Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I haven’t read The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien’s first book on Middle Earth in at least three decades. I have read The Lord of the Rings at least a half dozen times. Frankly, The Hobbit is simply a far less compelling book: relatively slim and oriented toward children. It would have been a great book to read with my father at age eight or so once I was past the Dr. Seuss years, but not so much as an adult.

Unsurprisingly, movie producers skipped right to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That The Hobbit was turned into a movie at all was due to the success of the three rings movies and Peter Jackson’s eventual willingness to both direct and produce the movie. The movie? I misspoke. The Hobbit (as a movie) will become a trilogy of its own. This will involve a lot of padding and stuffing it with materials from the appendices and other source material developed later by Tolkien in The Silmarillion, plus undoubtedly some poetic license. There is plenty of the latter in this first of The Hobbit movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Jackson must have gotten the note: don’t mess with the formula. To make this movie as palatable as possible to fans of the Rings movies, the same music that framed the Rings movies is used, with the exception of one new tune. Also, as long as you are not messing with formula, why not invite back much of the cast from the Rings movies? That’s not to say that they are all back, at least not yet. Gandalf at least is central to The Hobbit book, and Elrond had an ancillary part, but rest assured the white wizard Saruman was not in the book, or the elven queen Galadriel or Radagast, a wizard of the forest, who was only alluded to in the Rings books. Frodo is back as well Ian Holm as the elder Bilbo, both only briefly at the start of the movie. There is no sign of Sam, Aragorn, Legolas, Boromir or the rest, although there are two movies to go. My bet is Peter Jackson will find a way to slip them in somewhere.

For all practical purposes, Thorin is Aragorn in this movie. The resemblance is so striking that I initially mistook Richard Armitage for Viggo Mortensen, as he uses the same poses as Aragorn and even holds his sword the same way. Aragorn was the dispossessed King of Gondor. Thorin is the dispossessed dwarf king under the mountain. Both have major challenges. Aragorn has to summon the will to be king and defeat Sauron. Thorin has to reclaim his kingdom and kill the dragon Smaug. Aragorn is one prominent member of a fellowship. Thorin is the leader of thirteen dwarves. Bilbo Baggins enters the picture at the start of this movie as the dwarves converge on the Shire and because the wizard Gandalf chooses Bilbo as their burglar, a duty the homebound Bilbo does not seem to eager to take on.

Oh, but it’s great to be in the Shire, which is eternally peaceful and bucolic, and in particular it’s great to be back in Bag End, Bilbo’s home, even if it is quickly taken over by dwarves who monopolize both conversation and his pantry. Martin Freeman, who I first knew as John Watson in the BBC’s latest series Sherlock, plays a younger Bilbo. It is clear that he studied Ian Holm’s interpretation because much of his acting here is imitating Ian Holm. Nonetheless Freeman proves an apt choice for Bilbo and brings just the right mixture of sincerity and naivety to the role.

Ian McKellen (Gandalf) looks ten years older, which he is, but actually does a more satisfying job of portraying the wizard than he did in the Rings movies. You might say he has fully mastered the part now, and he does so effortlessly and to delightful effect. Otherwise those brought back from the Rings movies don’t look any older, including Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Ian Holm as Bilbo. Holm actually looks younger, if that is possible, and Blanchett doesn’t look aged a day, which is good if you are portraying an immortal elf.

As for the dwarves, they don’t all look as weathered as Gimli did in the Rings movies. Thorin in particular looks more human than dwarf, which is good because we have to relate to someone in the movie and there are no parts for actual humans. They all make a memorable introduction at Bag End near the start of the movie where poor Bilbo plays unexpected host to all thirteen of them, plus wizard. Jackson earns the big money in these early scenes, because their exposition unfolds so comically and seamlessly. It is unlikely that any other director could have pulled it off. And Freeman is just so excellent as the befuddled Bilbo. His casting was inspired.

This earlier version of Middle Earth is older and a bit more fun than the one we saw in the Rings movies. That was one of the problems with the original movies: Middle Earth was changing, but not so much in The Hobbit, except giant spiders are inhabiting the Greenwood, trolls have come down from the mountains, and orcs are on the warpath. Jackson seems determined to integrate it with the Rings movies and to portray a Middle Earth that is subtly changing for the worse. As for the dwarves that Bilbo belatedly joins as its burglar, it’s hard for them to go a day without some hair-raising adventure: trolls, orcs and stone giants are just some of the perils they have to encounter. There is also, deep in the Misty Mountains, a peculiar creature called Gollum that Bilbo must encounter for the first time. It’s peculiar but pleasurable to encounter Gollum again. He should be thoroughly unlikeable, but Andy Serkis does such a good job of portraying him that you look forward to the encounter.

The movie feels quite padded, but in a good way. Middle Earth is a huge tapestry. In the Rings movies Jackson had to be very selective about what to show of Middle Earth. Finally he has a chance to imbue us wholly in Middle Earth. Probably half an hour could have been trimmed from the movie at no appreciable loss, except for us Tolkien-heads for who these movies were really made, and there are millions of us. We can’t get enough!

So parts feel formulaic, but also in a good way. The dwarves and Bilbo escape all sorts of improbable disasters. Jackson has wholly mastered adventure movies and we get lots of rickety catwalks, collapsing bridges and drops from crazy heights. Middle Earth is dazzling, more so than in the Rings movies, and it is a comfortable place in spite of all its perils. It’s quite a pleasure to walk in Rivendell again and although meetings with characters like Saruman and Lady Galadriel seem quite contrived, you won’t care. Middle Earth has never felt quite so homey.

Good job, Peter Jackson and crew. I’m not sure how you will pad out this slim book into three three-hour movies, but if the other two are as good as the first, we Tolkien addicts are going to be happy. Meanwhile Peter Jackson, how about starting preproduction for The Silmarillion? Thanks.

3.4 on my four-point scale. A good time for all.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]

Review: The Return of the King

The new movie The Return of the King (RotK) is a satisfying conclusion to Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. At three hours and twenty minutes it seems odd to say it is too short, but it is too short. Each of the movies leaves out parts of the book we Tolkien aficionados considered essential. If you are a fan of the book you will be shaking your heads over parts omitted. One wonders, for example, how Peter Jackson (the director) could possibly leave out Gandalf’s key scene at the gates of Minas Tirith with the Witch King. One can only pray the scene was filmed and will be shown in the extended DVD. But there are other bizarre parts that ended up on the editing floor such as Sam’s using the ring. Eomer never gets a chance to grieve over the body of King Theoden. Jackson’s choices for what were important were often debatable. Gone are the Houses of Healing, gone is the romance between Faramir and Eowyn. We never see ancillary characters like Beregond and Prince Imrahil. The time between the Battle of Pelennor Fields and the final encounter at the Black Gate is incredibly squeezed, as is Sam and Frodo’s journey through Mordor. And of course Jackson never bothered to film the scouring of the Shire, considering that part simply boring. We can only hope that most of these omissions end up in the extended DVD.

Other things seem kind of strange compared to the book. The ruined city of Osgiliath appears to be a mile or so away from the gates of Minas Tirith instead of a day’s ride away. Indeed from the perspective of Minas Tirith, Mordor seems so close that it practically hovers over the city. One wonders how the people of Gondor kept their city from being overrun for so long since the distance between good and evil seems so collapsed.

Of course some plot points were changed, but none seriously. Merry ends up with Pippin going to the Black Gate (I guess his wounds weren’t too bad.) Elrond makes an unexpected appearance in Rohan to give Aragon his sword Anduril. (Why couldn’t he have gotten it back in Rivendell like in the book? What was the point of waiting through two movies?)

But really these are fairly minor nits because if you liked the first two movies you won’t be disappointed this conclusion. Some parts simply take your breath away, often at unexpected times. The lighting of the beacon at Minas Tirith and the scenes of the beacons being lit on the mountaintops across Anorien make the heart stop. The Battle of Pennelor Fields is as spectacular as you would expect. The scene where Eowyn kills the Witch King was the emotional highlight of the film for me. People worried about the final scene at the Cracks of Doom need not worry; Jackson kept to the dogma brilliantly.

The audience was a little confused about when the movie ended. Once Aragorn was crowned king and the screen faded to white some thought the movie was over. There were other opportunities to get confused about when the movie ended. But I didn’t feel that the number of “goodbyes” was overstated at all. The whole chapter in the book “Many Partings” was basically cut out. In takes less than a minute to move the reader from Gondor back to the Shire.

Some random thoughts and observations:

– Liv Tyler actually acts pretty well this time, unlike in the first two movies. I had a feeling Jackson reshot these scenes because Tyler wasn’t very convincing at all in the first two movies. In fact she annoyed me. I didn’t believe her at all. I believed her in this movie.
– Do elves have superglue on the pads of their feet? How can Legolas possibly keep his balance as he climbs the oliphant to bring it down?
– Miranda Otto more than fills Eowyn’s shoes. My wife is very upset that this was done so well. She has always disliked the character because she comes across as a stereotype in Tolkien’s books. Not so in the movie.
– Why didn’t the muster of Rohan take the enemy by surprise? In the book it was because they acted like cavalry that they were so successful.
– It’s nice to see Billy Boyd provide something beyond comic relief. He gets his moments to shine in this movie.
– Shelob was worth the wait. She is disgusting beyond imagination.
– As a local reviewer also noted, the dead that Aragorn encounters look more like ghosts from Pirates of the Caribbean, and wouldn’t scare me too much. I’m wondering why the orcs were so afraid.

Naturally I’ll be back in the theater to see it again and again. There is a long holiday period coming up. But until the extended DVD arrives a year from now in my mind it won’t really be over. There is too much that needs to be added. This feels like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the movie.

As a footnote I learned that the book was so named only at the insistence of Tolkien’s publisher. Tolkien had wanted to name the third volume “The War of the Rings” but was overruled. In the 1950s I guess Tolkien felt fortunate enough to be published at all and didn’t feel in a position to argue.

Obsessed with Lord of the Rings

I first read JRR Tolkien’s trilogy around 1970. Like most people of a certain age and outlook I was blown away by it. It would be hard to name any book, or series of books, that I have enjoyed more or read as many times. I’ve gone through the trilogy perhaps 6 or 7 times, no small accomplishment given the size of the book. But for the last 15 years or so I’ve put it on the shelf and moved on with life.

My wife Terri happens to be a much bigger Tolkien fan than I, having practically memorized every word, not just of this series, but of the Hobbit, Silmarillion and Tolkien’s obscure works. I sometimes refer to her as Virginia’s resident Tolkien scholar and it would perhaps not be an overstatement to award her the title. If she was to attend a Tolkien convention and participated in a Tolkien trivia contest I am confident she would take away the gold medal.

We were both excited when Peter Jackson back in 1998 announced he was going to produce movies from the books. We were one of the first people to find site and voraciously kept up on all things related to the movie. When the first movie was released in December 2001 we were at the first Friday night showing, having purchased our tickets weeks in advance. When the second movie came out I was so obsessed I actually had to go see it on my day off, alone, the very day it came out: a 10 AM showing.

I’ve read various surveys that suggest it is the best book of the 20th century, as voted by the people. If you haven’t read Tolkien you can’t appreciate how detailed the work is. It is like viewing the Sistine Chapel. It is just overwhelming with richness and consequently for a pure fantasy it is very believable.

And yet as I reread portions of the book at age 46 I am finding myself more and more critical of the books. It is not that the richness, detail and density of the books are any less appealing. No, what I notice now having put the books aside for so long is that, while the books are seamless and interlocking like a vast puzzle, Tolkien is not much of a writer.

Let’s be plain. Except for the hobbits and Gandalf, which he seems to know innately, the dialog leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, it’s a fantasy but even in a fantasy novel no one would talk the way some of his characters do in such a stilted and awkward language. Moreover a lot of his characters are very one dimensional. Aragorn, the man who is to reclaim the throne of Gondor, seems superficial at best. We learn little about Legolas or Gimli or what makes them tick. Eowyn, one of the few women to appear in the book is hopelessly love struck when she meets Aragorn; as my wife put it she’s the first “Mary Sue”. Eowyn is the person that Tolkien invented so he can fall in love with his own character. As a good Catholic, I guess JRR had to ruthlessly suppress any homophobic feelings.

JRR also leaves a lot to be desired as a poet. Much of his poetry is poor and stilted.

But all this is just to point out that the books, while magnificent, could have been so much better had Tolkien been a more gifted writer. If, say, Sinclair Lewis could have written these books, the result might well have been the best book of all times.

Which leads back to the movies: I’ve found two types and only two types: those who hate the movie and those who love them. There is no in between that I can find. My brother Tom and sister Doris are in the “hate” camp. I have to respect their feelings, although I don’t agree with them. The movies certainly are a bit of a departure from the books.

The movies though excel in a lot of ways. As you recall my critique of the books were that Tolkien wasn’t able to imbue much character into his characters. This is where a gifted director can step in and lend Tolkien a much needed hand. In the process Jackson has had to change a few things to make the books fit the medium of cinema. This has infuriated much of the “hate” crowd for whom Tolkien must be pure and unadulterated. How could Glorfindel be replaced at the Ford with Arwen? Well, it’s a pretty easy choice, really, if you are making a movie. (It also really, really works: it means much more that a woman, Arwen, is saving Frodo that some elf lord, Glorfindel, who will quickly disappear from the story.) Movies have to connect on an emotional level. So far Peter Jackson has made the right choices in deviating from the sacred script and has actually improved the product. But in reality these changes have been quite minor to those of us in the “love” crowd, whereas they appear as huge, gaping tears in the essential nature of the plot to the “hate” crowd.

But what I like most is that Jackson brought the characters alive. Aragorn is now someone who is no longer a wooden character, but someone I deeply care about because I can see his human frailties. Boromir actually comes across as a complex person with a decent and honorable side. Gandalf, as portrayed by Sir Ian McKellan, is just wonderfully deep. Even the evil creatures such as Saruman are imbibed with personality and depth. All this and great special effects, first class directing, and wonderful production values; what is there not to love?

So I haunt almost daily to catch the latest details of what is going on with the movies, which isn’t much. I’ve reread the Return of the King to anticipate the movie. I am anxiously waiting for the Extended Edition DVD of The Two Towers to be released in November so I can see all the stuff they had to leave out to squeeze the story into only three hours.

We Tolkien fans will owe a big debt of gratitude to Peter Jackson and his whole talented crew when this is all over for turning flawed books into a spectacular movie. All my life I have been waiting for the Rings books to be properly turned into cinema. I am delighted at how well Peter Jackson has done the job. He is obsessed with turning out a first class product. I can appreciate the books but now I have something equally as valuable: the movies that fill in the details that are missing in the books simply because Tolkien did not have the talent to put them in.

If you haven’t read the books, they are a must read, in spite of the minor flaws. The movies should also be enjoyed and savored. I will die a happy man. I don’t ask much from life other than to see Lord of the Rings done right on the screen. This wish has come true.