On Film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (spoiler free)

Hobbit1The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
2012 – New Zealand
Peter Jackson, director

Seeing as I just posted my thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and seeing as I had finally gotten around to rereading it based upon part 1 of the film adaptation opening yesterday, I thought it would be fitting to share some of my thoughts about the film itself. Or at least part one: what no one’s saying in the critique of director Peter Jackson’s and the studio’s decision to divvy the movie up into three parts is that the worst part is not the length; the worst is that the fans must wait until the summer of 2014 to see the whole thing!

That said, I will admit that I was a little leery going into this movie based upon that three-movie decision: I could see two films (after all, Tolkien’s descriptions of the battle scenes audiences seem to love are a little, shall we say, scant), but three seemed a bit overkill. Then the early reviews started to come in, calling it lengthy, bloated, boring. Well. One of three things must have happened: 1) the critics and I saw different films or 2) the critics could only imagine the decision for three films based upon dollar signs and so had already decided the movie must be bloated or 3) those of us who have read and love the book have an inbuilt appreciation for every single part of the book and so cannot find the bloat in including it all. This isn’t too say there weren’t a couple scenes I wouldn’t have cut or shortened (I thought the prologue was trying just a little too hard to make the connection to the The Fellowship of the Ring adaptation, and I think that a later part of the storyline involving back-story could have been condensed), but nothing that would have substantially shortened the length of the film. Leaving the theater, I couldn’t believe myself, but I thought that three parts made sense! And I certainly didn’t find it long or boring.

One of the challenges with book-to-movie adaptations is what to change, what to leave the same, what to leave out. Usually, someone is left unhappy: the fans are upset at a change or differing interpretation, or the professional critics think the film was too faithful to the source material, to its detriment. I can only speak as one fan, but I liked many of the changes. (My brother wasn’t happy with a change to one back-story, although he acknowledged that he could see the filmmakers’ reasoning for doing so. I couldn’t remember this particular back-story, which came from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings rather than from The Hobbit, so it didn’t bother me.) In my post on the book, I alluded to the fact that it was reading The Silmarillion that really gave me the appreciation for the reasons for the troubled relations between the dwarves and the elves—here, rather than relying on the audience to know this background, Jackson made sure to provide an explanation. (This, incidentally, could have been a bit of the film that some critics are calling “filler,” but I think the payoff is going to be in the second and third parts, where we will really see the importance of this knowledge.) Also, there was one part of the book that always felt a bit deus ex machina-ish to me, and here it was oh-so-slightly altered so as to avoid this. I really liked that change, small as it was.

There has been much discussion of the 48 fps vs. 24 fps, and as it happened I saw The Hobbit at the faster frame rate (in 3D). I’m…on the fence. The picture was beautifully clear, but at the same time it sometimes seemed distracting. It was almost as if there was a sharper contrast than ever between foreground and background, which I suppose is the hyper-reality some are talking about. But while at times this took me out of simply enjoying the movie, at other times it faded away, and so part of me wonders if the issue is some sort of combination of even the film makers getting used to adjusting lighting+3D+frame rate all to fit together. Or maybe Peter Jackson is right, it’s just something the audience needs to get used to. Given my experience with The Two Towers, which I had to watch twice before I liked it (I haven’t the faintest clue why I thought it was a good idea to pay to see a movie twice I didn’t like the first time—but it remains the only film I’ve seen twice in theaters), I think if I went to see The Hobbit at the higher frame rate a second time I might not even notice.

Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo. Of course, I knew he would be when I was rereading the book. I’ve seen Freeman in several films/TV series and I could picture him perfectly as Bilbo as I was rereading. The dwarves tend to blend together (not helped by the fact that my mental pronunciation of their names is different than the film’s), although Balin is just as I imagined. Many of the non-dwarvish characters were in the Lord of the Rings films also, so, interpretation as expected, but one made an appearance I hadn’t been expecting, even if hindsight tells me I should have. I unexpectedly liked the goblin king. Sure he’s a baddie. Go figure. But I think that relates to the slightly different tone between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. As a children’s book, The Hobbit is lighter than the later novel, which delves into darker territory—evil is more evil, danger is more real. The film chooses to straddle this divide, providing what I felt was the right balance in connecting to the tone and character of The Lord of the Rings films while still infusing a certain lightheartedness into the story.

Visually, the artists’ imagination yet again exceeds mine. The prologue scenes…wow. When I think back to Tolkien’s words, the artists’ interpretations make sense, but I’m afraid my little brain doesn’t picture such grandeur as I read. Or it didn’t… For that matter, I’m really happy the film-makers included two of Tolkien’s poems as songs, as my little brain could only ever hear them as sing-songy—which is fine for a children’s book, I suppose, but knowing the darker world that The Hobbit fits into (from the other books), I like to hear versions of the poems that sound like they actually could be sung by real, adult dwarves, and not nursery-tale buffoons. (OK, yes, saying “real dwarves” might place me on the edge of sanity. But they’re real, I tell ya! 😉 ) I also appreciated the way the music itself tied the new trilogy with the old, incorporating themes from The Lord of the Rings even while adding new motifs for The Hobbit. Listening to the opening strains over the film-studio logos, I was right back to ten years ago, watching the first trilogy in the theaters.

Is the film perfect? Well, no. If it were I wouldn’t have any quibbles. I don’t know that those who disliked The Lord of the Rings films would like this any better, but I don’t feel that it’s any worse, at least as far as enjoyment goes. And sometimes that’s all that matters. (How soon will it be available on DVD, please?)

11 thoughts on “On Film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (spoiler free)

  1. I went to watch it because the boyfriend fervently wanted so and I was a little bit… let’s say I did it out of love. I knew it would last 170 minutes, so I armed myself with a huge pack of popcorn and told myself it would be great to doze for almost three hours. I also told him it would be horrible and my next three picks will be horrible, predictable and Hollywood romantic comedies.

    First thing, as you say, I think I was kept awake by the 48 fps. It felt incredibly real although at times I saw the movement go too quick and then stop, has this happened to you? I remember seeing Gandalf get up and he did it so quickly and then if felt as if he had frozen for some seconds. Then, I expected something terribly slow and boring but I found myself quite engaged. I did not enjoy the story, it is no my type of movie, but I admit it was entertaning and less “a torture” than I had expected.

    We’ll be watching the next parts, obviously, but I’ll be less reluctant to go. After all, there is no bad movie if Cate Blanchett is on it (I’m a huge, huge fan).

    1. Oh, I’m glad it wasn’t as bad as you had expected! I understand that these types of movies aren’t for everyone (my mom doesn’t like anything with battle scenes, for instance), so any time they exceed expectations is a thumbs up.

      I didn’t notice any “stopping” or “freezing,” although at times I thought movement seemed a little too fast. I wasn’t sure if that was related to the frame rate or if it was a separate decision on how fast to move the action, though. (This wouldn’t be the first movie where I’ve though some scene or the other should be slowed a tad.)

      1. We’ll see if this technique becomes the norm. I can’t imagine psychological films shot like this, but it clearly pays off in battle scenes and action movies.

        I’m also glad it exceeded my expectations and I like talking about it, I’ve always been like an outsider for TLOTR and Tolkien.

        1. It will be interesting to see if the viewing audience accepts the higher frame rate. Given the additional cost of twice as many frames, I don’t really see 48 fps for films that aren’t big budget, at least not for a while. If it starts to become the norm there though it will probably filter down to other films, especially as the technology comes down in cost.

          As a fan I will always advocate the books, but the movies are admittedly easier to get into for the Tolkien newcomer.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I thought the opening tying it to the other films was fantastic. I found that one of the most loving moves for fans, giving the audience just a little taste of the Bilbo and Frodo we all came to love in the LOTR films. It also served to give audience just a quick reminder of how Ian Holm protrayed Bilbo so that it stayed in your mind while Freeman channeled that performance and added his own unique take on it. Which was brilliant, wasn’t it? Oh my gosh! I was so impressed with how he played the character.

    We had a choice of going to the HFR showing at our theater but I just chose regular IMAX 3D. Did want to be put off by it or even be thinking about it during the movie. I may give it a try on a subsequent viewing, but we’ll see.

    I’ll wait and re-read The Hobbit after all the films are released…oh, the wait!!! And we’ll probably have to wait almost a full year to get an extended edition bluray. No!!!!!!

    The film really was a visual feast, as were the other films before it, and I was most pleased that it lived up to those particular expectations I had, which were high. I knew that even if the film sucked it would look lovely and I’m glad that it both didn’t suck and that I was correct. Middle-earth was as gorgeous as ever and all the sets and scenes, etc. were great.

    1. Hmm…rereading what I wrote about the opening, I didn’t quite say what I meant: I thought tying in via Bilbo was just fine, but it seemed to me that including Frodo was trying a little too hard. But my brother didn’t agree, so perhaps I’m the only one that feels that way! And yes, Freeman as Bilbo was just perfect. Perfect!

      The closest theater to me had the option of 2D regular or 3D with HFR (in either the standard 3D HFR or the new special XD 3D HFR which means larger screen, larger sound and costs more–we went with standard 3D HFR.) I think the HFR is something that I could get used to, but there were definitely scenes where I noticed it. Not the action scenes, though, so it may be just the thing for fast-paced films.

      I’m so glad it was as good as it is. I was a little worried beforehand, but I feel better about the next two parts now. And rereading wasn’t really a problem with this one. I made the mistake of rereading LOTR right before The Two Towers came out, so the changes really bothered me the first time I saw it. There were some changes here, but I could understand them so it didn’t bother me. And I had fun recognizing the dialogue that was straight from the book!

      1. Oh I doubt you are the only one and your opinion is just as valid. I think they almost had to include Frodo just because he is the face of the franchise and other than a brief cameo there isn’t a good way to include Frodo in the films at all. I also think it was just a nice nod to the other films that was probably too hard to resist.

        I’m glad as well, I had some of the same worries. A lot of them actually. My biggest worry was that I didn’t want these films to taint the affection I feel for all the people who worked so hard bring The Lord of the Rings to life. And I’m glad that my affection for them is every bit as strong with this film.

        Ultimately I am glad I came to Tolkien’s work after the films. I have such an appreciation for each and I think I have an easier time melding the two versions of the story together than I would have had I been a fan of the books ahead of time.

        1. I can/could appreciate the reasoning for including Frodo, it just didn’t feel as skillful as I would have liked. (Eek, I’m sounding really picky, aren’t I?!) For my own part, I think I’m happy I knew the books first, as I have a terrible tendency not to read books if I’ve already seen the film. It does seem that it would be easier to meld the two if you’ve seen the movies first, though.

            1. Thank you, you are always so kind and reassuring, Carl. Oddly enough, it’s not the non-canon part that bugs me so much as the feeling that it could have been added more skillfully.

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