Erin and I had a choice to make last night. Given the opportunity to have grandparents watch over our kids, we could either go out and catch Peter Jackson's adaptation of part of Tolkien's The Hobbit, or we could help put the kids to bed, snuggle down under the covers, and watch the latest Doctor Who Christmas special, Steven Moffat's The Snowmen.
Well, it had been a while since Erin and I'd had a night out, so we gratefully accepted the grandparents' babysitting offer and took in the first part of Jackson's second Tolkien epic. And three hours (yes, three hours) later, as we came back to the car, Erin said, "You know, if the choice is going out to see Jackson do The Hobbit, or staying home to watch Doctor Who, let's stay home and watch Doctor Who."
It's not that Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is a bad movie. By most measures -- acting, directing, script, how faithful it remains to Tolkien's story -- An Unexpected Journey succeeds. However, I should explain a few things. First of all, I went into this movie deliberately driving down my expectations. The early reviews I'd had of this story were mixed, to say the least, but most agreed that the movie itself was basically enjoyable. So I resolved to enjoy it. "Don't go in expecting Lord of the Rings," I told myself repeatedly.
And the movie made me fondly recall that time in the theatre eleven years ago when I saw Peter Jackson take a book that I considered to be totally unfilmable, and blow me away with it. The Lord of the Rings movie series is, in my opinion, one of the best epics of all time. I stand by my review that it is the twenty-first century's first masterpiece. The trilogy respected the spirit of the book and populated a lush world and delivered a sweeping saga that showed what honour and heroism is all about.
But like the Lord of the Rings movie, the three books of the Lord of the Rings literary epic are themselves a masterpiece. And what makes them all the more remarkable is that they emerge out of a book that's much smaller in terms of both scale and scope. The Hobbit book is a much simpler tale. The world is still lush, but the storyline is simpler and the stakes are lower. Put simply, The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings, and it is a grave mistake to film it as such.
And I'm not complaining about the fact that Peter Jackson is stretching out The Hobbit into its own trilogy, either. Erin's pointed out to me that the book itself splits neatly into three parts. Part one is the assembly of the company, their acceptance of Bilbo Baggins as part of their team, their trip through Rivendell, and dealing with the trolls and the goblins. Part two is clearly going to be dealing with the spiders of Mirkwood, and the Elves of the Greenwood. Finally, we have part three where we come to the Lonely Mountain and deal with Smaug.
So, clearly, The Hobbit can be mined for three movies. But do they each have to be three hours long? I don't think so.
A fellow writer and one who took in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy with us came up with a term that applies very well here: Jacksonian Overkill. For me, the best parts of the movie were the quiet ones, especially when the reluctant Bilbo is convinced to follow the dwarves seeking to retake their kingdom after listening to Thorin's song of longing for the home the dwarves have lost. However, I suspect that Peter Jackson may have worried that people wouldn't have stayed to watch The Hobbit if it didn't have battle scenes that recalled the triumph of Helm's Deep, so he conspired to put as much swordplay as the script would allow.
There is action in The Hobbit, and I enjoyed the scene where Bilbo tricks the trolls into staying out too long and getting caught in daylight (even if the trolls were one "nyuk-nyuk-nyuk" away from going into full Three Stooges mode), however the extended fight sequence as the Dwarfs battle their way out of the goblin kingdom bored me. And somehow I was more aware of the cgi here than I was of various scenes in the original Lord of the Rings movies. The scene where the Dwarves ride a piece of broken bridge struck me as particularly fake, but it was far from the moment where my suspension of disbelief took a hit.
There was a lot to like in The Hobbit, however. The music ties in this movie with The Lord of the Rings, and Martin Freeman ably picks up the mantle of Ian Holm's Bilbo. He is truly the star of the show and its anchor. He has a decent story arc as well; I only wish it could have been given a bit more prominence, possibly by reducing the amount of swordplay. Then there's Ian McKellen's Gandalf, who slips into the role like a comfortable old shoe. I even liked Sylvester McCoy's turn as Radagast the Brown (though Erin didn't, she thought it was too silly -- almost the movie's "Ewok moment", she said).
There is also a lot of set-up, both to the coming Hobbit movies and to the storyline that develops into The Lord of the Rings. I didn't mind that at all. But what really hampered this movie for me was the length of the climactic battle at the end. I felt that The Hobbit missed a couple of chances to just end the movie at a brief pause point, cut about a half hour of fight sequence that followed, and moved us into the next movie in the series, complete with temporary denouemont for the characters and anticipation for where the series will go, without any cost to the storyline, and with some relief to my bladder that wouldn't have to wait nearly three hours for the movie to end.
The thing is, trying to recreate the climactic resolution of the skirmish at Amon Hen or the battle of Helm's Deep, is both unfair and debilitating to The Hobbit, and ultimately insulting to the movies of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Helm's Deep is a sweeping epic battle precisely because it is the biggest fight we've had in the movie series so far. Challenging that on the first movie hampers that sense of progression. Yes, The Hobbit has the Battle of the Five Armies, but that's way at the end. Peter Jackson: keep your powder dry.
Ultimately, The Hobbit was a decent movie. It's okay, as long as you go in knowing that it's not as good as The Lord of the Rings. However, it's a tragedy that I have to say that at all. Everybody concerned, from Jackson to Tolkein to all the fans, deserve better. I do anticipate that I will be watching the other two movies of The Hobbit trilogy, but I may look at waiting until both films show up in the cheaper second-run theatres.