1: I saw this last night (2D/24fps) and here are my notes
2: which is to say SPOILERS and DO NOT READ IF YOU HATE MORE FvCKING ELVES and ABANDON DIGNITY ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE and — above all — BEWARE THE CAVE TROLL IN THE ROOM
3: bcz, in the sense that at the end I very much wanted straight away to be watching the next ep I clearly liked this one, despite there being plenty wrong with it also
4: anyway I am largely going to write a DEFENCE of the plot-changes (and reserve the main critique for stuff PJ also got wrong in the LotR trilogy?)
5: And it is very rough and note-form bcz Silmarillion
Let’s set out the main issues.
a: a film of a book is like a cover of a song — a reworking, a conversation, an ARGUMENT, hence the collision of rival sensibilities, where differences and variations are less failings than clues and indeed content
b: anyone who makes a film of his works has explicit concrete beef with Tolk, who firmly argued (in On Fairy Stories) that cinema cannot do fantasy, a point he hammers away on at some length. The dragons of stage and cinema cannot, claimed Tolkien, possibly enchant (JRRT hated the rival Ring-cycle — some say he wrote LotR as a corrective — so possibly did not go see Fritz Lang’s two-part silent-movie version, feat.FAFNER, who we cannot BUT adore today, soooo cuuuuute, except judging by “On Fairy Stories” Tolk wd have curled his lip mightily).
c: so this is someting — “enchantment” in Tolk’s sense — that PJ is hot to prove cinema can too provide. But straight away there’s a glitch. Tolkien never goes for full-on undiluted enchantment — he moves to it (and out of it) from its deflationary opposite, which is to say, from his sense of the absurd; his sense of humour. The EPIC is wound into the matter-of-fact everyday, the two not so much clashing as juxtaposing, irresolvable opposites underscoring both the necessity and the inadequacy of their counterpart. (Tolk was soft on elves and the causes of elves, but he knew that i. he was not an elf, and ii. nor were any of his readers — that in fact for one to imagine one was an elf, let alone to live as an elf, would drive one actually mad, were it not already prior proof of madness mad… Hobbitry is there to keep the books sane; elves and dragons, dwarves and orcs, trolls and spiders and wizards provide adventure, the escape from the staid timid wryly self-aware self etc etc.)
d: but PJ’s sense of humour is very much NOT Tolk’s, which ensures the tone of the book was probably never going to be a viewing option. Partly because verbal humour is not cinematic; partly because JRRT’s dry narrational irony is very early-20th-century upper-middle-class English donnish, and doesn’t easily travel. Indeed plenty of people are massively allergic to it. PJ favours a much more circus-like humour — amazing acrobatic stunts and broad-clownish pratfalls. These of course are paradigmatically visual, but allow of little observational content. Tolkien isn’t Jane Austen, to be sure, but his wit (when it emerges) is amusedly social. PJ hands this entire element over to Martin Freeman and his face. Which is by no means a terrible decision, since Freeman turns out to be a great comic actor and deflationary straightman…
e: … and I very much liked Freeman’s reading of Bilbo, though it departs (as the script requires it to) some way from the book’s portrait. However, here we have to ask HOW SERIOUSLY IS THE BOOK’S PORTRAIT OF BILBO TO BE TAKEN. Recall: Bilbo is the AUTHOR of The Hobbit (or give or take translational shenanigans the book that The Hobbit is “based on”), and the source of its tone and humour and perspective and attitude and insight into the events at hand. He is NOT a reliable narrator, as LotR establishes more than once (not least since he’s the Ringbearer, which eats into openness and honesty; but he’s a talespinner and embellisher by temperament). Also cf “The Quest for Erebor” in Unfinished Tales: where (post Sauron’s fall and Elessar’s crowning) Gandalf tells his version to the gathered Hobbits in Minas Tirith: Gandalf says outright that not only did Bilbo seem utterly “fatuous” to the Dwarves, who were quite angry with the wizard — suspicious and prickly as ever, they thought he was poking fun at them — but he was quite unaware of what a ridiculous figure he was cutting. But nevertheless Gandalf was correct in this seemingly daft hunch and gamble (though he did not really know why). Some of this is — somewhat heavy-handedly — sketched in in the film, at various points: particularly Gandalf’s sense of both certainty and puzzlement — why Bilbo? Why a hobbit at all? IT MAKES NO SENSE… but when asked directly he is so caught up in the puzzle that he is unaware of Galadriel TOTES vamping him, the massive witchy minx. In fact a strength (I would argue) of PJ’s version is that Gandalf’s unreliablity — or anyway anxious fallibity — is very much retained from the The Hobbit, where Gandalf (from Bilbo’s shrewd POV) is simply a different kind of character to the towering, wise, masterful figure he becomes in LotR: viz a bit of a vain show-off, who likes praise and etc (indeed The Hobbit is often fairly catty about him). If Gandalf is certain that the destiny of Middle Earth needs Bilbo, but isn’t at all clear why, then Bilbo presumably bring perspective and insight to the story, perspective and insight that Gandalf by himself can’t deliver, despite his being wise and ancient and from the West and etc. And yet Bilbo (in The Hobbit = his book about himself) enjoys telling the tale his way — which includes presenting a somewhat mocking and sillified portrait of himself. In fact the film and Martin Freeman take Bilbo a lot more seriously than he does himself.
f: anyway my suggestion here is that, once you have bought into the post-LotR retcon of the Ring*, as a SIGNIFICANT ITEM OF POWER in VERY BIG STORY INDEED, then you are not only entitled but somewhat enjoined to recast the tale of the book through the lens of subsequent Tolkien development and evolution. Not only are several backstories (historical-genealogical) and blanks on the map (geographical-political) irrevocably filled in, but all kinds of balances and shifts take place, in meaning and perspective, that would significantly clash with unadorned Bilbo-POV and OG Hobbit tone. There’s an issue of scale — you can move from Hobbit to LotR to LotR-embedded-in-Appendices and etc to Silmarillion, but it’s much harder (I think actually impossible) to move coherently in the other direction. Having made the films in this order, PJ had three choices: just cut the links between Hobbit-world and LotR-world (but if you make this choice, you are surely required to return to the first-edition version of the Ring&Riddles section); film the quest entirely as from Bilbo’s unreliable POV (as per tone and scale); and do much as he has done — which is to say, gather together all Tolk’s writing on and discussion of and backstory towards this tale, and embed the quest-at-hand within the (much) larger story. Which necessarily balloons it enormously: Tolk’s later view of the The Hobbit (or shall we say Bilbo’s memoirs) is that they tell the story of one of the central epochal moments in the history of Middle Earth — viz the unexpected and unprecedented passing of the One Ring to the Halfling — only from Bilbo’s own extremely limited, ignorant and sare we say somewhat self-satisfied POV. (Or rather, so I’m arguing, this is Gandalf’s view…) *
*(In the first edition of The Hobbit, Bilbo wins the ring — no more than a minor if useful conjuring device — from Gollum by winning the riddling game)
**(The unavoidable problem with the question “Is it true to Tolkien” is: Tolkien when? He changed his mind. He rewrote. He switched modes — The Silmarillion may be his best known later work but it’s probably his least loved: his actual best later books are the two very small ones, Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wootton Major: both books more in Bilbo comical mode than Gandalf the Grand mode.)
g: So anyway PJ opted for the third option in f., for good or ill artistically. What it’s not is a betrayal of JRRT (exceopt insofar as ANY film was always going to be), or of Bilbo’s “actual” character (as opposed to his character as variously perceived and delineated). And of course in key ways it plays to PJ’s strengths. In particular, his immense capacity for taking pains with mise-en-scene detail: his fealty to Tolkien’s world-building (invention of no less than five languages etc) is a vast feat of world-building via backdrops, props, costumes, settings, vistas and so on. And it’s on his rendering of these — settings like levels in a computer game, the effect of their succession, which we’re only a third through — that his translation of Tolkien stands or falls. He really can do stunning; and he can also do well-timed clownish deflationary absurd. So what does he get right and what does he get wrong?
1: The framing device at the start is opaque, to say the least: we see Bilbo and Frodo, during the preparations to the Party, and Bilbo writing up this tale, and saying something about finally telling all of it. Why does PJ feel he needs this? To hook us back into his LotR trilogy? (At most it reminds us that we’re going to need to hook ourselves back into LotR: newbies will surely be quite baffled.) Or to hip us to the idea that Bilbo was the author of The Hobbit, and what we’re going to be seeing is the REAL STORY (not his amusing because deflating, and somewhat misleading version). This makes more sense intellectually, but still doesn’t actually justify the device in terms of stand-alone storytelling. Because basically it’s quite boring and takes way too long, and…
2: … PJ’s version of the Shire continues to be annoyingly dreadful, mimsy faux-celtic cartoon rusticana. Bearing in mind that the Scouring was never filmed — so the Shire as a whole doesn’t get to redeem itself (on film) the way Bilbo and the Four Fellowship Hobbits of course do, demonstrating that their soft silliness as a culture (©Thorin) is actually a virtue. Fundamentally, the Shire is once again a bad place to start, and (as with LotR-on-film) Hobbit-on-film doesn’t pick up speed till its first party.
3: The Dwarves. OK, I loved em, comical haircuts, strong characterisation, non-Hobbity sensibility. What PJ has to pull off is a longish comic scene with an undertow of mysterious romance: the second is done more with cutaways than dwarves telling amazing tales in your front room, but this is a movie. Tolk doesn’t bring much vividness that I can recall to Dwalin, Oin, Ori and Nori or Bifur and Bofur. (Dori is decent and hangs back to help Bilbo several times; Balin is older than the others and warm and friendly to Bilbo soonest; Fili and Kiii are the youngest and come as a cheerful pair; Thorin is Thorin; Bombur is fat and doesn’t like being last). Here I ended up with no clear memory of Oin, Nori and Bofur — though I think one of them uses a child’s catapult? (Gloin is pre-established, as Gimli’s dad at Rivendell in LotR1). Thorin is actually probably the least satisfactory recharacterisation: whereas in Tolkien he’s generally like a mini-Gandalf in manner, perhaps a little haughtier, here he’s more proto-Boromir, a proud and stubborn and patriotic warrior (he even sounds somewhat Beany). But of course the script and the screen demand that at least some of the dwarves be capable warriors. (Dour Dwalin with his tattooed head I loved.)
4: Moria backstory — very flubbed and bludged in this retelling, for questionable reasons. Maybe this will all be clearer in the Director’s Cut, but if I was unable to distinguish Thorin’s grandad Thror from Thorin’s dad Thrain in these flashbacks, then newbies are surely going to be totally baffled. Azog is introduced, but merely wounded by Thorin, rather than — cf LotR Appendix B — decisively killed by Thorin’s second cousin the young Dain Ironfoot. (I accept that the original backstory is unnecessarily complicated for speed-read exposition: but this substitute backstory currently remains way too cloudy, I’d say… ) (Will more emerge about Thrain in Hobbit 2: Electric Boogollum, and how Gandalf got the map and the key from him as a prisoner in in Dol Guldur? Other current rewrites seem to clash with this a little: see below.)
5: Getting Bilbo out of the house. He motivates himself here: he wakes happy that the horrible dwarves have all gone, then gradually realises he’s missed the chance of adventure and wants it. Gandalf chivvying him out of the house removes Bilbo’s agency to comic effect, but PJ wants a less omniscient wizard. I don’t object to this change — in fact I think it’s a good one, if cheeky.
6: The Mockney Foodie Trolls (or Jamie Trollivers if you will). Less verbal slapstick, more physical; more Bilbo-ish agency, less Gandalf. This is a stand-alone scene anyway — PJ amps up the grisly nastiness, which Tolk only really hints at.
7: Several significant cut-and-paste rearrangements ahoy. Goblins and Wargs abroad in Eriador, and Radagast also, having made a discover the book-Gandalf makes some 90 years earlier, that something is afoot in Dol Guldur. The White Council meeting in Rivendell: eg Galadriel and Saruman brought into the story. (They weren’t in The Hobbit at all, but they ARE in LotR’s Appendix B “The Tale of the Years” and Unfinished Tales‘s “The Quest for Erebor”. Basically material from the other side of the Misty Mountains (meaning from Hobbit 2?) is introduced in Hobbit 1; as is material from long before the start of The Hobbit (viz the fuller Necromancer stuff). All this is brought in as current action (rather than being deployed as flashbacks). Given that an expansion of the Dol Guldur story is more than somewhat necessary to justify Galdalf’s vanishment during the entire middle of the quest I don’t begrudge PJ most of this cut-and-paste per se (though not all of it has been well written). Each part of the film has to stand alone in terms of dynamics (which has not really been achieved in Hobbit1), but the whole trilogy must also knit and cohere in respect of dynamics: this is sufficient rationale for the changes, whether or not they actually work. The Goblin-Dwarf war, for example, has become a personal long-running Azog-Thorin grudge match — but the latter is perhaps cinematic where the former is just lots more talking or even more longer birds-eye-view flashbacks.
8: As for the presence of goblins and wolves west of the mountains, well, there’s precedent in the Hobbit (Golfimbul etc); and who — aside from Trolls — were the Rangers patrolling against? Aragorn’s dad was killed by orcs somewhere round here, while patrolling with Elrond’s sons, just ten years before the start of the story. We are after all “beyond the edge of the wild”. On a technical structural level, the Azog hunting band somewhat undermines what would otherwise be the first appearance of Goblins, as primarily an underground people who dislike the sun. But it helps set that Goblins are on the rise all across the north — which is the deep backstory of Gandalf’s worry about the dragon teaming up with Sauron, and the rise to joined-up govt of the Shadow. (Except of course the film’s timing of Necromancer-anxiety now somewhat messes this deeper worry up, since Radagast only brings first news to Gandalf of new happenings in Dol Guldur after the Quest begins )
9: As many readers will crossly recall, Radagast is a character hugely underused by Tolkien. I loved loved loved PJ’s expansion here — almost worth the price of entry on its own. And the “Blue Wizards” joke deftly put the ball home I think: Tolk left his goal wide open here.
10: Rivendell. Ugh. The tone was wrong in LotR and it’s still wrong (even though I abstractly admire the care that’s gone into the look of it, all the Arts & Crafts curlicues and such… ). Elrond remains a dud as a character: Jackson just can’t work out what he wants to do with him, and the four-person White Council becomes a three-hander (or actually two two-handers: Gandalf vs Saruman and Galadriel ♥ Gandalf.) I enjoyed the mutual elf-dwarf disaffection and wariness.
11: The Stone-Giants. They’re there in the book, deal with it.
12: The Goblin set-piece was fine really, half ugly danger, half slapstick. This is exactly what you hire PJ for, and in a cartoon (or Pirates of the Caribbean) you wouldn’t blink an eye at any of it. As the Barnet Ape pointed out, neither orcs nor elves are big on guard-rails. ELF AND SAFETY: yes I went there.
13: Gollum. I actually thought this section was superb — a better rendition (and root for) of Smeagol’s split personality than LotR managed. The predator — faced with a version of himself, rather than orc or fish — suddenly caught between piercing lonely memories of times long ago, and immediate greedy hunger (especially as he’d just eaten). This doubleness has sanction in the text, stretching a point (he remembers riddlegames with his grandmother, and the sun on the daisies).
14: and let’s close there, in anticipation of part 2, just noting the following. LotR and The Hobbit are both books (importantly) about the drama and dialectics of scale: scale of geography, scale of event, scale of personality, scale of morality, even scale of mortality. What role can small persons play in the gale of the world? And PJ is also wrestling with just these problems, in a very different medium, with a whole bunch of legacy conundra from his earlier trilogy, and from the specific nature of his fealty to Tolkien. I don’t think he get everything right by any means — and I’m agnostic on the worthwhileness of the whole exercise. Beyond the fact that I enjoyed watching it, and have enjoyed thinking about it.