I’ve been nervous about seeing The Hobbit since I saw this passage in Anthony Lane’s review:
Instead, before Bilbo stumbles upon the ring, we see it slip from Gollum’s safekeeping, tumble in refulgent slow motion, and, on impact, give a resounding clang. (If Jackson ever films “Othello,” wait for Desdemona’s handkerchief to hit the ground like a sheet of tin.)
When you adapt a classic, it’s tempting to engage in fanservice (“Hey, look! It’s this moment! The one you love!”). There’s a similar problem on Broadway when a really famous actress has a meaty part, and everyone just stops the show to applaud her first entrance. I hate this. That moment may be exciting for you, but it’s not momentous for the character, so spotlighting it just distances you from the people that you ostensibly love. This was one of the unfortunately many problems I had with The Hobbit.
But, first, let me just say that Martin Freeman is excellent as Bilbo. He’s wonderful in just the same way he’s marvelous as Watson in Sherlock (which you should really really watch). His face is so expressive; his reactions are small but deeply felt. Every time he’s in a shot, you’re immediately emotionally engaged (unlike the repeated shots of Thorin gazing out past us mournfully while his hair billows).
The problem starts right at the beginning, when it’s over a half hour before we get to see Hobbit-aged Bilbo. LotR-aged Bilbo first narrates the story of Smaug’s attack on the Lonely Mountain, the fall of the dwarves, and their exile, with a number of digressions. (And then, for some reason, we watch him and Frodo set up for the party that kicks off LotR. Again, fanservice, not what the characters care about most if they were narrating this to us).
Spending so much time on not-our-protagonist is weird. If Jackson really thought it was necessary to frontload all this exposition (and I think it would have been fine if the dwarves had just told Bilbo at the dinner party, without visuals of people hiding from dragon fire), I would have preferred that there be a different film style here. Something more stylized like the story of the three brothers in the Deathly Hallows film (which was still plenty evocative).
That makes it clear that this is history-verging-on-lore, but isn’t equivalent to our now-story. In The Hobbit, these battle scenes look the same as later ones involving our new protags, which mutes the importance of the battles we’re seeing unfold in the present.
Oh, and another annoying thing about the overlong introduction? It featured a lot of anvils about Thror’s gold-sicknesss. I recently reread the book, and I don’t remember this theme being hit this heavily, this early there. Plus, the warnings are really hamhanded (people looking down disapprovingly as Thror gazes rapturously at the gold, running back into danger to just be near it, etc).
One thing that’s great about the book is that this problem doesn’t become as pronounced until the quest is over, or at least the part we thought of as the main quest. It’s in the moment of relaxation and triumph that things start to get warped. Think of it as the scouring of the Shire moment, where even though we’re heroes now, we still have to return to the grubby work of rooting out evil at home.
And we’ve spent the whole book with the noble Thorin, so his gold-sickness creeps up on us, and makes us wonder whether he’s actually being unreasonable and how much this really counts as a fault. It’s a perversion of the things we’ve admired about him: his pride, loyalty, and determination. It reminds me a lot of the vignettes in The Great Divorce, where loving some good thing can distract you from loving the Good. But we’re losing the way sin sneaks up on you, with the cartoonish greed of Thror setting the tone.
Also, if the plot was so stretched out over three movies that Jackson felt the need to invent a new antagonist (an Orc who apparently has a yen to wipe out Thorin’s line), maybe you should have just stuck with the actual antagonists and cut the movie shorter! Spoiler alert: this extraneous villain isn’t even killed in this movie, so presumably we’ll keep having him pop up until the Battle of Five Armies. Oy.
And, it wasn’t just the existence of the character that teed me off. Jackson kept cutting to him and his compatriots so we could see that they were still tracking the dwarves and still intended to kill them when they caught up. I believe you that he’s still coming! I don’t need to keep cutting away to check!
The Hobbit is mostly third person limited. We don’t witness things that Bilbo doesn’t see, and I would understand if the movie wanted to expand the limited point of view to include the entire company, so there’s not so much recapping whenever Bilbo is separated or concussed. But that still wouldn’t justify including useless scenes like these.
It takes us away from the characters to tell them about a danger they’re not aware of. Why do we need to know this? Why can’t we find out with the characters we’re travelling with? I suspect it’s because Jackson threw in enough random encounters (why are there stone giants in the mountains throwing stones for the dwarves to dodge?), that we wouldn’t be able to tell this fight is significant without signposting. But that’s a weakness, not a justification.
Oh, and while I’m complaining about inapproptiate shifts away from the main storyline…
As pretty much every reviewer has said, the riddling confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum is the best scene. It’s small, intimate, and tense. So why on earth do we cut away at it’s conclusion to a lengthy scene of the dwarves fighting the goblins?
The contrast is not a good one. In the Bilbo/Gollum scene, the stakes are clear: miss a question, get eaten, but in the long sequence of dwarves bowling over goblins, there’s not a single moment where the company’s safety is in doubt. The slaughter starts to feel as boring and time consuming as vaccuming. The Bilbo/Gollum scene has emotional beats and the audience is aware of the strategies of both players. The goblins-dwarves fight is more like a Rube Goldberg machine, where the wooden platforms careen and collapse, but neither side makes very much tactical use of the ground on which they’re fighting.
Without this cutaway, as the story unfolds in the book, the tension doesn’t dissipate after Bilbo wins the riddle game. Instead, he’s stealthily, invisibly tracking Gollum through the tunnels, hoping he’ll find a way out. Now, he doesn’t even have the luxury of a direct confrontation, with defined rules, he’s trying to make sense of his new circumstances on the fly.
And I’ve saved the most frustrating thing for last. In the books, the dwarves are skeptical of Bilbo, but they grow to trust him as he stalwartly sticks by them and turns out to be clever and stealthy. But, in the movie, the big turning point for them is when Bilbo grabs his sword and fights off a warg that is menacing an unconscious Thorin. (Note, the fact that Bilbo is capable of holding off a warg pretty much makes them unscary for the rest of the trilogy).
The exciting thing is that the dwarves learn that there are other kinds of strength than that of a warrior, and, in the first movie, they don’t learn that lesson. Bilbo matches what they see as virtue, instead of expanding their idea of what courage looks like. That also means that Bilbo is changing to fit a new model, instead of being all the best parts of himself, amplified.
Grump grump grump.
At least I got to take out my frustration on our Necromancer.
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