Wednesday, December 26

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Directed by Peter Jackson

I have to confess that, although I've had a great love for J. R. R. Tolkien and his constructed linguistic-historical mythology of Middle-Earth ever since I was first introduced to The Lord of the Rings when I was in high school, and have reread that magnum opus several times, I have read The Hobbit only once (well, twice, counting the time I read it to my son a decade ago) and have had a much lower opinion of it than any of Tolkien's other works. Mostly, I know, that comes from approaching it in a backwards manner, having already been entranced by the high fantasy of LotR when I then picked up the considerably more juvenile “prequel.” As much as I enjoyed it on its own terms, also, I had the rather childish adaptation by Rankin and Bass that came out during the same general period of the late 1970s contributing to what I considered (and still do) an irreconcilable clash with the heroic gravitas that prevails in the “sequel” (and even more so in my own personal favorite of Tolkien's works – yes, The Silmarillion).

The Rankin/Bass Production
of The Hobbit (1977)
Nevertheless, I was as excited as anyone else when the “long-awaited” (an obvious turn of phrase that I nonetheless owe to an Internet friend) revisiting of Middle-Earth as envisioned by Peter Jackson finally appeared on the horizon with the release of the rather extensive teaser trailer about a year or so ago. And I definitely liked what I saw then. I had the opening date of 14 December marked in my iPhone calendar from as early as it became known to me, and fully intended to be there that first weekend if not that first day of general release.

Unfortunately, life got in the way. I never considered making the midnight Thursday-Friday premier; I figure last summer's The Dark Knight Rises was my last such adventure – it took me all the subsequent weekend to recover that time (besides the emotional wallop dealt by the shootings in Colorado), and I moreover had to appear at the Fall Semester Commencement Friday morning. That's hard enough to stay awake through without being sleep-deprived going in! Then Friday afternoon and evening were taken up volunteering to serve car-pooling members of my son's soccer team to a tournament in Shreveport. Saturday and Sunday succumbed to intensive cleanings of our parish church, Natchitoches' Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, in preparation for Christmas services, and the same of our own home which was hosting our Monday Night Bible Study Christmas Party on Monday night. And by that time we were well into the week, which meant that if my wife were to go with me we'd have to wait until the next weekend. So I did not end up getting into the theatre until Saturday afternoon the 22nd.

By which time my only option to see it in Natchitoches was in 3D. I've expressed several times on this blog my preference for good, old-fashioned 2D, and in fact had testimony from my son that this movie also suffered from what has been my experience in the few 3D movies I've seen in the past few years, a generally darker, muddier appearance. (He saw it some time during that first weekend, probably Saturday evening the 15th.) I had planned to see The Hobbit in 2D, which was playing alongside the 3D in our theatre for the first week of release, but 2D unexpectedly vanished when the new movies hit. My wife threw out the idea of waiting for a chance to see it in 2D rather than 3D, but by that second weekend of release I was tired of waiting, so there we were. I must say that the experience was better than I expected. In contrast to my son's experience, I didn't feel that this movie was dark and gloomy except where appropriate. I only found the picture “dissociating” in a couple of shots, typically “deep” landscape perspectives where it seemed like the composite elements of the 3D effects were slightly out of sync. Those were balanced off by several vistas that were quite simply amazing, most notably inspiring my wife to gasp, “Wow!” near the end when the Eagles were flying the company toward their aerie.

Yes, visually, this movie was spectacular, noticeably more advanced than the now-ten-years-old Lord of the Rings trilogy of films themselves, which still hold up very well and I'm sure always will. If anything, there were places where I thought the special effects were a bit overdone, as if Jackson succumbed to the common compulsion to make everything bigger than anything in his earlier work. I found myself thinking that especially during the sequences taking place in Goblintown, which seemed consciously designed to outdo Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Note also that I did not see it in the higher/48-frames-per-second version that has proven somewhat controversial, even reportedly causing a certain degree of vertigo in some audience members.

Enough on the technical aspects. What about the story adaptation?

As a movie, I found An Unexpected Journey to be thoroughly enjoyable, even if it seemed a little slow at times particularly in the first half when the Dwarves were assembling in Bag End and making their proposition to Bilbo Baggins. And yet I'll doubtless be buying the Extended Version DVD which has already been announced for the Third Quarter of 2013 according to Wikipedia. I can handle slow, especially in a movie like this where for me part of the enjoyment is just that sense of revisiting an old homeland and savoring the company of old friends after a long absence. Nevertheless it made me squirm a bit in my theatre seat from anticipation that here's where the filmmakers stand a chance of losing those who do not share that sentiment for Middle-Earth.

That's been my major concern in the months (years) leading up to the appearance of The Hobbit, the idea of taking a book that is only a fraction (about 1/5th?) of the length of The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a whole – or somewhere comparable to half the length of any of the constituent volumes of the latter* – with nowhere near the story scope, having a relatively linear narrative structure as opposed to the multiple constituent stories making up the latter, and making a multipart epic out of it, whether the initially announced two films or what ultimately emerged as a three-film “expandaptation” structured to parallel the earlier trilogy. (Thank God that Breaking Dawn was made before this movie!) Comparing my two Houghton Mifflin 1970s-era hardcovers (I have the big red one-volume of LotR), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey makes a movie most of three hours long out of a few more than a hundred pages (about 1/3rd) of the novel while The Fellowship of the Ring used only a bit more time to adapt somewhat more than four hundred pages – of noticeably smaller print. Even pulling in every possible story element from the appendices to LotR plus Tolkien's letters and his son's editions of The History of Middle-Earth, et al., stretching this tale that thinly stood a real risk of (as a reviewer I cannot find again beat me to likening it, based on Bilbo's own words) making it “feel ... like butter that has been scraped over too much bread” (The Fellowship of the Ring I:1, p. 41). But for the most part those expansions are worked into the storyline very well, even what seem to me to be radical deviations from Tolkien's canon such as Radagast's involvement at this point, the über-Orc Azog surviving the War of the Dwarves and Orcs to become an obviously continuing threat that will extend into (most likely) all three films, and the Battle of the Mountain Rock-Giants that was created from whole cloth (so, a friend of mine said, Jackson could use techniques he'd developed for King Kong).

As might be expected given the mandate to wring every possible minute of screen time from the story as written (and then some), those parts that come from the book are remarkably faithful to it. Even years after reading it, there seemed to be quite a bit more recognizable passages of dialogue in this movie as opposed to any of the LotR trilogy. It was downright magical to experience the Ballad of the Lonely Mountain both as sung so majestically a capella by the Dwarves near the beginning and as "expandapted" into a more developed song over the credits. I must say, however, that I didn't think the other memorable song from the Dwarves during their stay at Bag End went over nearly so well – Blunt the Knives and Bend the Forks. Sure, songs like that are integral to the original text, but Tolkien was writing in – reproducing – an oral-historical-literary genre in which bards and such songs were central, but which is nonetheless very alien to a modern audience. Forgive me for actually thinking the latter came off a bit silly – but that's how I felt.

There is one other criticism I must level at the movie. It's a relatively little thing, that I dare say most moviegoers will not even pick up on. But there is no way on God's green Earth that I can imagine J. R. R. Tolkien writing the words that came back at Bilbo after he rebuked one of the Dwarves for mistreating a piece of crocheted fabric – (paraphrased) “Good game – if you've got the balls for it!” NO. WAY. Not in The Lord of the Rings, not in The Hobbit – which was, after all, a children's book.

But all in all I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It is not The Lord of the Rings, but on its own terms it is a very welcome revisiting of that world with the promise of two more sojourns over the next couple of years. I already have 13 December 2013 marked in my iPhone calendar for the appearance of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Cheers, and Thanks for reading!
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* Approximate word-counts as follow: The Hobbit, 95,000; The Lord of the Rings, 455,000 (Fellowship, 177,000; Towers, 143,000; Return, 134,000) (source here, rounded)

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