Review: The Hobbit, part 1

by Tom Ingram

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation has always struck me as one of the most smooth transitions from the page to the screen. He captures the essential spirit of the books but is ruthless about anything unimportant, difficult to dramatize, or stupid in them. I’ve not seen Return of the King, but the first two, at least, can satisfy even the most exacting Tolkienians while still entertaining a general audience.

The Hobbit, on the other hand, has looked more like a potential disaster the more we’ve heard about it. First Guillermo del Toro was set to direct, an exciting move that would give the project some much-needed independence from the main franchise while still keeping it under the auspices of Peter Jackson. That didn’t work out. Shortly after that, we heard the news that what was planned as a single film would have to be split up into three instalments, which strongly implied that they’d got The Hobbit all wrong.

Now filming has finished, as I understand it, and the first instalment has hit theatres. At the very least the movie is not terrible, but it has its problems and Tolkienians may be a little hesitant to give it the gesture of benediction.

For those who have not read the book, The Hobbit is about Frodo’s uncle Bilbo being shanghaied into an adventure by the wizard Gandalf, who tells a party of dispossessed dwarves that Bilbo is a master burglar who can help them regain their lost city from a dragon. It was written earlier than The Lord of the Rings, and is very different in tone and (to my mind) much superior. It is an epic fantasy, but quite short for its genre—under 100K words (compared to LoTR‘s combined almost 500K), and they go by quickly. The Lord of the Rings and many fantasy epics that followed it play freely with open space, narrating the clashes of huge armies and the exploits of adventurers across the world from each other. The Hobbit follows a single main character on a narrow path for its whole length, and the climactic battle takes place while he is unconscious.

Most importantly, the hero, thrust into situations well beyond his ken, survives and succeeds through a combination of dumb luck and middle class self-justifying amorality. The Hobbit is not an inspiring or heroic story—what’s great about it is precisely that no one involved in its plot is a good person. Instead we get a whole spectrum of rogues and villains on a rollicking quest to kill a dragon for fun and profit. Ultimately, the reason The Hobbit is better than LoTR is that it’s funny, and laughs are hard to come by in epic fantasy, even in series that should be full of them.

Splitting the film adaptation into a trilogy is not a good idea for two reasons. First of all, the word “trilogy” strongly implies length and self-seriousness, neither of which are a good fit for The Hobbit. Where are they going to get the length from? What are they going to do to the more whimsical material? Secondly, there aren’t enough clean spots to end the instalments that will keep them satisfying as individual movies. At this rate the second movie is going to have to be padded heavily, and the third will be all ending.

This first movie ended in the obvious place—the escape from the caves, after Bilbo finds the One Ring. In order to pad it to feature length and spruce it up a bit, the very few fights that take place in the book are blown up to ridiculous proportions, a dull prologue has been added featuring Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, and a great deal of material from the LoTR apocrypha has been interpolated. This has the effect of clouding over The Hobbit‘s sunnier tone with the straight-faced dourness of the LoTR movies. Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee both make appearances (their characters were not in the book), which is good for their bank accounts but makes things even more oppressively intertwined with the main franchise.

It looks like the three Hobbit films are simply going to be an extension of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth universe, rather than adaptations of the book. This is not the end of the world, and the movie really isn’t bad. It’s just not necessary, and the violence it does to the source material is painful to anyone who is fond of the novel. Peter Jackson and company have missed a great opportunity, and deprived the world of a proper adaptation of The Hobbit until someone feels moved to do a remaked thirty years from now. It’s hard not to be disappointed.

The spider situation: those who have read the novel know that there is a prominently spidery bit in the middle that is very disturbing to people of a certain temperament (including myself). The first movie ends before they reach this part—it will probably take up most of the second movie—but the spiders do appear in a brief scene, first in fleeting glimpses, and then in a full view walking away from the camera. If spidery scenes bother you, you’ll probably be fine with this movie, but the second one will be quite a bit dicier.