A small eternity watching ‘The Hobbit': a personal view

On the weekend my wife and I went to see The Hobbit.

The Hobbit is one of my favourite books, Jackson is one of my favourite directors, and we live where it was made – there has been a buzz around Wellington for years. Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings – all three parts – was stunning. It was stunning as a story, stunning for Jackson’s deft handling of an epic canvas. Stunning for its effects.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal - a marvellous example of the model-maker's art.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal – a marvellous example of the model-maker’s art.

So we had plenty of build-up for this one. And in many ways it did not disappoint. The actors were superb. The effects were brilliant. The set dressing was astonishing. The attention to detail was incredible. I wasn’t worried that the movie bore only passing resemblance to the book, either. Movies are different media – they require different handling, especially this time. Jackson has taken Tolkien’s low-key story of a quest for treasure – explicitly, Bilbo’s hero journey – and turned it into a nine hour epic. That meant it had to be significantly deepened.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

There was just one small problem.  Nothing happened other than a relentless bang-bang-bang succession of chases and (literally) pit-falls.  The movie was about half over when my wife whispered in my ear. ‘Are we there yet?’ We weren’t. Eventually the end credits rolled. ‘Well,’ my wife said. ‘That was awful.’  I nodded. ‘Yes, that’s three hours of our lives we won’t get back.’

What happened? To me, the main problem was that it hadn’t been deepened enough – or properly structured. The existing Hobbit plot was stretched, thinly, across a three-hour movie-scape in which other material seemed to intrude, sometimes for no obvious reason. It opened with a loving, nostalgic reprise of The Fellowship of The Ring, which didn’t seem to do anything for the plot other than add fan-fic style ‘completeness’. It took over an hour for the story to actually get going, and then, as my wife put it, the thing felt at times like a succession of out-takes from The Fellowship of the Ring, slung into a bucket. I got the impression, at times, that I had been watching The Hobbit re-written as rather mediocre fan fiction.

That diorama from another angle.

That diorama from another angle.

Structure is everything with fiction – novels and movies alike. In the specific, to me the main over-arching plot, leading to the ‘big boss’ battle at the very end – was Azog’s quest for revenge. This was a new element, not envisaged by Tolkien. Unfortunately, Azog kept turning up to intensify danger or push chases along, without real build-up or tension – more melodrama than drama. But in any case, the whole thing needed a more epic plot to match the scale of movie, the scale of effects, and the scale of the settings; and Tolkien’s legendarium has many gigantic elements that could have been brought in – from the origin of dragons as corrupted Maiar and servants of Morgoth, to the full back-story of Sauron deceiving the elves into forging rings.

The other problem was tone. It came across to me as an awkward juxtaposition between Jackson-style slapstick – not much related to Tolkien’s gentle brand of intellectual humour – and deep, dark seriousness, which the plot elements didn’t quite match.

To me the strength of the 1937 Hobbit novel was tightness and the fact that the magic and wonder of Bilbo’s world unfolded for us as it did for Bilbo. Along the way we watched Bilbo grow as a person.  All was presented with Tolkien’s gentle humour and pitched for its reading audience, initially his children. Tolkien’s characters were also discomfited by ordinary problems, such as rain and storms, which we can all identify with. It led them into adventure with trolls and goblins. The ordinary became the extraordinary – but one we could share because we had been led gently into it. I got none of that feel with the movie.

I am a huge fan of Tolkien. I am a huge fan of my fellow Wellingtonian, Sir Peter Jackson. But this movie didn’t do it for me.  The Gollum riddle game, which was truly masterful, went some way towards redeeming the whole. But not far enough.

What did this movie do for you?

In post-scriptum, we found succour on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrKXH1CeXck

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: Write It Now, Part 2; more on kindness; and picture inspirations from earthquake-hit Christchurch.

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19 comments on “A small eternity watching ‘The Hobbit': a personal view

  1. Niki Savage says:

    Hi Matthew, I decided to give myself a break from editing my WIP and treat myself to The Hobbit. I agree wholeheartedly with your review. I confess though I am a huge LOTR fan, I have not read The Hobbit. So I had no idea of what was supposed to happen. But I expected the same magic as LOTR, and found none. The movie felt like an endless procession of battles to the sound of thunderous music. And despite these battles, nobody got hurt, except Thorin right at the end. Character development was impossible among all these action scenes, and it didn’t feel as if Bilbo was a central character at all. Peter Jackson didn’t give a us (me at least) someone to care about, and the plot was so thin as to be nonexistent. I admit that I glanced at my watch more than once, thinking, “I’d rather be editing.”

    • Thank you… and absolutely true! I’d rather have been editing too (I have a book that is 3 weeks off deadline…urgh…). Actually, ‘editing’ is what this movie desperately needed, both script-wise and in terms of the film itself. I have seen a review suggesting that it played rather like an initial throw-together by the director, a ‘first cut’ before it’s polished and tightened up, and that’s certainly how it came across to me. A pity – all of the components were there, in spades – it had every potential to be great. It was just, well, missing something. And not just because it’s only the first third of a nine-hour epic.

  2. Bev Robitai says:

    I have to agree. I was prepared to allow for the expansion of the original story, and was looking forward to more fully developed characters than in the book – and that was fine. But please, would somebody take the special effects wand away from Peter and stop him doing a King Kong, filling hours with whizz-bang chase scenes! Interminable walkways with no handrails and the stereotype rickety bridges over chasms – enough already! On the plus side, a lovely performance from Martin Freeman who brought Bilbo to life with a nice balance of comedy and drama. I’d watch Part 2 for him alone. Well, him and the scenery!

    • There was certainly nothing wrong with the acting, it was all top class stuff & Freeman was especially good. So was McKellen (then, he always is…)…but yeah, it was just endless special effects, like a video game. In fact, watching it was pretty much like watching somebody playing a 3d shooter version of ‘The Hobbit’, it’s what I’d expect of the ‘game’ version, but not the movie!

      • A lot of people have said that!! :D I didn’t get that, personally, and I used to be quite a gamer. I’m not entirely sure what people mean when they say that, personally.

        But, I do wish they had kept to their original special effects method. I understand why (prosthetic orcs = SO ten years ago, pfff), but I think it hurt them overall. Very good special effects but…no Lurtz. :(

        • They hit ‘spooky valley’ with the CGI – unrealistically photographic. The make-up orcs were REAL in the sense of actually being there.

          My mum and my niece briefly met Shane Rangi (stunt performer who was under a lot of that LOTR era orc makeup) at the Elf Fantasy Fair in the Netherlands in 2008. A really nice guy. Cool. (I wasn’t there…sigh…)

    • Martin Freeman hasn’t been getting enough credit. He was amazing as an Ian Holm impersonator; spectacular performance!! :)

  3. I felt pretty much the same. I tried expressing this opinion to my friends, but they all agree that it was the most stupendously brilliant film ever, so I kept my mouth shut :) I feel that the second film will be better, now that we’re knee deep in the plot (plus, wood elves!).

    Also, I think they got a little cocky, turning it into 3 films. 2 would have been sufficient, I feel.

  4. L. Palmer says:

    It’s reviews like this, which are similar to what two of my siblings said, that have made me hold-off on seeing The Hobbit until it’s at the cheap 2nd run theater in town.

  5. Corinne says:

    I’d read similar criticisms before seeing the movie, and I went along expecting to be disappointed. But I actually found it engrossing. I was swept up in the story from the moment it began and never found it dragged on. I loved it!

  6. Personally, I understand what you mean…but I also think everyone’s missing it: the “epic” will come, I think/pray/hope, over the entire course of the trilogy. When we look at the entire trilogy in hindsight (again, I hope), we’ll see the epicness, the growth of Bilbo as a character, the intensity of the drama as in LotR, etc., just as we saw it grow and develop through LotR. (RotK was INTENSE. I was emotionally exhausted by the end of it.)
    I think we should all keep in mind that there’s still two more movies to come, and that Jackson isn’t JUST dealing with The Hobbit. He also is delving into the stuff in the Appendixes of LotR; for some reason, people seem to keep forgetting that.
    I wholeheartedly agree with you about Azog, and I thought the one “out of the frying pan” chase scene at the end occurred too fast. And yes, this one didn’t have nearly the emotional depth as LotR…but if I know Jackson (and yes, I may not…but if I do), it’s coming. Keeping my fingers crossed, anyway…. :)

    • Yes, my suspicion is Jackson has built it as a single 9-hour epic, and we only got the first third. He did the same with LOTR.

      I agree, that last sequence was a bit choppy. Actually, I quite liked the original ‘frying pan’ scene in the book – complete with the rude songs by the goblins and the way Bilbo ended up dangling beneath an eagle, much to his discomfit… kind of felt cheated that it wasn’t in the movie!

      I am sure Jackson will do a ‘directors cut’ – and that, I think, might provoke me into trying this movie again. He radically improved “Two Towers” between the original cinema release (which was already fantastic) and the DVD edition (way beyond merely ‘fantastic’).

      In many ways we’re lucky it’s happened at all – getting the Hobbit to screen at all has been a bit epic, when you look back at all the issues they had first the on-off-on rights issue, then the director change, and then it looked like Australian industrial pressure might kill local production of it. That’s apart from all the incarnations of the plot; it started off as a two-movie deal of which one was going to be The Hobbit proper, Tolkien’s plot, and the other the “back story”. Right up until mid last year it was still just two movies – then it became three, and I kind of wonder whether some of the issues with this first instalment came out of having to stretch it a bit. Jackson always over-shoots his footage and apparently had virtually enough for 3 movies as it stood, but the issue is one of plot. Hmmn…

  7. KM Huber says:

    I suspected as much, Matthew, but what a wonderful group of comments. Incredibly interesting! Not surprisingly, I will wait to go, if I ever do. There are some stories I prefer as books, and I suspect Tolkien’s work is in that group. That said, my popcorn and I await your thoughtful review of part two.

    Karen

    • I’m certainly going to check it out. Curiously, my wife has a friend who hasn’t read “The Hobbit” but who watched the movie and came away thinking it was simply a typical Jackson movie. A pity in a way; I felt he’d completely captured the Tolkien essence in LOTR, but he hasn’t this time.

      I agree- often it’s better to experience these stories as books. Some movies, I think, come close in their own way. The only movies I can think of that are materially better than the original books are the later Harry Potter series – I think Rowling, for all her many virtues, lacked self-editing by the end of it and produced over-long and rather rambling plots which the movies corrected. A kind of inverse Jackson, really. :-)

  8. [...] visit – coupled with last week’s viewing of The Hobbit movie – got me thinking. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan’. I approach Tolkien with a [...]

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