The Hobbit: a critique of the film.

52. The Hobbit

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?

9 thoughts on “The Hobbit: a critique of the film.

  1. I had planned to re-read the book before watching, at last I had no time, and now I decided I don’t need or want it. The film works enough for me on its own, and Tolkiens works doesn’t matter for me as much as they used years ago…

    I like in “The Hobbit” that it gives dwarves – the race and single characters – real life, more than LotR did it. Even such detail like that the company of twelve aren’t warriors, but mostly craftmen, in spite of that fantasy fans are used to the ‘warrior dwarf’ image.

    IMHO, “The Hobbit” is a worthy follower of LotR, and it’s not little achievement for sequel/prequel. Not many ‘next parts’ manages it.

    (And your misty mountains are beautiful and very fitting!)

    • I really agree that The Hobbit is a fitting sequel/prequel and some day I hope to rewatch the entire two trilogies all the way through (with meal breaks…). Tolkien’s books don’t matter as much to me as they used to – I agree with you there. But I still admire them enormously and part of that admiration is based on the fact that they were the first of their kind. Not the first fantasy epics, of course, but the first that led the way into modern fantasy. Previous fantasy stories (in English) were all of the heroic type then along came Tolkien and suddenly there we were with a flawed hero we could empathise with, and homely details like the hobbit hole, a missingpocket handkerchief and buttons bursting from waistcoats. Plus, as you say, dwarves who are not the normal stereotype.

      I have to confess that the misty mountains picture was one taken by my husband. I couldn’t find my own – my filing system for my photos is rubbish!! That’s the view you have already admired in my photo with the telegraph pole in the foreground. The mists in the morning are fascinating at certain times of the year and they burn off gradually till all the valleys are revealed. Standing watching really transports me into a fantasy world!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit as well. The effects were great, but that’s really expected nowadays! I thought that sometimes there was a bit of disparity between the height of Gandalf and the height of Bilbo and/or the dwarves in some scenes where they were together, but considering how difficult it must be to make one actor appear at least half the size of another when they are of a similar height (Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage) I didn’t let it bother me too much. I really liked that the dwarves came across as such individual characters whereas in the book they kind of meld together a bit and how the emphasis is on the fact they are on a quest as displaced people, wanting to reclaim their homeland. The extra details I feel gives those who haven’t read the books an idea of how The Hobbit does fit into the later events of LoTR and a broader view of Tolkien’s world and is a good prelude to the other films. I’d like to watch them all in sequence too one day. But, given that The Hobbit will also be three probably very long films I’m not sure I would have the stamina!

    • We could plan on a Middle Earth weekend next time you’re in Europe…

      And yes, I see what you mean about Gandalf’s size but I just took it as part of being a wizard… and I think Richard Armitage is actually quite a bit taller than any of the others! So it was cleverly done.

  3. I enjoyed The Hobbit, though not as much as LOTR which in my opinion is a trilogy masterpiece. I reviewed it on my own blog so hopefully I wasn’t one of the *spoilers* for you!

    My favourite part actually was the first 40minutes in Hobbiton ville. I loved when Rarmitage sang the Misty Mountains song and everyone joined in. That was beautiful.

    • No, I’d already seen the film when I read your blog! And I think it would be difficult to give spoilers for The Hobbit – the whole story is too well known. I just get tired of reading spoilers in general in what are supposed to be reviews, and wanted to make the point that this is a critique, not a review. A review should be something that makes the reader want to go out and buy/read/watch the book or film under discussion, and important plot points should never be mentioned. Here, I wanted to discuss the film with other people who had already seen it, so it’s not a review!

      The main point on which I differ from you is in your interpretation of the dwarves’ quest. I saw their loss of their homeland as heartrending (and a basic theme), whereas you saw their desire to reclaim it as selfish. (I’m remembering, not quoting, so might have got that wrong.)

      • I didn’t see their quest as selfish at all- I just meant that the way it is written by Tolkien in The Hobbit itself it is seen that way because it is a hubris tale- adding in the other stuff that Jackson did relates it back to the wider context of The Silmarillion and LOTR.

        My problem with the amount of screen time spent on Thorin Oakenshield and the doings of dwarves is that it took away from Bilbo’s story which is rather the point of The Hobbit.

      • Hmmm – I didn’t see it that way in the book, either, maybe because I came to the book as an adult and *after* reading LotR. So I already had the wider context.

        I don’t mind the time spent on the dwarves – they are the reason for Bilbo’s journey and it is all seen through his eyes. I think the focus on the dwarves actually enables us to empathise with Bilbo, a bit like telling a story in third person intimate. Bilbo’s whole experience is ‘there and back again’ in the context of the quest. He needs to concentrate on the quest itself and therefore so do we and so does Jackson. When we do see Bilbo in sharp focus it is usually in relation to the quest, such as when he decides to leave and go back to Rivendell (and presumably home). When we see him with Gollum, we are reminded of Gollum’s ancient memories of home, and of Bilbo’s connection to the Shire, but also of how he got into this situation in the first place. Again, I had read LotR first so knew the significance of the ring.

  4. I still disagree. The Hobbit (book) follows Bilbo and we never hear about the wider context stuff or about the dwarves other than when it is directly told to Bilbo. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of it, but I found it to be too much in the film.

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