School started today, which meant a number of students coming to my office to ask what I thought about the new Hobbit movie. The short answer is I liked it.
. . .
The long answer — indeed, the long-winded long answer of a scholar who publishes on medieval literature, Tolkien, and fantasy in general — follows.
[In what follows there will be spoilers concerning both book and film. You’ve been warned…]
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a good movie, and I mean that in all sincerity. If you like this sort of thing at all — and if you don’t, why the hell are you reading this review? — then you’ll enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s entertaining.
That said, Unexpected Journey is not a great movie.
And, truth be told, it never could be.
That sounds harsh, but what I’m really meaning to say is just the opposite: Unexpected Journey is probably as good a movie as it ever could have been. Frankly, it’s a far better movie that I thought it ever would be. The film isn’t perfect, but then neither were the Lord of the Rings films when you take a step back and think about them. Exhibit A:
(As it happens, this also might be Exhibit A for the decline of Western Civilization, since — dear god(s) in heaven — they made an action figure of this tragic moment in cinematic history.)
Most of the reviews I’ve read about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey inevitably compare it to the three films of Lord of the Rings, and I haven’t read one yet that hasn’t found Unexpected Journey to come off poorly by comparison in one way or another. What I want to do here is to look at that same comparison from a little bit of a different angle, and thereby to come up with a very different conclusion.
Reviews, of course, depend upon what the reviewer is looking for, and I won’t contest the fact that in some ways Unexpected Journey is deficient in comparison to Lord of the Rings. In its scenes of the Shire, for instance, it somehow lacks some of the vitality of the earlier films. And the pacing was, I thought, quite uneven overall (though this truthfully was also a problem, if to a lesser degree, with the previous films).
In some other ways, however, I honestly think Unexpected Journey is actually a superior filmmaking effort. And I don’t mean superior simply in the case of the CGI or other technological advances — though this is no doubt true: if Gollum was amazing in Lord of the Rings he is simply astonishing in Unexpected Journey.
No, what I’m referring to here is something more fundamental: the basic creative work behind the making of a film like this. It is here, I submit, that there’s a solid case to be made that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in point of fact a better film than the three that make up the earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy. Peter Jackson and company deservedly got Oscars for what they accomplished with Lord of the Rings, but they might well have bettered themselves with Unexpected Journey. Even if the end result isn’t as great a film — so far, anyway, which is a pretty significant caveat — it’s in this respect a greater accomplishment.
Let me try to explain what I mean by running through some of the things that Peter Jackson and his co-writers had to accomplish with this film, many of which are somewhat (or completely) at odds with one another.
Goal 1: Use The Hobbit.
It sounds obvious, of course, but we cannot forget the fact that the filmmakers had a much beloved source text for this film. They could change some things — and they did so, as we will discuss below — but there were limits on their creative freedom. Some reviews complain about the number of dwarves, for instance. Sorry, folks, but that’s a problem with Tolkien’s book, not Jackson’s film. (Actually, it’s really a problem with the medieval sources that Tolkien was recasting, but that’s another topic.) The filmmakers did about all they could do to give the dwarves separate characters. As a matter of fact, I think they did a far better job in that regard than Tolkien managed himself.
The fact they had a base text to follow is important to remember because the source materials between the films are so very different in quality. The Lord of the Rings is, as a book, a masterpiece of modern literature. I truly believe that. The Hobbit is far more complex than most people realize, but facts are facts: it is simply not as fully formed, as deeply informed, as the larger, later epic. No matter how hard the filmmakers worked, this basic differentiation is undeniable and inevitable. It was going to hold back The Hobbit.
Goal 2: Fit the existing films.
Jackson and company had already made three wonderful films set in Middle-earth, three movies that firmly established visual styles and moods, palettes and designs. One of the first choices they had to make in developing The Hobbit for the big screen, therefore, was whether they would try to fit with those films. That is, would Rivendell look the same? Would the Shire? Would dwarves look the same? Would they use the same cast?
The filmmakers decided — and I think quite rightly so — to match the films as best they could. Whatever they did with Unexpected Journey, it had to fit seamlessly with the existing films. This meant, however, that they had one more set of restrictions on their writing and filming: Gandalf wouldn’t be just Tolkien’s Gandalf, it would be Ian McKellen’s version of Tolkien’s Gandalf. Saruman had to be Christopher Lee’s long face and slow deep speech patterns. Elrond had to be that dude from the Matrix.
That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it actually is: as books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were not originally written as one narrative arc. Sure, Tolkien tried later to revise The Hobbit to get it in line with his grander vision — ingeniously explaining, for instance, that the first edition of The Hobbit was full of disinformation because Bilbo wrote it under the influence of the One Ring (which was portrayed as a simple magical trinket in the first edition), whereas the second edition was corrected by Frodo — but it was always an uneasy fit. The trolls in The Hobbit have precious little in common with the trolls in Lord of the Rings. In The Hobbit Gollum isn’t as tortured, the Ring (despite Tolkien’s adjustments) isn’t as dangerous. Even the geography doesn’t match: the distance between Bag End and Rivendell is drastically different in the two published texts.
Jackson and company thus had to balance, in moments big and small, not just Tolkien’s source text but their own — no easy task in either regard!
Goal 3: Fit general audience expectations.
Movie-goers are accustomed to certain structures. They want a narrative arc. They want a good guy and a bad guy. That’s just standard issue for a movie.
But Tolkien’s Hobbit doesn’t have a great arc. Worse, the good guy (Bilbo) doesn’t do a whole lot for long stretches, and the bad guy (the dragon Smaug) doesn’t even show up until the end of the book. This was, I suspect, one of the more difficult problems for Jackson and company to deal with, and it is here that I think the triumph of their creativity really begins to reveal itself.
How so? Because the filmmakers’ solution to these two main problems was a single master-stroke of genius:
The movies aren’t about Bilbo. They’re about Thorin.
Think about it. Digest it.
Thorin was, to be sure, a significant player in Tolkien’s Hobbit. But that text was still, from beginning to end, about the hobbit. Not so Unexpected Journey. Bilbo may be the character whose perspective we follow — the fish out of water who allows us to experience the events with a sense of wonder and who needs (like us) to have things explained to him — but the movie’s narrative isn’t built around him at all. It’s built around Thorin.
When you watch Unexpected Journey you can almost see the filmmakers’ thought process unfolding, and you can see that it wasn’t terribly unlike what they did in Lord of the Rings. In that earlier trilogy, they wisely realized that they had to provide a prologue of sorts: not because the backstory was so complicated or necessary (it really isn’t), but because they needed to introduce the One Ring as a threat — it is, after all, the one constant enemy throughout the arc. This decision dictated some textual changes, like making Frodo’s departure from the Shire fervently urgent and adding enough close-ups of the One Ring for the first film to feel like jeweler porn. Point is, they knew the audience needed a constant “enemy,” and the Ring did the trick.
Fast forward (or rewind, I suppose) to The Hobbit, and the problem they faced was not dissimilar: they had an enemy who didn’t do much until the end of the story. The obvious solution, then, was to begin the story in a way that Tolkien did not: with the backstory of the dwarves in Lonely Mountain and the coming of the dragon Smaug. Doing so would help the audience understand the stakes and the dragon arc, and it would allow for some great action up front (as opposed to starting with an hour of singing dwarves at Bag End). Plus, it would also help the film fit with the model of the previous films (see Goal 2). Awesome, right?
It gets better, though. Put Thorin in those early scenes and you’ve got a redemption arc for the story: Thorin is going back home. That’s there in Tolkien’s text, but Jackson and company bring it out into sharp relief (helped even more by the great speech they wrote for Bilbo after the goblin episodes).
And it gets better still. Because once they saw that the story would be too big for a single movie — which became apparent the moment they decided to utilize the backstory of the dwarves and the sidestory of the White Council going to Dol Goldur to combat the Necromancer-who-is-Sauron (a decision driven quite strongly by Goal 2) — they knew that the dragon couldn’t carry the weight of Movie Bad Guy. They’d have him in the prologue, and then he’d pop up again at the end, but he was nowhere in between. Worse, the movie was shaping up to have Thorin as its central protagonist, and in the end he didn’t do much to defeat Smaug at all! The dragon — and this is one of those things that makes Tolkien’s Hobbit seem ill-conceived to some readers — is killed by Bard, yet another character late to the pages of the book. What was needed, then, was something more. They needed another enemy, one who would really be the antagonist to Thorin.
So they made one. Azog the Pale Orc.
Azog is indeed in Tolkien’s works, and the little flashback in the movie about the dwarves fighting Azog and his goblin/orc baddies at the gates of Moria is based on Tolkien’s writings … to a point. In Tolkien’s source text, what we are seeing is the Battle of Dimrill Dale, and Thorin indeed fought there and earned the epithet “Oakenshield” during the struggle. He didn’t do so while fighting Azog, though, who was instead busy doing the epic mano-y-mano fight with Náin (Thorin’s second-cousin, if I recall correctly). (Azog did behead Thorin’s grandfather, Thror, but that actually occurred before the battle, not during it as the film portrays.) For the most part these are small changes, easily justifiable in the name of simplifying a sprawling history by combining characters. The big change? Having Azog survive to become Thorin’s nemesis. Because he didn’t, you see. Not in Tolkien’s works. He dies at Dimrill Dale, rather dramatically beheaded by Náin’s son, Dáin.
Azog in the movie, in other words, completely screws up Tolkien.
And you know what? That’s okay.
More than okay, I think. It’s brilliant. Making him kill Thror on the battlefield and fight mano-y-mano with Thorin foregrounded Thorin’s role as the new protagonist for The Hobbit, which is good. But having him survive and thereby become Thorin’s sworn enemy provided (like magic!) an excellent antagonist to move across the full three-film sequence of The Hobbit, and that could hardly be better.
Think about it: Tolkien’s Hobbit has an enemy, Smaug, who doesn’t show up until rather late in the book, and not much later is killed by a recently introduced character. The text then continues on to give us an entirely different climax, the Battle of the Five Armies, which on the surface has terribly little to do with the whole point of going to the Lonely Mountain in the first place.
Jackson’s Hobbit instead has two enemies: in addition to Smaug, it has Azog, who can be there from near to the beginning and can hunt Thorin and crew in film 1. He can then show up again in film 3 at the Battle of Five Armies, where we can get yet another mano-y-mano fight with some kind of Arthur-Mordred mutually assured destruction ending. That’s book-end framing right there, baby. And what to do with film 2? Well, as I already mentioned, they early on made the decision to incorporate the Battle of Dol Goldur, which will surely be the backbone of that film. That battle enables the filmmakers to more elegantly account for Gandalf’s absence from the party — a narrative weakness Tolkien himself recognized — while at the same time providing more wizard action (score!), bringing Galadriel into the film (double-score with rare girl bonus!), and establishing continuity with the Lord of the Rings films by virtue of having more identical characters in both trilogies and the threat of Sauron (there’s Goal 2 again).
It’s brilliant, I tell you.
Goal 4: Fit specific audience expectations.
The specific audiences I’m thinking of are two: Tolkien fanatics and Tolkien scholars. There may or may not be a valid distinction between those two categories, which is one reason I’m lumping them together here. What I’m talking about in general, therefore, are the expectations of folks who know Tolkien’s text backwards and forwards. They love it. In some cases, they live it. These are the geeks (professional or amateur) who will notice every little trivial detail that the film-makers get wrong … or right. Like, say, the fact that Azog has undeniably been dead for a long, long time before Thorin sets off for the Lonely Mountain.
These folks have staggeringly high demands and to some degree will inevitably be disappointed: no film can ever replicate their individual imaginations. That said, you want to please them. You want to throw them a bone whenever possible. You know they’re going to be pissed about the whole Azog thing, not to mention all that you’re going to do to the Elves in film 2 in order to get Legolas and
another a girl elf into the picture for marketing purposes.
So how do you please them?
Damn cleverly, that’s how.
There are a number of instances I could cite here, but I’ll constrain myself to two scenes that are quickly recognizable.
The first such scene is when Bilbo asks Gandalf about whether there are other wizards. It’s a funny scene for any audience, but it has extra resonance for well-read Tolkien aficionados: Gandalf says that, in addition to himself, Saruman, and Radagast, there are two blue wizards, whose names he cannot recall. Why is that funny? Because Tolkien named the blue wizards twice, calling them first Alatar and Pallando, then Morinehtar and Rómestámo. Like Gandalf, we have no idea what their names really should be.
The second such scene is after they’ve escaped from the goblin caves, at the moment that Azog and the wargs come barrelin’ down the mountain at them. “Out of the frying-pan,” Gandalf says. “And into the fire,” Thorin whispers. Why is that clever? Well, that proverb — “Out of the frying-pan into the fire” — just happens to be the name of the 6th chapter of Tolkien’s Hobbit, the very one on screen at that moment.
. . .
Like I said at the beginning, Unexpected Journey is, as an entertainment experience, a good movie but not a great one. I enjoyed it enormously, but I didn’t leave the theater with the same oh-my-lord-I-have-to-see-it-again-right-now feeling that I had when I left Fellowship of the Ring.
I’m sure some of that is just the jading of years and the fact that a bit of the wonder is gone — I’ve seen hours of Middle-earth now, whereas then it was all brand-new — but I also think that a lot of it falls at the feet of the source limitations and often conflicting goals that the filmmakers had. And when we think about the film from that perspective, it just might be that Unexpected Journey is far more remarkable than most folks are giving it credit for. It may be, in fact, the most creative of all of them so far.
And that’s probably the most unexpected thing of all.