SPOILER ALERT: This post discusses The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in detail. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and are sensitive about such things, don’t read this.
I saw The Hobbit with two people, both of whom were me: Tolkien Nut Jim and Movie Fan Jim.
Tolkien Nut Jim was utterly jazzed that Peter Jackson was back in Middle-Earth with budget and time to spare. He was tantalyzed by the glimpses of Smaug and his destruction, thrilled to see Wargs realized in their snarling and slavering glory. He could have spent hours lolling around Bag End, Bilbo Baggins’ underground manse, which Jackson visualizes as half rambling estate, half gourmet food boutique.
And he almost stood up and cheered when Jackson brought on the wizard Radagast the Brown—Radagast!—a barely-mentioned footnote in Tolkien’s books, whose mystery and vague description tantalized Tolkien Nut Jim the approximately dozen times he read the books in junior high school. Now here was Radagast, given form and a big chunk of screen time, driving a chariot drawn by bunnies and investigating the dealings of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur–another subject mentioned scantly in passing in Tolkien. It took big detours from Bilbo’s story, yes, but Tolkien Nut Jim was glad to chase down those rabbit holes.
Movie Fan Jim, not so much. He loved Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy films for their emotional power and the way they distilled a sprawling epic down to size—nine hours, yes, but not a wasted minute—disposing of Bombadils and Scourings of the Shire to serve the needs of the movie.
But The Hobbit? This Unexpected Journey was more like the Unending Journey.
He couldn’t believe he sat three butt-numbing hours to watch the first third of a relatively short story, padded to bursting with Tolkien ephemera. J.R.R. Tolkien, not exactly known for his terseness, relegated the goblin king Azog and his battle with the dwarves at Moria to an appendix in The Lord of the Rings; now he anchored a whole story arc. There were two freaking prologues: first a flashback to Smaug attacking The Lonely Mountain, then a flashback containing that flashback, to an elderly Bilbo writing that story, before being interrupted by nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). (Thanks, PJ! We’d have never remembered this was a LOTR prequel without that!) The Dol Guldur doings, which Tolkien gives basically as a few-paragraph aside in The Fellowship of the Ring, are now a major reason Jackson says he needs three movies to tell this story.
There was a lot of cool stuff, but there was not really a movie; not even the first act of one. All that extra-extra crowded out the central story of a meek little guy discovering his inner strength and becoming part of something bigger than himself. There were huge stretches of The Hobbit in which Movie Fan Jim forgot that the movie was about a hobbit.
(Oh, it’s also about a dragon. By the end of three hours, we get to see… its eye. Please drop your 3D glasses in the receptacles, folks! See you in 2013!)
Why did it have to be like this? Why would Jackson, who so masterfully condensed LOTR, choose to do exactly the opposite with its prequel? The cynical explanation, and one I will not argue vigorously against, is that making three movies means a Smaug’s pile of gold. (Disclosure: New Line, like TIME, is part of the Time Warner empire, so I very indirectly benefit from whatever billions Jackson adds to its hoard.)
Watching the movie, though, both Jims could also see a creative reason, if not necessarily a good one. While Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a lighter book than LOTR, in retrospect it’s very much a part of the same story. The One Ring is found, Sauron is rising again, the Wise are getting worried. Jackson, in this view, believes he’s making a story that’s just as significant as LOTR; so he also wanted to make it symmetrical with LOTR, equal in tone and scale and weight.
The thing is, it’s just not. (Interestingly, as Devin Faraci writes in Badass Digest, Tolkien once considered retconning The Hobbit himself, making it darker and grander, of a piece with LOTR. He wisely changed his mind.) The Hobbit is a brilliant, enjoyable book, in some ways better written than LOTR (which can be poetic and poignant, but also gets mired in pages of description of every vale and dale and three-page-long elven ballad). It sets up LOTR’s story in a deliberate and ingenious way.
But it is its own story, of a different kind. Look at the title: The Hobbit. It’s not the story of grand actors fighting a battle for the soul of the world. It’s ultimately about one everyman’s soul and discovery of his own better nature. Even Bilbo’s and Frodo’s quests are not the same, though they each involve the Ring and orcs and danger. Frodo is like a draftee in wartime, shouldering a grim fate and sacrifice—even though he succeeds, he never really shakes his wounds—because without him, all is doomed.
Bilbo chooses his adventure, as annoyed as he is to find 13 dwarves on his doorstep. (The company’s arrival, oddly, is one of the few things Jackson does condense.) Maybe that’s why The Hobbit feels more typically like a children’s book, which is how the 1970s Rankin-Bass animation made it (and in 77 quick minutes). It’s a story of growing, of discovering that there’s a bigger world outside your little one, that it’s scary to go out into it, but that you can do it and survive.
Blown up to epic scale, though, The Hobbit loses this intimacy, and, though Martin Freeman captures Bilbo’s distressed-gentleman affect well, much of its gentle humor, replaced by grim self-seriousness some times and slapstick at others. This retrofitted Hobbit-on-steroids is not exactly Jackson’s The Phantom Menace—the source material is too good—but it’s forced into a format that doesn’t fit the story. It’s lost in a coat of armor three sizes too big.
Tolkien Nut Jim sees this, but he’d guess there’s another factor at play. Jackson is a fan. It’s tough to fake the joy Jackson shows in giving Tolkien’s words life and form, at the geekiest level. What does a Balrog look like? How big is a dragon? What is the preferred architectural style of Rivendell? So given how much smaller the original Hobbit is, why not go beyond?
Tolkien Nut Jim totally gets this. If Tolkien Nut Jim, when he was 14 years old or so, had an unlimited budget and a studio ready to greenlight as much movie as he’d make, he’d have gone bezonkers indulging himself. He’d re-create the Great Battles of Dwarvish History, show the White Council attacking the Necromancer—hell, he’d probably cast those two Blue wizards who vanished somewhere in the East. (Get me Michael Gambon!)
Jackson didn’t go that far, but he is fleshing out a lot that even the prolix Tolkien thought better to handle in asides. If it works, the Ring’s story becomes more complete, The Hobbit becomes the equal of LOTR and we get to see a lot of cool stuff.
Unfortunately, the more Jackson gets into Tolkien ephemera, the more he has to invent and imagine, and the more cardboardy The Hobbit seems. Radagast goes from mysterious druid to comic relief figure, fretting over hedgehogs and leading orcs on a chase that could be scored to Yakety Sax. The scenes of The White Council—Gandalf, Saruman and company, meeting in Rivendell to plan strategy—are stiff and arid, like animatronic figures meeting inside a Thomas Kinkade painting. Contrast that with The Hobbit’s best scene, the game of riddles between Frodo and Gollum—an intimate, human-scale encounter involving a motion-captured figure who feels more real than any of The Hobbit’s new creations.
Part of the problem, I’m sure, is that Movie Fan Jim has access to all of Tolkien Nut Jim’s memories, so he knows what Jackson has added. He knows, say, that Azog, originally dead by the events of The Hobbit, has been resurrected to give Thorin more of an “emotional arc” or whatnot, and the final battle in the woods is stretched out to give everyone “hero moments.” (The general Aragornization of Thorin, a gruff, cold figure for most of the book, seems to be a big theme of this adaptation.) Maybe people who’ve never read The Hobbit will sit through this more happily, if they have backsides as sturdy as trolls’.
But Movie Fan Jim and Tolkien Nut Jim also watch Game of Thrones. And while we won’t know for years whether the HBO show will do as good a job with George R. R. Martin’s novels as Jackson did with LOTR, part of their strength is knowing when to please the book fans and when to go their own way. The show really got good halfway through the first season, when its creators began writing original scenes and figuring out how to condense the voluminous source material.
It hasn’t always worked, but the only way the show can work at all is by loving the books, but not slavishly. As a reader of A Song of Ice and Fire, I really wish I could have seen the flashback to Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon overthrowing the Targaryens, and as a viewer of Game of Thrones, I am very glad its producers decided to refuse it to me.
Neither of the Jims I brought to The Hobbit is mind-reader enough to know why Jackson changed course for this movie, but they give him credit for being a fan. A fan wants more. A fan wants to see things he or she only wondered about. A fan loved LOTR and wishes there could be another one.
But there isn’t another one. Sometimes fans are better off not being given everything they might possibly want to see. Sometimes they need a director to get them there and back again—maybe even within the space of a single movie.