World of Warcraft than Middle Earth.

    I do feel that taking the clueless parade of dwarves straight from the book wouldn't have fit with the more serious tone that the movie had built until that point (and I did like the fact that Bilbo was actually going after something useful rather than an enchanted wallet he saw on a whim), and the fight wasn't terrible. Giving Bilbo Gandalf's lines also gives him some purpose, rather than tagging along and not really contributing anything until much later in the story. Not necessarily for trust reasons, but he's not just a tag-along liability.

    The Goblin King was probably the worst part of the movie, in my opinion. His design was needlessly comical—almost all of his lines would have been a better fit for a comedy—and his design has absolutely no place in the world they were creating. The falling bridge was actually a minor failing in comparison, though certainly still a problem. Nitpicking, one of my cousins pointed out that there really wasn't any good reason for him to speak perfect Westron, either.

    I did find Radagast to mostly be well-written, with a nice balance between caring for his animals above most else and his being one of the Maiar. His nod to "Greenwood" was nice, if mistimed (maybe he was seeing the last remnants/recovery of the old wood?), and Dol Guldur was good until the effects around the Necromancer. And his rabbits were great.

    So while the movie was certainly a disappointment, I do honestly think it could have been worse. It wasn't quite up to the standards I was expecting of Peter Jackson, but it's still good enough that I'm glad they finally got a film out for the Hobbit. Hopefully the Extended Cut just makes the story better (as in, not including any more regrettable scenes).

  3. Darn you for pointing out your bias at first. Now how can I laugh and poo-poo your review from my high throne? :(

    Of course, listening to your pained diatribe and resignation to inevitable shelling out of more money for more movies you know you'll hate reminds me of my reaction to Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy, so you have my sympathies. That said, I liked this movie, I look forward to the other two, I hated the book, so nyah.

    1. You liked the movie and hated the book? Tell me, what is it like to lack a sense of taste?

      I kid, I kid. Sorry about the Transformers stuff, though--seeing all three had to have hurt.

    2. This is not the first time I have been accused of having no taste, nor shall it be the last. :V

      I find Tolkein's writing to be horrifically dry. I respect his worldbuilding skills, but the Hobbit was, as I said, boring and confusing, and Fellowship of the Ring was infinitely worse. I have thankfully never read anything beyond that, and I intend to keep it that way.

      And thank you. By the third movie, I'd wised up and went on cheap movie night. Suck that three dollar loss, Bay! I have plans to pirate the fourth movie, but note that I still plan to watch it. :| We are fans, and we do stupid things.

  4. Wow, they changed a lot more than I was expecting. I thought they were just adding stuff from later sources to flesh things out. Azog sounds like a Dan Brown character. It's a shame, I was really excited when I first heard about this film a couple years ago 'cause I figured it'd be a shorter, single film. Peter Jackson's at his best when he has less than 100 minutes to work with

    You haven't said anything about the frame rate. Was it sickening? Did you get used to it after awhile?

    1. >Azog sounds like a Dan Brown character

      Now that you mention it, that's pretty much spot on. Ugh.

      And although I'd heard the movie was shot in 48 fps, I didn't really notice much difference. I saw it on a regular screen--no IMAX or 3D for me--so maybe that would have made the difference, but I was kind of expecting the broad, sweeping shots of which Peter Jackson's so fond to come out much crisper. Nope, they still blurred the way they always do. I couldn't see any advantage (or disadvantage--it didn't "look fake" or anything to me), at least on the standard screen.

  5. I believe that some of what they changed (The Trolls and him saving Thorin) was in order to make Bilbo less of a burden. While it is certainly great to see his character arc in the book, it would be terrible for those not familiar with the source material to have to endure a (nearly) useless main character during a whole movie.

    I guess I liked the movie more for certain scenes than as a whole. I liked seeing Radagast, the whole scene in Bilbo's house was very enjoyable, and the renditions of the songs were fun. Also Imladris and Gollum. Anyway, those kinda offset the silly and bad effects (the escape looked straight out of a cartoon), and the whole Azog thing.

  6. Huh. Don't get me wrong, but if you know beforehand you'll hate something, why bother? If you know no movie can live up to your expectations, why not save the money? You'll see and hear enough about it anyway if you keep your eyes open, so what's the point?

    1. hell, I've watched films purely so I can berate them from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. I have a friend who read 50 Shades of Grey so that she could slam it to a whole bunch of people who were talking about it.

      Sometimes it's just fun for the sake of it, and because it's better than not knowing for sure.

    2. Well, to each their own. I tend to gather up bits and pieces of second-hand knowledge, so I can usually confidently say I know quite a bit about movies, books etc. without having to consume them.

    3. It's like going to your favorite sports team's home games, even though they're 2-13 on the year and going nowhere. It's like accepting a dinner invitation from a friend, even though their cooking always turn out to be abominable. Sometimes, you just have to pay the price for your devotion to something.

      I'm not saying it's a good choice on my part, but that's how it is.

  7. Huh. I thought I was the only one who was bothered by that lighting.

  8. I agree with a lot of things you said, Chris, especially regarding Azog (and the bridge scene; fortunately, around here it's considered rude to cheer loudly during a movie).

    What I don't agree with is the role of Radagast. His design, including his rabbit-sled, was good, and I was glad he appeared at all, but I felt that by giving him a direct contact with the protagonists, he got involved too much. If I recall correctly, he was always a faraway character, never appearing in either The hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Now that we learned that his favorite pastime is racing through the slopes of Middle-Earth, what's his excuse for not showing up in the Battle of the Ring? I do hope he'll get a few rockin' awesome scenes in the attack at Dol Guldur, because plainly speaking, right now he looks like an incompetent mushroom-smoking idiot. And being a mage in Tolkien's universe is a much bigger deal than in other fantasy realms (Warcraft, D&D, etc). We're talking about a Maia, not someone who just studied a few books.

    I also found the intro pretty good. All right, it may have been a bit superfluous, but look me in the eye and tell me that Erebor wasn't epic. Come on, do it, I dare you.

    But other than this, I agree with most of your points. Well, I obviously enjoyed it more than you, but maybe I'm just soft.

  9. The Bad:
    1. Azog bothered me to no end. The talking on of him stalking them around Middle Earth made me seethe.
    2. Goblin King comedy was painful, whole goblin scenes in general were irritating to watch.
    3. Radagast traveling from Mirkwood to the other side of a long treacherous mountain chain in little to no time. Heck to do so with his rabbit sled he would've had to swing down to the Gap of Rohan, think he could've mentioned the issue to Saruman?
    The Mediocre:
    1. Thorin being more racist than I remembered.
    2. Troll scene. The fight scene felt unnecessary but I actually didn't mind Bilbo getting a bit more of limelight there.
    The Good:
    1. I actually enjoyed the opening, then again I love history. I seem to be in the minority with this point though.
    2. Bag End scenes were great.
    3. Bilbo in general, felt the character was true to the books and he's a enjoyable character there.

    Chris the reason you didn't notice the difference was that the 48 fps are only A.) In 3D and B.) Certain theaters(requires additional equipment I believe).

  10. Seen it now.

    48 Fps is AMAZING.

    The film's ability to entertain me is somewhat more underwhelming. To be fair, it is what it is. Done in the Tolkien style it gives way more backstory that is even remotely needed, and can't follow a single plot thread long enough to get any feeling of momentum. All the drama was so overwrought, or over-explained, or poorly paced for me to get much from it. Thorin's admission to Bilbo at the end was just ball-out awful. Even a fanfic writer would be ashamed at the way that thread was handled.

    Anything good I have to say about the film is based on the acting or cinematography (as is much of the bad stuff, to be fair).

  11. I view movie adaptations of books the same way I view fanfics of FiM.
    They're based on canon (hopefully) but not the same.
    A different version of a similar story.
    Sometimes they are closer to canon or farther, but that doesn't matter. What matters is if they were good in and of themselves.

  12. It's strange, if the internet has taught me anything it's that there are some things I don't have to know.

    For example, after I hated the Hobbit part 1 so much, I don't have to know how part 2 goes. I can just release it. Let it go. Free my self from the chains of obligation and self-inflicted suffering and do something else with my time instead.

    You should try it. Sometimes it's fine to not know things.

  13. I find that the things I didn't enjoy about the movie were things the party I was with really loved.

    Someone asked me what I thought of it, I said I read the book 11 years ago (and don't care to comment on the differences between movies and books anyway. As DPV111 said above, movies and books are a different story altogether, and that's part of the reason I love movie adaptations of books and vice versa) and I couldn't fault the movie for anything, really.

    That said, the scene with the stone giants fighting bothered me (and that was one of the few scenes my friends thought were better than the rest of the movie) and the look of the goblin king just made me want to not be watching the screen anymore.

    But to my original point, it takes all sorts to like a movie. I remember when that Red Riding Hood movie came out last year and it was a critical flop, but all the reasons critics hated it were reasons I liked it. *shrug* sometimes that just happens.

  14. I'm pretty late to this post, but I'll leave some opinions here anyway.

    I had just finished re-reading the book the day before I went to see the film, but I was actually expecting to like the film. I do like to be optimistic, after all. Unfortunately my experience of the film was severely diminished since I had what was probably the worst seat in the whole theatre, front row and edge right. But even then I think that I would've been disappointed if I had the best seat.

    Most of the problems I had were the same that you had with the film. Things like having Azog being on some 'personal quest for revenge' against the dwarves was just totally unnecessary, as was the whole stone giants scene. Plus the Goblin King just looked ridiculous, what with his stupidly immense size and scrotum for a chin.

    To be honest, I think the main problem I had was that the film was trying to be more like 'The Prequel to the Lord of the Rings' rather than just The Hobbit. I mean yes it technically is the prequel, but the cameos of Galadriel & Saruman and the leading up to Sauron's return seemed more like it was just pandering to fans of the LOTR films than anything else. I didn't pay to see the buildup to LOTR, I simply wanted to see the story of Bilbo's adventure with the Dwarves. But now I have to pay again to see them complete the journey, which they might've been able to do if all the added content was removed.

    But I did at least like how the songs fit into the film without seeming obtrusive, and how Gollum was portrayed. In retrospect I was perhaps a bit too fussy with the film. After all, my Dad and the friends I went to see it with are all bigger Tolkien fans than I am, but they all liked it. So now I've decided to properly read the Lord of the Rings books (I've tried before but never quite been able to hack them. This'll be my third attempt now) and then see what I think of the films afterwards.

  15. A terrible film but I wasn't surprised. I've only seen the first of Peter Jackson's LOTR films and didn't bother seeing the remainder. I only watched this one because I happened to be spending the evening at a friends (who had just rented the movie). I'm a Tolkien fan. I've read The Hobbit more times than I can remember and it's a real disappointment to see a classic of children's literature turned into a dismal Hollywood 'epic'. I'll just list those reasons (in no particular order) I can recall why I objected to the film:
    1. the whole film is too stretched and elaborate - it could have been simpler with more emphasis on (non-cliched) story telling - character, mood, suggestion
    2.) Jackson allows no space whatsoever for the viewer's imagination. He desperately wants to show you everything - every detail - whilst when you read the book (or watch a very good film) you complete and complement the artistry of the author/director with your own imaginings - for instance the completely ott scale of Erebor - it was ridiculously extensive
    3.) I didn't know the Dwarves were both super jugglers (with what skill they handled all that cutlery!) and also flawless martial arts experts (their escape from the Goblin King)
    4.) Jackson overly exaggerates the charming rather humorous character of the Dwarves to grotesque dimensions - they are utterly unbelievable
    5.) Sylvester Mccoy as Radagast (bad Dr. Who and now bad Radagast). poor Radagast, the quiet monk wizard in the mysterious woods, suggesting references to Medieval hermits and mystics transformed into God know what, a freakish comic character with Walt Dsneyesque animals to play with.
    6.) Azog - there has to be a cliched antagonist doesn't there! urghh, how predicatable. And the Wargs are too exaggerated. He needs to calm down with the special effects.
    7.) The music is awful - think of a permanent shower of syrup falling on you
    8.) The Shire - completely misimagined, and I though this of his first LOTR film, the landscape is turned into a telly tubby paradise - overly green, with no subtlety. I live amidst the landscape which partly inspired Tolkien - Salop - and the marches between Wales and England. It just isn't that . . . airbrushed?
    9.) The Elves - look like they are modelling on the catwalk. Jackson's only response to the 'highness' of the Elves is to remove them from us completely - to turn them into vacuous glittery supermodels with no character whatsoever. Galadriel and Elrond and the rest are ridiculous, almost comic parodies of bad actors trying to appear solemn and wise.
    10.) the storm giants - another example of Jackson's desire to overly exaggerate everything! Jackson doesn't understand the words - understate, atmosphere, suggestion
    11.) unnecessary changes to the story - Bilbo does start off as a priggish, annoying, pretty useless character - he develops (please let him develop). He doesn't need to be challenging supervillainesque orcs to single combat or outwitting mountain trolls.

    There's more but I have to stop somewhere. I think it's a bit of tragedy that these films have been made when a genuinely interesting director (with less money) could have created something that isn't kitsch, cliched and ugly but adds another dimension to the books.