The Hobbit: An Unexpected Success
Full disclosure policy -- I am a Tolkien fan. I can sing the Green Dragon song for you. I host trivia nights. I pretend The Silmarilion isn't boring. There will be no pretense toward objectivity here. (If someone would like to pay me to be objective, I can fake it.)
At the age where most of my friends in the gay geek world were discovering comic books, I was trying to teach myself Elvish from the glossaries in the back of books I barely understood. For whatever reason, Tolkien fanaticism is not as big a part of our community as superheroes and comic books. And with nothing but the utmost respect for superhero fandom, I've spent a large portion of the last few weeks trying to explain why so many Tolkien fans were so nervous about the release of this film, even after the team involved in the production had already proven themselves in the past. The world of superheroes is huge and continues to evolve in the present day -- there are tons of characters and a seemingly endless amount of stories to tell. After some missteps, Hollywood seems to be figuring it out, and if they mess it up, there will probably be a reboot in a few years (Superman comes to mind). With Tolkien fans, this is it -- our stories are already told, and we have very little to look forward to in terms of "newness". There will be no reboots and no sequels (at least, until Disney finds some way to acquire the rights to the franchise). When we found out that the film was being split into three installments I, like many, struggled with a split Gollumesque greed of "more is better" and the fear of taking a short, whimsical book and forcing it into the format of another epic trilogy. Could it be done? Probably. The important question was would it FEEL like The Hobbit?
The answer is YES. I pause here as I'm writing this for another deep breath of relief. Thanks be to Iluvatar. Yes, this is definitely The Hobbit. Unfortunately, however, it comes down to a very simple point: if you are a fan of Peter Jackson's previous efforts in Middle Earth, you will probably have an easy time here. If you are a purist who was never able to forgive the absence of Tom Bombadil, you will probably be angry. This is definitely NOT The Hobbit in a literal transcription from the page to the screen, but I don't think any of us really expected it to be.
By all accounts, The Hobbit should have been a much easier film to make than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's short, it's paced well, there is only one story going on, and, well, stuff actually HAPPENS. It is generally considered to be Tolkien's most accessible work. Oddly enough, however, I feel like in a lot of ways this story is much trickier to get right. Once the mechanics were in place and the logistical nightmares sorted out, it became relatively straightforward to take New Zealand's landscapes, CGI orc armies, and Howard Shore's score and create a huge epic war story. The Hobbit is entirely different in feel and in tone.
The whole thing feels more relaxed and somehow more loose -- the lighter tone is clear right away. I was worried that it would be bogged down with some of the heaviness that occasionally plagued LOTR -- I always got the sense while watching Fellowship of the Ring that Jackson &Co meticulously scrutinized every single second of the 18 hours or so that made up the film and not a single hair on Frodo's foot was out of place. This feels a lot more relaxed and, yes, occasionally sloppy. There is a sense of hair being let down in a way that surprised me, but that felt logical and thematically appropriate. Again, I have to stress for people that haven't read the books, this is a very different kind of story.
Despite the differences in tone, the film is structurally similar to Fellowship of the Ring, at least initially. It opens with a brief (okay, not really) retelling of the rise and fall of Erabor, before bringing us back to The Shire. If anyone with an emotional connection to the first film didn't tear up at least a little bit seeing Ian Holm as old Bilbo sitting down to work on the Red Book of Westmarch the day of his birthday party, I admire their strength and reserve. Elijah Wood is as innocuous as ever but even his was a welcome face -- it felt like checking in with friends for the first time after ten years and leaving before you remember why you spent ten years away from them in the first place.
Martin Freeman is fantastic as Bilbo and despite being an overly critical and generally unpleasant human being I have nothing but praise for his work here. Bilbo Baggins is a more complicated and nuanced role than it may at first appear to be. Bilbo begins as something of a simpering fusspot and has a very gradual process of stepping into his role as a reluctant hero, and it would be very easy to play the role as either too cartoonishly fastidious and finicky or, the other extreme, as too straight faced and serious and have it fail miserably. Bilbo is a character that can laugh at himself but does NOT see himself as a joke -- he is aware of but unapologetic about his shortcomings (heh) and Freeman hits this balance perfectly. Ian Mckellen's Gandalf remains perfect and flawless and the closest I will ever come to believing in God, but that goes without saying.
The dwarves are a somewhat mixed bag. Some look like video game graphics, and some look like models. Richard Armitage as Thorin seemed an odd casting choice to me initially (TOO YOUNG! WHY DOESN'T HE LOOK LIKE A DWARF?) but he does a pretty good job of giving an otherwise accurate portrayal of what Thorin is about (haughty, proud, scumbaggery). Otherwise, there really isn't time to develop the rest of the company as individuals (Bombur is fat, Fili and Kili are young, Ori is possibly a stoner) but this was true in the book as well. They get the job done and are likeable enough, and I did appreciate the small attempts of trying to differentiate them as characters whenever there was a chance for doing so. It's difficult to keep track of who is who, but it mostly does not matter. I laughed out loud at Gandalf counting on his fingers whenever he'd be taking the roll call, because all Tolkien fans do this when running down the roster.
Actually, the humor throughout the film was probably the most delightful surprise. My main complaint about the first trilogy is how dour all the elves were portrayed (Elrond in particular always seemed chronically constipated, and Celeborn was sitting on a flaccid dick), and I'm glad that this time around they remembered that Tolkien was actually FUNNY (sort of. Sometimes. In a way. For his time. Once or twice. Ish.) The antics of the dwarves, Gandalf's facial expressions, and Bilbo's reactions to things were all great moments to add some balance to how serious these films tend to be. The Goblin King could have been played by Harvey Fierstein or Dame Edna, and we see a very different kind of orc "culture" than in the first three films. Howard Shore's score sets the mood as well as it did the first time around, and manages the tricky shifts in tone successfully. The best example of this comes early on -- the dwarf song about cracking the dishes is fun (and will be appreciated by fans, if any, of the Rankin Bass cartoon), but then things get serious very quickly as they break into the Misty Mountains song. It's not all fun and games here. That particular song, by the way, is beautiful.
My biggest laugh out loud moment came when Bilbo asked Gandalf about the other wizards, and he can't remember the names of the two blue ones. I asked this once at one of my trivia events and the responses ranged from "there are blue wizards?" to "fuck you" -- (Alatar and Pallando. Don't worry, it's not important. No, really, it's not important. Not even Gandalf remembered).
Speaking of the wizards, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy -- nice to see him again) finally gets his cinematic debut after being snubbed from Jackson's original trilogy as well as Ralph Bakshi's earlier animated effort (let's not speak of it). The scene begins awkwardly and feels out of place -- a goofy leftover from Guillermo Del Toro's involvement, and I could almost see an asinine Jonny Depp being pulled in a CGI rabbit sled if Disney DID somehow make this film. After the jarring initial moments it seems to settle down a little after you get to see him do some cool wizardy stuff and show he's not just a joke. It was nice to see another wizard and did allow for a funny Saruman line later on, even as I could hear some fans grinding their teeth in frustration.
The film is by no means perfect. Some of the CGI is dubious, and the over reliance on it sometimes took me out of the film. While Andy Serkis's Gollum remains perfect and deservedly acclaimed, other parts of the film resembled a Playstation 2 era video game. Azog looks bad (and probably shouldn't be there to begin with), and the trolls actually almost look worse than in Fellowship, which makes me wonder about how much money went into the special effects department as opposed to, say, Orlando Bloom's makeup. There are a ton of obsessive nitpicky things I can complain about (the way the troll argument is resolved, the way Bilbo solves the time riddle, and, as a friend pointed out to me, the dwarves' misuse of the word "Moria") but none of these things really take away from the story or film in any major way.
If changes to books you love bother you, proceed with caution, but I really do think the film does succeed in most accounts. I actually really love the balance Jackson achieves here with making things understandable for the average viewer and pleasing the diehards -- several scenes, including Bilbo and Gandalf's initial meeting, are line by line taken straight from the book, and the overall look of the thing recreates most of John Howe and Alan Lee's illustrations. Arguments can be made about padding the film and it being unjustifiably lengthy, but again, I think these are mostly issues of personal preference. The biggest weakness for me is the one that I assumed would exist as the inherent problem with taking a singular work and splitting it into a trilogy. Tolkien did the work for Peter Jackson with the three volumes of Lord of the Rings, but Jackson had to make some tough editorial decisions here, and ultimately the ending, while being the only logical cutoff point, lacks any real sort of emotional depth or finality. It felt more like a cheap "to be continued..." episode of a television show than a satisfying end to the opening chapter of a trilogy (compare this to the ending of A New Hope, I guess). Speaking of television, I saw the movie in the standard frame rate and haven't yet seen the controversial 48fps version, so I can't comment on that. It was smart to show some uncharacteristic restraint in not showing Smaug yet -- it helps build an air of menace. Hopefully they can make him truly frightening and not look like a computer graphic from 1998.
Back in 2001, The Fellowship of the Ring was released in a new post-9/11 world and brought about a resurgence of the fantasy genre (remember when the Enya album somehow got to #1 on the charts? And stayed there? Those were truly terrifying and confusing times). On my way to the theater yesterday, I learned about the tragedy in Connecticut, and that same degree of exasperation and anger with the world came back. Suddenly my obsession with what is considered by most of my friends as an overly simplistic anachronistic throwback felt even more frivolous than it already did. People accuse fans of fantasy to lack concern for layered characterization and criticize the overly simplistic good vs evil plots (interestingly, the same critiques are hurled at comic fans). Those arguments made sense in the post 9/11 aftermath surrounding Fellowship's release, when it was easy to dismiss it as reactionary escapism, but we live in a very different world right now. As much as we wish evil could be easily spotted by orc makeup and bad CGI work, the reality is that we know the world does not exist this way, and we don't go to these movies expecting it to. The beauty of Middle Earth, and why I think it remains a relevant place today as much as it was in post war England, is because it tells the story of what can be achieved by one lone and kind of pathetic person in a fucked up and crazy world. I discovered Tolkien's books at a time when I was a 300lb gay boy at a Catholic School in The Bronx. The Hobbit taught me that heroes can come in the most unheroic shapes and sizes, and that true courage comes not from the absence of fear, but from how you handle yourself when you're terrified enough to shit your pants. It's not about black and white good against evil. It's about stepping up and being the best person you can be even when everything around you is wrong and messy and awful. It's important to sometimes remember that when we look into the mirror that we hold up to ourselves as a species and see all of the disgusting monsters looking back at us, we are also capable of creating things of great beauty. All these beautiful places and beautiful things that exist in films like this that we almost scold ourselves for enjoying -- we've created them as surely as we've created the goblins and the trolls and the gun massacres and everything else horrible in the world. And when pausing to reflect that the things we do to each other as a species are so terrible that even Sauron would be impressed, sometimes taking three hours to visit a place like Middle Earth is not a completely frivolous act. When I was growing up these stories taught me to believe in myself, which is really the same thing as believing in magic. And despite the justified cynicism most of us are currently living with in these strange and terrible days, that is not a small or frivolous thing. If we can create beauty in fiction, part of me really believes that we can create beauty in real life. I hope that these films will inspire another generation of children to do the same, and maybe to even pick up the book and create their own vision of Middle Earth. And maybe go on to believe in themselves enough to create worlds of their own -- better worlds than the one we currently belong to.
Or, at least, to believe in Ian McKellen. Seriously, he's perfect.
Questions, comments, or, most likely, criticisms? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org