Concerning Hobbits: An Unexpected Review

First things first: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, essentially, fanfiction. You adapt a book to a film, some things are going to change – it’s par for the course with moving between a medium where everything has to be described in turn to one where things can just exist side-by-side and be seen, between a medium where there’s a narrative voice and one where that’s usually kind of weird and intrusive. That’s going to happen. It’s still possible, though, to produce a pretty faithful adaptation of source material (just look at Watchmen).

Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have not done that. Their Hobbit has, well, made a few changes. It’s developed a few characters and incidents, and added a few more; it’s reshuffled quite a few plot elements; it’s explicitly setting out as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings rather than ‘that children’s book that Rings was the sequel to’; it’s recognisably the same story, but everything that Tolkien set off the page has moved onto the screen, executing a generic shift toward the epic. It’s a film made by four people that love the book but want to seize control of it and do things with it, who love it for its potential rather than as a pristine and untouchable cultural artefact. It’s exactly the sort of thing that good fanfiction does – but it’s not one for Tolkien purists.

And, frankly, I think that’s a good thing.

[What follows will, naturally, be spoileriffic. I wouldn’t normally warn you about this, given that the book has been out since 1937 and all, but there’s that much new stuff here that I think it’s worth doing. If you care about spoilers do not click ‘Read More’. You have been warned.]

Part of The Hobbit‘s charm – the book, not the film, which will henceforth be An Unexpected Journey unless I forget – for me is that Bilbo and the dwarves are explicitly not movers and shakers. They’re fourteen vaguely-competent vagabonds on an ill-conceived mission of revenge. There are epic conflicts of good and evil – White Councils toppling Necromancers, and the absence of kings driving the land to wrack and ruin, and the elves looking to walk away from Middle-Earth once and for all – but all that stuff is very much off-the-page as far as Thorin and Company are concerned. Many of their encounters along the way are avoided or negotiated around, not approached with the sword and axe.

That’s not the case here. I’d been wondering how Jackson et al were going to get three films out of what is, after all, a comparatively short book. Chiefly, they’ve done it by drawing in all that extraneous matter pertaining to what I can’t not think of as The Fall Of The Necromancer, and fleshing out appendix material like the first doomed attempt to retake Moria, where Thorin Oakenshield came by his name and barely-mentioned-in-the-books antagonist Azog the Defiler makes his presence felt. Much of this is drawn from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, or is distilled from scenes therein which Jackson didn’t use for his original trilogy; so far, so satisfactory, and I’m always cheap for developing Orcs as characters.

Do it now.

There is also a certain amount of New Zealand skyline scenery porn, as is to be expected from Jackson; there are shots and sequences which, while not carbon copies of anything from the Rings films, are self-homages on a level I’d thought was reserved for Edgar Wright. The extent to which Jackson re-uses cinematography from Rings and within An Unexpected Journey itself – the leaping-across-collapsing-stonework bit, the extended-escape-from-goblin-army-across-collapsible-scenery-bit, the trudging-grimly-across-the-glorious-skyline-while-stirring-theme-tune-plays bit, and the dwarves-charge-to-the-rescue-of-a-fallen-comrade bit (which I swear is directed and shot the same way all three or four times you see it, same dwarves doing the same things to different enemies) – is evident and, to my mind, slightly inelegant. It’d be quite clever if he did it once but by the third time you’re starting to wonder if it’s even deliberate or if he’s just coming up against a limitation of his style.

That said, there’s a lot of good stuff that we haven’t seen before. Azog is genuinely if generically unnerving; the Radagast scenes play to Sylvester McCoy’s strengths as an actor and he’s always worth watching if you play to his strengths as an actor; the White Council scenes do a superb job of presenting a paranoid Gandalf, a complacent, still-benevolent Saruman and – joy, rapture, bliss beyond measure – an actual named, active female character, which is more than Tolkien managed in this one. The opening sequence, in which Old Bilbo narrates the Fall of Dale, is a spectacular glimpse into the life and death of the dwarves’ city, and since Rings didn’t exactly serve the dwarves well, it’s nice to see that they’re basically every bit as fantastic and accomplished as the elves are, and offer just as much visual richness. If I had to point at two scenes, and two personages, who deserve awards for this one, though, it’d be the opening Unexpected Party sequence and, like damn near everyone, Riddles in the Dark.

The Unexpected Party preserves two of Tolkien’s least annoying songs, for starters. Many of the songs in The Hobbit are irritating doggerel, but I make exceptions for anything the dwarves come out with. The signature tune, ‘Far Over The Misty Mountains’ has been set for male vocals, no accompaniment whatsoever, and a tune vaguely reminiscent of Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’, and indeed the only problem with any of this is that it’s too bloody short and they could have easily sung the whole thing over the Fall of Dale stuff. Meanwhile, ‘That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates’ is just fun, lending itself to some fine choreography. The best thing, though, is that the sequence establishes Martin Freeman’s nervous, polite, terribly-English Bilbo – everything about him is perfect for the part, right down to the tiny flappy hand gestures and the cutting himself off in mid-rant and the apologising for everything.

It’s a good job, too, ’cause when Andy Serkis makes his brief appearance, a lesser Bilbo would have the scene stolen right out from under him. Gollum is scripted as much more, err, explicitly multiple-system-ish than is entirely comfortable, and played for laughs in a way I’m not sure I’m cool with, but Serkis’ performance is superb, exploiting the script for some genuine fear and pathos as well as the giggles. When the line “string or nothing!” manages to encapsulate the split in Gollum perfectly, you know you’re in the presence of people who basically know exactly what they’re doing.

Serkis’ experienced hand is wrapped around the second unit direction, too, executing some very competent set-pieces with the ol’ CGI. Mind you, set-pieces themselves seem oddly out of place in a version of The Hobbit, which is, well, not an epic set-piece kind of story really. Watching the scenes with Azog pursuing the dwarves across the Wild, or the fight that takes place with three trolls where no fight took place in the book, or the fight at the entrance to Rivendell which is oddly reminiscent of The Two Towers‘ similarly artificial Warg Attack sequence, one can’t help but shake the nagging feeling that these people have a tie-in wargame to sell. Granted, it’s working – I feel a profound urge to actually build that LotR Strategy Battle Game Dwarf army I’ve been threatening to do forever – but I can’t say it’s entirely welcome in a story which is notable for having protagonists who are mostly not very good at fighting and end up avoiding it wherever they can.

That wraps up the experience of watching An Unexpected Journey, for me. It’s not the Hobbit which I read at ten and fell in love with. It’s more like The Hobbit as retold for thirteen-year-old boys who’ve half-read The Lord of the Rings (for the battles, and skipping the slow bits) and just played their first game of D&D or rolled their first WoW character or painted their first minature this week. Fortunately, my inner thirteen-year-old isn’t terribly far from the surface. I recognise a good, honest fantasy adventure when I see one, and I also recognise, I hope, the sort of thing that would hook someone into the fantasy milieu and maybe, in a few years time, produce someone who’s ready for the likes of E. R. Eddison.

I think that’s more important than preserving every word of the elf songs, don’t you?

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