Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Standard legal disclaimer: this post contains spoilers.  (Response to standard legal disclaimer: how much can you spoil in the first installment of a trilogy?)

I’ve been a fan of Tolkien for decades.  And I loved Peter Jackson’s cinematic rendering of The Lord of the Rings.  There were moments when I actually gasped, thinking, “That’s exactly how I imagined it!”  Needless to say, I’ve eagerly awaited the arrival of his latest project, a trio of movies based on The Hobbit.

First impression?  It’s good, and I enjoyed it.  But it’s not LOTR.

To some extent, that can’t be helped.  Jackson’s first effort entered a virtual vacuum of screen adaptations (Ralph Bakshi?  Forget about it) and was dazzling in vision.  And by the end of The Return of the King, the narrative had reached an emotionally satisfying climax.  Sauron had been defeated and Middle Earth restored; wistfully, we watched our heroes depart for the Grey Havens, while ever-faithful Sam returned to peaceful domesticity; and Annie Lennox’s Into the West still raises a lump in my throat.

So when I heard Jackson had signed onto The Hobbit, my expectations were high.  Unfortunately, movies that build on such a successful franchise are often disappointing, coming off as “And Now, the Further Adventures” of whatever character we long to see again.  Indeed, the screenplay dutifully reconnects us with the familiar, taking us to places we know and creating cameo roles for characters from the previous films.  All of this is entertaining–but not satisfying at the same level.  To that extent, Jackson may be a victim of his own success.  I’m expecting too much.

Perhaps more importantly, he’s working with different source material.  The Hobbit is a single novel rather than a trilogy in its own right, and more folksy in tone.  Tolkien wrote it for his own children (and the movie, by the way, is not for young children).  It lacks the gravitas of LOTR.  A monstrous dragon is one thing, but the spreading, sinuous evil of the One Ring is another.  The quest of the dwarves to retake their kingdom is a worthy story, but to me at least, it’s one with less archetypal resonance, and perhaps less deserving of a full trilogy.  (Some may chafe at the analogy, but Star Wars Episodes 1 to 3 come to mind.)

And as we’ve already seen in LOTR, Jackson can’t resist the opportunity to milk the story for a bit of mayhem, the better to dish up some effects-laden thrills.  In Tolkien’s version of one brief scene, Bilbo and the dwarves have been climbing through the Misty Mountains in a thunderstorm, and have taken shelter.  A shivering Bilbo peeks out from under his blanket:

…he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness… They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.

In Jackson’s version, the giants are actually made of living stone.  They’re not having a game of catch, they’re battling each other, and our heroes are caught in the middle, in dire danger of being crushed or falling to their death.  Then, once inside the Misty Mountains, a confrontation with the Great Goblin and his hordes becomes a lusty and extensively choreographed computer-generated battle and chase.  Some of the dwarves discover their inner-ninja in the process.  In the novel, however, the scene is scarcely two pages, and in much of it, the goblins are shrieking in terror and act like characters from a Monty Python movie: “Run away, run away!”  (Indeed, in this movie, it’s Gandalf who seems to be shouting “Run!” a lot.)

Jackson, in other words, has brought to the film the same kind of brawny kineticism that made action heroes out of Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom.  The screenwriters also seem keen to introduce the missing gravitas by injecting dark notes; it remains to be seen whether Bilbo’s upcoming battle with the spiders of Mirkwood retains any of the comic relief of the original.

By far the best scene of the movie is the one most connected with the larger narrative of LOTR: a life-or-death duel of wits between a jittery Bilbo and the treacherous Gollum, played to perfection as always by Andy Serkis.  In Tolkien’s Hobbit, though, the Ring doesn’t play the same central moral role that it does in the later trilogy; it serves mostly as a device for Bilbo the “burglar” to become invisible as needed.  This is the challenge faced by Jackson and his team: Tolkien did not write The Hobbit with LOTR in mind, but the screenplays must be rewritten as if he did, and fans of the books will have to make up their own minds whether the result is a success.

Again, without the legend of the Ring driving the narrative, the confrontation of good and evil in The Hobbit lacks the moral depth of the earlier trilogy.  The film compensates, it seems, by playing up the role of the dragon Smaug and creating a history of bad blood between Thorin Oakenshield and the aptly named Pale Orc, who hunts the party of dwarves seeking revenge.

Still, we get some of the same lessons: seemingly insignificant people are capable of great heroism; there is providence in fate.  In one scene, Gandalf tells Bilbo that courage isn’t always demonstrated by the willingness to take a life, but sometimes, by the decision to spare one.  Those who have seen LOTR will remember a similar lesson spoken to Frodo in the mines of Moria; those who haven’t may find the remark disconnected and out of context, until the moment when Bilbo must make a fateful choice.

All in all, Jackson has given us another enjoyable ride, albeit one somewhat less satisfying than I anticipated.  That’s to say nothing, of course, of commercial success–as of this writing, the movie has raked in well over $200 million at the box office.

I will, of course, be in line for the second installment.  And I’ll try to keep my expectations in check, and enjoy the film.