I fear it's official: I am Peter Jackson's bitch. He has me right where he wants me. It needs only the swelling strains of that Shire soundtrack, and I'm all misty-eyed and lump-in-throat and ready, once more, to be charmed. Which I was. I had very mixed expectations of The Hobbit, and it's a deeply flawed film, but I loved it nonetheless - why, yes, children, you can revisit Middle Earth, and it's just as beguiling as it was the first time round. I am down with this. I participate shamelessly in this shameless manipulation. It's fine by me.
Mostly, though, I left thinking, slightly weak-kneed, wow but this is going to be spectacular when all six films are done - a seamless, integrated storytelling artefact which even without extended versions will fling at us something over sixteen hours of loving, sprawling, coherent and unified vision. Unexpected Journey is so tightly woven into the LotR trilogy, it's basically meaningless considered separately. This is not a film version of Tolkien's The Hobbit, this is a structuring of a prequel to The Lord of the Rings around the backbone of Bilbo's story, but essentially and intrinsically fleshed out with history, backstory, foregrounding of minor story elements, wholesale ripping off of appendices, logical extrapolation of action for people from LotR, and other acts of gratuitous fannishness. This is a geek's film, built for the joyous recognition of those of us who have altogether too minute a knowledge of Middle-Earth.
This rather elevated project does some very specific things to the feel of the film. It's not about the children's book. It doesn't, other than in some slightly jarring moments, even try for the tone of the children's book: it's in a weird way rather more true to Tolkien's overall epic, rather dark-edged, elegiac Middle-Earth world-building than the children's book ever was. The violence and battle which are glossed with a certain childish innocence in the novel are here given the almost-full LotR grim and grit, and the broader implications of history and event which the book refuses to contemplate are damned well contemplated. If the result is a wee bit schizophrenic, I think that's inevitable, because the book is as well.
Above all, I am completely fascinated with what they've done with Thorin Oakenshield, who becomes the epic warrior hero counterpoint to Bilbo's little guy. Film-Thorin is a brooding, tormented, gothy figure with a Tragic!Backstory well upfront, prone to dramatic, solitary posing against interesting backdrops, à la Draco in Half-Blood Prince. He is an extremely compelling figure, and also ridiculously hot. Ridiculously. The sheer toe-wriggling appreciation of my own viewing experience (brooding intense men buttons firmly hit!) is backed up by a frothing online fandom frenzy approaching Legolas levels. (Fili and Kili are also incidentally firmly in the "wouldn't throw them out of bed for gratuitous bass-line part singing" camp). Most interestingly, I don't see this version of Thorin as in any way a betrayal of the book version. Book-Thorin always was fascinatingly flawed, a complex mix of heroism and dignity and focused intent and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Lonely Mountain which makes his avarice and defensiveness all too likely. Film-Thorin is something of a redemption of the Comic Dwarf elements of Gimli: no-one would dare to think of tossing Thorin Oakenshield, and I'm very happy the film picked up on the book's insistence on his dignity. He embodies "Tolkien Dwarf" both conceptually and physically in a way which at least partially compensates for the broad comedy of some of his brethren, for which, bitch or no, I will not really be forgiving Jackson any time soon.
While I loved the film, it was not an unmixed viewing experience: I don't think it's up there with the LotR movies in terms of absolute quality. It's a sprawling, self-indulgent piece, and some of its attempts to negotiate the clashes between childlike and epic elements are not wildly successful. While I'm still on a bit of a fangirly high, I'm also exceeding even Two Towers levels of slightly enraged incomprehension at some of the adaptation choices that were made. Therefore, a Swings and Roundabouts comparison seems called for.
Things I Didn't Like About The Film:
- The length. Somebody needs to grapple Jackson with hoops of steel to a decently ruthless editor. That movie could have cheerfully lost up to an hour of footage to its material improvement. Unnecessary bits: too much Frodo/party prep (my devotion to Frodo is undying, but there was NO POINT!), too much additional orc-attack footage, rather self-indulgent troll interchanges, random stuffing around in Rivendell, etc etc etc.
- Body humour. This is one of the bits where the marriage of LotR-Epic with Hobbit-childlike is visibly strained. There are broadly comic bits in The Hobbit, but the slight underlay of crudity (burping, butts, boogers), while bang in the Early Jackson camp, sits very uneasily with my sense of Tolkien. It also does material disservice to the dwarves, who should not be figures of fun.
- A slight tendency to cartoon. Everyone's emotional reactions are exaggerated - things which are subtle undercurrents in the book are Giant!Obvious!Issues! in the film. Viz: Bilbo's comparative heroic uselessness. Thorin's dislike of Elves (the Elf-Dwarf rivalry thing is getting old). Gandalf's slight uncertainty (I didn't like the dynamic with Saruman). etc etc etc.
- The pale orc, because wtf? Riding the stereotypes much? Albino, and missing a hand, and with a vendetta against Thorin's entire line? I can see the need for an antagonist, and Azog is firmly canon, but really. Also, the goblin king. Good grief. There is no place for camp in Tolkien.
- The expansion of Bilbo's role into unnecessary heroics. The bit where he saves Thorin's life is inevitable given the whole pale-orc plot, but feels unnecessary and rather hackneyed. Sigh.
Things I Liked About The Film:
- Bilbo Baggins. Martin Freeman is a hobbitoid acting god. He gives that character so much heart, responsiveness, humanity, it's ridiculous. You can spend sizeable chunks of the film just watching his face respond. It also makes you realise how comparatively idealised and elevated a figure Frodo is, and the comparatively non-British-acting-school qualities of his portrayal. (To be fair, Tolkien gives him much less personality, but it's still quite a flat rendition if you put it next to Freeman). Also, mad kudos to the casting for the Freeman/Ian Holm young/old Bilbo thing - you really feel that they're old and young versions of the same person.
- Thorin Oakenshield. See above. The conclusion of the third film is going to pack an emotional punch like nobody's business. I'm bracing for it already.
- When not engaged in body humour, the dwarves. Visually they have a solidity which really works, and the scale feels right. The production has been very careful to make them distinct individuals both visually and personality-wise, and while they do verge on the cartoon at times, it really works. Also, the film will have my undying devotion for the singing. That Misty-Mountains song, with the hummed background and atonal bass thing going, is devastatingly beautiful, and makes my girly male-voice-part-singing-fancying heart go pit-a-pat. (Male voice part singing is another of the approximately five million things which make me cry). Generally the singing is nicely done, and escapes the potentially-lame niche rather well. I'm very happy they kept the washing-up song, it was fun.
- The riddle scene. Beautifully done. The riddle-guessing expressions on both Gollum and Bilbo are perfect.
- Some of the visuals. The opening sequence with Smaug attacking Esgaroth - stunning. Stone giant battles. (Inevitable, on the "let's leap on throwaway sentences in the book and make them into giant set pieces!" principle). Giant underground goblin cities. The eagles in flight. (Eagles apparently also make me cry). I also rather fell for the enormous running battle with the goblins at the end, but then I'm a sucker for slapstick.
- Glamdring and Orcrist, because I am an enormous geek and have always loved swords with names and histories. Also, Thranduil's giant sparkly war-tiara. That's a serious hat.
- Dwarven part-singing, and the weaving of the tune into the sound-track. Twice, because it makes me so happy.
- Edited to add, because I meant to include it and forgot: the high-definition high-frame-rate 3-D. It was exquisite - it didn't take long to get used to it, and the level of detail and sense of reality were incredible. It did stutter a bit in those long Jacksonian landscape pans, but conversely it forced him to slow them down, which is a good thing in my book.
All things considered, I am immeasurably relieved. The response to the film has been so mixed, I was rather afraid that Jackson-bloat would have crushed the life out of the world I love. But it hasn't. It's still Middle-Earth, and the visit is still magical. The kind of carping I'm doing is very much that of a fan, levied at the work of a fellow fan with whom I'm comfortable enough to wrangle affectionately when our visions differ. Thank the cosmic wossnames.
Also, hot dwarves. I'm just saying.