Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unimaginable Travesty

Consider the following list of movies and your reaction upon reflecting on the titles: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace; Spider-Man 3; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Prometheus. I imagine that it's some combination of disgust, frustration, anger, dismissal, wistfulness, and disbelief. Each of those movies had a certain level of expectation that they failed to meet in an unbelievably dismal way. They are different from plain "bad movies" because the possibility of greatness and the hope of what might be make the let down that much worse; for example, any of the Pirates of Caribbean sequels were just as bad (if not worse) than any of those four movies were, but the general lack of expectation for the sequels to be good means that they are not part of that list. (By the way, my list of "bad movies" would include such lowlights as: Green Lantern; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and On Stranger Tides; and The Happening. Movies such as X-Men: The Last Stand; Watchmen; and X-Men Origins: Wolverine would round out some of the rest of the top ten of the initial list.) Unfortunately, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has well earned its way into that disteemed company as one of the worst movies I have ever experienced; I use the word "experienced" as different from "seen" for the very reason that the totality of the let down of Peter Jackson's movie makes it far more crushing than many of the "bad movies" I've seen. As you might imagine, my review will not be particularly sympathetic toward Jackson's vision, but I think that it's worthwhile to look at why I am still experiencing paroxysms of apoplectic indignation at this turd of a movie.
If there was ever a movie that I wish I had been able to live-tweet, it was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Here are actual thoughts I had throughout the movie (condensed into a paragraph for simplicity). Is this a BBC mini-series? I don't like the high frame rate. I don't like where this is going... (upon seeing the interaction between Bilbo and Frodo and the framing of the story within the events of the beginning of the Lord of the Rings). This dialogue feels like Star Wars - and that's not a compliment. Why is this taking so long? What the **** is this? (upon seeing Radagast's rabbit sled) It's like Peter Jackson read the summary of the plot on Wikipedia and said "I've got this". There are still two hours left?! This reminds me of King Kong fighting two T-rexes (during the chase scene). The dwarves have no home - are they now a metaphor for Jews? Is this a holocaust movie now? All that was missing was Jack Black overacting - "twas beauty that killed the beast". This is the worst movie I've seen this year - and I watched Prometheus. Peter Jackson seems determined to ruin my childhood.
I recognize that those thirteen sentences alone give a fairly clear impression of my thoughts on the movie, but I'm going to dig a little deeper. I'll try to avoid major spoilers, but I'll give an obligatory SPOILER ALERT! here anyway. (Not that I think that there's much to spoil.)
Considering my leeriness going into the movie, the first half hour did not provide much reason for hope; on the contrary, within the first half hour of the movie, I realized three reasons (several of which I expressed before the movie's release) that my concerns were justified. In beginning his tale with the tale of the dwarves of Erebor, Jackson cues the vigilant observer to his first mistake: Jackson's version of The Hobbit is about the dwarves. Tolkien's Hobbit is about Bilbo, not the dwarves; the fumbling, bumbling characters are there almost incidentally, not as a focus of the story. Jackson recasts the tale as a story of dwarvish nobility and redemption, particularly of Thorin Oakenshield, and in starting the tale thusly, he establishes a storyline that already contradicts the entire point of Tolkien's story. The second reason is that Jackson's vision of The Hobbit exists entirely to serve his - not Tolkien's - vision of The Lord of the Rings. I realized this as old Bilbo and Frodo had an extended interchange that placed the story in the first few minutes in the Shire in Jackson's LOTR trilogy. His entire purpose is to meet the needs of his construction, not Tolkien's, which is even evident in his making the story into a trilogy. Jackson is determined to make the changes necessary to justify his vision of Tolkien's world; I have no doubt that he is a devoted fan of the material, but his fandom did not show in his adaptation. The third reason I had to be concerned was that it seems as if Jackson completely missed the character of Gandalf. I realized this to a small extent in the first exchange between Bilbo and Gandalf, but it was much more clear upon Gandalf's admission of removing the sign from the door (an admission that did not happen in the book). What I did not expect was that Jackson also did not understand the character of Bilbo (more on that later). As the movie progressed, each of these concerns manifested themselves more and more clearly, and each of them contributed to the three ways in which The Hobbit does not work: as a translation of the book; as a movie; and as a spectacle.
Perhaps most clearly, particularly for fans of Tolkien, Jackson's vision does not work as a translation of the book. Lest you think that I'm merely grumpy that Jackson changed the story, I feel that I need to say that I am fundamentally okay with the idea that movie directors often need to make adaptations to source material to make it work. I just watched Les Misérables (more on that in a later post), and there were certainly changes required for the play to translate to film. Directors need a certain leeway to adapt material for the cinematic medium, and Jackson had (mostly) earned that grace from the LOTR trilogy, a grace that was restored after the travesties of The Two Towers by the grandeur of The Return of the King (a dichotomy that seems to have demonstrated Jackson's true nature as a filmmaker). In this case, however, there were few changes that needed to be made to make the story workable. There were small changes that could be forgiven, were that the case here, but Jackson has made changes to every chapter and scene in the book, most of which were unnecessary and even offensive to fans of the source material. I do not think it's necessary to outline all of those changes here, as I'm certain that even a cursory Google search will reveal a host of lists of changes to the story, but suffice to say that even the little changes were inscrutable, especially as they made changes to the characters of Gandalf and Bilbo. Gandalf has become a grumpy angry old man who leaves and appears as he deems fit, rather than a wizened wizard with an understanding of the wider world. Bilbo, through no fault of Martin Freeman, has become confident when he shouldn't be, witty when he wasn't, and inappropriately aware of his surroundings. Take your pick of any number of other moments in which Jackson changed the text for examples of poor changes: my top three were the changes to Wargs and goblins (inexplicably changed to LOTR's orcs); the dwarves in the mountains and cave; and Bilbo's encounter with Gollum. The bottom line is that Jackson's inability to leave things as they were continually interferes with the success of the movie as a translation of the book.
It just doesn't fully work as a movie, either. Now, I recognize that my distaste with this effort as a movie is inextricable from my disgust at the changes that Jackson made, but I think that there is needs to be a level of evaluation of this movie as its own story. Again, if Jackson's changes had made for a better movie, they could be forgiven; since they do not, the egregious nature of these changes is further magnified. There is certainly an aspect of magnificence and wonder in the journey, but the pacing is awkward throughout much of the movie's too-long running time - unnecessarily drawn out at times and forced into rushing at others. There are too many characters clogging up the screen, especially with the added development of additional villains such as Azog the goblin and the goblin king and the inclusion of extra-textual characters from LOTR or Tolkien's Unfinished Tales (Radagast?!). The resulting mess leaves too many characters underdeveloped or unfinished and takes away from the central character, Bilbo. There is also an element of Jackson's intent to make the story into a trilogy that interferes with its success as a movie, as there are several scenes inserted to justify scenes from the upcoming two movies. I understand that what Jackson is trying to do is to place The Hobbit within the larger scope of events, but that should not mean that this movie cannot exist as a self-contained entity. The dialogue (mostly Jackson's) is occasionally awkward and stunted, and the entire effort seems uneven and muddled.
I find it a problem that Jackson was trying to make The Hobbit be the same kind of spectacle as The Lord of the Rings, since The Hobbit is a more intimate story about childlike wonder and exploration. Jackson's attempt to insert spectacle into a story of this nature falls flat; I am reminded particularly of the scene with the rock giants, which was reminiscent of the droid battle in Star Wars: Episode I - a bland CG scene that adds nothing to the movie but some effects. But even if I were willing to concede that Jackson's choice to make The Hobbit into a spectacle were valid, it does not work.
I know that part of that failure was the feeling of this movie featuring recycled material from The Fellowship of the Ring, particularly in escaping the goblins' kingdom. Several scenes seem to have been lifted almost shot for shot from his previous effort, and they were much less impressive as a result. The overall pacing, dialogue, and character development contribute to its failure, but any one of those might be forgivable (as they were on occasion in LOTR) in the wider scope of the story. No, the most significant reason that the spectacle fails is the high frame rate. I had heard that the 48 FPS rate made the movie feel less fantastic, but I felt the need to see the movie as Jackson intended it to be seen. It was not too long before I wondered why he wanted it to be seen that way, as I felt that the higher frame rate interfered with the fantasy of the movie, making it feel like a BBC mini-series. I understand that Jackson was taking a risk and pioneering a new technology, for which he should be commended; it's just this was not the forum in which to do it, since it removed the sense of spectacle for the audience.
If I were to sum up my review using a metaphor from the movie, it would be the (SPOILER ALERT!) goiter of the goblin king, a character that is added for the purposes of the movie. As Gandalf and the dwarves talk with him, a disgustingly huge goiter hangs from his chin. It is abrasive, crass, and unnecessary, and moreover it doesn't look possible or "real"; it looks like it is CG, and it does not serve a purpose in developing the character or the story. I see why Jackson put it in, but it still does not make much sense for it to be there. It provides one of the lasting visuals of the movie as one of the final scenes, but there is no reason for it to be memorable other than as a piece of the constructed world of Jackson's Middle-Earth. It is a signal that this is not Tolkien's world, but it is Jackson's; unfortunately, many of the viewers (including me) cannot share Jackson's flawed vision. I am heartened to see that many critics feel the same way, and that the mixed reviews seem to have removed The Hobbit from much of the consideration for awards; even the Golden Globes omitted it. And perhaps that is the final word on The Hobbit: even the Golden Globes ignored it. I'm not suggesting that The Hobbit can necessarily be ignored - it is, after all, a box office hit with two more to follow - but that at the very least that Peter Jackson should be ashamed of what he has done to one of the most beloved books ever written. If nothing else, the fact that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey cannot be in any way considered a movie for children is proof enough that Peter Jackson has ruined it beyond repair, and taken the childhood of many Hobbit lovers with him. This is not how I wanted to remember The Hobbit, and I refuse to let Jackson's vision taint my fond memories of Bilbo's journey through Middle-Earth. If you want to keep your memories pure, I suggest keeping a wide berth from Jackson's abomination. I just can't say it enough: this is, and will always be, one of the worst movie experiences of my life.


  1. Well, that was as entertaining as the movie upon which it was based, and nearly as long. As I found your source material fantastically entertaining (not good mind you but entertaining) please don't take offense.

    The juxtaposition of "paroxysms of apoplectic indignation" with "this turd of a movie" is in my mind the Radagast of sentences (that is too say widely entertaining, brimming with promise but ultimately ending in dissapointment). Koodos on that my friend.

    In terms of Gandalf as a "wizened wizard" in the source material, well I fear you may be off the mark. Knowledgable of the world certainly, but I think he may be closer to a "conjuror of cheap tricks" (lest we forget fighting wolves with extravagantly coloured exploding pine cones) with brief flashes (quite literally)of unknown power and enigmatic allusions to events on a grander scale.

    The Hobbit is by and large a light hearted book full of wonder and mystery and magic and I have to agree that Jackson only managed to capture the light hearted aspect (and that somewhat by accident with the painfully plastic CGI Azog and of course the cartoonish Goblin King).

    I must say though your critic was delightful to read. So thankyou for that.

  2. This is possibly the most scathing film critique I have ever read. Not that you're wrong, per se.

    I went to the movie with some concerns, but decided before it was rolling that I would just take it as it was. My critiques in the end were mostly about changes to the story. I didn't evaluate it as a film other than to think, "Meh. I guess it entertained me for a couple of hours." But then I didn't expect much in terms if interpretation. I like the LOTR films less each time I watch them and I've just come to expect a film version of classic work or books dear to my heart (see "Simon Birch" *shudder*) to shoot very wide of the mark.

    Having said that, the portrayal of Radagast in particular miffed me. I realize Jackson didn't have a lot of material to work with, but really? An incarnate Maia/Valar is going to wander around with bird poop in his hair? By the time the rabbit-sled appeared it didn't surprise me at all.

    And I, too, noticed Bilbo's bravery with the Wargs/Goblins. I'm more than a little worried that Jackson will put Biblo in the thick of the Battle of Five Armies and somehow turn him into the valiant hero of that bit.

    And then Galadriel. She has the ability to disapparate now or what? And why does Gandalf treat her with such reverence, as if she's a higher being than he is? Actually, I wondered a little of Jackson was going to create some kind of love story between them.

    Out of curiosity, what was wrong with the Gollum scene (other than the lack of continuity with the LOTR films in the finding of the ring)? I thought it quite faithful to the book, but then I haven't read it in a couple of years.

  3. PS. You say the Goblin King is a character added for the movie. If I'm not mistaken, there is a Goblin King in the book. (But I might be remembering the 1970s animated film, which, though cutting things out, was nevertheless remarkably accurate).

  4. Paul and I hated the movie as well. I walked out feeling sad and empty. I'm reading the Hobbit again, almost like bandaging a wound! Thanks for summing up our feelings so well. The worst part was that everyone we saw the movie with liked it, or didn't have much of a problem with it. I felt that all the innocence and adventure of the original was gone and it was more like a comedy gone wrong. I really liked all the LOTR movies (Two Towers was my favourite actually) so this was an extreme disappointment.

  5. I stopped reading after the first couple sentences, because to some degree I LIKE -- some quite strongly -- all of the movies in that list, Spider-Man 3 definitely least of all. And despite its obvious flaws, I loved the Hobbit too.

  6. The review is perhaps a bit rambling but I agree with hit with pretty much everything said in it.



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