May 24, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit is, as you probably know, a 1937 childrens fantasy by author and academic J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a marvellous novel, and a childhood favourite of mine, and while it's long been overshadowed by Tolkien's subsequent epic The Lord of the Rings it remains in my opinion the best book among his works. It's breezy where Lord of the Rings is ponderous. It whips along where its sequel meanders about.

I spent many years eagerly anticipating the day when someone in Hollywood made a feature film out of The Hobbit. I was surprised some years ago when New Line Pictures allowed Peter Jackson to write and direct a three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, rather than get him to direct The Hobbit first: it could be easily adapted into a single film, was self-contained and could have made for a brilliant hit. Instead, Jackson has come to The Hobbit a full decade later, adapting it into an all-new trilogy of films to be released annually from 2012 to 2014.

The first part, An Unexpected Journey, was released into cinemas in December 2012, and onto DVD a few weeks ago. It has many great elements in it. Overall, however, it's a disastrous failure.

Don't get me wrong: there's a good movie buried somewhere inside The Hobbit. Unfortunately that movie is about 45 minutes long, and lies somewhere within a 169 minute behemoth. Everything else is self-indulgent padding. In fact, I would go so far as to declare this the most self-indulgent Hollywood blockbuster of the past decade or so.

The Lord of the Rings required a three-film adaptation because it's an incredibly long novel - so long, in fact, that publishers continue to print it in three separate volumes. Let's look at it this way: The Lord of the Rings is, in total, 1,571 pages long (based on the original editions). Three film adaptations with a total running time of 557 minutes equate to approximately 2.8 pages of novel per minute. Now The Hobbit is 310 pages long. The first film adaptation is 169 minutes long. Assuming the next two parts are a similar length we're looking at a running time of 507 minutes in total, and an adaptation rate of 0.6 pages per minute. That's crazy. That's taking self-indulgence so far its positively masturbatory. Quite frankly if you can't adapt a children's novel in 120 minutes you're doing something terribly, terribly wrong.

Jackson fills An Unexpected Journey with additional scenes and cameos, knowing winks to The Lord of the Rings, and a healthy dose of ominous foreshadowing. The film begins with an entirely unnecessary framing sequence starring Ian Holm as an elderly Bilbo and Elijah Wood as Frodo - a Frodo who's visibly a decade older than he's supposed to be, but that's probably by-the-by. This is followed by a lengthy introduction to a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and a party of thirteen dwarfs. The result of this double-opening is that by the time An Unexpected Journey gets started, the film has been running for 40 minutes.

The odd insertions continue throughout. There's a lengthy prologue involving dwarfs that perhaps clears up the story but isn't integral. There's a series of scenes featuring Sylvester McCoy as fellow wizard Radagast the Brown that don't add anything of value (despite McCoy being marvellous in the part). There's a completely ridiculous scene where Gandalf spontaneously meets with Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) to discuss what's going to happen in The Lord of the Rings in a few decades' time.

What we're basically looking at here is the work of a filmmaker so immersed in his source material that he's started to genuinely believe he can do better than the original author. The Hobbit, as a novel, is a self-contained fantasy adventure, however in Jackson's hands the film is turned into a prequel full of foreshadowing, moody prologues and musical cues to The Fellowship of the Ring. He is piling in unnecessary material in a mistaken belief that more content means more entertainment, when in this case the opposite is true. To take this book and split it into three films is an act of creative self-indulgence that's vast becoming typical of Peter Jackson: The Return of the King was half an hour too long, mainly in its bizarrely sloppy denouement, and the same can be said of Jackson's portentous remake of King Kong.

The visual effects are over-the-top as well. One of the things that always impressed me about The Fellowship of the Ring was how physical it all was: the orcs and goblins were mostly played by actors in prosthetic makeup, the camera work was strong and solid, and computer graphics were only employed where they were the absolute best answer to a creative problem. An Unexpected Journey is its polar opposite: the goblins and orcs all look fake as hell, because they've been rendered in CGI. The backgrounds are mostly rendered in CGI. The digital video used makes everything look bizarrely glossy and fake. If there's one genuinely positive thing that can be said about the aesthetics of An Unexpected Journey it's that this generation has finally experienced its own Phantom Menace: a gaudy, unnecessary, bloated sequel, reminiscent of an earlier, greater film, but lessened by the weight of hubris and narrative obesity.

Lost somewhere among the glitz and gaudy toys of the film are some genuinely good performances. Martin Freeman is stunning as Bilbo Baggins, giving the character a pitch-perfect combination of bravery, self-interest, and grumpy domestic homesickness. Ian McKellen comfortably slips back into the role of Gandalf, cleverly giving him the lightness of touch from Fellowship of the Ring rather than the gravitas-filled version of The Two Towers and Return of the King. Distinguishing between thirteen dwarfs is often quite difficult, but Ken Stott stands out admirably, as does Richard Armitage - although I note the traditionally obstinate Thorin Oakenshield has been given a far more noble goal, in true Hollywood fashion.

There is absolutely much good in An Unexpected Journey, but it's drowning in what I can only assume to be Peter Jackson's ego. What's worse - there are two more films of this to go. I'm not sure I can sustain my love for the novel for that long.


  1. For mine, I liked it except for the computer game sequence under the mountain. Ri fucking diculous! Pardon my tmesis, but it was as if it was done on an X-box.

  2. Also, not leaving things out (like Tom Bombadil in LOTR) makes for longer movies. If it takes a day to read, why not have a movie of similar duration?

  3. The computer game sequence during the climax was completely silly, and threw me out of the story altogether.

  4. I came out of my first watch of this feeling bored. I even went and got a coffee half way through.

    The pacing was waaaaay off and I found it confusing when it seemed to go slow, slower, slow.. warms up a little... then slower again...then blinding activity and finish. That said, my second watching of this was a more enjoyable experience because I didn't have any false expectations about the pacing.

    For me the best bits involved the Riddle Game and, oddly enough, Bilbo's overly long first encounter with the Dwarfs.

    The worst bits were the self-homages; the addition of a character (The Albino Orc) that should have long been dead and was largely unnecessary - as was Thorin's "denial" about the Albino's existance; the stupendous lack of physics in the chase scenes in Moria destroyed all dramatic tension and rendered it into farce; and Radagast was a walking joke. The rabbit sled was so blindingly stupid that it came across as a giant finger to the LOTR fan in me.

    Rendering all the animal characters (Lord of the Eagles, for instance. And I think the wargs talked as well) into non-talking "beasts" was a little disappointing too.

    That said,

  5. Now, if only someone of this generation would make a cut-down version like Phantom Edit ...

  6. I haven't seen The Hobbit, nor am I going to, for basically the reasons you've given here.

    The thing that depresses me about this? Jackson has the movie rights to Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, and those books are also shortish novels.

  7. Does he have the rights to the Silmarillion or the History of Middle Earth. There's a wealth of stories that could have been incorporated into a suite of films instead of bloating the Hobbit.

  8. As far as I'm aware nobody owns the screen rights to the Silmarillion - Tolkien's estate are so bloody-minded about how the rights to The Hobbit and LOTR were passed around that they're not inclined to give the rights to the Silmarillion to anybody.


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