Back to Middle Earth

Fairly random thoughts on going to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the theater. Probably won’t make a whole lot of sense to people who have neither seen the movie nor read the book*, and contains spoilers for people who haven’t seen the movie (even if they have read the books).

*Or to people who haven’t seen the last two seasons of the original Doctor Who, Sherlock, and the 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

– My companions and I saw the movie in 3d because that’s what was playing at the time we had set aside. If possible, I would urge anyone wishing to see The Hobbit to stick with 2d—unlike The Avengers the 3d adds nothing of value to the experience, and indeed sometimes either causes distraction or even worse, sabotages the visual quality of the film. It didn’t cause any major problems, thank goodness, but you’re still better off sticking with 2d.

– Overall, I found watching the movie a highly enjoyable experience. I had fun with Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and I had about as much fun with his first installment of The Hobbit.

– That said, I found An Unexpected Journey, much more superficial than its three predecessors. Partially I think this is due to the source material being so much lighter this time around, and partially due to the fact that Jackson and company had to invent a whole lot more original material in order to adapt the first fifth or so of a children’s fairytale adventure book into an epic Hollywood blockbuster than it took to adapt three epic adventure novels.

– Indeed, I think the most insightful thing I’ve yet heard about the film was a remark by one of my companions an hour or two after we left the theater: “I’ve just realized that nothing actually happened in that movie.” This is basically true. Unexpected Journey lays out the premise, introduces the characters and many of the most important conflicts, provides some character development, and throws in a bunch of exciting action sequences to keep the viewers’ attention. It also advances the plot, but at a minuscule pace, with most of the action and conflict of the story constituting digressions from the main story. Exciting and entertaining digressions, to be sure, but digressions just the same.

– Furthermore, the pacing at the beginning of the movie is pretty slow—not interminably, but it still takes approximately forty minutes of backstory and dwarvish antics before Bilbo even leaves Bag End.

– There’s also a pointless cameo by Elijah Wood, presumably to pander to fans of the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Seriously, this scene does absolutely feck all other than establish that in the movie canon, Bilbo waited all the way until just before his 111th birthday party to set down his memoirs of “the incident with the dragon,” as Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf so delightfully put it. (Hope you can scribble really fast, Bilbo old boy.) Sure, it’s kind of nice to see them set up the meeting between Frodo and Gandalf from the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, but when the scene contributes absolutely nothing to this movie, you really should just grit your teeth and scrap it.

– As already alluded, while “The Lord of the Rings” was a fairly faithful adaptation of the book trilogy of the same name, An Unexpected Journey introduces a veritable dragon’s horde of changes from its own source material. As I see it, the changes perform five overall purposes (many of them closely related): to pad out a story which only covers the first fifth or so of the original book; to make that story more into a full movie than just an arbitrary amount of material ripped out of a longer work; to give the movie a feel more in line with the tone of its’ three predecessors; to create a greater sense of a grand narrative both within the story of The Hobbit and tied more closely into the events of “Lord of the Rings”; and to make the whole thing more appealing to the sensibilities of a modern movie-going viewership.

– Such changes include the orcs led by Azog the Defiler (who, in the book canon, was killed by Thorin’s cousin Dain in the backstory) chasing our heroes; the inclusion of Radagast the Brown and a more explicit exploration of the Necromancer (ret-conned into Sauron in the book The Fellowship of the Ring); and what appears to be the beginnings of the White Council subplot which eventually leads to them ousting the Necromancer from Mirkwood (this storyline was present in the book, but took place entirely off-screen, and served primarily as an excuse to remove Gandalf from the main action and prevent Bilbo and the dwarves from solving every problem they got into by Wizard Ex Machina).

– I’m of two minds about these changes. I’m not sure if changing around the Azog backstory was necessarily an improvement, and I kind of liked the idea in the book that Bilbo and company just sort of stumbled into the orcs’ (nee goblins’) stronghold and accidentally threw a spanner in their schemes rather than being hunted all along. The orcs’ dwarf hunt and the mutual enmity between Thorin and Azog worked great for the movie, but I don’t know that they necessarily made the story better, if you see what I mean. And while I was stoked to see the White Council subplot unfolding before my eyes rather than hear Gandalf relate it after the fact, and to see the Seventh Doctor as Radagast the Brown, these scenes were blatantly filler in a film mostly gone over to (very entertaining) filler.

– This brings up another issue, which is that a lot of this movie is just set up for future (and in some cases, past) installments. Noah Antwiler pointed out a couple of examples in the near hour-length reflection video he posted with his brother Miles, but even he missed a big one: those giant spiders which buzzed Radagast’s hut and then disappeared completely? We’ll be seeing more of them when the party makes it to Mirkwood in the next movie.

– On the subject of Radagast, yes, I know he was entirely extraneous to the movie, but I’m still giving him a “hell yeah!” Always great to see the Doctor back in action, although it seems that separating from Ace had a somewhat deleterious effect on his sanity (and personal grooming); on the other hand, it also seems to have smoothed away his manipulative streak, which in this setting is probably for the best.

– But just because he’s lost his companion and his TARDIS and started hitting the shrooms hard, doesn’t mean the Doctor has lost his edge. Dude goes toe-to-toe with the friggin’ Lord of the Nazgul, the Witch-King of Angmar his own self, and lives to tell the tale. He even makes off with an important clue for the White Council subplot. (“Bitch, I’m Merlin, or at least I will be, or I may be. Point being: You do not mess with Sylvester McCoy!”)

– We also get a shot of the Necromancer during this sequence and man, but splitting up with Bilbo and leaving their London flat has certainly hit him hard, though at least they’ve both landed some nice new digs. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ll probably make the exact same joke when we get to Smaug in the next movie or the one after. Blame Jackson for getting Sherlock Holmes to voice both parts.)

– While I liked seeing the first meeting of the White Council, I’m not sure it was a good idea to make the Necromancer a new, unknown threat, rather than an established problem as he was in the book—I liked the idea of the Council being proactive (“this guy’s a problem, let’s get together and clean his clock for him”) rather than reactive (“hey, some jackass has taken up residence in that old Evil Fortress in Mirkwood and is causing mischief, we should totally do something about it.”)

– In particular, I think it was a mistake to have Saruman trying to convince the rest of the Council that this Necromancer must be a petty human sorcerer, nothing to worry about, and couldn’t possibly be the dreaded Sauron. It doesn’t make him look like a brilliant master of deception, it just makes the whole Council (Saruman included) come off as somewhat inept.

– Also, was it really a good idea to portray Saruman as so transparently evil this early in the game, almost eight decades before he reveals himself (and at a time when, from what I know of the book canon, he might not yet even have gone over to the Dark Side)?

– Last point on the White Council: I don’t mind that for this initial meeting it’s contained to just the four members (Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel), in fact I think it makes a lot of sense, but I hope that Jackson realizes they can’t comprise the entire council and throws in at least a couple of extras for their next meeting.

– Getting back to a more general discussion of the changes from the book, overall I would say that I’m ambivalent. Stuff like Thorin’s hatred of the evils is a neat extension of what’s in the book, but his vendetta against Azog and his mistreatment of Bilbo, and Bilbo’s conflict over staying on versus going home (he can console himself that it least this time, it hasn’t been knocked over by workmen and then blown up by Vogons)—these things provide a form of character development which will be instantly recognizable to a contemporary movie-going audience. I don’t have a problem with these embellishments as such, but I don’t feel they greatly improved the movie, either. For these particulars and overall, I found the changes introduced in Unexpected Journey ultimately evened out, they didn’t make the experience substantially better, but they didn’t really make it any worse.

– Quick aside, in regard to Thorin’s suspicion of Bilbo—after they escaped the orc stronghold (“Goblintown” in the book) and couldn’t find the Hobbit, why did he assume Bilbo had buggered off back to the Shire, rather than the more likely assumption that he’d been recaptured and killed?

– As for Thorin’s final speech to Bilbo, listing off all the unkind things he thought about Bilbo (just after the latter saved his ass from one of Azog’s minions), well, you’d have to be comatose not to see that the punchline was going to be something along the lines of “how wrong I was.” I’m about evenly split between annoyed at how massively predictable it was, and heartened by this reconciliatory gesture from Thorin. I guess once again it evens out.

– But yeah, about Thorin: What kind of dick leaves his friends trapped in a tree, hanging on for dear life over a bottomless precipice, so he can go and pursue his own personal grudge against a one-armed orc? Your loyal followers are in deadly peril, Thorin, your vendetta can wait!

– Speaking of vendettas, it’s hard to pin down precisely how Azog feels about Thorin. Half the time he’s all “he’s mine, nobody else allowed to kill him,” while the other half he’s happy for the mountain orcs or one of his lackeys to do the job for him. This is particularly confusing in the climax, where he expresses both these tendencies in the space of five minutes—almost as if the strength of his desire to kill Thorin personally were directly related to what was most dramatically convenient at that point in the film.

– Apart from Thorin, the dwarves are still pretty interchangeable, though less so than they were in the book. Kili, for instance—the darker haired of Thorin’s young nephews—is a total badass; he’s got Legolas’ skills with a bow, and is mighty handy with a sword on top of that.

– However, that other dwarf—I forget his name—in the awful fur hat with the outrageous earflaps? Nothing against the character, you understand, but whatever costumer thought that headgear was in any way a good idea ought to be fired.

– After whisking Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves away from Azog’s minions and their precarious tree, the eagles drop our heroes off at the Carrock. In the book, their leader tells Gandalf that they really don’t want to get involved in all this—they’ll help a brother out when he gets in a tight spot, and drop him and his friends a little further along on their journey, but other than that they’re maintaining neutrality. Whereas in the movie, you’d be forgiven for asking, “Man, we still have that far to go to get to the Lonely Mountain? As long as we’ve got these friendly eagles flying us around, couldn’t they just take us all the way there?”

– And we end with the thrush knocking a snail against the side of the mountain and the sound reverberating inside, and the dragon’s eye opening underneath a pile of treasure. It’s supposed to be all ominous and shit, but all I can imagine is Smaug lying there thinking ‘God, is that little pipsqueak ever going to shut up that racket?’

And so finishes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, first in a three-part movie adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. About a week after seeing the movie, I was talking it over with my father. He hasn’t seen it yet, but from my description, he characterized it (in reference to Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”) as “more of the same, and not as good.” This is probably as good a synopsis of Unexpected Journey as any.

In my case, though, I am—like Noah Antwiler—a “mark.” This stuff almost could’ve been made specifically for me. I loved the “Lord of the Rings” movies. I loved the Extended Editions. Unexpected Journey may not be as good, but it’s damn well good enough for me. Good enough and more. Peace out and happy freakin’ new year.

To be continued …

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