Beware. I am about to discuss a film and a book and I am doing so assuming you already know them. If you don’t, you should not continue reading this post. This is a critique rather than a review. It is not intended to encourage people to read the book or watch the film if they have not done so already, but to discuss the film with people already familiar with it. I feel the need to say all this because recently I have been disappointed and annoyed to read ‘spoilers’ in a number of so-called reviews in various blogs.
Incidentally, the misty mountains in the photograph are in Portugal, not Middle Earth, or even New Zealand, but I thought they fitted the subject!
It isn’t often that I go to the cinema. It’s even less often I see a film twice in one month, and I can’t remember paying cinema prices twice for any film before. But I saw The Hobbit in 2D and then felt a desperate need to see the 3D version so off we went. I loved it and have been quite surprised by the number of negative or lukewarm reviews. So I thought I would try to analyse just what it is that I love.
I know the book forwards, backwards and inside out, having read it countless times, to myself, to my daughter and with classes in school. I have seen it produced as a stage play, and have admired art in calendars and on various online sites. I love the book deeply. The film did not let me down. Peter Jackson has added immeasurably to my mental grasp of the world of The Hobbit and I am grateful to him, to the actors and to everyone involved.
Part of my love for the film stems from the way it expands the book. Most films – even The Lord of the Rings – leave out aspects of the text. (I deeply regretted the lack of Tom Bombadil.) By choosing to make a trilogy out of The Hobbit, Jackson has given himself space to explore all the byways of the story. It was a brave thing to do, given that The Hobbit is essentially a children’s book with a fairly straightforward plot. However, the original story leads eventually to The Lord of the Rings, and Jackson has taken material both from that book and from The Silmarillion, to flesh out the plotline and show just what the story is about.
I have said that The Hobbit is a children’s book but it can be read on more than one level. Bilbo the hobbit accompanies some dwarves on a quest and on the way gets to know himself and his world better. He also picks up a ring that has a meaning that will become clear in The Lord of the Rings. He returns to his beloved Shire much wiser, and eventually, as we know from The Lord of the Rings, he leaves the Shire and spends his later years with the elves in Rivendell before embarking for the West as all ringbearers are entitled to do. The children’s story ends with the return to the Shire and indeed Bilbo’s later memoirs will be called There And Back Again. This gives a satisfying structure to the tale for young readers or listeners, but the adults who are familiar with the later books have deeper knowledge of the events underlying the story.
Jackson tells us more about the history of the dwarves and the reasons for their quest. The dwarvish city under Erebor and the assault by Smaug are intended to win our sympathy for Thorin and his band of devoted followers. Their home was stolen from them, and nobody helped. It is the loss of home that drives them even more than the loss of gold, but of course their kingdom was built on the gold they mined so gold enters into the matter as well. To a great extent, for the dwarves, gold is a metaphor for everything they have lost. It was the gold Smaug wanted and he clings to the mountain because it contains the gold he has stolen along with other precious things such as the Arkenstone. Despite protestations of alliance, other peoples such as the elves turned their backs on the dwarves, yet some of the wizards realise that Smaug must be defeated. He is not currently dangerous himself as he hasn’t been seen outside for years, but if, as they fear, evil is rising again, they cannot afford to have a wicked dragon commanding an important outpost. Even the elves are beginning to agree.
The dwarves are shown as straightforward and honest, ready to take on the world to regain their home, and the elves are shown as holding themselves slightly apart from that world, with possibly grave consequences. The wizards are shown to have divided opinions, based on differing interpretations of both history and current events. This is a fully realised world with three dimensional characters and complex issues. There are other dwarves from kingdoms we never see, who have refused to back Thorin’s quest. Child readers and viewers can skim over this layer of the story but it is important for adults and this is an adult film. The children’s book begins in the Shire but the adult story begins in Erebor, which I think adds to the film’s stature and emphasises the theme of the importance of home, which in the book is left to rest mainly on Bilbo’s feelings for the Shire.
The book has rich descriptions throughout, and the film depicts Bilbo’s hobbit hole in glorious detail. The hobbit hole alone deserves 3D! The party when Bilbo meets the dwarves is taken directly from the book, with the mischievous plate juggling song and the later yearning ballad about Erebor and loss. The early journey, too, is true to the book, even to the tiny things like the way Bilbo set out in a hurry, without even a pocket handkerchief. He is slightly dull when we meet him but he is also carefree and careless; the journey will change him in unimaginable ways. One of Tolkien’s strengths as a writer is the way he moves seamlessly from personal details to heroic scenarios and the film does this too.
The dwarves (whose alliterative names I could chant in my sleep) are a valiant and close-knit band, and their leader, Thorin, is shown to be both brave and wise. He is able to learn from his mistakes, he cares for his followers, and has the good of his people at heart. The dwarves and their quest are at the heart of the story but Bilbo, in some ways an outsider (like the reader or viewer) is the character through whose eyes the story is seen.
The film deviates from the book when we meet Radagast and begin to understand the evil that is threatening the woods. This is essential for the viewer who has not read the book, and for the adult who does not have a childlike acceptance of woods that are intrinsically malevolent. The changes that result in Mirkwood are, one assumes, something that will have more prominence in the second film. (The band will have to traverse Mirkwood to reach Erebor.) Meanwhile, we are being shown how evil is returning to Middle Earth. Children only need to know that Mirkwood is evil. Adults benefit from seeing the progression from greenwood to Mirkwood, and Radagast provides a focus for that. The spiders are much clearer in 3D and the rabbits who pull the chariot are delightful.
Rivendell stresses the reclusive nature of the elves and gives an opportunity to listen to a debate involving wizards. Again, we are looking behind the story of The Hobbit and seeing the wider picture that will eventually give us The Lord of the Rings.
A further deviation, this time at odds with the book and other sources, is the White Orc. This personality is never brought into any of Tolkien’s work and I can only assume it was felt necessary to give some kind of focus to the enmity of the orcs and goblins. In some respects the situation with the orcs and goblins reinforces the theme of home and loss, because the dwarves had originally had a colony in the mountains and had lost it to orc and goblin invaders. I found the White Orc to be the weakest point in the film, possibly because of the lack of a Tolkien source for his actions.
The mountains, with the stone giants, and the battle scenes in the goblin kingdom were very hard to follow in 2D and so was the final scene with the dwarves clinging to the fir trees. The 3D version was stunning and visually much easier to grasp.
One reviewer was concerned that the eagles could have taken the dwarves nearer to Erebor. Quite apart from the fact that this would have eliminated part of the plot, eagles do not usually make long journeys over plains and it was reasonable for these birds, who came in answer to an emergency, to stick to their home in the mountains. I am sure Tolkien knew this…
Obviously we will need to see the entire trilogy before making any final judgements on this work, but I am pleased with the way the first part has teased out the hidden themes of the book, linking it to The Lord of the Rings for viewers of all ages. I am also impressed with the 3D filming, ranging from birds that seem to hover in the auditorium to streaks of fire that startle, and the detail of places as homely as the hobbit hole and as awe inspiring as the goblin depths.
I think the film is bound to do well, simply because of the success of The Lord of the Rings, but I also think that perhaps its greatest appeal will always be to fans of the book and not to the general filmgoer. The film does stand alone, but it begs for a sequel, which of course we know is due out this year. I am looking forward to it!
What do you think?