Monday, May 20, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The nicest surprise about this movie was Bilbo Baggins himself. I had never heard of Martin Freeman before, which apparently means i don't watch enough BBC adaptations. He is an excellent unlikely hero, from his shuffling furry feet to his persistent failed attempts to set his face in an expression of stern indignation.
Aside from that, my central demand from the movie was met, to some extent. To put it more succinctly, i don't know how i would have improved on a scene of dwarvish singing. As promised, this did much to ease the pain of some of The Hobbit's failings. These weren't many, but they still put it decidedly below the level of quality of the Lord of the Rings films.

The main issue was that the more lighthearted fairytale atmosphere of The Hobbit was taken in the wrong direction, or rather split into two wrong directions. On one end, because the movie was marketed to the audience of LotR and not vice-verso, there was a constant effort to maintain the sense of drama of the greater work, and it largely cannot work because... well, it's just not that sort of story. The Hobbit is an adventure. It needed to maintain a sense of wonder and mystery. Small peeks of the greater conflict certainly add to its enjoyment, but prolonged re-enactments of past battles break too much of the sense of wonder. The dwarves should have been easily trapped by the trolls, just as in the book, without an extended fight scene. They should have descended into Imladris among lighthearted elvish singing, not in a dramatic diplomatic tete-a-tete. It was nice to put a face on Radagast, but he is a Lord of the Rings character, ridiculed by Saruman unjustly. Adapting him as comic relief to even out the artificially inserted drama of an inflated version of The Hobbit was unnecessary and made him a much 'goofier' character than he should have been. Inserting Azog anachronistically into the tale makes sense in terms of replacing the otherwise inconsequential Bolg for the Battle of Five Armies but it results in a far too divergent side-story, the motivation for which i can only assume would be further movies loosely based on minor stories set in middle-earth.

The worst parts of the movie are the completely unnecessary exaggerations. The Great Goblin need not have been expanded to Jabba-the-Hutt dimensions to look impressive. The dwarves should not have been made out to be a fair match for trolls in a fight in order to show their courage. Sting, Orcrist and Glamdring didn't need to flash on and off like electric bulbs to get the point of their "magic" nature across.

Worst of all was the idiotically out-of-the-blue notion of the stone Giants being actual Stone giants. It goes entirely against the basic feel of middle-earth, which Tolkien deliberately kept familiar enough to underscore even the subtlest bits of actual magic in it. Middle-earth is not an oneiric fantasy of moving landscapes in which alien shapes assault our senses. It is our world, inspired by the promise of magic and wonder. In writing The Silmarillon, Tolkien even feared taking the wonder out of the stories because the most grandiose elements of middle-earth myth, he had initially intended to retain only as myth, never to be brought to the forefront. He consciously and meticulously removed such whimsical elements as talking purses or shapeshifting from the imagery of middle-earth when expanding to the more coherent Lord of the Rings environment, for likely the same reason. Living, moving stone is beyond even most of the Silmarillon, much less The Hobbit.

Trying to infuse the movie adaptation both with more whimsy than Tolkien had ever intended and with LotR politics and drama set the feel of many scenes too strongly against each other. Still, i cannot say i did not enjoy the movie, or that i'm not looking forward to the next installments. Though much of the environment of middle-earth was a bit off, the characters shone through. The dwarves and Bilbo feel as they should, and in the end, it is still their story.

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