Mark your calendars, dishevel your hair, press your clothes, pack your bags, and get all your housekeeping business and Christmas shopping done now, because the year 2012 has saved what may be its best film for last, with the release of Peter Jackson’s long-awaited return to everyone’s favorite countryside, Middle Earth – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The film premieres in theaters everywhere on Friday, December 14th.
As objective as I try to be with most things prior to release, there are a few mediums for which that characteristic in me is simply impossible. It was no secret that I was excited for The Avengers, and The Dark Knight Rises, and Skyfall – all of which I loved, by the way, and it’s no secret that I’m excited for The Hobbit.
I am a Tolkienverse junkie; not necessarily to the degree of a couple of friends of mine of whom I love all the more for it, but as such, I can already tell you now that unless something crazy happens in the film that is so blasphemous and offensive to my sensibilities (which I should mention are quite flexible because I was actually happy, or at least not at all bothered, at the omissions of Tom Bombadil, the Grey Company, and the scouring of the Shire, as well as the inclusion of Haldir’s elves at Helm’s Deep and the banishment of Eomer), it will be impossible for me not to really really like this upcoming film.
And I trust Peter Jackson enough that he’s not going to royally screw this up in spite of this film’s tumultuous production history. The man, like Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, has never directed a bad movie. That’s right – I even like Jackson’s Naomi Watts/Andy Serkis King Kong remake and nothing you say will change that!
But never let it be said that this film is easy. This note is essentially an assessment of the film’s biggest obstacles, from the perspective of a Tolkien buff, an amateur film critic, proud nerd, and devilishly handsome charming rogue. Specifically, I will be talking about the opening act, which is the film’s biggest gamble.
The adventure, at least from Bilbo’s perspective is pretty straightforward. It’s episodic, but that’s no different from how The Lord of the Rings was structured and that worked out fine. Given how much of the book is supposed to happen in this film (more on that in a bit), it makes sense to start the adventure as soon as possible, as it is of course what we’re all most excited to see.
But that would be a mistake.
The first reason is because of Bilbo. We may be familiar with him, but a younger Bilbo is still kind of new, and Martin Freeman needs to establish himself as the character so that we’re comfortable with him. And part of establishing him in the beginning is demonstrating his reluctant courage. Bilbo may appear to be very malleable to his own sense of adventure but in the beginning, he doesn’t actually want any of this. His quite understandable wish to be home and far away from caring about the dwarves is his own sense of pride, and his being forced to swallow that pride and adapt to his surroundings for the benefit of the company that he grows accustomed to liking is what makes him so compelling as a character.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, and I have no doubt that Freeman is talented enough to convey this, potentially to an even greater extent than Elijah Wood portrayed the same characteristics in Frodo. But we, the audience, need time to learn how to care.
The second reason is because, one way or another, we all need to be reacquainted with Middle Earth. It’s been nine years since The Return of the King. To be thrown back into the film-adapted pages of Tolkien is tougher than it sounds. The original films were incredibly engaging in how they showed us Middle Earth piece by piece, getting more and more breathtaking with the shots of Rohan and Gondor. And by the end of the final film, we knew all the characters by name, face, actor, and specialty. The Hobbit will have to do the same, especially considering that we have an almost entirely new cast of characters to become acquainted with as well.
And on a similar note, FYI, The Hobbit has one of the biggest budgets in film history and has been filmed at 48 frames per second, which is double the norm. If the film rushes into the action adventure setting pumping up the adrenaline when we’re not yet adapted to the sharper view (something a few people have already complained about), it will break our immersion. But given the trailer, I doubt this will be a problem.
It probably sounds like I’m endorsing a form of coddling for the viewer, but I should stress – the viewer is already interested; we just can’t have too much thrown at us right up front. And that brings me to the other big obstacle this film has to contend with. This is something that I have seen absolutely no one else discuss, and it’s something I am 100% certain critics that are unfamiliar with the lore, will find problematic, because for any other film…it would be.
There’s really no way to say this without sounding really negative, so I’ll just say it. The beginning of The Hobbit will be an absolute mess.
If you’ll recall back to Fellowship, you’ll remember that in the beginning of the film, we are given just a few core characters: Sauron, Gandalf, the hobbits, and then, Saruman & Aragorn. The film takes its time to establish them, so that it can then, around Act 2, throw in Arwen, Elrond, Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir, and then later on, Galadriel as well. Fellowship plays out almost like a thriller, but it certainly takes its time, knowing that it doesn’t need to insist upon itself up front, because any sense of underwhelm you might find in the action of that movie (which you shouldn’t, by the way), is amplified in the other two films.
From left to right: Nori, Fili, Dori, Bofur, Gloin, Dwalin, Thorin, Balin, Oin, Bombur, Bifur, Ori, and Kili
The Hobbit unfortunately cannot start the same way. The Hobbit throws Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the entire band of Dwarves into the mix right at the beginning. You’ll also learn about Smaug, and you’ll be given a background on location. You can expect that maybe ten minutes into the film, you’ll be seeing the entire group of dwarves all at the giant dinner table, feasting, joking, laughing…and probably flatulating too. That’s a lot of material to take in in such a short period of time, even for the people who know the story, but that’s how it is written, so Jackson can’t change that.
With a book like The Hobbit, you can essentially read half of it for structure. In the book, you don’t need to know every character or memorize all the names right in the beginning, especially since they’re all together for pretty much the entirety of the story. With the film, you’re seeing all of them, so the same does not apply. If characters are talking and you don’t know who they are, you’re going to feel a little lost, even if you understand what they’re all talking about. So you can probably expect that the film’s need to give all of these dwarves at least some form of memorable line or personality trait in the film in the beginning will come across as a bit forced, but there’s no other way to do it.
The plot of the film will be unavoidably murky. The Lord of the Rings didn’t have this problem – it was just a straight set up of the good/evil fight with the inclusion of the ring and then a short narrative of how the ring was lost and found and then lost and found again. The Hobbit, with its immediate introduction of all the major characters right at the beginning, will be forced to intermit its opening act with a flashback or two about how this suicide mission of a quest became even remotely feasible to begin with, as well as the other factors involved. While The Hobbit is literally the best kind of prequel you can possibly have for a major saga, and as fun as it is, it’s still a lot to take in. Some people might not be ready for that, so consider this your heads up.
It probably sounds like I’m making excuses, and I am. Were this any other franchise, the overwhelming nature of the plot and characters would kneecap the film before it launched. And indeed part of the reasons the previous attempts at adapting The Hobbit into film fell so hard on their faces was due to this problem.
As this film will be structured essentially on the character arc of Bilbo himself, the film breakdown will likely happen like this (being as vague as possible).
Act 1 will be the Unexpected Party, the start of the adventure, the trolls, and then the short rest at Rivendell, with the presenting of swords (Glamdring for Gandalf, Orcrist for Thorin, and Sting for Bilbo). You can expect all that to cover at least a good hour of the film, and hopefully by then, you’ll be acquainted enough with your new fellowship by the time the heavier action comes along.
Act 2 will feature the goblins, Bilbo’s big find, and the riddles in the dark. Even though this is covering only two chapters of the book, you can probably expect this to take another hour of the film.
And Act 3 will probably feature the wolves, Beorn, Radagast, and then will probably end right either in or immediately after the adventure in Mirkwood Forest.
But one thing remains certain – if the opening act is rushed, the rest of the film will suffer for it.
If you’re a Tolkien aficionado like me and you know the full story, then I also suggest that you take a look into the writings of Thomas Monteath – two in particular that I really enjoyed, even if I didn’t agree with everything. The first is his defense of a full trilogy for The Hobbit. The other is his predicted breakdown of the film, which is only a little bit different from mine.
I’m going to avoid talking pre-maturely about what the next film will look like. I’ll be able to tell you the full extent of it after we see the first film, but for now, I hope you found this information useful, and that you’ll make it to the midnight showing. As far as quality prediction is concerned, I don’t expect it to be better or even as good as Fellowship but I maintain that in spite of how similar this movie is likely to be with it, it would be an unfair comparison to make. Regardless, it will be an event in the truest sense of the word.
I’ll see you at the movies!!!