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Entries in Martin Freeman (1)

Monday
Dec172012

Review: The Hobbit (An Unexpected Journey in More Ways than One)

"Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage."

--Gandalf to Galadriel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The quotation above can be found only in the movie currently released. It is not in either The Hobbit or any of the parts of Lord of the Rings (I ran a search in the Kindle editions to verify). And in many ways, that’s the story with much of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three movies to adapt the one book The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. That is, there has been much added to Tolkien’s original story first conceived mainly for children. Some of this extra content is helpful and even profound (such as the above quotation), but other parts...not so much. 

I guess it's personal. In many ways, a non-animated movie adaptation of The Hobbit is something I’ve been waiting for since I was about 12 years old. Somewhere around that time of my life, I used Christmas money to purchase a gold-colored boxed set of The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. My parents had recently divorced, and I desperately needed an escape. Tolkien gave me just that with The Hobbit. I didn’t just read the books, I read them and reread them, especially The Hobbit which was the easier work to follow. It was easier to read because it was written for children and was a complete story in and of itself. 

And not only did I read and reread The Hobbit, I put myself square into the story. I imagined myself along for the quest with Bilbo Baggins, 13 dwarves and a wizard. I daydreamed about how I would react in the predicaments the characters got themselves into, what I would need to take with me on the journey and even what weapon I might prefer (I decided that instead of a sword, bear shot and my Remington 12-gauge shotgun might prove quite effective against orcs). 

There’s a lot to like about the movie I saw yesterday, but I also have mixed feelings about some of what I saw. Know up front that there are spoilers ahead. I have no idea how to get around this. You’ve been warned. 

The perfect actor. First, let’s start with the positive. I will say up front that choosing Martin Freeman to play Bilbo Baggins may be the best bit of casting of the entire series (including the three Lord of the Rings movies). At the very least, it’s right up there with casting Ian McKellan as Gandalf (I mean, can you imagine anyone else playing the wizard at this point?) and Andy Sirkis who so wonderfully gives life to pitiful Gollum. Freeman is a perfect choice because in a sense, he’s been playing Bilbo for years. Let me explain. 

When reading The Hobbit, the central character is essentially an avatar for the reader. The average reader--especially if the reader is a child--is probably just like Bilbo. That is, he or she has a routine, has a certain amount of comfort and protection in the world, and most of all, does not engage in any real “adventures.” So in many ways, Bilbo’s reactions to the exciting and dangerous predicaments he finds himself in are probably very much the same as the reactions we would have. 

Although Martin Freeman has a long list of credits to his name, I’ve seen very few of them because much of his work has been in British television and film. But I’ve seen him in a few of his roles. I saw him as Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which no one liked but me). I watched him as “Tim” in the original version of The Office (the parallel character in the American version is “Jim,” played by John Krasinski). And of course, most recently, Freeman has gained much acclaim as Dr. John Watson in Sherlock

In all three of the above-mentioned titles, Freeman plays an everyman surrounded by extraordinary events and often outrageous characters. He’s the straight man, representing us and what would surely be our reactions if we were confronted by the incredible situations in which he finds himself. And as I’ve already stated, this is the core of Bilbo Baggins. What I’m suggesting is that Freeman has made a mark by playing very similar kinds of characters. And he’s got that formula down pat--he does it quite well. This made him the perfect Bilbo--the comfortable little hobbit who find himself quite out of his comfort zone with 13 rowdy dwarves and one eccentric wizard. Freeman’s facial reactions, gestures and responses are exactly what I would want from an actor playing Bilbo Baggins. 

(Incidentally, I’ve never cared for Elijah Wood’s portrayal of Frodo in the Lord of the Rings series. In fact, Wood, who was never how I pictured Frodo, probably kept me from ever completely suspending disbelief while watching those movies.)

Moreover, I can think of at least three scenes in the movie that took me right back to my childhood delight in reading the book: (1) the 13 dwarves overrunning Bilbo’s hobbit-hole home and their ensuing spontaneous song [Chip the glasses and crack the plates! / Blunt the knives and bend the forks! / That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!]; (2) the encounter with the three trolls, William, Bert, and Tom [I've always loved those names given to them]; (2) and, of course, the wonderful riddle competition between Bilbo and Gollum. If you had told me I was only going to get to see these three scenes alone, I would have probably been okay with that.

But of course, the movie is much longer than just three scenes, and its length has its own merits and distractions. 

Not just an unexpected journey--a long journey. Let me throw a few numbers out. I looked at the recordings of The Hobbit available at audible.com. Completely unabridged, a straight read-through of The Hobbit runs 11 hours and 8 minutes. However, usually an entire reading of a book doesn’t mean that a full telling of the story in motion picture form should carry an equivalent length. A book offers description and insight into events that can often be conveyed visually without words. A narrator will often fill in certain visual gaps for a reader that simply isn’t necessary on film. So, I also noticed that there are two dramatized versions of The Hobbit available. One is a little over four hours and one is a little under. 

It seems safe to think, therefore, that a nicely done film version of The Hobbit might hold to an equivalent length of about four hours. And considering there aren’t a whole lot of four hour movies produced these days, perhaps breaking the story into two parts is easily justified. And yet, that is not what we are going to experience in Peter Jackson’s version of this story. 

Let me back up. Originally that was exactly what was going to happen. The Hobbit was originally scheduled to arrive in two parts in two consecutive years. But somewhere along the way, the decision was made to split the story into three parts. On one level, this simply seems to be an obvious money grab. On another level though, I believe that I’ve come to the conclusion that Peter Jackson may be the ultimate Tolkien fanboy: he’s a fan of the work who has both influence and access to the kind of cash to produce whatever vision he has of the work with no one to stop him. 

Remember the times of the dramatized audio versions of The Hobbit that I mentioned above--four hours? Well think about this. The first part of Jackson’s trilogy comes in at 169 minutes. That’s two hours and 49 minutes (meaning you’ll be in the theater well over three hours with commercials and trailers before the film). Now if all three movies are essentially this same equivalent length, we’re talking about a story that is almost nine hours long--more than twice the length of the dramatized audio versions!

With the three parts of the Lord of the Rings movies, Jackson released on home video both the theatrical cut and an extended director’s cut with additional scenes cut from the former. I have the extended cuts on Blu-ray and they’re quite nice. I don’t begrudge the length because I can watch them at home, pausing them for bathroom breaks or any other kinds of intermissions of my making. Sitting in a theater for over three hours, however, gets a bit long, regardless of the content. 

Expanding the tale. So, where is all this content coming from? Well, as I’ve said, The Hobbit is essentially more of a children’s story. The three parts of the Lord of the Rings are much more complex. These other books have appendices at the end that fill in the gaps of backstory, including connections to The Hobbit. And, of course, Tolkien himself, a philologist by profession, seemed to write simply for the sheer joy of writing itself or perhaps as his own personal entertainment. He wrote hundreds of thousands of pages detailing the languages of elves, dwarves, orcs, hobbits and the rest of his creation in Middle-earth. In addition to that, he wrote further backstories and histories of the events of his published works. From what I understand, I don’t think he even intended all of the rest of these works to even be published. But after Tolkien’s death, his son, Christopher, has released over a dozen or so volumes of these unfinished works and so-called “lost tales.” Of course, these works are not entertaining like The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings books. They are dense and dry--at least in my attempts to read any of them. 

Yet Jackson includes as much applicable backstory to The Hobbit as he can, drawing off of these other works and the appendices to the Lord of the Rings. This not only makes the story much longer--making it feel already like an extended cut--but it also creates a bit of a schizophrenic telling of the story that’s not quite true to the original. As I’ve said, there’s a sharp distinction between The Hobbit and the rest of Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth. The Hobbit is a children’s story. It’s fun and humorous with much levity in the way it approaches even hazardous situations in which the characters find themselves. While there’s certainly a good amount of fun and humor in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, these are also much more serious stories and certainly more complex. As I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was struck by how the movie could go from the frivolity of singing dwarves to decapitated orcs or very serious discussions of an evil brewing in the land (foreshadowing the other movies) between Gandalf, Saruman, and Galadriel. It’s as if Jackson can’t decide whether he was making a movie about a children’s story or trying to create another equivalent to the Lord of the Rings series.

And example of this hybrid approach to the story can be found in a scene near the end of the movie where the dwarves and Gandalf are fleeing through a maze of rope bridges as they try to escape from thousands of swarming goblins/orcs (in the original book, the word goblin is primarily used, but in this movie, the word orc is mostly used to connect to the terminology used in the other movies and later books). The choreography of the fight and chase is incredibly clever and fun to watch. There’s plenty of humor in keeping with the childlike aspects of the original books. And as a children’s story, the good guys never get killed, but plenty of goblins do. But in the midst of this humor and cleverness there’s also loads of violence. Not much actual blood is shown, but plenty of stabbings and quite a few decapitations. A young child is not going to get quite the same visual treatment reading the book, but this movie’s PG-13 rating, partly for violence, is definitely warranted.\

Expanding the mythos. Now, let me give credit to Jackson for adding a little estrogen to the original Lord of the Rings series by expanding the roles of female characters like Galadriel (who is still mesmerizing in this movie, too), Arwen and Eowyn. I have no problem with these kinds of expansions, which are probably necessary for today’s movie audience--especially if that audience is to consist of more than members of the male variety.

Yet some additions in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey are simply unnecessary in my opinion. Here’s how the original story in the book begins:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Jackson eventually gives us this first sentence, word-for-word; but before we see that, there are two other scenes. The first is the backstory of the dwarves and how they lost their kingdom to the dragon Smaug (hardly seen in this movie at all and never seen in his entirety). After this flashback, there is a bit of a flashforward in which we see Elijah Wood as Frodo and Ian Holm as the older Bilbo. I had already told Kathy, who saw the earlier Lord of the Rings movies with me, that The Hobbit takes place 60 years prior to the movies she had seen. When we saw Frodo and Bilbo together, she leaned over and said, “I thought this movie took place earlier than the others.”

Beyond my wife’s initial confusion--which may have just been my fault--I saw no purpose for the scene between old Bilbo and Frodo in this movie. I’m sure this was Jackson’s means of tying The Hobbit to the stories he had already told, but I felt like it totally got in the way. And by the time we got to the main story, we had already been in three distinct periods of time. 

In addition to additional backstory, the movie also features additional characters not found in the book. One of these is the wizard Radagast the Brown. I find it interesting that while he was a character featured in the book The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson chose not to include him in the movie of that book. Nevertheless, while Radagast is mentioned in only one sentence of The Hobbit (as a cousin of Gandalf), his character is prominently featured in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. 

Another character prominently featured in the movie, but only mentioned in one sentence of the book is Azog the Goblin/Orc. His character is promoted to that of chief antagonist, a character obsessed with the downfall of dwarf Thorin Oakenshield. Throughout the movie, he leads a pack of orcs hunting Thorin and all those with him. Yet this entire subplot is completely contrived for the movie. This isn’t even something adapted from the appendices or other background work written by Tolkien. In fact, Jackson creates a completely new direction for Azog that Tolkien never envisioned (if you've seen the movie, compare what you saw there with the original understanding of this character's background). I have no idea why this was included in the story other than to create a villain for the first movie or two until we get to the big villain of the story: Smaug the Dragon.

If the movie feels just too long, I found that there is at least once small consolation: just about every scene is visually stunning. I will never begrudge having too look too long at Middle-earth; I only wish it wasn't for the reasons described above.

48 frames of too much? Finally, there’s the issue of the higher frame rate, which only played on 450 or so screens across the country. That means that the average movie goer did not see The Hobbit in this format, but I did. Peter Jackson’s vision for the film included both 3D and a higher frame rate of 48 fps, or what is being called HFR (high frame rate). Honestly, I am mixed on this decision. Nevertheless, I was determined to see the movie in the same format that Jackson envisioned for it.

Honestly, the high frame rate is initially jarring. Yes, I could see greater detail, but I could almost see too much detail at times. Too much makeup on Ian Holm’s face. Dwarves that looked like men in costumes rather than actual dwarves. And there’s also a psychological factor. We associate higher frame rate with cheaper television productions. It’s the difference between the Star Wars movies and that awful ewok Christmas special on television when I was a kid. The early scenes of the movie looked more like the cheesy Bible videos I used to show high school students or a stage performance that's been recorded and played on television. Honestly, it had a less-than-professional feel, or as one writer at Entertainment Weekly described it, “that weird British miniseries feel.” That one’s on the money.

On the other hand, however, outdoor scenes, especially ones with long distance vistas looked incredible. And the CGI characters looked spectacular as well. In the scene between Bilbo and Gollum, I noticed how realistic Gollum actually looked. He didn’t look CGI. If I didn’t know better, as I saw his splotchy skin and wispy hair, I might’ve wondered how they fit Andy Serkis into that costume. In the end the high frame rate grew on me, but I think I might like to see the movie again without the 3D and at a traditional 24 fps rate. 

Final thoughts. When it comes to the books, The Hobbit was always a bit of a gateway drug to the rest of the books and fantasy in general. This was the book that was easy to read and made me want to put forth the effort to read the Lord of the Rings series. For the current generation, most of whom aren’t book readers, and most of whom will have seen the Lord of the Rings movies first, The Hobbit isn’t the introduction to the series, but rather the three Lord of the Rings films are. 

In a sense, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the two films to follow becomes the more advanced content. Here we have Tolkien’s original work supplemented with the hardcore Middle-earth esoterica. I even noticed that there was a much greater reliance on Tolkien’s created Middle-earth languages supplemented by subtitles for those of us not geeky enough to speak high-elvish. 

We have embarked on an unexpected journey indeed.

Overall, I liked the movie, but not perhaps as much as the three previous films. And even though this film and the two that follow it are designed to set the stage for the films already made, I really do believe that these will be the ones that the casual fans will have a greater difficulty embracing. 

If I were the kind of person to do so, I'd give this movie 3.5 out of 5 stars.

As always, your questions, thoughts, comments and rebuttals are welcome below.