Friday, December 28, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I've been a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth for a very long time; even from before I really knew why.  My very young self was probably drawn to the sword craft and high adventure, identifying with the Hobbits Bilbo and Frodo as they discovered a series of incredible experiences.  It was only after repeated re-readings (I once read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in less than a week, simply to prove I could) and further exploration of the lore surrounding Professor Tolkien's life and work that I began to understand its true allure.  Tolkien wrote with a genuine passion that went beyond telling one story.  He used every element at his disposal, from geography and mythology to his beloved philology, to animate the world beyond the story and create a realm of legend.  It sounds dreamy and nerdy, because it is; Tolkien loved the world he wrote about in all of its minutiae, the way only a true nerd could.  

As for Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and the new Hobbit film trilogy, he clearly loves this stuff a lot.  Maybe more than I do; I can never be sure.  I only know that it takes a great deal of love, of that obsessive type we call fandom, to make three epic films on location at the same time, and then voluntarily do the same thing again a few years later. With an army of staff and cast to manage along with the weight of expectation, it must have been a gargantuan task that wore on him heavily.  So regardless of any conceivable criticisms of any of these movies, let none question Peter Jackson's love of the source material: he is veritably King of the Nerds.

For those of us less advanced in the nerd hierarchy, Jackson's movies have been a gift of sorts.  They take the delights of our imagination and transform them into spectacles for all to gather and enjoy.  They can never replace the brilliance of their originals, but they can entertain us, and they can be shared more easily with friends and family who may not have the time or inclination to embrace Tolkien the way we do.  If the movies have problems, that's unfortunate, but we will watch them and we will largely embrace them, because deep down we know that Jackson worked hard and wanted to make a good Hobbit adaptation just as much as we wanted to see one.

And there are problems with this movie.  There are problems with the whole enterprise, really; problems we all foresaw, and which have come to pass before our eyes.  I could understand the decision to film two Hobbit movies; Jackson's love for the material demands more than what can be gleaned from just The Hobbit, what with all the delicious lore packed away in Tolkien's less accessible writings.  But we have a trilogy on our hands, ladies and gentlemen.  We have an epic trilogy built from the frames of a children's book; a trilogy of three very long movies.

The effort to put The Lord of the Rings on film was enormous, and appropriately so, because it is a very long novel and shaping it into even three reasonably balanced films required an enormous amount of editorial discretion: hard choices about what to emphasize and what to change.  Cranky nerds made sad noises at Arwen's expanded role in The Fellowship of the Ring, simply because it was different from what happened in the book.  But because Arwen was to have an important role later on in the series, it made much more sense from a film making point of view to assign her the task of bringing Frodo to Rivendell than to introduce and then immediately forget about a character like Glorfindel.  Changes like that make the movies more efficient and watchable, and are ultimately good decisions.

Putting The Hobbit into the form of an epic trilogy, on the other hand, absolutely requires addition.  None of it is cut from whole cloth, being canonically based on Tolkien's writings, but it does dramatically change the nature of the work.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels like another episode of Jackson's first trilogy, but the original Hobbit did not feel like another chapter of Tolkien's larger book.  It was never supposed to.

Tolkien wrote of The Lord of the Rings that "the tale grew in the telling."  It was a mighty oak that grew from a humble seed; its essential largeness in comparison with The Hobbit is an important characteristic for both stories.  So to see Jackson pump the shorter work up with air to match the longer one, one can't help but notice the stretch marks.  There are more battles and the battles are often more elaborate than a reasonable reading of the source would allow; the scene with the trolls is the best example of this.  The first time I watched this movie, I was somewhat disoriented by the action sequences, particularly in the hall of the Goblin King.  This wasn't as much of a problem the second time around, but the frenetic and inflated quality of the battles just seems more alien from this story than it should.

But when swords are sheathed, An Unexpected Journey usually feels just about right.  The early scenes in Hobbiton, where Bilbo finds himself suddenly besieged by guests, are fantastic.  There's a fair amount of comedy in this movie; sometimes it's overly campy, like when Radagast the Brown touts his rabbit sled (???), but usually it's good-natured and jovial, with plates flying and songs being sung in keeping with the tone of the book.  And the return of Andy Serkis as the voice and reference for Gollum is an unmistakeable highlight; riddles in the dark have never been more appropriately menacing.  It's moments like that, preserving the tone of Tolkien's original work, that let Jackson and the rest's love of Middle Earth shine through more brightly. Those happier parts make for a damn good movie.

Basically, Jackson and his merry band have offered us what is plainly a handsome gift: another three years of Tolkien movies, wherein we can live amongst hobbits and elves and dwarves, contemplate the aesthetics of their languages and culture, and view hundreds of beautiful aerial shots of people walking across New Zealand while the orcish body count piles high.  And frankly, we'd be fools to turn it down.

This is a very high-end, passionately made production, and to the extent that it fails, it does so out of a misguided ambition to match or exceed the spectacle of its predecessor.  You have to give that a little respect.  There are some things I don't like about it.  I don't care for the unnecessary inclusion of Azog the Pale Orc.  I don't like the fact that he so closely resembles Killface.  I wish this were only a two-movie event.  But the upshot of that is that Peter Jackson has two more movies to change my mind.

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