Perhaps I am reaching a point in my life when a simple chase scene no longer appeals to me, but one of the starkest thoughts I had while watching Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was “wow. Those goblins have some impressive logistical ability; why can’t the dwarves recognize that infrastructure?” I had this thought just after the dwarves had been captured by goblins in the Misty Mountains. They had been taken before the large goblin in a massive open cavern lit by hundreds of torches and some chandeliers of torches suspended from the top of the cave, hung over several stories of pit. Of course, it was all for visual effect and I am sure that Jackson gave no thought to the logistics of the undertaking on a regular basis–the torches only had to be lit for the shoot…unless they were CGI.1 Nonetheless, I was curious. But more on that scene later.
Overall, Jackson did a remarkably thorough job at capturing the bulk of the Hobbit, the accumulated mythology of Middle Earth as created by Tolkien, and matching the story with his Lord of the Rings movies. Admittedly, though, these multiple threads made for a rather different movie than the original book. I had minor qualms with the movie, but unlike with the Fellowship movie where I had very specific issues and solutions, in the Hobbit I could only shrug at the issues and concede that I had no feasible or readily available solution.2 The deviation from the book tended to be in the hope of simplification or, often, because Jackson stitched together so many disparate parts and needed a way to compress and unify the story into one narrative–or several narratives closely enough aligned that they could fit into the same movie. In light of this, I found surprisingly little Peter Jackson bloat–scenes that served little narrative purpose (though there were certainly some that could be been compressed). yes, the complaint may be made that while everyone enjoys walking about in New Zealand, there is only so much that one can take. I may be a wanderer (peregrinans) at heart, but I thought there was only one truly excessive walking scene. The others were just transition scenes and fit the actual story well enough. The three hour time –and even the three movies–actually fits what Jackson is doing, that is, using the extra material provided by Tolkien to give a prequel to the Lord of the Rings in its fullest sense. Thus, he makes little distinction between the rise of Sauron at Dol Guldor, the quest of Thorin Oakenshield to rid the Lonely Mountain of Smaug and the in-fighting of the White Council, while using the story of the Hobbit as a narrative backbone for the larger tale–not unlike what Tolkien did. So far, the movie itself may not measure up to the first three, but it is more thorough and thus (in some ways) more satisfactory.
There were issues, though. Specifically, I had problems with one fight scene, two chase scenes, and one hazardous mountain pass. I will not bother with what I described above as efforts to stitch the stories together, though I will also note several lapses that might have been worth including.
One of the ways that Tolkien sets the stage for his story is that the dwarves each are wearing distinctively colored cloaks when they arrive at Bag End and all are without weapon. Jackson likewise sets his story by their arrival, though most of his dwarves are armed. One reviewere lamented that this undercut the original story by making the dwarves into stalwart warriors. While I do feel this change (and lack of cloaks) diminished the story just a bit, it also served to alert the viewer that this story is a legitimate prequel to the Lord of the Rings, so, of course they would be armed. Jackson did also pay homage to this by drawing distinction between the several warriors in the party while drawing attention to the motley nature of the rest of the dwarves.
The first scene that felt distinctly out of place (and one of the few that did) was a scene where Gandalf uses the excuse of being chased by Wargs to trick Thorin into going to Rivendell. From a broad scope of the revised narrative it did offer a chance to make Thorin and the party chased from the beginning, but it was also drawn out (including (in my opinion) gratuitous scenes of Radagast and his ridiculous bunny-sleigh). Still, I don’t really have an alternative solution…it just seemed wrong.
The second scene, that of the storm giants, was one of the few bloated scenes that went from a minor passage in the book to an exciting scene fraught with danger. This one felt like Jackson had a new toy and wanted to make use of it. Certainly, it was a nice inclusion since it covers about a page in the book, but to make such a big deal out of it was overkill.
The second chase that bothered me was the escape from the goblin cave. In the book it is a frenetic escape in the dark through cut caves. In the movie those hundreds of torches suspended above scaffolding provide more opportunities for cinematography, but I felt as though I was watching a video game level where you have to hit the right levers as you run through it. Yes, Tolkien could do as an author many things that Jackson can’t as a director, but this scene felt overdone to the point of cheesiness.
Before pointing out the climactic scene that bothered me, let me say that Jackson missed an opportunity after that chase. He has Thorin go on a rant about the useless hobbit only to have Bilbo step out and shame him. In the book, though, the dwarves are amazed that Bilbo is alive and gain respect for his as a burglar when he explains how he got past the goblins. The movie worked well enough, but it took another act for Thorin to truly appreciate him. That last act brings me to the final scene that bothered me. In the book, the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo are chased up trees (okay, so far, so good), only to have the goblins attempt to burn them out and a rescue by eagles. But, in the movie, there had to be another fight scene, so when the party is chased up the trees, they throw lit pine cones at the wargs and then, seemingly as a last resort, Thorin goes out to confront his nemesis, only to be saved by…Bilbo? Bilbo’s bravery is what endears him to Thorin. As before, this scene felt unnecessary–as though there needed to be a climax to set us up for part two. This also took something away from Bilbo the burglar, but , once again, the scene was not so much dissonant with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit as with Tolkien’s original.
On the whole the movie was enjoyable and no less because I needed an afternoon distraction when I watched it. My biggest problem with it is a problem with the medium more than with this particular movie. Peter Jackson did a pretty good job with the Hobbit both as a film and a dedication to Tolkien’s original, but it was still a collaboration of Jackson, the actors, etc, interacting with and putting on an interpretation of Tolkien’s world, after which it is relayed to the rest of the world for our consumption. The viewers of the film have little interaction with the story besides being passive recipients. When I read The Hobbit as a book and then seek out the additional material it becomes an interaction between me as the reader and the world created by Tolkien. To a great extent, it is the same reason that I dislike the Game of Thrones tv show–and why I have decided that I will not see any more movies made out of books I like. To put out a viable movie or tv show based on a book is to corrupt that book. Peter Jackson did a good job with his interpretation, but, at the end of the day, I feel as a viewer and as a reader that, somehow, I should have been more involved in conjuring up the story.
1 In Tolkien’s version, the scene takes place in a much more dimly lit cavern and most of the subsequent chase takes place in the dark.
2In part, though, I know the story less well.