A Not-Unexpected Variation: Reviewing “The Hobbit: Episode I”

“To be dissolved, or to be degraded, is the likely fate of Fantasy when a dramatist tries to use it, even such a dramatist as Shakespeare.”  –J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories” (1947).

They say one of the joys of having low expectations is that you are often pleasantly surprised.  It was with this in mind, or something like it, that I sat down with a couple of friends the other day to watch The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey, the first of apparently three movies based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  In fact the idea of making three movies out of The Hobbit contributed to  my generally lowered expectations.  I expect I wasn’t the only Tolkien fan to apply the “butter that’s been scraped over too much bread” analogy.  Another factor was Peter Jackson’s tendency to pad out the Lord of the Rings movies with new material that, in my opinion, was frankly inferior to what he cut from the book to make room for his stuff.  And then there was the unhappy experience of George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace as a cautionary tale of how clunky a prequel can be.

Like Lucas’s Phantom Menace, Jackson’s Unexpected Journey is sometimes a little too conscious of its status as a prequel.  The introductory material with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood (Bilbo and Frodo from the Lord of the Rings movies) is understandable, though perhaps longer than necessary.  Also, the sudden introduction of Saruman and Galadriel into Rivendell (not in the book!) may seem irrelevant or confusing to viewers unfamiliar with the other story.   (That may be true of Gollum as well, when he is introduced; but as he’s both canonical and essential, new viewers may just have to put up with it.)

There’s certainly a good deal to say on the positive side.  The pacing was much better than in the Lord of the Rings movies.  At least it didn’t feel like we were taking the whole book at a run:  that’s one benefit, perhaps, of stretching the story out to three movies.  Granted, without the extraneous material added by Jackson, the story might still be squeezed into two movies; but since I wasn’t watching the movie with a stopwatch in hand, it’s hard to say.

Another positive point, for me, at least, was the portrayal of the dwarves.  While we may quibble about whether they looked old enough, or had the right proportions, it was nice to see them able to express a little more personality, or at least individuality.  In the book the dwarves tended to lurk homogeneously in the background like a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus.  (Hmm–The Hobbit as a Savoy opera?  Now there’s a thought.  Cue music from The Mikado:  “A wand’ring wizard I,/ a thing of spells and magic./Your situations tragic/I’ll gladly modify…”  Or from Pirates of Penzance:  “Here’s a first-rate opportunity/To get wealthy with impunity/And engage Smaug’s gold economy/To rebuild our lake community…”  Okay, maybe not.)  Let’s face it:  it’s hard to write a book with more than a dozen major characters; and the book, after all, is The Hobbit, not The Dwarves.  Maybe Thorin wasn’t quite as xenophobic in the book as in the movie, but otherwise the dwarves seemed consistent with how they were drawn in the book, to the extent they were drawn at all.

Of course, being a Peter Jackson production, such tinkering, both with characters and plot, was perhaps the inevitable cost of getting the book into film at all.  Besides the alterations to Thorin, Bilbo is also a good deal braver in the movie than he was in the corresponding parts of the book.  Also, Tolkien purists will cringe at the mincemeat Jackson makes of the backstory, as he reaches (or overreaches) to find a goblin enemy that can remain alive and credible while being scraped over three movies.  Jackson also struggles to develop the Necromancer from an explanation for Gandalf’s occasional disappearances (in the book) into a full-fledged B-plot, thus bringing Saruman and Galadriel to Rivendell and introducing Doctor Who alumnus Sylvester McCoy in an amusing if totally uncanonical turn as wizard Radagast the Brown.

The technical effects are still very good–rather self-consciously so, as evidenced by the long scenes in and under the mountains as Bilbo and Co. cope with the stone giants (mentioned in the book, but only in passing) and improbable numbers of goblins.  There are also precarious downward rides on various detached bits of infrastructure which are somewhat reminiscent of the Moria sequences from Fellowship of the Ring.  From the technical perspective, I must admit they did a credible job keeping the recurring characters looking the appropriate age (i.e. not having them look nine years older than they did in the movies set 60 years in the future).  I’m not quite sure they kept all the relative heights consistent through the movie; that may be something to look more closely at when it comes out on DVD.

It is perhaps fair to wonder what Tolkien himself would have thought of it all.  The quote at the beginning of this post suggests that Tolkien had little use for the idea of turning Literature into Drama.  Granted, considering that this quote was taken from an essay published in 1947, the forms of drama he had in mind were likely either stage drama or else very early film and television, any of which would have been painfully inadequate to capture Tolkien’s vision.  But even beyond the question of technical mastery (or lack thereof), Tolkien’s essay goes on to suggest something is lost in the transition to drama–perhaps because, in a drama, the point of view of the characters is inevitably submerged in the point of view of the dramatist’s.

So where does that leave us with this movie?  On the whole, taking it for what it is–an adaptation–I think most Tolkien fans will be okay with it.  Compared with the book, it’s far from perfect.  Compared to the Lord of the Rings movies, this one is on par or a slight improvement.  Compared to what the movie could have been… I think this falls within reasonable expectations.  Maybe I’ll raise my outlook for the next two movies to “Cautiously Optimistic.”

At any rate, it’s probably safe to say Prof. Tolkien would have preferred Jackson’s movies to an adaptation by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Copyright 2013

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One Response to “A Not-Unexpected Variation: Reviewing “The Hobbit: Episode I””

  1. dhparker Says:

    Thanks for doing this review. Maybe we will go see it, after all.

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