Friday, 21 December 2012

To Dungeons Deep and Caverns Old: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Full disclosure: Until a few weeks ago I had never actually read J.R.R Tolkien's classic novel The Hobbit. I know, pretty shameful, right. Then again, I didn't read Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings books until the movies were coming out either, so I shouldn't be too surprised I didn't read this novel sooner. After reading the novel, I was excited to see the events of the novel on screen. Unfortunately, like everyone else, I had to be prepared only to see part of the story on screen. Director Peter Jackson, who is returning to Middle Earth more than 10 years after directing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, decided to expand The Hobbit in to three movies, making it a companion trilogy to The Lord of the Rings. Originally, when Guillermo Del Toro was going to direct, and even when Jackson took the director's seat, it was going to be a two parter but then in September, it was announced that extra footage would be shot in order to make a third film. The three films would incorparate events and information from Tolkien's appendices, written after The Hobbit, in order to increase the scale of the film, as well as tie the story in to the events from The Lord of the Rings.

Now, when it was announced that The Hobbit would be three films, I, like many other people, was disappointed and confused about the purpose behind expanding a slim book like The Hobbit into three films. It felt unnecessary and a little too indulgent, almost like Jackson was trying too hard to make this in to an event like The Lord of the Rings, which is a pretty big risk since you're inviting comparisons to an iconic and history making series of films, which you yourself directed. The Hobbit, while it does have a few epic battles, is a much smaller scale story than The Lord of the Rings, and I don't think that a film version could ever compare to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, even with Jackson at the helm.

Having finally seen the first film in this new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I'm still sceptical of the expansion of the novel. But I'm also more of two minds about it then I was before. On one hand, Tolkien's novel is very episodic, and if  adapted too literally in to one movie, events could end up being rushed and the film could feel like it was just bouncing from one unrelated event to the next. The extra material, taken mostly from Tolkien's appendices, helps give the story a more traditional flow, as well as tie it in to the larger mythology of  Middle-earth. On the other hand, the structure of this first film does suffer from having to create a three act structure around only six chapters of the novel, as well as trying to incorporate larger mythological exposition that relates to the return of the evil Sauron, the villain of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. And at nearly three hours, one can't help walking out of the theatre wishing the film could've been tightened up, or at least covered more ground from the actual novel.

Critic Joanna Robinson said she felt Jackson was underestimating the power of the source material and the beauty of its simplicity by expanding upon it. I see what see means, and somewhat agree with her. At the same time, I think Jackson, when faced with the task of going back and telling the backstory of Bilbo Baggins, had a dilemma on his hands. As wonderful as the source material is, going back and adapting it after tackling The Lord of the Rings is somewhat ant-climatic. While I don't doubt Jackson respects the source material, he probably felt that if he was going to adapt The Hobbit he'd need to expand upon it in order for it not to appear too small scale next to his original trilogy.

People have already made comparisons to George Lucas and the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace. It's an understandable comparison but at the same time feels a little forced, almost as if people want to hate Jackson and make him in to the bad guy- everything he's doing is wrong, he raped my childhood, etc. While I'm not saying you can't criticize Jackson's decisions, I don't think making him in to a villain who has ruined The Hobbit and by default his prior trilogy is the right way to go about things. As a director he has to make difficult decisions, as well as follow his own heart, even if things don't turn out perfectly.

Now, I realized I've been meandering and going back and forth without coming down firmly on what I actually thought about the film. Well, if you've stayed with me until now I can say that I enjoyed The Hobbit and felt that, while it does have structure problems due to being only one part of a larger story, it works due to a endearing central performance, and a solid sense of pace even at nearly three hours. The climatic action scenes are wonderfully staged and a return appearance by a fan favourite character makes for one of my favourite scenes of the year as well as one of my favourite scenes of the four Jackson-directed Tolkien films.

The film begins with a prologue narrated by the Hobbit of the film's title, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, reprising his role from the original trilogy), who plans to write down the story of his adventures for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). This is on the very day that The Fellowship of the Ring begins. He tells of the destruction of the Dwarf kingdom by the dragon Smaug, who steals their gold. The Dwarf king's grandson Thorin (Richard Armitage) and a band of Dwarves seek to retrieve the gold from Smaug. This is where the younger Bilbo comes in. The wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, also reprising his role) has the band of Dwarves meet him and Bilbo at Bilbo's home one evening where Bilbo is recruited by the Dwarves to be their "burglar." Due to his ancestry, Gandalf believes Biblo is the right man, er, Hobbit for the job. Biblo is at first very reluctant, since Hobbits are peaceful, care free creatures who don't go on adventures. Nevertheless, in the morning Biblo decides to go along on the journey with the Dwarves and Gandalf.

Martin Freeman plays the young Bilbo and as I mentioned earlier, he gives a really endearing performance. He strikes a nice balance between capturing the spirit of Holm's performance from The Fellowship of the Ring while still bringing his own sense of personality to the role. Freeman makes us wish he were our uncle, someone afraid of the larger world yet still itching to experience it. The appeal of the novel, of breaking out of your normal day-to-day and life and going on an adventure is encapsulated in the scene when Bilbo runs to catch up  with Gandalf and the Dwarves, replying to another Hobbit that he's "going on an adventure"- the joy of this scene and Freeman's performance is very touching.

McKellen, of course, was born to play the role of Gandalf, and as he did in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, gives Gandalf a combination of gravitas as well as whimsy and mischievousness. The film does have one problem that stems from the book, which is that on several occasions Gandalf disappears for a while only to reappear just in time to save Bilbo and the Dwarves. Gandalf's disappearances and reappearances wouldn't be as problematic if they were only limited to one, or if they had stronger thematic ties to the story, such as when Gandalf reappeared as Gandalf the White in The Two Towers.

Richard Armitage also does fine work as Thorin, the most developed of all the Dwarf characters. There's a scene late at night where one of the Dwarves recounts a battle between the orcs and the Dwarves, where Thorin cut off the arm of Azog, an Orc War chief. The Dwarf says that during this battle he realized Thorin was a Dwarf he could call king. it's a testament to Armitage's screen presence that we also believe Thorin could be King. On another note about Dwarves, on screen, it's harder to have all these Dwarves walking around then it was for Tolkien to just write that there are 13 Dwarves on the journey. It would've been nice to get more character development for some of them but I assume this series will mostly focus on Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin.
Seeing Gollum (Andy Serkis) again was a real treat. Andy Serkis, with the aid of motion capture technology, once again makes Gollum a fully realized dramatic character, tragic yet funny, disgusting yet adorable. The "Riddles in the Dark" chapter from the novel, where Bilbo discovers and takes Gollum's ring, which is actually the One Ring of power, forged by Sauron in order to rule Middle-earth, was one of the best parts of the novel, and so it goes for the film as well.  Bilbo and Gollum play a game of riddles that will either end with Gollum leading Bilbo out of a cave or eating him whole. The scene is both suspenseful and hilarious. There's also a very moving moment where Bilbo, who is invisible due to wearing the ring, has the oppurtunity to kill Gollum but doesn't. It brings to mind the moment from The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf tells Frodo that it was out of pity that Bilbo didn't kill Gollum.

The added material, specifically the scenes with Gandalf and the White Council, which features more returning characters and cast members, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Sauruman (Christopher Lee), ties in to the overall mythology of Middle-earth, Sauron and the One Ring of power. The wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) gives Gandalf information that hints at the possible return of Sauron, which we all know will happen, as well as that Bilbo's finding of the Ring ties in to the fate of Middle Earth. This material does give the film an assertive yet subtle foreshadowing of the epic battle that is to come in 60 years, which is pretty cool, but it also seems beside the point of the main thrust of the story. I do hope that as the films progress, the extra material concerning the future of Middle-earth and the main adventure of the novel are more intertwined thematically.

Coming back to the Star Wars comparisons, once the six films were complete, it became clearer than ever that this was the story of a father and son, the father's fall from grace and his redemption through his son. In Jackson's mind, it seems that he sees the story of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings partly as a story about an uncle and nephew, two Hobbits who find themselves shaken out of their normal routines and see their lives tied in to the fate of Middle-earth. I'm willing to go with whatever vision Jackson has for this story, even if the films become too bloated. I think that the finished product will work better than any of the stand alone films. Not that you can't judge this film on its own merits, but that you ultimately have to be patient, particularly in this era where franchises are very serialized in terms of their storytelling. I feel The Hobbit Trilogy will ultimately have a better reputation than the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy and will honour and compliment The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I'm excited to see the next chapter in this trilogy, particularly with that great final shot- pure evil, waking up. So, if you're a fan of this world, go see this film, be open minded, and I think you'll have an enjoyable time.

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