Review of The Hobbit Film, Part I

Like many Tolkien readers and fans, I’d been waiting with anticipation for the release of The Hobbit film ever since it was first announced. Peter Jackson did such a good job with the LOTR films (not perfect, of course, but very good, very good indeed), that I was so excited to see how he would translate The Hobbit into film. He had nailed LOTR, in my opinion, truly seeming to understand not only the major themes of the books but also to respect the fans’ love of the fantasy master’s vision (Tolkien’s, that is). He “got it,” and this understanding showed through clearly on the screen.

As the endless train of previews finally ended and we were instructed to put on our 3-D glasses, the familiar LOTR music swelled and I was filled with expectation. Corny, maybe, but there it is. I was enthralled…for about five minutes…and then I was largely disappointed for the rest of the film. The problem is that Jackson doesn’t get The Hobbit. For some reason, he thinks The Hobbit is a “prequel” to LOTR. Note to Jackson: it isn’t. The Hobbit came first chronologically (in both the actual writing and in terms of the fictional history of Middle Earth), but it was not written as a “set up” for LOTR. No, no, no. Tolkien did not originally plan on continuing the narrative. Jackson filmed LOTR first, and then decided to go back and film The Hobbit as a movie prequel, and that was his damning mistake. By translating The Hobbit as a prequel, he has incorrectly and inappropriately forced that book into a context it was never meant to be. Thus, Jackson has imposed the feel, tone, and texture of LOTR onto The Hobbit, thus straining more longevity out of the former and effectively diminishing if not destroying the latter. That’s really too bad, because there was so much potential for Jackson to do something interesting, exciting, and new with The Hobbit. What does he do instead? He recreates the Hobbit in the image of LOTR and gives us more of the same. Very disappointing.

For example, Fellowship of the Ring starts out with the narrative of the big bad Sauron massacring humans and elves, and we see the king being killed and his son desperately fighting back and cutting off the ring finger, banishing Sauron into darkness and gaining the Ring of Power. Good stuff. It fits. It works. Surprisingly, and illegitimately, The Hobbit begins with Dwarves being characterized as greedy and selfish (more of a caricature, really), becoming powerful, engaging in wars against the orcs and some great big white orc general who’s not even in The Hobbit. Why is this here? To set up a parallel narrative to that in the beginning of LOTR. Ridiculous. Now we see this powerful white orc kill the dwarf king, the son runs (or something like that—I don’t fully remember, as I was a bit disgusted by this point), and the grandson becomes the hero who fights back and lops off the arm (instead of the finger…) of the evil white orc. And it is this grandson who becomes the Strider or Aragorn figure in The Hobbit movie. See the parallels? And throughout this first installment, we see a tortured, grumpy, reflective dwarf who is a lot like Strider, trying to reclaim his heritage and figure out who he really is. Oh…brother! This is not The Hobbit.

To maintain this narrative and to keep it in line with LOTR, Jackson strips The Hobbit of all its delightful charm and burdens it with a dark Gothicism that is more befitting of LOTR and Harry Potter, not The Hobbit. Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy good Gothic elements, but The Hobbit is not Gothic. Why does Jackson do this? The only reason I can think is because he wants The Hobbit to be like LOTR. But, it isn’t, and Jackson doesn’t seem to understand that. Sure, The Hobbit has adventure, excitement, battles (especially at the end), and darkness, but it is not the same as LOTR. The tone and feel of The Hobbit are much more charming, but Jackson apparently cannot, or will not, do charming.

So, the dwarves are battle hungry warriors, lopping off orc heads with glee and insipid one-liners (really?!?). Even Gandalf gets into the head-lopping game. Silly. The early scene where the dwarves come to Bilbo’s house is a farce of burping, farting rudeness. You don’t see the nobility or civility of the dwarves as in the book (again, that missing charm). The troll scene is totally botched and inconsistent with the themes from the book. And most unforgiveable is the ruined riddles in the dark scene. Here, Jackson not only diverges widely from the book, but he contradicts his own narrative version of how the ring is found that he tells it in his LOTR films (and he gets it more right in his LOTR than in his Hobbit)! Excuse me? Lastly, Martin Freeman is a terrible Bilbo. He’s great as Dr. Watson in the BBC Sherlock Holmes series (very enjoyable, but Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, who will be the villain in the next Star Trek film, can be annoying sometimes), but I think he does not really do Tolkien’s Bilbo much justice.

There are other absences and additions that I found annoying. Just as Jackson cut Tom Bombadil from the Fellowship of the Ring, he chose to cut Beorn from The Hobbit. Again, this shows that he has missed some fundamentals of Tolkien’s thematics and tone. And while he cut Radagast the Brown from Fellowship of the Ring (making some stupid moth the messenger to the great eagles…), he puts Radagast into The Hobbit, where he doesn’t belong! To be fair, Gandalf does mention Radagast in the book when Bilbo asks if there are other wizards, but that’s it. Jackson takes that and runs with it, giving us a buffoon of a character on a silly sled pulled by super-fast rabbits, with a bird nest on his head and birds that poop down his face into his beard. Absurd! The only reason I can think Radagast is in The Hobbit is to add filler—Jackson is stretching this one book into three three-hour films. Honestly, that is not necessary. (Again, he’s too attached to LOTR—three long films made sense for LOTR, but it doesn’t make sense for The Hobbit.)

In short, I was very disappointed by The Hobbit, not simply because it is not enough like the book (I’m fully aware that film translations will be somewhat different from the original book), but, rather, because Jackson doesn’t understand The Hobbit as he does LOTR. He wants The Hobbit to be like LOTR, but it isn’t. Because he does not understand this, The Hobbit is just more of the same, with different characters. Even from a purely cinematic perspective, Jackson gives us nothing new (other than new 3D technology). It’s a shame really. But, do go and watch it for yourselves. If you haven’t read The Hobbit, then you probably won’t care so much. But, if you are a Tolkien fan, and if you love the book, then you will be gravely disappointed. If you aren’t, then maybe, just maybe, you don’t understand Tolkien’s book. Or, you are more forgiving than I.