I finally got to see The Hobbit (Part 1) a few days ago. It was fun to watch, and I hardly noticed the nearly three hours go by. Some parts of it were great reflections of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and of his characters and story. But there were a few elements that felt very out of place from that perspective, too, some of them discordant enough to jolt me out of the movie for a while. I want to share a few of my thoughts on the experience; I’ll start out spoiler-free, but we’ll see how long I can keep that up.
First and foremost, this is not Tolkien’s story. That’s a stronger statement than I ever made about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies (though I was tempted after the third one), but I think it’s merited here. It’s certainly based on Tolkien’s story and characters, but Jackson has made some truly enormous changes to the basic structure of the tale. At least some of that was absolutely necessary given his goals, and I’ve come to believe that he had a sensible underlying motivation for the rest. Whether there were ways of achieving a comparable effect while staying truer to Tolkien’s own vision of Middle-earth is probably an unanswerable question.
So what was Peter Jackson’s primary goal for this project? I’d phrase it as “Tell the story of The Hobbit in a manner that appeals to a broad (adult) audience, and show how those events fit in the history leading up to The Lord of the Rings.” And that immediately presents some major challenges. Unlike the epic quest of LotR, The Hobbit is little more than a series of disconnected episodes up until the arrival at Lake-town. (The challenges faced by Bilbo and the Dwarves before that point are presented as nasty but more or less expected difficulties that would be faced by anyone traveling through the Wild.) Even worse, you’re trying to tell two largely independent stories that originally took place over enormously different timescales: Thorin’s quest to the Lonely Mountain takes place over the course of a year or so, while the broad history of the Necromancer and the White Council laying the groundwork for LotR unfolds over the course of decades or centuries. And along with all that, you have to strike some sort of balance between the often silly, childlike tone of the primary source material in The Hobbit with the mature, epic scope of the broader story to be told.
Of course, not every issue is complicated: anyone but the most hidebound purist would agree that some scenes in the book just plain don’t make sense. (The Dwarves’ “single file death march” strategy for rescuing Bilbo from the trolls could never slip by unremarked on film, as one prime example.) Making Bilbo’s character more consistent (and perhaps more sensible, early on?) is a good choice, and I think the movie captures him very well. And focusing on Durin’s folk as wandering exiles is a great way to show some of the bigger picture of the quest from the Dwarves’ point of view.
But as I’ve thought about the bigger challenges, I begin to guess why Jackson made the major changes that he did. [Vague spoilers!] To smooth over some of the bumpy episodic stuff, he adds a plot line with an ongoing adversary. To avoid lots of historical flashbacks (and flash-forwards?), he compresses the timescale of the Necromancer’s rise and fall to match Thorin’s quest. And to tie the very separate pieces of story together, he reinvents and massively expands the roles of a character or two. Were there ways of accomplishing his goals without straying so far from Tolkien’s vision? Probably so. Could it be done in a way that was just as enjoyable for anyone who isn’t already a die-hard fan of the books? I have no idea, and I’m not sure that “armchair screenwriter” is a worthwhile game to play.
The other big question with an adaptation like this is whether the movie stays true to the spirit of the book, to its underlying themes. I’m not sure that I can say anything definitive on that yet, because on some level The Hobbit doesn’t really have many big themes by the time it reaches this point: it’s still very much just a series of disconnected adventures. I felt like Jackson did a credible job of portraying Bilbo’s decision to spare Gollum near the end, but even with a little added foreshadowing of it earlier in the movie it’s a subtle thing to pull off. Beyond that, I was a little disappointed in the degree to which Jackson again focused on fights and battles (though not surprised), and it felt wrong for Bilbo’s final acceptance by the Dwarves to be due to something he did in a fight rather than some more characteristic clever or courageous act. (Wasn’t his rather moving speech of sympathy with their cause reason enough, at least for starters?) We’ll see how all this develops over the next two movies.
For me personally, the parts of the movie that best captured the feel of the original story were the Dwarves’ song about the Mountain in Bag End and the riddle game. I thought that Martin Freeman played Bilbo very well, and that any changes to his character in the book were by and large for the better. Thorin seemed like a reasonably solid character, too, and at least a few of the Dwarves have recognizable personalities (more or less the same ones as in the book). Strangely, Gandalf didn’t feel as spot-on here as he did in LotR; that may have been in part because Jackson left in quite a bit of his cutesy wordplay from The Hobbit while at the same time trying to place him at the center of the more serious aspects of the story. Maybe.
I’m moderately confused by the changes to the backstory. Why make Thror corrupted by gold and Thrain a maddened coward? (I have a guess on the first, but not the second.) Where did Gandalf get the map and key, given that nobody knew Dol Guldur was even occupied until after the movie started? (And why did nobody ask him that question?) Did Thranduil have a reason to march an entire army to within spitting distance of the Mountain when Smaug attacked, thumb his nose at the fleeing Dwarves, and then march straight home again? (Other than to give Thorin an excuse to resent Elves, that is.) Some of the reasons for all this will become clear in the next two movies, I’m sure, but for now these sorts of things stick out like a sore thumb to someone who knows the “true” story well.
I’m at a loss to explain how Galadriel learned to teleport at the end of the movie, or how Bilbo learned to fight effectively with a sword between his flailing at Gollum and his slaying of a trained fighting Orc to save Thorin. I also have no idea why a company of wolf-riding Orcs seeking a troop of Dwarves in a wide open grassy area would be so determined to follow a lone weirdo on a high-speed sleigh (nor for that matter why the guy in the sleigh decided to drive around in circles rather than leading the Orcs away from the Dwarves). More seriously, I’m not sure why exactly Saruman thinks that he can dictate what a random group of Dwarves can or cannot do, nor why the news that they had just left town (along a known, very specific, very narrow trail) suddenly convinced him that he was no longer able to do so.
I was fascinated to see that Jackson had interpreted the mountain giants in a way that fairly closely matched my own (rather sparsely supported) speculations about what they were. Strangely, seeing his take on that idea made me feel a bit less positive about it, but I’m not sure how much of that was just the rather implausible action sequence for the main characters that came along with it.