Don’t get me wrong. I greatly enjoyed Peter Jackson’s latest epic. It looks wonderful, the actors are superb, and the action sequences are highly enjoyable. In places I found it very moving.
Like a lot of people, I was expecting the worst when it was announced that the film was to become a trilogy. Here it comes, I thought, the studios are looking for a new cash cow– KA-CHING. Well, that may be the case, but watching the film I did not care. I really, really liked it.
The bits I feared most, the inevitable padding, actually turned out to be very watchable. None of the things I thought would bother me about the adaptation did. Turns out that things that Tolkien skipped over in a paragraph or a page can quite enjoyably be expanded to fifteen minutes or half an hour on screen. You can get a lot of mileage out of trekking through New Zealand’s lovely landscape, and a battle that takes up a few lines can easily become a roller-coaster action ride, and what the hell, I am up for that.
Even the parts where the story deviates from Tolkien (and there are a few) did not bother me too much and in my youth I was a Tolkien obsessive. (I won’t mention the actual changes here for fear of spoilers.) I get the fact that film is a visual medium and everything needs to be shown. Things that Tolkien could convey by internal monologue or even a shift in the omniscient authorial tone need to be represented concretely on film. All of this did not affect my enjoyment of the movie in the least, so why then, was I left feeling curiously dissatisfied at the end of a movie I really liked?
I suspect my mistake was that I actually re-read The Hobbit a couple of weeks before I saw the film. It’s really a rather slight and lovely book intended to be read aloud to children. It was never intended to take the weight of a three movie Peter Jackson epic spectacle. It’s not a tale of bone-crunching battles and authentic darkness. It’s an innocent story of a little person’s scary trip away from home. As Tolkien himself said in the introduction to the Lord of the Rings, it hints at matters deeper and darker but it does not show them. Seeing the movie after so recently reading the book introduced a great deal of cognitive dissonance into my head. Letting Peter Jackson go on this tale was a bit like getting Martin Scorsese in full-blown Gangs of New York mode to direct Bambi.
My sixteen year old son Daniel summed it up rather well. He said, “I loved the movie but it should have had a big sticker on it saying BASED ON A STORY BY JRR TOLKIEN”. That kind of sums it up for me. It’s a great, great action movie and I recommend that you see it if you like those, but it’s not The Hobbit as I remember it from my long gone youth. (I’m still going to see The Desolation of Smaug though.)