The more I think about it, the angrier I get. A part of that must certainly be that it’s after 4:00 in the morning. The rest of it is the reason I’m up at 4:00am and that’s to tell you exactly how angry I am and what made me that way. It is again an adaptation that committed every cardinal sin in the adaptation bible. Commandment No. 1: Do not alter that which needs no alteration for time, plot, or characterization. Commandment No. 2: Do not make additions which do not compliment characterization, ease plot lines, or further a depth of vision alluded to in the source material. Commandment No. 3: Do not change the tone or voice of the source material. Commandment No. 4: Sins are compounded by the degree to which the source material is deservedly venerated. Commandment No. 5: Failing these, make a good movie. When it comes to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), I cannot speak to the fifth commandment until I see it a second time, but the others are quite ripe for a gripe.
Many years ago, in a kingdom far far away, the dwarves led by Thrór (Jeffrey Thomas), King Under the Mountain, were doing quite well for themselves with gold and whatnot. That all changed when the dragon Smaug, drawn by the wealth, laid waste to that kingdom. Many years later, Bilbo (Ian Holm) decided to write his memoirs for Frodo (Elijah Wood) (just before Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday and Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) arrival). He begins: “In a whole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” [Then, oddly, his second sentence was misquoted by Mr. Tolkien in the later editions that most of us might have read. (!)] This hobbit (Martin Freeman) was quite a stuffy fellow and liked his comfort. But Gandalf is helping to staff a dangerous project to reclaim the Lonely Mountain for Thorin (Richard Armitage), grandson of Thrór, and his band of refugees (Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, and Adam Brown). Meanwhile, Azog (Manu Bennett), the defiler, is on the trail for the heirs of Durin to kill them generally and avenge the loss of his left arm specifically. Meanwhile, meanwhile, the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been stirring up evil trouble and turning the Green Wood into Mirkwood, which causes the loopy environmentalist wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) much consternation, which he brings to the attention of Gandalf.
Where to begin. Let’s begin with the things I liked. I liked the scenes that were played out verbatim from the book and there were a fair number of them. I thought that Gollum, played by Andy Serkis, was a greater triumph than even the The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) films. It was a superb performance. Martin Freeman was an excellent choice for Bilbo and he did as well as could be for the part he was given. Finally, I loved the book upon which the movie is based. It is a feat of literature. It is fantasy, but very well written and incredibly funny. Essentially, it is the story of a constipated Englishman going off to a foreign world and finding his hidden depths. It is ageless for these reasons. So, when I say “in the book…” it comes with the connotation “when it was done better…”
Did they ever consider doing this movie straight? One problem faced in many adaptation is that book action is typically slower and ill-conceived for performance. People slipping away is far less interesting than people fighting their way out. This is not a flaw of The Hobbit (1937) by J.R.R. Tolkien. People do slip away at times, but more often they get themselves captured in humorously pathetic ways. Again, the book is mostly a comedy adventure. They turned it into a action-adventure film with as much comedy as is required to release the tension. Example. Thorin and company come across some trolls. In the book, they capture all the dwarves in giant sacks, but are inept and argue amongst themselves until dawn breaks and turns them into stone. In the film, Bilbo is captured, so the band attacks in force and a battle ensues (indistinguishable from the one in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)). Brief or non-existent chases in the book become ten minute set-piece thrills where things tumble around them until, miraculously, they find themselves in relative safety.
The adaptation team–Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (who directs), and Guillermo del Toro–would have done better to listen to the BBC radio adaptation of The Hobbit and go from there. But the team failed to capture the tone of the book half as well as the BBC. The constant fights and chases play a large part as does the continued use of Howard Shore‘s score from The Lord of the Rings films. The Lord of the Rings is a sweeping epic covering a great deal of time and space where characters we love are endangered and some even die. The Hobbit is a romp where violence is present (and treated maturely) but always somewhere in the background and is something to be avoided. That, I think, requires a different musical scope than sighing strings or twittering pipes.
What the Shore music shows above all is that Jackson was more interested in building a franchise than adapting The Hobbit. When it came out that The Hobbit would be made into two and then three films, there was plenty of suspicion about motive ($$$). I was inclined to believe that this was simply the hallmark of a true fanatic who wanted to weave the story behind and underneath The Hobbit, which is well-founded insofar as the Necromancer is concerned, into a full vision. Fair enough. But he made some major gaffs. First, Radagast is no hippy stoner. Second, Azog is not following Thorin west of the Misty Mountains. Third, Thorin and Company don’t ride stone giants (and then pine trees!) like Bond characters. Even given the time or inclination, a full catalog could be made and it would be considerable. Doubtless, Wikipedia will do the honors.
That leads to the central question. Why make changes? The Necromancer is found in other materials and is alluded to in The Hobbit and therefore is only an enhancement, bringing it in as a corollary. Azog and the historical context–The Fellowship of the Ring wants its introduction back–which was not even accurate to the backstory, needlessly harmed the film.
First, and worst, example. In the film, Azog with wargs chase down Thorin and company as they leave the Misty Mountains. The chase ends with the company climbing trees to get out of their grasp. After the trees are pushed down on one another like dominos, the company is consolidated into a single tree hanging precariously off a cliff (of course). Thorin climbs up to the cliff and in a wind-swept, sweaty rage engages with Azog and gets knocked unconscious. Bilbo then climbs and intervenes at the exact time (of course) to save Thorin’s life. In the book, Bilbo doesn’t have his first real physical engagement until Mirkwood forest when he’s on his own. It’s perhaps the most pivotal moment in the book for Bilbo’s character development. Instead of playing a long game and actually using three movies in which to construct Bilbo’s character (which would have been awesome), they decided that one movie (in fact, half a movie) was enough to flesh him out, making future moments mere plot.
Another example. Thorin and company stay in a cave for the night and are captured by goblins (orcs), taken to the goblin king, who is then killed by Gandalf in a blast of light, then Bilbo is separated from them in the escape. In the film, they get to the cave, Bilbo is about to leave (in a monologue excruciatingly head-on explanation of internal conflict) when they are dropped through a trap door, then Bilbo duels a goblin, falls, the dwarves are taken to the goblin king, Gandalf arrives and a huge (huge!) fight and chase ensues, and they all get out and happen upon one another outside. Logic: we have this huge sequence in mind, but Bilbo couldn’t possibly keep up, so we’ll drop him earlier and they’ll meet up again at some point. You got an enormous set-piece, CGI sequence and seemingly lose nothing, right? No. What you lose, and we lost it from the first moment, is a story by Bilbo about Bilbo. Thus, we lost the charm and innocence of the story and the central manner in which an audience can connect with the film. This is why they had to spell out, through dialogue, any and all characterization and themes of the movie. CGI comes and goes, but emotion and nuance makes a film stand the test of time.
Okay, one last difference made for self-serving reasons. You may recall that in The Two Towers (2002), Gandalf is on the roof and mutters to a butterfly who then summons an eagle. In this film, Thorin and company are trapped in a tree, so Gandalf does the self same thing. The purpose of this is entirely to create a connection between the films. In the book, the eagles are giant and they speak. They save Thorin and company because they are on the side of good and want to stick a talon in the eye of the goblins. The book does two things there. First, it creates a deeper world with sentient creatures with separate agenda. Second, it makes the journey that much more fortuitous while bridging two moments in the story. What the film does is make it look like a mere contrivance. Throughout the book, Bilbo has a lot of near-misses and chance happenings. These translate into character development as Bilbo becomes increasingly confident in his skill and judgment.
On a single viewing, it appears that the film is poorly constructed. As they added external elements (or embellishments, as they may call them), they convoluted the storytelling. In its current form, it is the work of a person with a deficit of attention. They spring from tangent to tangent. Not only that, but the tangents are weak and without the kind of tension you might find in a television series that juggles story lines. If I knew anything about it, this is where I would juxtapose Game of Thrones (2011-), but I don’t so I won’t. In any case, it is poorly done as to story. The same is true of character. This trilogy is built around three characters–Thorin, Bilbo, and Gandalf. For the first film, this works just as well as the story juggle–not very well. Luckily, they have three excellent actors rather than four dubious screenwriters corrupting a perfect piece of fiction. But that will not overcome actual character moments given to Bilbo juxtaposed with wind-swept poses for Thorin and worried looks from Gandalf.
It is crystal clear that had they decided to make a single movie, exclusively from Bilbo’s perspective, with the same tone as the book, they would have had an infinitely better film. Then, instead of mixing the ingredients, Jackson could have made another film called The Necromancer which linked with hints dropped in The Hobbit just as Tolkien had done.