Greetings from Middle Earth: A Review of The Hobbit
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey puts us back into Hobbiton, though not before a short, expository introduction. We begin in Middle Earth, where Bilbo Baggins writes his journal, talks to his nephew Frodo, gets the mail, and makes food for himself. He reminisces on meeting Gandalf while smoking his pipe when thirteen hairy dwarves invade his hobbit-hole and raid all the food in his pantry. Poor Bilbo can but protest feebly. After the meal the dwarves clean the dishes while singing a little ditty, and Bilbo is offered a contract to assist the dwarves on a mission. Talking it over with Gandalf, Bilbo can’t decide whether to sign or not.
Sound boring? It is. The first act of The Hobbit keeps going and going and going. There’s interminable exposition and indulgent attention to small characters. For fans of the original book, the movie will induce hysteria no matter how it comes out. By bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s signature fantasy to life, The Hobbit will excite devotees in the same way its ambitious predecessor did. For the rest of us non-fanboys, The Hobbit is hardly as perfect as the original trilogy, despite its high-octane action sequences and advances in visual magic.
Still, it’s been eight years since we’ve seen Middle Earth, and pretty much anything going on there commands our attention. This winded if mostly exciting ride tells a fanciful tale that stands alone from the Lord of the Rings, but does sneaks in some trilogy backstory. The project was originally pegged for two films, with visionary director Guillermo del Toro at the helm, but he dropped the project after a weary slog through development hell. Then, like manifest destiny, Peter Jackson assumed the director’s chair and turned two movies into three, perhaps to poetically match his previous Lord of the Rings set.
Onlookers worry about the conversion of The Hobbit’s slim 320 pages into three movies, of which the first alone is close to three hours. Could it be that the studio execs hunger for some extra cash? Were they motivated to milk another film out of this saga by hundreds of millions of dollars in premium, Imax, 3D ticket stubs? Why I never...
In defense of Peter Jackson, though, there really is enough material to stretch. The book is short because it was condensed into simple, kid-friendly prose, but in story it covers considerable ground, including Bilbo’s travels with the thirteen dwarves to recover their ancestral home; the killing of the villain Smaug, a sentient dragon that stole the dwarves’ treasure; Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum and the finding of the One Ring; Bilbo’s troupe getting variously captured by Trolls, Goblins, and Wood-Elves; political maneuverings with the Arkenstone, the dwarves’ royal heirloom; and a massive, climactic Battle of Five Armies, which seems pretty self-explanatory. The book’s meager size belies a story dense enough to spawn a franchise by even the most conservative estimates. Whereas a battle between five armies, for example, can take fifteen pages of a book, in the forthcoming Hobbit sequel it will likely eat an hour and a half of screen-time, what with the dwarves, men, orcs, goblins, and elves battling each other, helped along by wargs, wizards, eagles, and trolls. Such are the joys of adaptation.
In the fantasy genre, the original Lord of the Rings trilogy stands out because it was met by enthusiasm from geeks and critics alike. Sure, it induced paroxysms of pleasure in Tolkien obsessives, but it was also critically adored, winning countless Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for The Return of the King. The movies had innovative production design, art direction, cinematography and sound design: in short, all those Oscar categories that laymen can’t define but instinctively enjoy. The Hobbit has that same attention to detail, imaginative renderings of beloved characters, and scenic tours of New Zealand’s landscape. Like The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit has been painstakingly created to envelope the viewer in an epic fantasia.
The difference between the Hobbit and its heftier older brother is in tone. I know many people who loved The Hobbit’s book form but couldn't get through any of the three Lord of the Rings books. Where The Hobbit was quick and easy, flitting breezily between plot points, the Lord of the Rings was dry, grandiose, boring. The latter’s movie versions succeeded in part because they excised Tolkien’s Biblical prose for his meaty storyline, wonderfully infused with mystery and wonder by Peter Jackson. But The Hobbit never had that inflated importance. It was simply a tale of treasure seekers, not the End of All Things Good At the Hands of Sauron the Destroyer. With endearing whimsy The Hobbit was easy to read and virtuously mellow.
Jackson’s screenplay, written with Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, is faithful to those light-hearted leanings, notably manifested by Martin Freeman as the fastidious titular hobbit, and the whole of Scotland’s acting population as his quirky dwarf companions. Other minor characters make cameos—including Cate Blanchett as the ethereal Lady Galadriel, and a cretinous Goblin King with a goiter beard. But on the whole The Hobbit is a whole lot darker than it’s source material. Maybe its because The Hobbit panders too much to our superhero-addicted, bloated lust for action, or maybe it’s the main antagonist Azog the Defiler, a menacing Orc who is not in the books and merely serves here for narrative arc purposes. It won’t matter either way, with a budget the size of a small country’s GDP, The Hobbit is assured blockbuster success. Critical thinkers however, may just find the movie may be too epic for its own good. The Hobbit is enjoyable fantasy catnip that has been seen and done before.
In fact, just about the only mold the movie breaks is the rate of frames per second (fps), which for the last eighty-something years has been standard at 24 fps. Here the frames per second is at 48, a sizable leap forward when considering that the human eye can detect up to 100 frames per second. To Jackson and his followers, the new frame rate is like Blu-Ray for movie theaters, making for sharper images and smoother movement. Critics of the new format, however, say it’s harsher and too realistic, as if we’re seeing movie sets instead of a believable story. 48 fps leeches the misty magic from the movies because it is too immersive, somehow, maybe.
Depending on your view, The Hobbit could herald a revolution in film technology or an understanding of why 24 fps has stayed the standard for so long. Only 3D screenings of The Hobbit will project in the higher frame rate, so fans still have the option of seeing it the good old fashioned way. To be honest, though, I went to a 48 fps showing and could barely see a difference in the new technology. Maybe the Dark Ages aren’t coming to an end. Call it what you will.