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January 2013
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Even if I had been told The Hobbit was the worst movie ever made, I still would have gone to see it. It wasn’t. But even after seeing it twice my feelings remain mixed. In talking to friends who have been to it, reactions to the movie seem to fall into two camps: some felt it moved along briskly and engagingly, while others felt it was slow, bloated, and clumsy. My observation:

You’ll like it if: you enjoyed the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies, you want to return to Middle-earth, you like action movies, you’re keen on regularly scheduled battle scenes, you don’t care so much about fidelity to the original books by J.R.R. Tolkien.

You won’t like it if: you’re a big fan of Tolkien’s original books and expect a certain level of faithfulness to his story, you think that he had a better idea about the backstory and the character motivations, you don’t care for gratuitous battle scenes, you can’t stay out too late.

Speak Friend and EnterWhile I enjoyed Peter Jackson‘s previous LOTR movies, I fall into the later camp. Indeed, my view of this movie is strikingly different than my review of Jackson’s first movie of his LOTR Trilogy, written several years ago here. Why? I was annoyed by how much it diverged from Tolkien’s legendarium. To begin with, I believe Tolkien was one of the greatest authors of the 20th century (with 150 million copies sold, perhaps the greatest) and he is my favorite author. I’ve been reading his books since 1968 and have read them all several times. While I never joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, I did pen Pedo Mellon a Minno in Elvish script on my college dorm room door. The Hobbit movie was visually stunning, occasionally awe inspiring, and optically breathtaking. Nevertheless, it fell far below my expectations and hopes. It felt like the prequels to the Star Wars trilogy, somehow coming off its rails of the original Episodes. Ultimately, I feel this this movie is not true to Tolkien’s genius.

Back in 1939 there was great anticipation about whether another popular book could be successfully translated to a good movie. Gone With the Wind was a Pulitzer Prize winning block buster book. Fans waited eagerly for the debut of the film, wondering if it would be faithful to the book. When its premier proved it to be so, the New York Times reported “a handsome, scrupulous and unstinting version of the 1,037-page novel, matching it almost scene for scene with a literalness that not even Shakespeare or Dickens were accorded in Hollywood.” The film went on to become the most profitable film of all time in the US and UK. Alas, The Hobbit movie will not be able to make the same claim.

As of this writing, The Hobbit is the most profitable movie in America, but critical and user reviews have been less than stellar, and significantly below the original LOTR movies which all scored better than 90% on Rotten Tomatoes:

  • 65% at compared to 92% for the latest 007 film Skyfall
  • 58/100 at
  • 8.4/10 at

Why Three Movies?

When Peter Jackson took the reins of The Hobbit we were told it would be two movies. As we’d seen that with single novels like Harry Potter’s Deathly Hallows and Twilight’s Breaking Dawn we’d gotten used to it. But when he revealed that he was going to make three movies my friends asked me:

“Why three? The book is a fifth the length of LOTR.”

I replied, “Can you say ‘laughing all the way to the bank?’ “

I followed up with “Jackson plans on expanding it with material from the Appendices at the back of The Return of the King. “

All of this I said before seeing the movie. Jackson did use material from the Appendices, but there is canonical material in Tolkien’s later writings — which Jackson does not own rights to — that contradicts some of Jackson’s new original plot line content found in The Hobbit movie. In particular I’m referring to the backstory in The Silmarillion (published in 1978 and which I read the day it was published) and The Unfinished Tales (published in 1980, especially the chapters “The Quest of Erebor” and “The Istari”) which tell us much about the history before The Hobbit and LOTR. Essentially, what we have here is less like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings movies, and more like Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movie. As I’ll discuss later there are several unnecessary major plot lines and sub-plots in the movie with consequent uninspiring motivations that are not to be found in any of Tolkien’s chronicle, and it that way the movie suffers. Some would say that this makes the movie “bloated,” I’d say this is less an extended version of Tolkien’s writings and more a distended version of a movie.

The Tolkien Estate had previously filed a law suit against New Line Cinema, the producers of the LOTR movies, saying that they hadn’t been properly compensated for rights, seeking to block filming The Hobbit. The suit was ultimately settled. Nevertheless, I suspect that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is spinning in his grave, quite displeased with the film. Why? He often refused rights to the making the movie, believing that producers would emphasize the battle scenes rather than the story. To one proposed film adaptation of LOTR he once replied “yet one more scene of screams and rather meaningless slashings.” Jackson has done just what Tolkien feared. In The Two Towers, Jackson expands the battle in a single chapter “Helms Deep” into half the film. A curious anecdote is that Tolkien refused The Beatles rights to making a live-action movie of his books in 1968. John Lennon‘s idea was that he would have played Gollum, Paul would be Frodo, Ringo would be Sam, and George would be Gandalf. And Twiggy would be Galadriel! Stanley Kubrick would have directed. But Tolkien was not interested in having his books used as a marketing device for The Beatles.

The Good: Nice touches

In this film we return to Middle-earth with a more fully realized Hobbiton with emphasis on The Hill and the inside of Bilbo Baggins‘ home at Bag End. The length of this scene has put off some viewers, but I think it’s accurate to the book. This section almost put me off ever finishing Tolkien’s story 45 years ago — but I had already bought all four books, and once I got past Chapter 4 I devoured the rest of the books.

When Bilbo finally gets into his story about 20 minutes into the film he recites “In a whole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien originally wrote this onto a blank page while marking a school paper when he was a young professor at Pembroke College, Oxford. This is where it all began and ultimately turned into the book in 1937.

We see an expanded Rivendell: As Elrond says “Welcome to Imladris, the last Homely House west of the Sea.” However, we don’t get get the merriment of Elves singing in the trees or stories told while feasting around the table that we find in the book. Rather we get dwarves stuffing their faces while Elves play flutes and harps. Really?

The interplay between Galadriel and Gandalf was playful, fun, and affectionate. In a few short minutes, we were glad to see Galadriel again. When she asks why the wizard chose Bilbo, Gandalf’s answer is quite affecting and heartwarming: “I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid, and he gives me courage.”

Martin Freeman embodied Bilbo Baggins, stuffy, bright, funny, excitable. You may have first seen him in the British version of The Office but Jackson cast him based on seeing him play Dr. Watson in Sherlock.

The Riddle Game with Gollum retold here was a dramatic turning point, and well done. Andy Serkis is better than ever, conveying pathos and evoking a sense of pity that is palpable. And he served as Second Unit Director on the film.

We hear the names of the wizards. While Gandalf describes the five wizards he knows, he names Saruman the White and Radagast the Brown, but says “I have quite forgotten” the names of the other two. If Jackson had rights to Tolkien’s “The Unfinished Tales,” Gandalf might have said that Alatar and Pallando were the Blue Wizards.

Casting Kudos. There were a number of especially fun casting decisions made, and some familiar faces that we’ve seen elsewhere:

Lee Pace/Thranduil: We’ve seen him recently as Fernando Wood in Lincoln, in Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, and previously in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Barry Humphries/Great Goblin: also known as the character Dame Edna Everage, is the remarkably cultured leader of the goblins.

Bret McKenzie/Lindir: The only Elf of Rivendell we heard speak in the previous movies other than Elrond and Arwen was this Elf. We meet him again when the Company comes to Rivendell. You may know him as half of “Flight of the Conchords.”

Benedict Cumberbatch/Necromancer/Smaug: He’s been in everything from Amazing Grace to War Horse to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but we love him in the British TV series Sherlock and can’t wait to see him as the bad guy in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness.

The Bad: Unsuccessful touches

The Hobbit as a book is lighter, sunnier, happier, funnier, and placed in a world more innocent than the LOTR Trilogy of books. To be sure, it is a fairy-story with real evil and fell enemies. However, this movie starts more silly than sunny, and turns dark almost immediately after leaving the Shire. The Elves in The Hobbit book were less solemn and more friendly than the later Trilogy. Though Elrond smiles more here in this movie, and teases Galdalf on his dress, he’s every bit as gloomy.

Galadriel and GandalfInterplay between Galadriel and Gandalf: the Elf queen comes off as condescending and over powerful in her offer of help. Admittedly Galadriel is the greatest of the Elves still living in Middle-earth. But Gandalf is an angelic power, practically a demi-god. Sure, she offers Gandalf her assistance, but it is Gandalf who is the most powerful agent in the War of the Rings and out powers Galadriel on every level. But she is taller.

48 Frames Per Second: This technology uses twice as many frames as a traditional movie shows movement much smoother. The 3D action was sharper and worked well in panoramas especially in the movement of sparks and smoke. However, the effect was poor for faces. They came out like “soap operas” being over lit with a video quality like sporting events on widescreen TVs. Rather distracting.

CGI vs. Makeup: many of the goblins/orcs in The Hobbit are realized as CGI on top of live actors. The original LOTR movies used makeup and prosthetics. Here the CGI becomes overwhelming and numbing.

Editing: this film needed at least two more weeks of editing. Instead, the final editing was finished the same week of the premier in New Zealand, and it looked like it — Jackson’s self-indulgent inclusion of special effects and CGI shininess was, as Bilbo said “sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much toast.”

The Ugly: Several Sins

[Spoiler alert: In the following I discuss several of the plot lines in the movie plus the ending. And I include more Middle-earth history than you may enjoy. You may jump to my Grade at the bottom.]

This movie should have been a lighter prequel to the LOTR Trilogy movies. Instead, it is another Trilogy that is a sequel to the Jackson’s LOTR movies, with lots of tie-ins to his previous franchise.

Where LOTR is a reverse quest — Frodo is not going to find something but to get rid of the Ring — The Hobbit should have been a true quest, the journey to the Lonely Mountain. Instead, we have again the same story as before: goblins/orcs chasing a fellowship pausing occasionally to have armed battles, led by a noble but but not yet returned king (Aragorn/Thorin.)

As I said before there were many superfluous plot lines that added erroneous backstory and gratuitous motivation unintended by Tolkien.

1) The Prologue

The movie begins — as does The Fellowship of the Ring — with a prologue or a pre-history. In The Hobbit movie, we’re told a convolution of two stories that are to explain the motivations of Thorin Oakenshield and the Dwarves. But they’re both inaccurate. First Bilbo narrates the story of the coming of the dragon Smaug to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. In Jackson’s rendition it is called “the greatest kingdom in Middle-earth.” Even the the casual reader knows this is untrue, even among the Dwarvish kingdoms. That title would belong to Khazad-dum, the Dwarves’ Mansion, the glorious Halls of Moria.

This first part of the story shows Thorin leading a force to fight by sword against the Dragon. But Tolkien tells us that Thorin was too young to bear a weapon, and that he was outside the Mountain hunting when the Dragon ravaged the insides. Rather his father Thrain and grandfather Thror escaped by “a secret door” out of the Mountain (Appendix A, Durin’s Folk.) Next, there was no encounter following the Fall of Mount Erebor to the Dragon at this time with King Thranduil, father of Legolas and leader of the Woodland Elves of Mirkwood. And he’s riding an Irish Elk? Hello? It is accurate to say, however, that there was animosity between the Elves and Dwarves in general, dating to a dispute over a necklace holding a Silmaril — way back in the pre-history to the First Age of Middle-earth.

The second part of the prologue describes the battle before the eastern doors of Moria, where Thorin’s father Thrain is slain by the orc Azog the Defiler. That much is true, but there is something missing in Jackson’s movie.

2) Hunted by Azog

DwarvesWhile it is true that the Dwarves and Bilbo were captured by Trolls, goblins, orcs, spiders, and Wood Elves, they didn’t fight their way out with swords and axes as depicted in each instance as the movie describes — except for some spiders in Mirkwood… and Galdalf and Thorin killed some goblins in Goblin Town under the Misty Mountains. But the Dwarves were not for the most part warriors in battle armor and axes as Jackson depicts them, looking like Klingons. They were merchants, miners, craftsmen, and smiths. And, contrary to Jackson’s depiction, they were never “hunted” by the white, one-armed orc Azog — a major plot line in this movie. According to Appendix B, Azog was killed by Thorin’s cousin Dain Ironfoot at the Battle of Azanulbizar in front of those eastern doors of Moria in the 3rd Age 2799, some 140 years before Bilbo’s adventure begins in 2941.

3) Morgul blade

Galadriel identifies a Morgul blade at the White Council, taken from Dol Guldur. But this is nowhere found in the book. It appears in The Fellowship of the Ring, which you can bet will be tied in by Jackson later in this trilogy.

4) Radagast the Brown Wizard

In this movie we meet Radagast, one of the five wizards mentioned in Appendix B. Gandalf had told us about meeting up with him in the Council of Elrond chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring and the Fellowship visit his home in Rosgobel on the edge of Mirkwood afterwards — neither of these were in The Fellowship of the Ring movie. But that’s all we’re told about Radagast. None of Radagast’s adventures in the movie are found anywhere in any of Tolkien’s writings. Even Radagast’s bunny mobile, powered by his Rosgobel Rabbits, Jackson has made up out of whole cloth.

It is Galdalf, not Radagast, who discovers that Dol Guldur is ruled by Sauron in 2850. The next year Gandalf urges the White Council to attack Dol Guldur, but is overruled by Saruman, as depicted in the film. But this event occurs some 90 years before the Company of Dwarves and Bilbo visit Rivendell according to Appendix B. It is during the period of the movie, but not while the Company is in Rivendell, that the White Council agrees to attack Dol Guldur. But the Hobbit book makes references to that attack in only 5 sentences, though I am certain Jackson will show a battle of such in the 3rd movie.

5) Animosity of Thorin for Bilbo

While it true that Thorin held Bilbo in low regard at the beginning of the tale, perhaps even contempt, the strength of animosity in the movie portrayed by the dwarf against the hobbit was rather untoward. Admittedly, this was necessary for Jackson to create the crisis and climax to this first movie, otherwise superfluous in the book, where Thorin shows his gratitude to Bilbo. But the Bilbo of The Hobbit book obtains begrudging acceptance and ultimately high esteem from the Dwarves for his cunning, cleverness, and “tricksy-ness” — not by his skill with a sword against orcs and wargs. Preposterous!

Stephen D. Winick in the Huffington Post tries to justify Jackson’s creativity — even by referring to some of Tolkien’s other writings that I’ve mentioned above — but it just doesn’t wash. While he goes to great pains to explain how Tolkien later modified subsequent editions of The Hobbit to better conform to LOTR, he offers speculations — especially about Radagast — that are just that, speculation. As Tolkien would say he “does not seem to have read [the text] with any care.”

So what’s the bottom line, how would I grade this first Hobbit movie?

Grade: B-

Will I see the next movie in the Trilogy? Even if I’m told it’s the worst movie ever made.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culture vulture

4 Responses to “Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

  1. Gravatar Icon 1 Bill Petro

    Do you want to know what Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary executor thought?

    “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25. And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

  2. Gravatar Icon 2 Bill Petro

    This movie has received 3 Academy Award nominations, including Best Visual Effects, Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Production Design.

  3. Gravatar Icon 3 billpetro

    Ironically, as The Hobbit was released in more countries around the world, its rating on went down.

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