The Hobbit: A Review

Like many geeks out there, and plain old movie-buffs, I was incredibly excited to see The Hobbit.

Well, the wait is finally over, and I’m here to tell you all about it. The Hobbit is, in some respects, the precursor to J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, but really is a standalone adventure told in a vastly different style. It concerns the story of one Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, and the journey he was caught up in, wherein he happened to acquire the One Ring. Now, I’m going to break this review down into two distinct sections, ‘Technical’, and ‘Story’, as the two really ought to be dealt with separately.

The Technical

Much has been made of director Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot the film in 45fps, a much higher speed than the usual that offers far greater image resolution and clarity. For around 20% of the film, it works beautifully, and the visuals are stunning. A lot of the action sequences, for instance, are spectacular. However, for the other 80%, it just doesn’t work. The incredible clarity makes a mockery of many aspects integral to the film – the prosthetics, costumes, and props in particular, which, in a fantasy adventure story, are predominant features. It undermines a lot of the high production value by making a lot of things look cheap, flat, or plastic.

The other side-effect of the 45fps is the movement rendered on screen. A lot of the everyday actions were off-kilter, and seemed to be working at different speeds, slow one second, incredibly fast the next. It was subtle and not ever-present but definitely an unpleasant distraction. It’s fair to say I had pretty major issues with the technical side of things, and I couldn’t see why it was done in 3D either. The experience would not at all have been different were it shot/seen in 2D, and I, for one, would recommend seeing it that way.

The Story

Interestingly, a few days ago, I saw a tweet from Joe Hill remarking that the book itself was perfect. At the time, I didn’t quite agree with him, or rather, I couldn’t see why. Having seen the movie now, it’s all too clear just how good the book really is. Let me be clear: I’m not a stringent advocate of straight-adaptations, or anything like that. Most times, a book will absolutely have to change from page to screen – novel writing and feature films are two very different mediums that require different approaches. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t. That said, if you’re going to make changes, it ought to be for good reason and there were a mountain of small, character-defining moments in the book which were outright changed and the result is a very different story.

Nor – before I go on – do I have a problem with the expansion of the book into three films. I think there’s a tonne of material in the book just ripe for further exploration. While the book isn’t lengthy, it skips over or glosses over, both large periods of time and significant set pieces in the story. So I’m okay with that. It just so happens that the parts expanded upon, or added in, were by and large unnecessary and/or poorly done. Let me give you some examples, and I’ll start with the character-defining moments.

Bilbo is the epitome of the Reluctant Hero. He doesn’t want to go on this adventure – it is thrust upon him, and through a mixture of his own foolishness, and eagerness to please (or inability to say no), he gets dragged along in it. It’s a central tenet of his character and it represents a major arc in the story. Encapsulating much of that is one scene in the book, in which the dwarves scoff at the idea that Bilbo could be a burglar of any sort. Now, for much of the previous chapters, he’s been very much confounded by their arrival and all the craziness and hijinks they get up to, but this is too much for him. He finds himself puffing up, and, before he knows it, defending himself and his aptitude for burglary! It’s a moment of foolish pride, and one we can all relate to – you might be opposed to something, but when someone calls you out on it, you’ll be damned if you’re not the best guy for the job.

Just like that, he’s involved. One moment, one scene. In the film, this takes up several scenes where Bilbo dithers about whether he should sign the contract or not. Ultimately, he decides not to, and once he wakes up the next day to find them all gone, impulsively chases after them, shouting out that he’s going on an adventure. This dramatically changes Bilbo from the Reluctant Hero, to an active one deciding of his own volition to join them, robbing his arc of most of its power. In the book, he wakes up, and is relieved that the dwarves are gone, and that his foolish, proud words haven’t got him into trouble. But he soon finds Gandalf at the door, telling him he’s late and has just 10 minutes to catch up to the dwarves – who still very much hold him to his word – which, for a respectable, punctual hobbit is a nightmare and before he knows it, he’s off again and none too happy about it.

There’s no need for the film version of this to have been changed. It’s far longer, far clunkier, and ultimately works against his character arc. Another example of an unnecessary change is the major scene in which Bilbo acquires the One Ring. In the book, he happens across the ring after falling in the dark. It’s a chance encounter, and though he later realises it belonged to Gollum, it’s too late and he has to escape Gollum’s murderous rage. In the film, Bilbo sees the ring fall out of Gollum’s pocket as he beats a goblin, and straight-up steals it. You might not think the difference matters but it’s another significant moment turning Bilbo from the Reluctant Hero into an active force making wilful decisions. Normally, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but it runs counter to the character’s sensibilities, and changes a lot of the meaning in his narrative.

Bilbo’s transformation from hesitant participant to active hero, to burglar, and capable adventurer is central to the story. There are moments in the book that really don’t need to change, but that have been changed for the worse in the film. Toward the end of the film, upon escaping the mountain, the dwarves realise they’ve left Bilbo behind. It’s during this time that Bilbo fends for himself, escapes on his own, and catches up to the group in secret. Using the ring, he sneaks right past the dwarves on guard of their camp, and reveals himself to the company once he’s in their midst. It’s a perfect moment that proves his own skill to them, and makes the dwarves reassess his worth.

This scene is tweaked in such a way as to rob it of real relevance, and his skill in getting out, and close to them (he just appears nearby, and there’s no camp, they’re just standing around) is not remarked upon. The power of that moment is instead transferred to a battle sequence with orcs, in which Bilbo saves Thorin Oakenshield’s life, and does battle with orcs on wargs. It’s unnecessary and over the top – the equivalent of using buckets of paint when a few fine lines is all that’s required.  Differences like these abound in the film, and most of them I dislike. On a few occasions, it’s actually better – the scene with the trolls, in which Bilbo tries to steal a knife to free the horses, makes far more sense than him randomly deciding to pickpocket the main troll (as he does in the book).

Probably the worst aspect of this revised and lengthened story is the addition of Azog the Pale Orc. For some inexplicable reason, this character and his coterie of orcs all speak a different language requiring subtitles. Why this is the case when orcs in the Lord of the Rings, and goblins in all the films, speak English, is beyond me. Even the elves, who have their own unique and literal language, speak English most of the time. It makes for awkward viewing, and increases the already B-movie villain and henchmen quality of that storyline. What makes it worse is that almost every line he speaks is unnecessary. If you cut every single one of them, and left him as a menacing figure intent on hunting Thorin down, the film wouldn’t suffer one iota. It would actually work far better. Everything about this character, and that storyline, could have been handled better and represents the only really poor element of the film.

Everything else I can quibble with, and debate its usefulness – plenty of it could have trimmed and tucked, sure –  but I can’t say that any of it was bad or not enjoyable. Azog the Pale Orc however, along with his henchmen, is rendered ridiculous through the extended scenes of the slowly enunciated, nonsense language, via which he only talks in cliches anyway. I also could have done with about 50% less Radagast the Brown, and the film, at nearly 3hrs runtime, could too.

Ultimately, as a fan, I very much enjoyed it. The Misty Mountains song gives me chills every time I hear it, and there are lots of other fun moments, too. I think it was hurt by the amount of set-up that was done for the second and third films, but I think the final two movies will more than adequately compensate for that. On the whole, it’s an uneven film that disappointed me in parts, and delighted me in others. I’m looking forward to watching it again in 2D, without any of the distracting visual fuss.

P.S

A quick note on the performances, only three of which made real impressions. Richard Armitage makes a very imposing figure as Thorin Oakenshield, Martin Freeman is fantastic as Bilbo, and Andy Serkis – as ever – is phenomenal as Gollum. I also thought Aiden Turner did a fine job with his few moments as Kili, and that might be due to the lack of a ridiculous beard. His features are clear, and his performance is a good one.

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