So, how did you guys like The Hobbit? I found it a little bit underwhelming. Then again, I’m not sure what could have been done differently to improve it… This story and this movie… They are what they are, and there is not much you can do about it.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. This movie is not Lord of the Rings. It cannot be for the simple reason that Lord of the Rings was already filmed, released and it was a great success. So barring an inevitable re-make a decade or two from now, there is not going to be another movie trilogy quite like it.
I said it before, but I am a firm believer in the fact that Tolkien is more or less the father of Fantasy. Without Lord of the Rings there would be no genre. His work defined it and set its borders and scope. Most of fantasy works are very much influenced, if not derivative of LotR for the sole reason of it being the archetypical prototype story. It is a template that everyone is cribbing off when they want to work within the genre.
Don’t believe me? Do this experiment – ask Fantasy enthusiasts to name at least one story that eclipses and overshadows Lord of the Rings with respect to scope, storytelling skill, literary value, critical reception, and etc. There is no book or book series out there that most fans of the genre could collectively agree to be “better than Tolkien” in every aspect. There are quite a few novels and series that are great in their own little way, but none of them can’t compare to the legend that is LotR.
And because of this, there simply can’t be a fantasy movie made that could eclipse Peter Jackson’s trilogy. It can’t happen because the source material just isn’t there. People have been trying to write the next fantasy epic for many decades now, and no one has yet succeeded because the game is rigged. You can’t beat Tolkien if the chief tenet of your genre framework is “be like Tolkien”. If you follow the internal unwritten rules of the genre you can only make something equal to the LoTR. If you surpass it, you are now beyond the bounds of the genre and your contribution no longer counts.
Trying to follow up Lord of the Rings is a fools errand, and Peter Jackson knew it well. This is why he stayed away from The Hobbit project at first. Once you adapted the genre defining work, and a pillar of western popular culture there is no way to go from there but down. Especially since The Hobbit is not a story that could be put in the same literary class as LotR.
What it can and cannot be
Lets establish what The Hobbit is, shall we? It is a short novel whereas LotR is a three part epic series. The first edition had merely 310 pages and was written over a relatively short period of time (most of the work was allegedly done between 1930 and 32). For comparison, the combined notes and manuscripts that Tolkien has amassed between 1937 and 1949 while writing Lord of the Rings are over nine thousand pages of script.
I’m pointing this out because I want to emphasize that the difference between the two stories is not just in raw length, but also in the scope of research and world building effort that went into creation of each. The Hobbit allegedly started wit Tolkien finding a blank sheet of paper, and struck by a sudden inspiration writing the famous first sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. Lord of the Rigns on the other hand was a result of meticulous research, careful drafting and world building.
A lot of elements from the hobbit were intended to be humorous and lighthearted interludes. Tolkien wrote it as a modern fairy tale, styling the tone and the narration after European fables he grew up and studied. It was not meant to be cohesive – it was meant to be entertaining and exciting. He never planned it to be a first chapter to a much bigger, much more complex story. It was a one-off effort that later turned into something else.
When Tolkien sat down to write Lord of the Rings, some of the things from hobbit got reconnected or retroactively changed. Like Hill Giants for example – they are gone, forgotten and never mentioned again. If you read LotR carefully you will also notice the term “goblin” was also dropped in favor of Orc, leading many readers to speculate that the two were possibly different species altogether. But according to Tolkiens notes, they are one and the same – he simply made a conscious choice to abandon the folklore based “goblin” because he felt that it called up the wrong image in the mind of the readers. Goblins of fairy tales were tricksters and mischievous imps rather than the violent and war like Orcs he wrote about in the trilogy. For the same reason LotR always refereed to “Deep Elves” as Noldor and never as “gnomes”.
All of this combined results in a story that is not only smaller, less significant, less epic and much smaller in scope. A book riddled with inconsistencies and flaws that Tolkien later, after he was chest-deep in world building notes for his trilogy, much regretted and had to re-explain and retcon. The Hobbit is simply not a story that you could follow Lord of the Rings with. There is not even enough story there to make a proper prequel.
Fortunately for director Peter Jackson, Christopher Tolkien has made a pretty decent dime by collecting, collating and re-publishing most of the aforementioned nine thousand pages of notes his father produced while writing the trilogy. Bulk of these were never intended to be part of the actual story of Frodo and his companions, but served as background world-building notes that helped the writer keep the expansive myths and history of the Middle Earth consistent as he wrote. Other notes were an effort to somehow re-connect and reconcile The Hobbit and LotR. These “story glue” notes were published in countless appendices that over the years got added tho the LotR books, in The Silmarilion as well as the two “Books of Lost Tales”. A lot of this stuff is disjointed and inconsistent but Tolkien fans and scholars have been studying and arguing over these works for decades now. If you want to spruce up your movie based on a very short novel, there is a body of work out there to help you.
Watching this movie you can tell that Jackson at some point sat down with a team of Tolkien experts and have them compose a detailed timeline of everything that has happened before, after and during the time when Bilbo Baggins was hanging out with the Dwarves. Especially things that could be used to stage fights, battle scenes (or flashbacks of thereof if needed) or drive conflict between characters.
And so, we see Radagast investigating Dol Guldur, Gandalf participating in the Second White Council conveniently held at Rivendel just as the Dwarves and Bilbo arrive, we see extensive flashbacks to the Battle of Azanulbizar explaining how Thorin got his nickname “Oakenshield” and etc. No reference or off-hand mention is small enough not to be expanded into a 15 minute action sequence!
Unlike Tolkien who was writing The Hobbit for fun, Jackson knows he is making a prequel. He is keenly aware that the source material does not stand up to the movies he made before and which became his magnum opus. So he chooses to fully acknowledge it in the movie. Even though the main story is about the Dwarves and their journey to the Lonely Mountain, he keeps his focus on Gandalf who is keenly aware of trouble brewing in Dol Guldur.
Why would a mighty Istari accompany bunch of dorky Dwarves and a fish out of water Hobbit on a suicide mission to slay the mightiest of dragons? Perhaps he is just a weird old Wizards and that’s what they do. Or perhaps he playing a long con, and gently moving his merry company into a position where they can cause a lot of ruckus at just the right time to make a point, or to conceal some of his other machinations.
In addition to using outside references, Jackson takes some liberties with the source material by just straight up inventing stuff, not much unlike how he did it in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien purists who were upset that Tom Bombadil and The Scouring of the Shire were cut from the movies will probably loose their shit when they see Azog the Pale Orc promoted to the primary antagonist in The Hobbit.
In case you are not up on your Tolkien Lore, Azog was a big mean Orc who ruled Moria until he was decapitated at it’s gates by a young dwarf named Dáin during the Battle of Azanulbizar. In other words, the dude was dead long before Bilbo left the Shire. His son Bolg does crop up later in The Hobbit only to be owned by Beorn during the Battle of Five Armies. Jackson couldn’t resist the urge of having a huge, pale, bad-ass Orc in his movie so he makes Azog survive the battle loosing not his head, but only his hand – which gets chopped off by Thorin himself. Now Azong has blood vendetta against Mr. Oakenshield and quite literally becomes the Darth Vader of the movie (ie. he kills bunch of his own people to establish how ruthless and evil he is, and none of the protagonist fight him yet because it’s to early in the trilogy for that).
Granted, without Thorin and Azog plot hook, the first installment wouldn’t have a central conflict arc. And conflict arcs are what Peter Jackson loves to add to his films. I highly recommend watching this Fellowship of the Ring review by Lindsay Ellis where she does a great job of breaking down a lot of these forcefully injected conflict arcs. Jackson does the same in The Hobbit but here he cracks it up to eleven.
A good example is the conflict between Bilbo and Thorin. The Dwarf leader doesn’t like the Hobbit, and considers him a liability. He constantly reminds Gandalf he can’t guarantee Bilbo’s safety, and often complains that his company is being slowed down by a hobbit who is not accustomed to traveling and adventuring. It is very similar to the Aragorn – Elrond conflict Lindsay mentions in her video. While it exist in the book at some level, it is never as pronounced. Here it forms the central focus of the movie – Bilbo “proving” himself to Thorin is the central theme of this first movie. The fact they neatly wrap it around the end to have a moving emotional exchange against the backdrop of the mountain makes it painfully obvious that Jackson will milk the scene where Bilbo offers the Arkenstone to the Elves for all the melodrama that he can.
The sad part is that he almost has to do all of this… He signed a deal to make this a three part trilogy, but there is barely enough source material there to make a single full feature movie.
When you watch The Hobbit you become keenly aware that a lot of what is going on is nothing more but padding. The Dwarves stumble from one action sequence to another. If they are not fighting, running away or tumbling down toward certain doom they either reminisce about old battles (cue in flashbacks) or sit down and have a grand old singalong.
In his review, Movie Bob compared The Hobbit to a Kung-Fu movie in that every scene that could potentially be an excuse for a big fight scene is almost automatically expanded into one. If you are sitting in the theater and you just had a jumbo sized coke (which I think are now illegal in NYC) and are fighting to hold your pee in, but you don’t want to miss any action, you are more or less shit out of luck my friend. If you haven’t went to the bathroom during Rivendel scenes you are going to have to wait until Bilbo starts playing riddles with Gollum. But even that is interrupted several times by “exciting” scenes in which the Dwarves fight their way out of the goblin town across endless walkways, bridges and towers.
Jackson is trying really hard to make it seem like the plot is moving forward, without actually moving forward by constantly inundating the viewer with action beats. As long as there are exciting things on the screen chances are you are going to forget how little the story moved forward during the last hour. Unfortunately all those action beats are nothing but padding.
What is worse is that they make the movie seem both rushed, and slow and dragging at the same time. It is rushed, because you hardly have a few seconds to breathe without a new calamity threatening the heroes. It drags on, because despite all the action very little has happened. Everything between the Shire and the first glimpse of the Lonely Mountain becomes a blur. When you leave the movie theater it feels like you have just watched one long chase sequence.
It is a pacing problem, but I don’t know how it could have been solved. Big contributing factor to the rushed feeling are the Orc hunters who basically chase the Dwarves from one set piece to another. Instead of normal “travel sequence” transitions, Jacson pretty much uses “Holy shit, Orcs! Run!” bit to move his protagonists from place to place. Removing these guys would go a long way improving the pacing but… It would also make the movie about an hour shorter, since their chase sequences and Azog’s bad guy posturing constitute a lot of padding time.
On the other hand, without Azog arching (yes it’s a word – watch moar Venture Brothers) Thorin there wouldn’t be main antagonist. Without main antagonist the only action bits would be troll camp and the goblin town. Without Azog, Bilbo wouldn’t be able to save Thorin’s’ life against his arch-enemy thus resolving their own conflict and setting up a bigger one down the line. The movie wouldn’t really have much of an arc at all – nor it should, since it is merely the few opening chapters of a rather short story.
Is An Unexpected Journey a good movie? Well… No, not exactly. It is not a terrible movie. It is not even a bad movie. But I wouldn’t describe it as great, or even good. When I left the theater I was mostly disappointed with it. Then again, I really don’t know what I was expecting. Going in, I knew the material was not up to par with LotR. I knew that it was a trilogy based on a book that doesn’t even have nearly enough material for a LotR sized three hour movie. I guess my feelings after watching the hobbit are best summarized by this Arrested Development scene:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is exactly what it says on the tin. It is somewhat faithful adaptation, and Jackson mostly hits all the right notes, and all the right beats. Can we blame him that the source he is adapting is not nearly as epic or engrossing as the source he used for LotR? Can we blame him for making valiant attempts to stretch this short story into three movies? I honestly thing he did a pretty decent job considering what he had to work with.
Could it have been done better? Yes – as a single movie. Other than that, this is most likely the best we could have wished for. Hopefully the next two installments will have less of pacing issues since we will be getting closer to the “meat” of the story and its conclusion.