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The World’s Biggest Hobbit: Why Peter Jackson Should Not Have Supersized Bilbo

The Lord of the Rings was a masterpiece of compression, but the bloated Hobbit is an example of why it's not a good idea to show fans every thing they might want to see

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Warner Bros / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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.

28 comments
mad.shell
mad.shell

I liked reading this review... it really opened my mind to sme things. By the way I think you meant "the game of riddles between BILBO and Gollum", not FRODO - and that scene, by the way, was also my absolute favorite in the movie.

JohnGrainer
JohnGrainer

I was disappointed in The Hobbit since before it came out, since Guillermo Del Toro had to drop out of directing it.  I had some hope for it when it was only going to be two movies, but three is stretching the story too thin.  Jackson spends so much time reminding us of LOTR, he forgets to show us why the hobbit should be special on it's own.  I didn't like the inclusion of Frodo or the White Counci (although I was captivated by Cate Blanchett's Galadriel). I was especially disappointed by the characterization of Thorin, who comes off as a poor man's Aragorn. He's all tortured hero cliche, The film was pretty good, but it felt like a greatest hits of the earlier films. imo Jackson has been disappointed by the relative lack of success of his post LOTR films. He's going back to what worked before, instead of doing something original. I'm not looking forward to the rest of this "journey"

DanRakich
DanRakich

what a stupid review...

i got bored of hearing stupid overexpectations about halfway into the second section..

it was a third of ONE book.. of course it wont be as detailed as a whole book (i,e any LOTR movie)

LucianXenos
LucianXenos

@DanRakichAnd that's precisely the crux of it. It's a 250 page book that did NOT need 3 parts that are 3 hours a piece to carry out.

nsr019
nsr019

I really, really wanted to like this movie. I am a huge fan of the first three. But parts of this film were so slouch-in-your-seat, consider-checking-the-time lame. 

We got not one, but two musical numbers before Bilbo even left his house. That sounds like a critique you'd read in The Onion.

Also, calling in the eagles is getting to be a comically transparent deus ex machina. Every time you see a butterfly in Middle Earth, it's pretty much like finding an invincibility star in Super Mario Bros.

There were a handful of great scenes as well, so in my opinion the film was a wash. If I were a professional critic, I'd probably give it 2 out of 4 stars (compared with a sterling 4 out of 4 for the first three).

LucianXenos
LucianXenos

@nsr019 Gandalf is an almighty being that has near infinite power and isn't allowed to use them. Be glad you get a call of the eagles every now and then.

Gomer
Gomer

@nsr019 Considering the Eagles saving them was in the book your comment is invalid. 

KendraJames14
KendraJames14

It was an interesting take..i still dont know why these scenes were missing from the movie tho  http://bit.ly/V84yOv

MattWhite
MattWhite

@KendraJames14

  The first three will probably be in deleted scenes. The last ones willall be in the second movie, since all are in Mirkwood, which they areabout to enter. The trailer came out before the story was divided intothree movies, so rather than the first one ending right after Mirkwood,it ends right before. I suppose the first three could be from flashbackstoo, but LOTR also had some stuff in the trailers that didn't make itto the movies.

antnys
antnys

My inner Tolkien fan loved this movie too.  I loved that Peter Jackson forged visual connections to characters seen in the LOTR trilogy, from the members of the White Council, to Arwen's beautiful escort elf from Rivendell.  I loved the inclusion of Radagast.  Yes, Jackson "King Konged" the source material (i.e. instead of one Tyrannosaur, lets have three, and a whole herd of stampeding Brontosaurs, etc.), but not in really a bad way.  My two biggest disappointments were the Radagast chase scene (LOL on the Yakety Sax observation) which would have been better suited to a Scooby Doo chase skit, and the equally awkward looking, miraculously convenient, intact collapse of the rickety goblin catwalk.  Having said that, I loved that Jackson maintained a more child-like tone for An Unexpected Journey.  Future generations will likely view the six Middle Earth films in sequential order.  I think perhaps Jackson wanted this movie to be a lighter, more fun "Sorcerer's Stone-esque" installment, to an increasingly darker toned set of installments to come.  Time will tell.  I would have gladly sat through another hour.

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

I can't see it until next week, but I have to say, RADAGAST THE BROWN!  My hero.  Well, not that I know that much about him, but I do know he's probably even more my kinda guy than Gandalf.  

Someday, far down the road, when all of us are mouldering somewhere, there will be a wonderful filmmaker who will make a wonderful cozy film of The Hobbit.  There might even be wonderful filmmakers who acquire the rights to the Silmarillion material and gives us a magical glimpse of Beren and Luthien.  And some of you might live to see them.  Right now, I have Jackson's vision.  And my own. 

lauriedtmann
lauriedtmann

The Hobbit (1) looks great most of the time (especially Bag End), but it was way too much.  I thought the original plan to make 2 movies of The Hobbit + some of the Appendix material to bridge The Hobbit to LOTR would have worked.  Making another trilogy was just a mistake.

KendraJames14
KendraJames14

I just dont know why they left out scenes..Why are these not in the film  http://bit.ly/RCuiIv 

wadev
wadev

@KendraJames14 The first two of Hobbiton and Rivendell were probably cut for time and pace, the other ones were cut to be put into the second film.

MongooseMaelstrom
MongooseMaelstrom

I can understand the criticism but you have to realize it was going to come either way and I think Jackson chose to please the fans first, which was smart.  Had he made the tighter film critics claim they wanted, Tolkien fanatics would have howled for the omissions and what-could-have-been's.  And I think a lot of critics would still have nitpicked it in comparison to the meatier LOTR.

The Hobbit was never going to have the dramatic impact that LOTR had and I think in the long run, most fans of this film project will agree that more is better.  We have the LOTR films and now we're getting The Hobbit.  I think that's pretty great.

Kyle
Kyle

@MongooseMaelstrom 

You're right, Tolkien fans probably would have complained about the omissions. But they also complained about the changes Jackson made to the character of Faramir when they were entirely congruent with other stylistic changes Jackson made for the films. I think it's important not to allow the fans to have a final say. Not to say that Jackson should allow himself to be browbeaten by the critics either. There's a certain balance that must be met between giving something back to the fans and making a damn fine film. LOTR did it right. More isn't necessarily better.

mirich198
mirich198

I think Jackson is respecting the Hobbits to a decent degree. (@HMC respectively.  Very ambitiously he decided to make 3 movies out of this and there are a few things I really like about this movie - though I agree with many points in this review.  One thing I like was how he introduced the dwarfs and showed us their culture. Their peculiar-ness and there strenghts; as well as there weakness.  The Gollum scene was great and showed all along (admittingly) that Bilbo was no warrior and had to use his 'wits'; and I love Gandolf's statement when asked why 'him' when he said, "sometimes great evil can be kept at bay by the smallest and simplest of things" - well somewhere in that line.  Bilbo kept the Ring for a long long time and it never truly tainted him.  I think that's worth saying.  The Dwarfs are trying to get there home back and he's making an epic of it. He has to do something.  I think the Hobbit full-rating (in my mind) depends on how well Part 2 is played out.  I wish him good-tidings.

HMC
HMC like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I thought this review perfectly captured my own ambivalence toward this movie. I don't know why so many commenters are criticizing this review by saying James shouldn't be comparing The Hobbit to LOTR--that's the opposite of the points this review makes! The point is that Jackson tried to make this another LOTR, rather than respecting the very different journey of Bilbo Baggins.

NicholasvanderWaard
NicholasvanderWaard

@DavidAlmendarez

Agreed, I've read a lot of negative reviews that compare the Hobbit toLOTR? Why? It's a lot different than LOTR, and thus deserves to beallowed its own unique approach. The movie felt too fast at just shy of 3hours to me, and I wished it hadn't ended, but everyone seems to besaying that it was too long! Hardly! I will admit that the movieswitches gears, and sometimes the humor was more welcome than others,but overall, this movie felt different than LOTR, which to me is a goodthing. It might also be something for purists to turn their noses up at,but so was LOTR. Even if it fails to capture the simple spirit of thebook (I think it partially succeeds, but also evolves the book), themovie is good, and instead feels more like the world that Tolkien madefor LOTR, instead of just the simple treasure hunt he wrote for hischildren. I guess this is just Tolkien Nut Nick Talking, but Movie FanNick seems to be agreeing with Tolkien Nut Nick...

MarikaPirkonen
MarikaPirkonen

@NicholasvanderWaard i wholeheartedly agree that this movie felt very much like the books for the Lord of the Rings, and i loved a lot about that in it.. i was disappointed in the dark tones of the previous trilogy, because it just didn't feel like Tolkien. while i was disappointed to hear the Hobbit will be three movies (i was already shocked at the decision to make 2 out of it..), after seeing it, i changed my mind entirely. as no-one has the rights to make movies about the Silmarillion, this may be the last time we get to see Middle Earth on screen, and i much rather have a story that dives deep into the universe of Tolkien, in the right way, unlike (in my personal opinion) the Lord of the Rings movies.

mistermister98
mistermister98

Personally, I thought the movie was great. It had the same sense of epicness that the LOTR trilogy had, but it was also light-hearted and funny, something the LOTR trilogy never seemed to do (with the exception of Merry and Pippen). Also, many things were improved from the LOTR trilogy as well. Gollum is even better than he was in the trilogy, and all of the creatures felt real to me. It's just my opinion, but this will definitely be on my shelves when it comes out on Blu-Ray.

DavidAlmendarez
DavidAlmendarez

The Hobbit isn't LOTR. Mediocre "critics" like you keep trying to compare it to LOTR. This movie was fantastic and every bit detail was put into each scene throughout the whole movie. In fact, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was far more in par with the literature than the LOTR trilogy.

Kyle
Kyle

@DavidAlmendarez It isn't LOTR which is exactly why it should stop trying to be LOTR. I think people misunderstand the reasons why this movie has been criticised so much. Bilbo's journey doesn't deserve the same epic treatment as Frodo's. There's a really great 90 minute film beneath it all but An Unexpected Journey is overburdened by excessive LOTR foreshadowing that has little relevance to the main plot.

mirich198
mirich198

@Kyle @DavidAlmendarez I don't thing it's a matter of stop trying to be LOTR. I think some similarities was phased in for newer audience; though I don't think it was very necessary either. could of cut about 10-15 min of the movie and been fine.  However its not about Bilbo deserving an epic like Frodo, it is the fact that PJ is going to make it happen for him.  This is Hollywood and big money so-to-speak and if he can make a further valid and nicely groomed adventure out of this from this point on - I will accept it.

NicholasvanderWaard
NicholasvanderWaard like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Kyle

You're not thinking ahead, Kyle. The Dragon will be the climax of the second film, and the Battle of the Five Armies will be the climax of the third. Why aren't people thrilled by this idea? I mean, I love the Hobbit as much as anyone, but I always thought it had too much going on; if Jackson had put the Dragon, the Goblin King and the Battle of the Five Armies into one film, the character's would've felt thin, like butter scraped over too much bread, and the movie would have been rushed, just like the 70s cartoon was. They would've had to have cut things out -- vital scenes, characters, or events -- and people would've been annoyed, then. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, I guess.

LucianXenos
LucianXenos

@NicholasvanderWaard @Kyle I think it has to do with the fact that it's a 250 page book and, while it had a lot of content, 3 parts at 3 hours a piece is ridiculously long and is more like the story is the butter and he's trying to scrape one pat over three texas sized pieces of toast. The 70s cartoon was around 90 minutes. I think he could have done a perfectly fine job if he just made this into ONE 3 hour movies MAYBE two. He added content that didn't exist, created characters that didn't exist, retconned characters, is adding in a nonexistent romance, and more while leaving out crucial scenes. I'm gonna guess those are the reasons people are criticizing it.

Kyle
Kyle like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@NicholasvanderWaard @Kyle I have thought ahead though and no, I'm not particularly thrilled by the idea of the Five Armies battle being the big climactic centerpiece of the third movie. There are plenty of epic battles in LOTR. If they want to give The Hobbit an identity distinct from that of LOTR then I don't think it's really necessary that The Hobbit should have put too big a focus on battle sequences. I think that a big epic battle sequence would be a betrayal to the Hobbit's gentler tone, relative to the Ring's trilogy I mean. 

An entire movie with Smaug as its lynchpin could work very well though. I have a feeling that Desolation will be the series high point. We'll have to see.