FIRST OF ALL: look away now, there be massive spoilers in this discussion.
SECOND OF ALL: look away now if you are Christopher Tolkien, nothing here will lift yr spirits.
THIRD OF ALL: look away now if you routinely despise Tolkien and all works, viz elves, fantasy lit, slapstick CGI, etc.
<– note for slowpokes, this doesn't happen in this film, it's just a picture i like a lot
The Hobbit is a not-very-long book for children which takes a small person with big private dreams out into a very large world, in which said person is able to demonstrate his value to others, and that (to nearly everyone's astonishment) he is a wise and resourceful fellow to have around, in some quite unexpected ways, who hides much of this behind a mask of semi-deliberate silliness (except sometimes the mask is the face: ppl who play at silliness for whatever reason get into the habit of silliness).
Nevertheless, it is about the foolishness of the mighty (elf-kings, dwarf-kings, goblin-kings and such) and what the actual real treasures in this world are (eg food and fellowship in a hard place >>>> rivers of gold and bouts of splendour). It is dryly funny in the hard-to-replicate manner of a long-bygone age. It husbands its action scenes and terrors: a smallish tale deliberately made up longish passages of loneliness and stress, interspersed with terrors and feasts. It does a surprisingly effective job in its small span of conjuring the laborious boredom of the large between-spaces, when you haven’t yet arrived at the dubious joy of the challenging adventure of the next level: enchanted river, snooty elves, poisonous spiders, angry and spiteful elves, fast trackless rivers, the cold and dreary and impenetrable mountainside…
It is also a book held uneasily in the torque of a much MUCH larger project — the complete history of middle-earth and its various shadow realms. As well as a book written from the perspective of someone lowly (or shall we say from the perspective of someone who knows this lowly person well, flaws and strengths, and is amused by and affectionate towards him). It begins in a place of extremely complacent near-suburban fatuity and reaches — though not in this episode — a colossal and cat`strophic multi-racial war (dwarves, goblins, woodelves, lakemen, wolves, eagles, bear-men) (plus a hobbit and a wizard and the pervasive malice of an elder spirit of utter darkness and just possibly the wizard’s <3<3<3 bestie and secret telepathic GF… ) (plus spiders? spiders are under-utilised so far) (also radagast surely)
(sidenote: not being able to count is the book's secret comedy topic)
i: The film is a trilogy, which has been dismissed as Peter Jackson's deliberate strategy to spin things out moneywise. I think it's much more about giving the landscape and the set-pieces their due (not least the need for and fact of a vast terrible magnificent dragon). It also has to be placed within and set against the (much) larger story: an extremely ticklish exercise. In the book, a key character basically vanishes for inadequately explained reasons for the entire middle of the story — the larger project of course very much fills in these reasons, as does the fill (drawing on — not full faithfully — backstory text in various other Tolk books, meaning primarily the appendices to LotR and The Tale of Erebor in Unfinished Tales)(cf opening in Bree, as Thorin and Gandalf first meet). This backstory is a tale of elevated folks, huge stakes and vast forces (and er Radagast). To fill it in at all threatens very much to unbalance the whole: PJ's solution is to jam-pack the spaces that the original Hobbit establishes and implies, geographical and narrative, with perils and incident, pratfalls and circus-stunts and swarming foes. The per se Smowdge-Quest has higher stakes than it knows: but the folks on it are not elevated and the moment-to-moment actuality is busily helter-skelter and often enjoyably ridiculous.
ii: tl;dr this is a high-speed film which DOES NOT DO LABORIOUS BOREDOM in LARGE IMPLIED IN-BETWEEN SPACES. If anything it hurries us past its mid-space adventures a little quickly (mirkwood, spiders, bondage in elf-pokey). The middle film of LotR is a long bleak slog (which arguably detracts from the effect of the third); the middle film of the Hobbit has certainly set the finale up to be as bleak and terrible and suddenly grown-up and difficult as it wants. Defeating a dragon is difficult; but [*grown-up face*] defeating the worst in ourselves is much harder, blah blah blee.
iii: The Beleriechdel Test. Erm outside one-sentence walk-bys and generic refugee "women and children" mentioned at the Lakeside Shopping Centre, there are no women in The Hobbit the book. And there are strong and interesting solutions to this… !
iv: … but PJ’s solution is a bit terrible — he can’t after all bring in Hobbit-women or dwarf-women without going deliriously off-piste. He feels he needs to fill out the elf-world (and jigsaw it a little into what will follow). So he takes the backstory fact that the Elf-King — a fellow called Thranduil, though we don’t learn this in The Hobbit the book — has a son called Legoland, and gives Legoland much to do: to do as foil and princeling of side-eye for Thranduil’s many dickish decisions (this is fair enough, in a film a character whose decisions have big consequence needs someone to justify them to); and to do as a lusty young elfperson in his [colossal age here]-yr-old prime. He gets to
do date pal out v.actively with !!!!Tauriel!!!!! Who is a girl-woodelf of high ninja gift and hott lookability. (It’s a movie; she’s an elf: what did you expect?)
Ev But this raises new problems. WoodElves in The Hobbit The Book are basically a one-level adventure/peril — by which I mean that, despite repeat appearance, their threat to the mission is always contained; the dwarf-elf relationship need only be sketched at specific encounters (Rivendell; the picnics; elf-pokey; the siege). But PJ (correctly, I think) needs to establish that these levels communicate with one another — that part of the larger peril that is looming (the Gandalf/Necromancer backstory) is that evil will run free through all the contained levels. That an unleashed Big Sore Ron will be the connector. The dwarves and the hobbit we seem trudging — or in the film scampering and tumbling — through all these spaces; PJ also shows that goblins and elves are — given the right/wrong motivation — also able to move between spaces. The old settled Wilderland is already very shaken up. Hence Legoland and !!!!Tauriel!!!! as mobile guerilla unit — and hence the problem; that the dwarves as a bunch (and individually) need an evolving relationship with this unit.
vi: and so to return to PJ’s terrible solution:
Aidan Turner gets to shag her the unprecedented bond between Legolas and Gimli is foreshadowed! Interracial middlearth poly snuggledom is totes broached as a thing! The whole elf vs dwarf wars thing makes much more sense if it all stems from thwarted trans-tribal lust (or at least it offsets the alternative explanation — that elves are racists and looks-snobs; while dwarves only care about gold and who’s trying to steal if from them — with something that better fits bilbo’s wide-eyed philosophy). In the relevant scene, the dwarf-gang has been split up — by a complicated set of events relating to heightened goblin mobility I think (ie I forget why one of them is near-mortally wounded and left behind in the Lakeside Shopping Centre, remind me in comments) — and so individual dwarves need individual responses. (This is something Tolk himself could handwave away: six or seven of his 13 dwarves do not really have identities, beyond very occasional lines and carefully rationed micro-interventions — (“Suddenly Dwalin sat up and opened one eye” ect ect) — but this is very much not going to work on-screen. Among 13 dwarves, of course one of them fancies the cute and capable elf-maiden! THIS DOES NOT MAKE PJ’S SOLUTION ANY LESS TERRIBLE. Or — judging by the hoots of massed laughter that went up in the cinema — any less risible. Such yuk. Very #SMH. (Of course I was delighted, what do you take me for?)
vii: Much more than LotR, the Hobbit the story is a story of the encounters of peoples. Resting the entirety of the valency of one such encounter on one threesome is a blunder.
viii: It’s time to list the various smaller blunders and oddities, isn’t it? “Bilbo what keen eyes you have!” as the hobbit indicates 1 x fvck-off massive carved staircase in the rockwall. Can I say Stephen Fry? Your mileage probably varies, but I am on twitter and very bored with him. He plays the Master (very) like Gumpas of the Lone Islands — all greasy cunning and calculating treachery: a gross cartoon of the bad kind of market culture, of honest honourable (hobbit-style) trade corrupted by greed and cowardice. He’s a bit obvious (but lots of the film is a bit obvious — it’s aimed at 7-yr-olds, among others — so maybe this crit is unjust). The Dol Guldur stuff STILL seems muddling to me: dropping by unexpectedly, Gandalf grasps (bcz quickly vanquished and popped into a parrot cage next to a skeleton) that his foe is
FRACTAL VADGE-MAN someone we only recognise if we’ve read/watched far beyond what we’ve seen in H1. Where was the high spooky cave in the rock meant to be that gandalf and radagast met in? (This was a strong scene somewhat thrown away, and certainly under-explained.) We still don’t know how Gandalf has Thrain’s map and key? (Pedant-wise he’s right now in the predicament that he was in 70 years ago in the book.) Sk8ta-boy Legoland!! :( :( and the entire extent to which — by expanding the story — PJ falls back on shapes that’s he’s borrowed from the (now) same-scale LotR: gandalf in chains at the baddie’s castle, a girlie warrior who pashes on the wrong person, the elfhalls as rohan, thranduil as theoden, lakeside as gondor, the proto-Moria one-ringing of the Arkenstone, as a peril delved for and won, but at WHAT COST… And the climactic get-the-dragon plan that Thorin improvised out of nowhere (his mind clicking back to boring late-night TV viewing in the Blue Mountains, and Aliens 3 being on AGAIN zzzz)???
ix: NO. I am happy to defend that whole sequence, as wild extended acrobatic comedy-cartoon action, as a development of ideas about Erebor (that it’s BIG, that once the gold ran in RIVERS, that Thorin knows it like the back of his hand but does not know till he arrives what is still there and still in working order — the forges! surprised they fled so suddenly that a giant foil-wrapped chocolate bauble of Thror was left on the production line! — and also that Thorin, as a warrior of renown but a prince in exile with only a handful of not very satisfactory companions, is FAR better at tactics improvised in the moment, warfare RIGHT HERE NOW with the terrain and items to hand (viz “Oakenshield”!) than he is at plans and strategies and thinking ahead in intelligent wisdom. He has REALLY not thought through this “arrive at the mountain ??? profit!” idea. As a King-to-be, he is hopelessly bad at negotiation (he’s an idealist, not a pragmatist, which is why he’s held onto this necessary mad dream but also why he’s lost once it threatens to be realised) but he is by NO MEANS completely useless and silly. He is flawed: the up and the down of this drown-the-dragon-in-gold plan indicate the strengths and the weaknesses. Gandalf too is flawed — the cautious VERY longlived strategist looking at ALL the world’s interlinked problems, and (ok!) also massively gambling on a somewhat underpantsy hunch (include Burglar Bilbo! ie his usual plan, cast the smallest most irrelevant person in the picture against the character that everyone else assigns him — but it’s a long-game ethical hunch not a hothead’s crazy within-discipline throw. The dragon is possibly beatable (but of course not yet beaten, a smart and terrible foe, his downfall his sense of his magnificence nudge nudge). PJ has brought back an element of uncertainty to a story many viewers know a little bit too well: I don’t think Pt III will be “The Hobbit: There and… CRACKLE FRIZZLE CHOMP CRUNCH BWAHAHA” but there is now a vista of genuine (uneasy) anticipation! Helped (IMO) by the one-ringing of the Arkenstone (via the erasure from the tale of the Seven Rings for DwarfLords, it is becoming an Item of Power, commanding fealty, in particular the loyalty and presence-on-demand of various scattered dwarf armies, but distort the bearer’s common sense especially cf poor old Lindt-Bunny Thror).
x: for what it’s worth, my guesses weren’t especially prescient. In the comments to H1, I was predicting thus and thus. Going i to H2, I was saying (thinking of H1) “It’s a three-feast movie [viz beorn, elves, lakeside], so no wonder it’s so long. And everything in the book will be in the film.” RONG: it is a NO-FEAST movie, with twice as many battles as the book has (to Beorn vs Goblins and an undernourished Bilbo vs Spiders add Dwarves in Barrels and Elves vs Orcs and Dwarves vs Smowdge). And plenty of excellent stuff — Bombur in the enchanted river of oblivion! Cärc and Roäc! — not there.
xi: I haven’t said much about smowdge. Visually, he’s great: he unfolds and moves well, he’s big and glorious, first sleepy then angry. The weird leisure of the mindgames he plays with Bilbo is sadly a little curtailed (as elsewhere, PJ hurries to the kinetics, fastforwarding through ALL the stiller sections).
xii: what will we get — viz who will die — in the battle of the [insert number here] armies? Canon has Thorin, Fili, Kili. I think !!!!Tauriel!!!! will join them!
Here — as before — is my overall thesis. PJ doesn’t change stuff merely for capricious reasons: he’s making balanced decisions about the needs of the film, re scale and speed and tone and how do offset the immediate story against the bigger story. Sometimes he’s simply playing to his strengths — he is very very good at elaborate 3D-directed animated slapsticky acrobatics as a long-form mode (and always has been, right back to his comedy horror animation roots). He is extremely visually minded: he tends to dramatise conflicted motivation via the pull of the various elements of the story (viz what I’ve been saying about the complexities of Thorin; they’re there to be noted, in some detail, in the scenes and flashbacks, but not really strongly adverted to in the conversations itself). Action trumps the space need for character-via-chatter, certainly. And (probably relatedly) he is not thoughtful about race or gender — by which I mean he tends to dutiful and shallow rather than inventive or cheeky when solving such problems as the modern world presents him with.
That said, PJ’s decisions are sometime terrible. Partly this is because he is I think actually not up to the requirements of writing character and seeing what happens when you do: following through the demands that character makes on the writer. To introduce just one new individua into a story is to demand the refashioning of every single element, including events and exchanges they do not seemingly contribute to: this is how fiction should operate, which (in a big story with many moving parts) takes an age to get to completion. Working in the milieu’s he’s in, PJ unavoiably gives himself constraints of timing and deadlines, but I think temperament an issue herre as well; the dynamics of character is just something he’s quite poor at coming up with (as opposed to fielding what’s given him).
(Of course this is an argt for another place I think but while old-fashioned in lots of ways, over the long haul Tolk is by no means as bad on either race or gender as he may superficially seem, and not just in a “for his day” way: in other words, he thinks a lot about how groups interract and how people define themselves within and against handed-down group identity…)