The Hobbit— Part One: Darkness Creeps into Middle Earth

By now, if you have not been living in a hole in the ground, you will know that the Hobbit is the prequel to the Lord of the Rings. You may also know that it has been vivisected into three segments… the first of which Peter Jackson has entitled ‘An Unexpected Journey’. Here’s where I tell you the journey takes some two hours and 46 minutes. This is not a children’s film, I repeat not a children’s film, and not just because of its length. There are in addition so many scary video game like scenes with orcs and trolls and goblins, and so much violence in the middle of the film that frankly it’s not appropriate for small children. And this is really too bad because ‘the Hobbit’ was and is at heart a children’s story, which to some extent makes it different from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I was having an exchange with my good friend Richard Bauckham about the review I have done of Devin Brown’s book The Christian World of the Hobbit. I tend to agree with him that Brown has read too much theology into the Hobbit, and here is where I say that Peter Jackson has read back too much Lord of the Rings into the movie the Hobbit. Apart from the wonderful opening segment in Hobbiton where the dwarves are introduced in the house of Bilbo Baggins with the help of Gandalf, very little of what follows is upbeat enough, friendly enough, or violence free enough to make this a whole family film. At least Jackson doesn’t read back into the telling of the Hobbit thus far Bilbo’s later obsession with the ring.

What should we think of the casting? On this score the film is excellent. Martin Freeman makes for an excellent young Bilbo and plays his part well. The dwarves are visually humorous and have their moments as well but apart from Thorin Oxenshield their characters are not yet fully developed. Too much time is spent running away from orcs and the like and too little time on character revelations. Those who reprise old roles such as Cate Blanchette and Ian McKellen and Hugo Weaving are good, but mostly, apart from McKellen, they only make all too brief cameo appearances. The scene in Rivendell could have been riveting if only developed more.

Then there is the issue of the cinematography. I saw the film in Real 3d in the 58 frames per second mode with my wife. It made the film look more like a live TV show happening in my own living room and there were moments where I was sure I was about to be squashed by a giant troll which would have been droll. The new format was alright, and I realize it is ground-breaking, but whether it is worth $10 a ticket here in Lex or more elsewhere can be debated.

And then there is the credulity factor. It is a delicate matter to balance verisimilitude on the one hand and suspending your disbelief on the other. What I mean is that there are so many scenes in this film where the heroes are falling and should have been smashed to bits, but they walk away most of the time with hardly a scratch, belying their mortal conditions. At one point when a giant troll falls on the lot of the dwarves, one of the dwarves says “you’ve got to be joking!” This is how I felt at various points in the film when our heroes appeared to be far too indestructible and not very vulnerable. One of the major themes of the film namely ‘that it takes more courage and wisdom to know when to spare a life than when to take one’ should have led to less video game violence in the film. The theme does however come properly to light in the most dramatic encounter in the film.

The important scene where Bilbo finds the ring and encounters Gollum, complete with riddling game is very good. It is not rushed, and of course it is singularly important to the later story in the Ring trilogy. Gollum/ Smeagal here is still the split personality creature, not yet wholly gone over to the dark side of his being. And importantly we see various scenes where Bilbo is courageous in various ways, striving to save and spare lives rather than take them.

Of course it is not fair to judge the first part of a three part film as if it were the whole shebang. In my view things would have gotten off to a better start by: 1) editing down the film so it is shorter, and 2) editing out the repetitive scenes especially under the earth in goblin land…., and 3) bringing in some lighter touches like the story of Tom Bombadil, a very pleasant character indeed. As Bilbo himself would say— you can’t tell whether an adventure is bad or good until you see how it turns out. Well, we’ve gone ‘there’ but not ‘back again’ yet (‘there’ being Erebor where the dwarves used to have a home). So we must abide our souls in patience and see what revelations happen in part two next summer.

  • Oscar

    I’m not as excited about seeing the Hobbit movie as I was The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve read The Hobbit only once and deemed it a pleasant children’s tale, but TLOTR I read 7 times! I’ve also watched the DVD quite a few times, but I have to comment that it loses attraction upon each viewing because of Jackson’s peculiar take on some of the characters.

    For the life of me I cannot understand WHY it would take three movies, 6 to 8 hours, to tell a much shorter, and much simpler, story. I’ll shell out the $14 for the Real #D and 48 frames per second version, but only because it is The Hobbit, NOT because of the tech involved.

  • Ben Witherington

    Oscar there will be parts of the current movie I think you will really enjoy, especially Martin Freeman’s characterization. But it’s not just the Hobbit we are getting, apparently in film 2 or 3 we will get some of the Silmarillion which is great.

    Merry Christmas,

    Ben

  • http://southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com yankeegospelgirl

    Big Martin Freeman fan here. I’m going just for him, frankly.

  • http://!! Oscar

    The Silmarillion! Now THAT is good news indeed! Now I’m intrigued…

  • Chip

    A small correction based upon what I’ve read, Ben: Jackson has no rights to do anything with The Silmarillion. (If I’m wrong, I’ll be happy.) What he has done, as announced even before filming started, is sprinkle parts of the appendixes from LOTR throughout the films. He wants to tell not just the story from The Hobbit, but at least part of the story of the years intervening between The Hobbit and LOTR as well. I suppose that if he found a place to put it in, he could also throw in the story of Beren and Luthien as told by Aragorn in LOTR (but not the fuller story from The Silmarillion if what I read is correct).

    And to my mind, that explains your criticism that he’s more in a LOTR mindset than a Hobbit mindset. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve been concerned about that since the first trailer came out; I thought that it looked too dark for The Hobbit. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Sam Raimi direct The Hobbit (he was considered for the job back in 2007 or 2008), as I thought his Spiderman films (particularly the first two) showed that he could capture a lightness of tone that would fit The Hobbit.

    I was dismayed when Jackson announced he was making two films out of The Hobbit; one three-hour movie would have been more than enough to cover the book. It didn’t surprise me a few months back when they expanded it to a trilogy because they shot so much additional material from the appendixes.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I just saw it this afternoon in 2D, 24 frame rate instead of the 3D 48 (not 58) frame rate. I enjoyed it immensely and didn’t feel like it was too long at all (it did not feel like nearly 3 hours to me).

    As Chip said, as far as I know Jackson does not have right to The Silmarillion, only the LOTR appendices which include events that took place during the Hobbit (including Gandalf’s meetings with the White Council about the threat of the Necromancer/Sauron).

    Personally, I love that Jackson is tying this together with LOTR, which I think is in the spirit of Tolkien.. In fact Tolkien himself updated The Hobbit in later editions to tie it to the LOTR series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hobbit#Revisions

    Also, Tom Bombadil is a LOTR character and doesn’t appear in The Hobbit.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Chip and Kenny: First of all my point about Tom Bombadil is that since Jackson left him out of LOTR and has the rights to use the character, he should do so. Secondly, Tolkien did not revise the Hobbit in any way that turned it into the LOTR junior. It was still a children’s story and not nearly as dark as part of LOTR. Thirdly, you said nothing about the interminably battling which never really results in anything… either the defeat of some particular evil group or any serious loss to our heroes. It is indeed like a video game. It is more like Peter Jackson’s also too long treatment of King Kong. As for the Silmarillion, note that a Tolkien was there at the premiere in Wellington and there has been talk about Jackson being able to use some of that stuff. BW3

  • Kenny Johnson

    But don’t those battles exist in The Hobbit novel as well? The orc chase is drawn out longer, but the troll fight, Goblin battle and the fight with the Wargs/Orcs at the end are all directly from the book — with the same results — no one in the party dies. So the complaint should be towards Tolkien not the screenwriters.

    I don’t want to give anything away to those who have not read the book — but lets just say that in the end, unless Jackson changes the story dramatically, this criticism of “no serious loss” won’t be an issue.

  • Chip

    Yeah, King Kong could have been improved by greatly shortening the first third (the interminable pre-Skull Island story) and, conversely, adding a little bit more to the final third (the New York sequence, which ran by too quickly, I thought). Since Jackson by his own admission loved the Kong story far more than LOTR (and Kong had been a pre-LOTR pet project of his), he may have been too close to it to see its need for editing.

    I’d love to see you right, Ben, about The Silmarillion. In interviews from both months ago and as recently as five days ago (in The Wall Street Journal), Jackson has repeatedly said he does not have the rights and that the Tolkien estate currently is dead set against making them available. He thinks they’ll change on that point someday, but past the time when he’d be able and/or willing to make films of them.

  • Ben Witherington

    Kenny the graphic visual imagery, including beheadings (which are even presented as comic at one point) makes the Hobbit’s tell of those battle scenes seem whimpy. And there was a reason why Tolkien pulled his punches with that stuff—– he wanted children to read the story without getting nightmares. The critique has to do with: 1) the extending of the battle portrayals, and 2) whether it’s appropriate for small children who read children’s story. On both counts Jackson has over done it. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy a great deal of the film, like the character of the ‘woods’ wizard and racing rabbits. But there was not enough of that stuff. BW3

  • http://perspectivecriticism.com Gary Yamasaki

    Ben, I am wondering if the “point-of-view” problems in the film were a cause of distraction for you. Jackson begins the movie indicating in no uncertain terms that what following is Bilbo’s account of events 60 years early, thus setting up the viewers to expect everything that follows to be depicting Bilbo’s point of view. Jackson succeeds in doing so for the first third of the movie, but then starts slipping up by showing scenes from other characters’ points of view (e.g. the pack of orcs surveilling the band as they make camp for a night at about the 50:00 mark). Probably the most egregious example of this is in the scene where the band encounters the goblins, with Bilbo falling into a cave, but the camera staying with the dwarves and goblins for 4 minutes of screen time instead of following Bilbo into the cave for his point of view during this time. Ordinarily, shifts in point of view like this are no big deal (they happen all the time), but because Jackson begins the movie by showcasing the fact the tale is going to be from Bilbo’s point of view, maintaining that point of view becomes a big deal here.

  • Larry Teasley

    You make good points, Ben. I agree that the cameos were less than satisfying. And the scene of the council in Rivendell could have been better developed. Sauraman’s treachery was just beginning to appear. Still, it was good to be back among the folk of Middle Earth. Now to wait for part 2. “And the road goes ever on and on.”

  • Jonas

    I know The Hobbit was originally targeted at children back in the 1930′s. However, by today’s standards, the book has an 8th grade reading level according to Scholastic . So, I think it is fair to say that the PG-13 violence is appropriate. Seems to me there are not too many elementary school children reading the Hobbit these days.

    Regarding the suspension of disbelief, I felt the way the Goblin King died was very odd. Other than that, I can accept the rest of the stretches a fantasy-action movie may take.


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