Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Long-Expected Prequel

Back in April, I mentioned that I would be seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when it came out, no matter how it turned out. Well, the film has been out for a few weeks now, and I've gotten the chance to see it and form my opinion as to whether it was worth the effort.

Spoiler: It was, it definitely was.

Aside from the several obvious additions to Tolkien's storyline, I was actually rather impressed with the film, and how it balanced the line between keeping the tone of the book, and serving as a believable prequel to the Lord of the Rings films. The troll scene in particular exemplifies this: Although the trolls look just like the bestial ones seen in the trilogy (indeed, when the sun hits them they writhe into pretty much the positions Frodo and friends find them in sixty years later), they sound and act much like they do in the book - and somehow, it works.

Another example of this was Gollum and the Riddle Game - while the Gollum/Smeagol dichotomy established in The Two Towers film was never explicitly spelled out, Andy Serkis's performance definitely built on that while keeping the original dialogue (mostly), to great effect.

Of course, the main villain in The Hobbit is Smaug (to be voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, which ought to be quite amusing since most of his lines are with Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman), and his handling for this first movie was most skillfully done -  from the first fake-out with the dragon-shaped-kite to his awakening in the final frames, we never do get a good look at him.

Overall, just like the Lord of the Rings when the movie shines the brightest is when it's bringing Tolkien's words to life on the screen. The visuals were astounding, even if some of the creatures were a bit more CGI than they perhaps needed to be (a legacy of del Toro's involvement, perhaps). I do realize the necessity of changing some things, and in some cases this can actually be beneficial - for example, some years ago, during a Hobbit re-read, I made a note of how many times each individual Dwarf in the company was mentioned, and for several of them then answer was less than five. Peter Jackson and Weta, however, have done a great job giving each Dwarf a distinct personality, even ones like Bofur that in the book are more or less ciphers (I still dislike his hat).

Other changes, however, were much more overt and less necessary. To his credit, Peter Jackson didn't delete anything consequential from the story, so far as I could tell. However, there were at least three major additions, of varying appropriateness:

The first major difference was the expansion of Azog's role, from being a footnote in Thorin's backstory to being a recurring antagonist in the present of the story. While this adds an element of urgency to the journey to Rivendell, it puts into question how the Battle of Five Armies is going to shake out, since part of Bolg's motivation for being there was revenge for Azog's killing. My hope would be that Azog gets killed shortly after the Dwarves meet Beorn (probably at Thorin's hand, though, since anything else would be anticlimactic), but I'm not sure how that would work pacing-wise. Really, though, the only point I can see to expanding his role like this is to make the story less of a picaresque, a move I don't see the necessity of. And having Azog meet with his scouts at Weathertop was just a bit too gratuitous for my taste.

The second major difference in the film was the appearance of Radagast, who if I recall correctly is not actually seen at any point in Tolkien's writings (maybe a flashback in Fellowship? I don't recall whether he appeared or was just alluded to). Frankly I'm still not quite sure how I feel about him - taken in a vacuum, he was memorable, funny, but surprisingly competent when push came to shove, though I could have done without the bird droppings down his face. On the other hand, his only purposes in the story were to rescue the company from the Azog's orcs, who of course weren't in the book anyway; and to deliver some background on the rise of the Necromancer that Gandalf himself gathered in the book (it actually makes one wonder where the shots of Gandalf in Dol Gulder from the trailer came from - perhaps he'll be checking up on Radagast's claims while the company is stumbling around in Mirkwood). Oh, and foreshadowing the Mirkwood spiders, which ties back to that whole flattening-the-narrative thing.

A scene from the next movie? Or unused footage to keep Radagast's appearance a secret?

The final addition is the one I have the least problems with - moving the White Council meeting that Gandalf attends during the journey to the same time the Dwarves are at Rivendell allows the meeting to be shown without taking the focus too far from the main journey, a quite laudable goal. It would have been nice to dial back Saruman's sinisterness a bit, but overall I think this scene came off rather well.

In the end, I'm pretty satisfied with how this first Hobbit movie turned out. Ultimately  the things that were changed and bother me weren't enough to drown out just how neat it was seeing Middle-Earth on the big screen again. And given what Thorin's Company was standing on when we left them, I suspect the next installment will be leading off with everybody's favorite were-bear . . . I, for one, can't wait to see how that goes!

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