Some thoughts on The Hobbit, part 1: An Unexpected Journey

I saw The Hobbit this afternoon with my family, and on the whole thoroughly enjoyed it. It certainly avoided the trap I’d most feared — that by being a two-and-three-quarter-hour film of the first third of a not-particularly long book, it would feel padded. Instead, the time was managed well and the slower-than-usual pace gave the film time to breathe.

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Comparisons with the three Lord of the Rings films are inevitable, so let’s make a few important points up front.

First, those are my all-time favourite films. Although they contain some horrible mistakes, they get so very much right that I can easily forgive what goes wrong. They are epic in the literal sense, and do the hard work to earn their thematic and emotional depth. So The Hobbit had work to do if it was going to live on those heights.

And The Hobbit has another problem as well: finding a way to deal with the often cutesy tone of the source material. Some sequences are mercilessly, and rightly, cut — such as the elves’ rather jolly nonsense song as the dwarves enter Rivendell. Others are retained, but given a rather different tone: the three trolls are still somewhat comic, but also present a deadly serious threat. The trolls’ magic purse that sings out when Bilbo tries to steal it in the book is wisely excised. (I can’t approve of the change to how the troll sequence is resolved, even though I understand it from the point of view of the Thorin-learns-to-trust-Bilbo arc.)

What remains is a film closer in tone to Book I of Lord of the Rings than to The Hobbit. I’m in two minds about this. Part of me would have loved to see a straight kids’-film adapatation of a kids’ book. But the reality is that you can’t really sell this film as an LotR prequel, Ian McKellan and all, and then have it be completely different. In the event, the new film goes out of its way to position itself as a Fellowship prequel. It takes us right up to within moments of the start of that film, with Frodo running out to meet Gandalf as he makes his way to Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party. It may be a bit too slavishly done, but it’s well executed and earned a smile from me.

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One area where The Hobbit is unequivocally better than its predecessor is in the casting of the central character. Although both books, and the films based on them, are ensemble pieces, much nevertheless rests on the performances of Bilbo and Frodo. And Martin Freeman is much more believable than Elijah Wood was. Freeman of course has made his name playing ordinary people such as Tim from The Office (UK original) and Dr. Watson opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes. Here, as in his role as Arthur Dent in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide movie, Freeman’s ordinary person finds himself in extraordinary situations — and reacts exactly as such a person really would. Freeman has a very naturalistic style and never, ever looks like he’s acting. (There is certainly nothing to parallel Elijah Wood’s horribly theatrical “What Will I See?” from the Mirror of Galadriel scene in Fellowship.)

That said, there’s a natural intensity about Elijah Wood, perhaps in part because of his quirky appearance, that played very well with some of the later parts of Lord of the Rings. In particular, his flat, possessed delivery of the crucial line “The ring is mine” in Return of the King is chilling. It remains to be seen whether Freeman can crank it up in parts 2 and and especially 3 of The Hobbit when similar intensity is required.

Elsewhere, much of the casting consist of old friends: McKellan as Gandalf, Lee as Saruman, Weaving as Elrond and especially Blanchett as Galadriel are all as excellent as we would expect. I found one of the most captivating scenes to be the very simple one of Gandalf and Galadriel talking after the Council of the Wise. Both characters are ancient, learned and insightful; and both actors have enough to them to make you believe in their characters’ wisdom. I like the way that Galdalf, usually so inscrutible and commanding, becomes slightly deferential when with Galadriel.

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As for the dwarves: it’s impossible to give a dozen fairly interchangeable bit-parts all distinct characters, and the film makes the right choice in not even trying. Thorin is well drawn, though perhaps a shade over Aragorny. Balin is neatly sketched as his aged but battle-hardened second-in-command. The rest are fairly interchangeable aside from their visual characteristics. I might wish that the prosthetics had been a little less extreme, especially as they made the very human Thorin look not at all like his kinfolk.

Since we had a lot of spare running time to play with, I sort of thought we might get Tom Bombadil parachuted in from Fellowship. We didn’t. Somehow I can’t make myself feel sad about that. What we got instead was some rather good material pulled in from the RotK appendices (Thorin’s back-story, the Council of the Wise) and a surprisingly small amount of invented material, involving Radagast’s rather belated discovery that Greenwood the Great is becoming the Mirkwood. True to form, the invented material was probably the weakest part of the film —  nursing hedgehogs back to health, riding rabbit-sleighs and suchlike. I’d hoped Jackson and Walsh had learned their lesson about trying to improve on Tolkien after the fiasco that was Faramir’s role in the Two Towers film, but apparently not. To my mind, Radagast was played too scattily, divesting him of his wizardly dignity — though I did very much enjoy his sudden unexpected show of power in Dol Goldur.

Keeping Azog alive, and making him Thorin’s nemesis, makes sense in the context of the film, and didn’t do undue violence to Tolkien. But I was surprised that he was still alive by the end of the film: I suppose he will track them into Mirkwood in film 2, which doesn’t necessarily bode well.

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Finally: like the three LotR films, this one is a joy to look at. It’s just beautiful. Rivendell literally brings tears to my eyes. The dwarf city under the Lonely Mountain was so much more than I’d imagined it my own mind, a vision of what Moria must have been like before the Balrog. Even though I knew they were coming, the sight of the eagles coming to the rescue at the end took my breath away.

All in all, I am thoroughly glad we made the time to go as a family, and desperate to see parts 2 and 3.

35 responses to “Some thoughts on The Hobbit, part 1: An Unexpected Journey

  1. Because I trust you I will now go and see this. I had, to be perfectly honest, expected to get up in mid-film and storm out yelling obscenities ;) But it seems this is not that much Tolkien-rape as LotR was.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful review – I had similar thoughts and was surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. My guess is that Azog will probably be seen again heading the goblins in the battle of five armies in the third film, probably to be killed by Thorin before the end.

  3. Any comments on 2D/3D or the frame rate?

  4. Spot on review Mike. I agree that whenever PJ tries to fix Tolkien he’s only doing harm. I was utterly disappointed that crucial parts of the backstory were missing — Thrain, driven by the desire for gold intensified by one of the seven rings sets out on a journey and is imprisoned by the Necromancer in the dungeons of Dol Guldur, where Gandalf finds him shortly before his death and receives the key to the Mountain. Instead we get Azog on his personal vendetta filling up the screen time. This is probably the weakest character in the movie and feels totally out of place (my wife noticed it and she’s proudly ignorant about Tolkien). Radagast is only a tiny bit better.

    Did you see the movie in 3D HFR? I did, and must admit that the first 20 or so minutes were really uncomfortable. Especially the indoor sequences felt like a teleplay with characters moving in an accelerated, hyperreal way. On the other hand it makes the 3D more bearable and action sequences are more engaging and detailed. I’d like to see the movie in standard 24fps and 2D just to compare, though.

  5. Scott, I bet you’re right about Azog’s final fate. The question remains, what are they going to find for him to do in the second film? It would take courage to do the right thing, which is to leave him out completely (except maybe in brief flashbacks).

    Xavi, we saw the film in an antiquated (and actually rather nice) cinema without gimmicks. So certainly no 3d (I would never willingly choose 3d anyway). And if the framerate was high then I didn’t notice it, but I’m pretty sure it was normal.

    Jakub, I suspect the Thrain story will be told in flashback during the second movie, as background to Gandalf’s visit to Dol Goldur — or perhaps Gandalf will learn about it there. (I can’t remember exactly what movie-Azog said about Thrain’s fate, though, can you?) I’m surprised you thought Radagast with his rabbit-powered sleigh was better than Azog.

  6. People are going on and on about the “HFR”, which really boggles my mind; now with small babies I’ve not yet seen the film (drat!), but hope to soon..

    But lests call it what it is .. “HFR” (48fps) is actually a low frame rate.

    Every day, people watch TV at a higher framerate (the UK is what, 50fps, while the US is 60, say.) People watch videos on their PC at 100hz or more, and especially play video games.

    So the _display framerate_ is sillyness; perhaps some peopel are put off by the recording framerate; But again, aren’t TV shows routinely recorded at 60fps? And if genre complications.. lets talk Game of Thrones (fantasy) recorded at 60fps and played at 50 or 60fps.

    Video games are routinly played 120hz, and sports events always get as high a framerate as possibly (60.)

    So.. I don’t get it.

    It seems to me the whole “HFR” thing is “I don’t like it, because its different”, or perhaps the valid .. we’re used to 24fps in the cinema, so anythign else ‘feels weird’. That can make some sense, at least.

    (There is not an issue of ‘uncanny valley’, as the framerate aspect of it doesn’t come in until much higher, like 300fps or something.)

    There is also that idea that framerate is another tool in the toolbox, akin to film stock and so on, and should be used carefully, not just ‘because we want to spends the money my precious’, which is interesting.

    So…. anyone comment? :)

  7. I wish I shared your view. Once an artist reaches Jackson’s heights it’s hard to say no to him and he needs to hear it more often. King Kongm and now King Hobbit Kong, would benefit from that most horrible of literary monsters — editors.

  8. Apart from some of the Radagast material, what specifically would you have cut? Nothing springs to mind to me. There are lots of bits we could have done without if a short running time was itself a desideratum, but I can’t think of anything whose absence would have fundamentally improved the film.

  9. I always thought that the book is about a creature without an eventful life who gets into an adventure, learning more about himself and the world, exceeding his own expectations and proving himself to those he encounters, while also contributing to a very big goal. I didn’t like that in the movie they tried to make it as if this adventure is just a small thing in part of a much bigger plot. It should be the adventure of The Hobbit, not of The Wizard….

    On a whole it felt that these connecting scenes were inserted mid-way in order to set up a bigger story, and to connect with the trilogy and the rest of Tolkien’s mythology. It hurts the movie, by added exposition to an already very long (but not bad) exposition, and by detracting the story from what I was really interested in, the hobbit and the dwarves. I mean just think about it. We don’t even know much about the dragon, but we’re already being told of other things behind it.

    But I really liked the movie, especially the second part (starting with the great stone giants scene, which I’m so thrilled they kept in) where they stuck more to the story of the book, and they’ve recreated those scenes brilliantly on the big screen. I loved all of them, but most of all the Gollum scene.

    I just hope they will be able to pull off the Gandalf part in the sequels so that it will fit.

  10. Ah, well, there you seem to be saying not that you don’t like how they made the movie, but that you wish they’d made a different movie instead. I have some sympathy with the idea that the film should have remained with the hobbit-eye view only. But as a lover of the whole Tolkien mythos (I’ve read the RotK appendices, twice through Sil and Hurin, currently reading Lost Tales) I have to say that for myself I am glad they took the broader approach.

  11. BTW., Jeff, I didn’t see the 48 fps version (unless I did but it was such a non-event to me that I didn’t notice). But I’m amused at the outcry all over the web, claiming that 24 fps is somehow better. It isn’t. It just isn’t. No-one deliberately plays Quake at a low framerate. Why would a film be any different?

  12. Well, this first installment, still was pretty much The Hobbit, so I liked how it came out overall – I still had a great time and it didn’t feel like almost 3 hours at all. The other stuff just felt tacked on and not part of this movie’s story, that’s what I was complaining about. We’ll have to see how well they will make it fit in the next two movies.

  13. Okay, I’ve seen it at 2D 48fps. It was good, the framerate was fine; I’d go so far as to say there were pacing issues, and some liberties with the story, but the outcry is unwarranted for the most part.

    People are saying ‘omg, theres stone giants throwing fisticuffs’.. well, I’ve just found the passage in the book; yes, it was one sentence (with a second soon after, sort of) and it turned into a couple minutes in the movie.. that sort of thing going on. But lets not forget that the Riddles show up on page what, 65 or somesuch in the book .. right smack up front, somehow. Its quite terse there, and bulgey at the back. so they had to play with pacing to get that *umf* at the right movie pulse?

    Somethign to recall is they did *have* to fiddle a bit, to make it blend with the movies; the books Hobbit and LotR are not directly related per se.. while they share the same timeline/history/world/etc, they are of a very different tone; H is quite silly and terse, throwing ideas left and right, while LotR delves into some of the history and provides that ‘theres a story for every unturned stone’ mythology.. and then the Silmarillion, a big epic; three different ‘scopes’?

    So, fine… but after people have seen and loved the LotR trilogy of films, you can’t then go throw a ‘childs story’ out there.. something done in 70 minutes (like the 70s cartoon version); it has to have similar look and feel and tone, so they verily had to take liberties.

    Some of it seems odd.. the whole Radagast bit, but its in there, a few mentions here or there, bu fleshing it out.. okay (personally, I think they made him a little too addled, but fine.) Some of the plots seemed unnecessarily changed as in LotR.. but perhaps thats to make it feel more paced, or to surprise the hardcore for fun. ie: the dwarves sneaking out of Rivendell and Gandalf showing up later.. thats not how it is in the book. Course, the whole Rivendell section in the book is about 5 pages.. but given LotR movies, we know more about Elrond and such, so they can fold more of the footnotes in. (Recall the H bnook came first, whereas the LotR movie trilogy came first..)

    So, a movie audience (different), book ordering (different), tone difference, etc.. it has to be different.

    Overall, a fairly good adaptation; not perfect, but cut the man some slack .. some hard material to adapt to a 6 or 9 hour film, and its hard to strike gold as many times as he already has (come on, the LotR trilogy _are_ good films, though I admit I can’t take the Sam/Frodo hugging as much on the 10th rewatch ;)

    The framerate doesn’t enter into it at all..

    .. but some people pick up on these things more.

  14. Thanks, Jeff, that all sounds right to me.

  15. My favourite thing about the movie was Martin Freeman. I completely agree with Steven Moffat when he said “Martin finds a sort of poetry in the ordinary man. I love the fastidious realism of everything he does.”
    This was on Sherlock, but it could easily be applied to his performance here. As you said, he very much makes me think of normal person being dragged into this crazy world. It’s a joy to just see how he reacts to everything.
    What are your thoughts on Sherlock, by the way?

    I really think the critics need to zip it about the length of the film. Surely as long as it’s entertaining, or you don’t feel the length, then it doesn’t matter how long it is? That’s how it felt for me.

    Well, I did find myself annoyed when the movie ended. I had a blast watching it, but I wish I did get a bit more plot for my money.
    And most of it did feel like “Swarm of enemies, escape. Rinse and repeat.”
    I never liked the Eagles. Way too Deus Ex Machina for me.
    Or “eucatastrophe” if you wanna get retentive about it.

    Thank God that the Riddles scene was masterfully handled. This was as close to perfection as you could get.
    Give Andy Serkis an Academy Award, already.

  16. I agree that the eagles are very deus-exy — indeed, who could dispute it? But, really, who could care? They were so awesome, I just loved them anyway.

  17. The Eagles works for me .. I hadn’t thoguht of them as a Desu-ex-M escape, but I always loved the magic and majesty of it all; that Gandalf is friends with King of the Eagles (and Lord of the Horses and so on) always struck deeply with me, abotu the whole story .. Iluvitar (sp) breathing life into the world and all these magical things still in the cracks. (Truly, the whole LotR/etc story seems an attempt to breath mystery into the shadow under every pebble of the English coutryside..) — the eagles just show you ‘wait, Gandalf is a wise old man, and does use magic once in awhile, but here, right here, unmistakably, is somethign miraculous, so you know the very world is rooting for these guys’.

    Took me awhile as a kid to sort it out (especially with name changing.. Morgoth et al), that Gandalf, Saruman and the other 3 are more or less angels sent to help against Mortgoth/Sauron. (It woudl have made many peoples lives a tough simpler with Saruman started with a different letter :O)

    So if Gandalf can very occasionally summon a miraculous event, it works; but you’re right, as a pure story plotline, its rather.. ‘the hell?’

    … damn, I hate when a phone rings and wakes a sleeping baby; another hurried response by me.. :)

  18. Pingback: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey | Echo Station 5-7

  19. I’ve seen the movie in both 48fps and 24fps and preferred the latter. The 48fps picture IS much, much sharper and smoother, but the whole movie was lit like a soap opera, which I found both distracting and irritating. I am surprised that there is either no technical fix for this (like just darkening all the frames appropriately to shift the brightness down), or that if such a fix exists, it hasn’t been implemented yet. More thoughts on this here.

  20. I’ve seen the soap-opera comparison in a few places, but the commenters in question all seemed to assume it was only because soap-operas appear on TV which has a faster frame-rate than movies. So they were criticising the 48fps Hobbit for not having a failure that they have become used to — an idiot stance like criticising modern computer screens for not being limited to 16 colours. Yours is the first review I’ve seen that says the 48fps versions seems overlit, which is a much more substantive criticism.

    Why would that be so? Surely not an intrinsic by-product of showing twice as many frames — after all, they’re each only up for half as long. It surely must have been done deliberately. But why would anyone do such a thing?

  21. I know too little, but I have a vague memory of there being some sort of interference between saccades and brightness perception at low frame rates….. Sorry, I was trying to whisper my way a girl’s pants when the professor talked about this :(

  22. oh, and yes, Mike, you are 1000% correct about Freeman!

  23. How about that entire fabricated meeting of the “protectors of Middle Earth?” The most cringe worthy sequence in the film labeled “The Hobbit.”

  24. I’ve seen the soap-opera comparison in a few places, but the commenters in question all seemed to assume it was only because soap-operas appear on TV which has a faster frame-rate than movies.

    Really? Is that what they actually said, or what you assumed they meant? Because I’ve seen plenty of reviews claiming that the 48fps version of the movie looked like a soap opera, and I assumed that the reviewers were just telling the truth about their experience as viewers. It can’t be just an assumption that a higher frame rate itself causes soap-opera-like lighting, because most television shows aren’t lit like soap operas. Otherwise the critics would have said, “Lit like TV shows”, which would not seem to be problematic, given that (at least to me) most TV shows don’t seem to be lit much differently from movies.

    The 48fps picture was noticeably sharper and smoother, to the point that pretty much every scene was eye-candy no matter what was going on. That part was legitimately awesome. I just didn’t like the everything-sort-of-glowing lighting effect, which I am certain is an effect of the higher frame rate since it wasn’t there in the 24fps version. And again, I’m not claiming that all 48fps sucks because of the soap-opera lighting. There may well be a technical fix that just hasn’t been invented yet or wasn’t applied here.

  25. How about that entire fabricated meeting of the “protectors of Middle Earth?”

    You mean the meeting of the White Council? That is pretty much straight out of the Appendices.

  26. And I am sure there are reasons Tolkien left it as an aside which pretty much sums up the entire Silmarillion. Jackson has made the same mistake here that Lucas did. Never tell the back story. Some things are best left hinted at rather than spelled out in numbing 3D detail. I’ll probably watch the rest of this series but I’ll never look at these films more than once.

  27. I think they should have kept the council scene for the next movie, as a flashback maybe, because that is exposition for Gandalf’s business with the Necromancer, which we will see there (I assume). For this movie it contributed with nothing except for extending an already very long first act.

  28. Well, Andrei, all I can tell you is that those scenes are from Tolkien and I loved them. If you didn’t like them, then that is a shame.

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  31. I’ve seen the IMAX 3d high framerate edition now .. _astounding_ .. if only it could have been 60 or 120fps :)

    Al story aside, I thought it was an exhilerating action film with stunning visuals. Honestly, watching LotR is still amazing, but I usually skip on through all the Sam and Frodo hugging for some reason (do we all do that?), and cut to everyone else.. more action? holds up better after repeated watching?

    But I think Hobbit will hold up better for re-watch.. ites juat so full of crazy visuals, it’ll be fun over and over again.

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  33. I consider Lord of the Rings to be among the finest cinematic achievements in motion picture history. As for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the closest approximation is The Phantom Menace. I liked The Phantom Menace back in May 1999 and I still do (in defense of… ). But I now know exactly how those who disliked or hated Episode One felt on that fateful evening 12.5 years ago. I feel your pain, for now it is my pain as well.

  34. I seem to have found the solution re brightness: apparently, 48 fps is shown by using two synched 24 fps projectors. That means that 2x the photons are shot at the screen. This needs to be properly corrected for, and if that is not perfectly mastered, the result will have a different brightness and lighting than a 24 fps showing.

  35. Pingback: Two film reviews: The Desolation of Smaug and The Desolation of Smaug | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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