Welcome back to the chapter-by-chapter re-read of The Hobbit. This week, we are actually pausing the book reread to consider the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which I saw last weekend and which, by happy coincidence, stops exactly where we left off with the book.
Short version: The movie is obviously flawed and too long, yet I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting. Slightly longer version: If you disliked the Lord of the Rings movies in their entirety, there is no way you will like this. If you liked some or all of the LotR movies, then you will probably like some or all of this, but I can’t predict the proportion. (You can find links to my thoughts on the LotR movies at the bottom of the LotR reread index. Or you can catch up on past posts in the Hobbit reread index.)
See behind the cut for the rather long version—with spoilers for both the movie and everything Tolkien, so feel free to read Tor.com’s review with only minor spoilers instead. (To my surprise, it is in fact possible to meaningfully spoil this movie.)
I should say first that I had pretty low expectations for this. I loved the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo—I think half my affection for the show Sherlock comes from watching the first episode and realizing just how amazing Freeman was going to be as Bilbo. (As you know Bob, Freeman plays John Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes; Cumberbatch is also voicing Smaug and the Necromancer, though I believe that casting came later, i.e., they weren’t hired as a matched set.)
But while I was tentatively okay with The Hobbit being two movies, three seemed absurd. I was already dubious about the addition of the Necromancer plotline, because it seemed custom-made to let Jackson indulge his (regrettable, as far as I am concerned) penchant for showy wizard-fu and schlock horror, and I couldn’t imagine what he’d found in LotR’s appendices to justify another movie in the middle. (I remember saying to my husband Chad, “Well, the stuff about the war with the orcs in Moria is awesome, but surely that doesn’t go in the middle? What, are we going to have a two-hour flashback?” Oh, so close and yet….)
Now that a few days have passed, I can see that some things could have been tighter and that other things will almost certainly look worse on a rewatch. And there were points where I literally laughed out loud at things the movie wanted me to find deeply moving. Yet I still bounced out of the theater, not as excited as I was when I first saw Fellowship, but far more excited that I’d expected and generally pretty pleased.
Now, I’m going to attempt to impose some order on the rest of my thoughts by organizing them into character-centric sections, with a miscellaneous section at the end.
Martin Freeman is just as good as I’d hoped. I love his Bilbo enormously. I am entirely content to have him as my mental Bilbo for the rest of my life.
I was also glad of the set of changes to the book that I think of as giving the characters more agency and common sense, which starts with Bilbo choosing to go with the dwarves and Gandalf. I love the way Freeman shows that with just his body language.
I also loved that Bilbo got to be clever and verbal with the trolls (and which sets up his ability to get as far as he does in the Riddle Game). And that the dwarves didn’t just blunder into the trolls, but still ended up in bags, because while some of the humor here was excessively juvenile, dwarves in bags is, as far as I’m concerned, just too good to be left out.
I thought “Riddles in the Dark” was aces. (Well, except that Gollum’s sad-puppy-dog eyes were overdone when Bilbo decided not to kill him.) I thought the tweaks made it run very smoothly and that Freeman and Serkis were simply riveting. A++ and someone nominate Serkis for a bunch of supporting actor awards based on that scene (but really for his whole body of work as Gollum), okay?
And I was okay with Bilbo having repeated doubts about the journey, going so far as to pack up at one point, and then making the speech about deciding to stay, because that reluctance is very in-character for Bilbo, and because Freeman does a beautiful job with the speech. (I couldn’t help but compare him to Sean Astin giving Sam’s big speeches, though to be fair, Sam’s speeches are probably much more difficult for anyone to carry off.)
However, I am withholding judgment on the Action Hero Bilbo! of the very end. It is not in the least in-character for Bilbo to tackle a goblin, oh my goodness no, but if it was a temporary aberration to give him an obvious conclusion to his emotional arc in this movie, then I will accept it. It did make me wonder what emotional growth was left for him, though—well, there’s the betrayal of Thorin, but in-between?
Which neatly brings us to:
So the two times I laughed out loud when the filmmakers really did not intend to be humorous? The first was when Emo Thorin was posing emo-ly away from the campfire while Balin gave the speech of manpain-ly exposition about the death of Thorin’s grandfather and the fight against the goblins (or are the Moria ones orcs? I can’t remember if the movie makes that distinction.) And the second was when Thorin was striding, in endless hero slo-mo, down the tree-trunk and through the flames to attack Azog. It was all just so incredibly blatant that I found it hilarious.
But here’s the thing! I’ve seen some people say that the filmmakers put all this focus on Thorin because they needed an Aragorn figure. Except, as those of you who’ve read the book know (and if you haven’t, SPOILERS, seriously, what are you doing here!), Thorin isn’t Aragorn, he’s Boromir. And the incredible emphasis on Thorin’s sparkly specialness—while still overdone to my eyes—is setting up new viewers for one hell of a rug being pulled out from under them. Which I think is fascinating.
(He better be Boromir, anyway. If he does not end up buried under the Mountain with the Arkenstone on his breast, after Bilbo stole it in an attempt to return him to his senses, then I will literally walk out of the theater. But I think the odds of my having to do that are low, because of the added mention of Thrór having some kind of gold-sickness that attracted Smaug. I’m not sure I like this addition to canon unless we also get a mention of the dwarf Ring, but it seems to be laying the ground for Thorin to go wacky when they get under the Mountain.)
Thorin’s being an Epic Emo Hero of Epic Emo Heroicness will always be funny to me. But, very paradoxically, it increases my interest in seeing the rest of his story….
…which will, apparently, involve an epic faceoff with Azog, who killed his grandfather Thrór. I couldn’t decide what I thought of this change to canon throughout the movie, and even now I still haven’t come to a conclusion.
A quick refresher for those of you who haven’t read Appendix A to The Lord of the Rings lately: years after the dwarves are driven out of Erebor by Smaug, King Thrór enters Moria alone. Azog cuts off Thrór’s head and shows it to Thrór’s companion who waited outside, giving him an insultingly small bag of coins to tell Thrór’s kin. This causes a long war that culminates in a battle outside Moria, where the orcs are defeated and Azog is killed by Dáin Ironfoot of the Iron Hills, though only after Azog kills Dáin’s father Náin. The dwarves put Azog’s head on a stake and stuff the coin-bag in his mouth, but refuse to enter Moria for various reasons, including Durin’s Bane (which Dáin saw when he looked through the Gate).
My summary is horribly flat and I really recommend reading the relevant bit in Appendix A—it’s not long but it’s very vivid. And it’s got such a wonderful grimly defiant air that I don’t look forward to Emo Thorin being all “you killed my grandfather!” (Think Luke Skywalker rather than Inigo Montoya.) I also have an odd fondness for Dáin, probably because of the wonderful image in the Appendices of him “standing over the body of King Brand before the Gate of Erebor until the darkness fell,” and hate to see his role given to Thorin.
But I can see that moving Azog forward provides a single antagonist driving the action before they get to the Mountain, which is narratively useful. The change will also provide additional motivation for the goblins to show up at the Battle of the Five Armies, regardless of when Azog is defeated. (I suspect the final confrontation will not come in front of Moria simply because of geography (which means no Balrog foreshadowing, alas), but otherwise have no guess as to whether it’s at the Battle of the Five Armies or before.) In the end I think I’m just going to have to wait and see.
To wrap up character stuff: I have no opinion on Radagast, which kind of surprises me. Probably I will have one on later watchings, but right now, he just doesn’t cause any particular strong emotion in me one way or the other.
The White Council stuff was a mixed bag. I always love seeing Galadriel when she isn’t being forced into ridiculously overwrought special effects, but (a) the emphasis on her physical gracefulness was overdone to the point of distracting (I wondered at least once whether they had her on a turntable), and (b) I came away from those scenes thinking that the filmmakers shipped Galadriel/Gandalf, which was very odd. Also, as I saw pointed out elsewhere (and then lost the attribution, sorry, and do take credit if it was you): the story about the dagger being from the Witch-king of Angmar’s grave, where he was buried deep and sealed away with powerful spells, makes absolutely no sense. They all know that “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall,” so they cannot possibly have expected him to stay put in his tomb!
The other thing that I took from those scenes was wondering about Saruman. On looking it up, his discouraging the Council from acting against the Necromancer is canonical (see “The Council of Elrond”). But I’m not sure what he gains from it. Could he have been communicating with Sauron that soon? Or was he just opposing whatever Gandalf wanted?
The length of the movie. Yes, it was very long, and yes, several things could have been trimmed. For instance, there was no need for a separate Smaug prologue, that could have been woven into the dwarves at Bag End. (That would also have made it less obvious how hard the movie was working to avoid showing us Smaug. Speaking of which, when I saw that (awesome) dragon kite, I was reminded of some other movie that did some kind of backstory/exposition with puppets or cut-out figures or something, and I cannot think of what. Anyone?) The worst offender, to me, was the endless knocking-over-of-goblins as they escaped out from under the Misty Mountains. This was not helped by either the ludicrous Acme physics conclusion, or the wasted death of the Great Goblin (who had a great voice even if his character design was needlessly gross). Similarly, the stone-giants were predictably over-the-top in a very characteristic way.
(Speaking of goblin deaths, I actually liked what the movie did with the golf joke.)
Special effects: I saw it in 2D and (presumably) at the usual number of frames per second, and, perhaps as a result, a number of shots seemed oddly blurry, such as the fast pans over the gold etc. in the Erebor prologue. I hope this will look better in Blu-ray. Of the other things I noticed, Glamdring and Orcrist weren’t glowing enough, but more importantly, the Wargs and Eagles still don’t look right! This does not fill me with hope for Beorn and his animals. But the thrush looked good (I was so glad that we didn’t see it swatted out of the air or eaten by a spider or something) and I loved that shot of Smaug’s eye. And of course New Zealand is beautiful and scenic and all the architecture is amazing, but you knew that already.
Enough about what I thought. What about you?
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.