Monday, December 17, 2012

Peter Jackson puts Tolkien's Hobbit novel under microscope

These days we seem to expect our epic fantasy to be impossibly complex. The current standard bearer, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series (more widely known as Game of Thrones) features a cast of hundreds packed into thousands of pages of ancient lore, exotic peoples, and enough conspiracy theories to make even Lost look pretty linear by comparison. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time also comes to mind -- a series so complex and long running that it wasn't even finished in the author's lifetime.

But it has not always been this way. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit has achieved the most transcendent honor of all. It is a fantasy novel that has risen above the trappings of its genre to become one of high literature's more respected works. Published in 1937, it was originally intended as a children's book. At its core, it is a simple adventure story; the plot is not complex in any way. Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield and his band of 13 dwarves are on a quest to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug. Renowned wizard Gandalf the Grey recruits the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins as the 14th member of the company and the stage is set. It is this tale that director Peter Jackson now brings to the big screen, following the heralded adaption of the Lord of the Rings series.

The displaced dwarf company will stop at nothing to reclaim their home.

On the surface, it is easy to see how the simplicity of The Hobbit can cause the final result to be markedly different from other recent adaptions of fantasy works. Although there is a good foundation of lore and backstory, the scope is not large. The novel itself is mainly concerned with tracking the progress of this merry band of warriors, detailing their triumphs and setbacks as they engage each new obstacle in their path. Unlike many other works of fantasy, The Hobbit novel features no key story lines taking place halfway across the world, or on different planets, on in different timelines. Everything is focused on the here and now.

This might make Jackson's plan to split the book into three films appear dicey, especially given that only one film was dedicated to each Lord of the Rings volume. But what he chooses to work with instead is The Hobbit's primary strength - Tolkien's boundless imagination. The first 30 minutes of the film is dedicated to detailing the lore and history of Thorin's dwarf race, which includes tracing lineages and recounting the glory that was the dwarf kingdom. In short, the type of stuff fantasy fans geek out over. But when it gets going, it really gets going.

Jackson's presentation of The Hobbit is a fairly muss free and faithful adaption of the original source material. Over the film's two and half hour running time our little band duels with trolls, orcs, stone giants, and much more. The dwarf "invasion" of Bilbo's hobbit hole, orchestrated by Gandalf, should be familiar to anyone who's thumbed the first 30 pages or so of the novel. Ian McKellen once again does an admirable job as Gandalf, who at this point in the storyline is not that prestigious in the wizarding world but shows considerable foresight. His quirky nature is on display early in the film with a quote pulled straight from the pages of Tolken's novel. The scene occurs when Bilbo wishes Gandalf good morning:

"What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

Gandalf the Grey espouses widsom to keep his crew from drifting off track. 

Richard Armitage, who also shares the spotlight in the role of Thorin, depicts a generally sullen, brooding leader of a dwarf company faced with near impossible odds. The role doesn't require Armitage to show off a broad range of emotions, but he does a great job showing Thorin's inner fire and makes his stubbornness seem authentic and believable. The dwarf band he leads is a hearty and rough but lovable bunch; the costume design and styling of their facial hair is spot on and shows an incredible amount of detail.

Then, of course, there is Martin Freeman in the role of the titular character, Bilbo Baggins. His role is easiest to identify with, as he is often unsure of himself and feels conflicted, but his sense of honor urges him onward. He is sometimes bumbling. When trolls steal a pair of horses from the dwarves Bilbo hurries after to investigate, but not before grabbing a couple of soup bowls he had set down. His journey to find himself is as universal as it is heart warming. It is a path that won't reach its terminus until the series end, but near this film's conclusion Bilbo delivers simple but stirring declaration of his humanity when he answers charges from dwarves who doubt his sincerity to their cause:

"I often think of the shire. You see, that's where I belong. That's home. You don't have one. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can."

Bilbo Baggins reaches within himself to find strength he didn't know he had.

There are some deviations from the source material. The wizard Radagast the Brown, a character only alluded to in the pages of Tolkien's novel, makes an appearance, spends a considerable amount of time establishing himself as some sort of hedgehog healer, and warns Gandalf of a threat posed by a mysterious necromancer. These changes serve primarily to bloat the film rather than to elucidate any of Tolkien's themes, which becomes an issue in a film already as slow paced as Peter Jackson's Hobbit.

As expected, the film's set pieces and art direction is second to none. The creatures of Tolkien's world are stunningly rendered and detailed, and the physical landscape is also gorgeous. Everything from Bilbo's Shire to the crumbling rain soaked mountain trails to the expansive, mountainous caves the crew gets lost in is nothing short of beautiful and picturesque. The score is appropriately sweeping and cinematic, but doesn't sound like anything that hasn't been done before and as such doesn't stand out much.

But it would be criminal to omit mention of the Gollum scene, essentially pulled directly from the book. Bilbo gets lost in an interminable network of caves, and his only chance for escape is to win a game of riddles against Gollum. Lose, and Gollum devours him. The sense of tension in the scene is palpable; cat and mouse game between the two is well paced and deviously structured.

If there is one criticism of the scene -- and it is very minor -- it would be that a small bit of the tension is lost from the book. The mind's eye has a way of shaping characters that may differ from the way they are portrayed in film  In Tolkien's novel, Gollum is a very grotesque creature. Meeting your end at his hands would not be a good way to go. In the film however, it's hard to get the sense that the shrivelled Gollum is capable of doing serious damage to the armed Bilbo. But to be fair, there isn't much, if anything, the filmmakers could credibly do to reshape the fan favorite Gollum.

The always apprehensive Gollum fashions himself into the creepiest game show host ever.

Peter Jackson's Hobbit film is in many ways a great triumph. Fans thirsty for a new Tolkien adaptation or those simply searching for a the next big box office event will likely be elated. As an adaptation of of Tolkien's work, it faithfully captures the necessary scenes and doesn't show too much ambition from the writers or filmmakers (in stark contrast to the latest season of HBO's Game of Thrones).

Yet one begins to see rather quickly the implications of adapting a rather simple novel into three full length films. Pacing is the film's main issue; it lumbers and lurches through exposition for roughly the first hour. It is great material in written format, yet when depicted on the sliver screen something seems to be lost in transition. Simply put, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes too long to get started, and when it does the additions and deviations do more to detract from the experience than add to it. It remains to be seen where Jackson will go with the plot threads opened here, but one can only hope that the best is still in store.

1 comment:

Cara Mico said...

Like the review. Can't wait to rent it :)