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The Hobbit Movie: A Review from a Tolkien Fan
The Curate’s Egg
Your reaction to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
So, you've seen The Hobbit, part I. What say you?
The Books Behind the Film
The Hobbit, of course. A lovely cover on this edition.
The White Council, the backstory of Saruman and Galadriel, the true nature of the wizards, the momentous meeting between Thorin and Gandalf that led to their approaching Bilbo -- all this and more comes from Tolkien's posthumously-published writings edited by his son Christopher.
The Lord of the Rings. Appendix A, "Durin's Folk," provides the history of Thorin's family and the dwarves' struggles with Azog and the orcs of Moria. (This is my favorite collector's edition, since it looks like the "Red Book" in which Bilbo supposedly wrote the saga.)
Well, I risked it: a peep at the nearly three-hour movie of The Hobbit by Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro, et alia. Here are my first impressions, necessarily vague so as to avoid spoilers.
It's entertaining, careening from good to bad to good again. I feel that it lacks the gravitas of The Lord of the Rings films, not just because The Hobbit is at heart a children's story, but also because this production's style is more superficial, exuberant and fantastical, less of a period historical drama. Like the apocryphal curate's egg, portions of The Hobbit movie are excellent.
At times, we enter the parallel universe of Peter Jackson, where globby monsters and invented antagonists subsume Tolkien's vision. Occasionally we fall into the dreaded Realm of CGI, where 3D graphics and vertiginous drops substitute for good dialog and storytelling. At other times, we are delighted to have The Hobbit's admittedly rather two-dimensional dwarves brought to life and given more depth. They are amplified by scraps of backstory drawn from Tolkien's writings on the history of Thorin's family and the behind-the-scenes activities of the White Council (Gandalf, Saruman, and allies). Little touches like the origin of Thorin's moniker "Oakenshield" add occasional grace notes that the book of The Hobbit lacked.
The film's good parts include eye-watering vistas of Middle-earth, roller coaster 3D action sequences, terrifying and powerful glimpses of Smaug, moving character interactions between Balin and Thorin, a brief but heartwarming return to The Shire, a surprisingly excellent dramatization of the "Unexpected Party" in Bag-end, Balin's storytelling, a clever set-piece establishing the White Council and greater dangers building in the world outside Bilbo's quest, a gratuitous Galadriel cameo that once again bewitches, and the entire Gollum sequence complete with— yes!— the riddles, thank goodness. The nuanced Gollum-Bilbo interaction hearkens back to the earlier films, which were often at their best in the intimate one-on-one conversations between Gandalf and Frodo, Aragorn and Boromir, Merry and Pippin, Éowyn and Wormtongue, et alia.
(As an aside: I had not given Jackson enough credit. I predicted that he would skip the songs and poetry which punctuated the text of The Hobbit, but in fact he employed them to good effect. The song of the dwarves is not mere atmospherics, but a motivator to help awaken Bilbo's Took side, just as in the book.)
Martin Freeman is an excellent and worthy Bilbo, and the moment when he yields to the call of adventure is different yet charmingly realized. He helps anchor the whole film with his self-deprecating common sense. Sir Ian is once again the wizard we love, tetchy and kindly, irascible and shrewd, concealing his true power under shabby robes and a battered hat.
The bad parts include the aforementioned blobby invented antagonists — why does Peter Jackson feel the need to invent artificial obstacles and feuds between characters that do not exist in the books? There were too many action sequences devoid of plot, storytelling and dialog. Also, much as I love Sylvester McCoy (the Seventh Doctor of Doctor Who), it would have been wiser not to turn Radagast into some sort of bizarre caricature from a Tim Burton film crossed with a Disney movie.
Verdict: It's an entertaining but flimsy film, certainly not of the same caliber as The Fellowship of the Ring. Most casual fans will find it fun and enjoyable, even if the movie is a bit choppy in quality and longer than it needs to be. Die-hard Tolkien fans should stay home or brace themselves for magical reunions with characters, moments, and places they loved interspersed with scenes as maddening as Aragorn falling off a cliff and getting kissed by a horse.
WARNING! SPOILERS BELOW.
I'm going to open the guestbook up for what I expect will be a lively discussion. I'll add more specific details and opinions in response to reader comments. Do NOT read the guestbook, if you want to avoid spoilers!