Hobbitses! A Few Thoughts on Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” So Far…

 
Hobbit the desolation of smaug ver15 xlg
 
10 years ago, the biggest things occupying my mind, other than the vast outrages of the Bush administration, were hobbits.  More specifically, Peter Jackson’s “Lord of The Rings” movies.  
 
From 2000-2004, Jackson had given me a slice of my early teens back, but with all the benefit of my adult years, some great actors, and some kick-ass special effects.  During that time, I read Tolkien’s trilogy at least 10 times & “The Hobbit”, “The Silmarillion” & “The Unfinished Tales” several times as well. I watched the movies endlessly, seeing things onscreen that I had wanted to see all my life:
 
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I obsessed over all of it, from the characters, portrayals, and scenes to the film-making & story-telling itself. The books became a touchstone for meaningful consideration of deeper subjects in my life as well, from environmental ones, to the understanding of sadness and loss, to the meaning of hope.  
 
Thus, it was perhaps a little surprising that I went to see the first installment of Jackson’s “The Hobbit” 2 years ago, with almost no enthusiasm & very low expectations.
 
It had all gone wrong for me in “The Return of the King”, the third LOTR (Lord Of The Rings) movie, with a few things I found unforgivable (“Arwen’s fate is now tied to the Ring” – Gah! & the Army of The Dead being this unstoppable force) that I was largely done with Jackson’s versions of Middle Earth.  On top of that,“The Hobbit” is a not a great book.  It is a “kid’s book”, in the worst sense of the phrase, unfortunately.  All that meant that when I heard Jackson was making “The Hobbit,” I thought “Meh, well at least I’ll get to see a big dragon on screen.” (That all being said, see this…)
 
I’m so happy I was wrong. Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” movies, so far, have been SO. MUCH. FUN.  The first one was pretty good & this second one has been great.  I loved it.  And I’ve been obsessing about Hobbitsess again.  Thank you Mr. Jackson.  I can’t wait for Part 3.
 
What follows are a few thoughts from my obsessions:

 

Telling a Better “Hobbit”

As part of my rekindled fascination, I’m re-reading “The Hobbit.”  I’m here to tell you that as much as I love the story, the book is almost unreadable as an adult.  
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Artist Rosemary Travale kinda nails it here…
 
 
As I said above, it’s a “kid’s book” – a story told in a patronizing voice, with sing-songy nonsense & boringly juvenile characterizations, motivations & depictions spread everywhere.  Books like “Harry Potter & The Sorcerers Stone” show clearly that this needn’t be the case – you can write an excellent story for children without it being frippery.  
 
The tonal difference between LOTR and “The Hobbit” is a big one.  LOTR is written almost entirely as a historical fiction* , with deeper tones and a clearly more adult voice.  Peter Jackson has clearly set out to push “The Hobbit” into the reality of “Lord Of The Rings,” while still staying somewhat “true” to the story, if not the book.  Online, there are vast numbers of Tolkien fans who are crying foul at this, but truth be told, Tolkien himself intended to do just the same:  he began reworking “The Hobbit” after he published LOTR in order to bring it more in line with his later (& much better) work. It’s a pity he didn’t finish it.
 
Additionally, Tolkien spent a good bit of effort connecting up the events in “The Hobbit” and LOTR and writing back story for all of Gandalf’s unexplained absenses at critical parts of the Hobbit story.  In fact, one of the things that makes “The Hobbit” films so good, is that Jackson’s “The Hobbit” shows us this material, from the Lord of The Rings appendices (which he has rights to), but not “The Unfinished Tales” (which he does not) & can thus tell a fuller story.
 
Other changes Jackson has made are entirely his own & for are the most part improvements.  The most obvious example is the female elven warrior Tauriel, but a better example is his work on the dwarves themselves.
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The biggest change is that Jackson has fleshed out the dwarves.  In “The Hobbit”, the 13 dwarves, with the exception of Thorin Oakenshield, are given the shortest shrift of all the significant characters in the book: their lines are interchangeable, they are almost totally indistinguishable, and are not so much individual characters as a single character en masse.  Jackson on the other hand, has taken time and effort with each of them to great result.  While the reality of filming means that there is not enough screen time to develop all 13 dwarves (unless you watch all the DVD bonus materiel), there is a lot of good solid character work that I really enjoyed (in particular, Balin as consigliere & conscience & Bofur as fun-loving yet emotional & Dwalin as warrior-dwarf).  And while it is true that Jackson’s dwarves are often portrayed as buffoons or comic relief, they get a much more dignity and value & real emotion than they do in the book. (This handy dwarf guide is fun!)
 
As for Tauriel, the female elf warrior,  I like her, and not just for the fact that Evangeline Lilly is so easy on the eyes.  Despite some annoying bits (really? she’s amused by the “search down my pants” bit?), she’s a strong character, with a real agenda of her own that is not simply are reaction to a love interest.  “The Hobbit” is devoid of any female characters and I can only say I wish they added more (Bard’s son should be a daughter!).  (If I have a daughter, I might try this!)
 

*It only fails at this in the earlier parts of the book, where it sounds much more like “The Hobbit” – see Tom Bombadill.

High Frame Rate = Wow

Peter Jackson has made a big point of presenting his Hobbit films in “high frame rate” – 48 frames per second rather than the 24 frames per second of normal films.  I did not see the first movie in HFR, but I did catch a showing of the second in HFR 3D and I have to say it is an amazing difference & mostly for the better.  If you’re a fan & have not seen them in the intended HFR, I highly recommend doing so!*
 
The High Frame Rate makes the movie appear as if it is happening live before you – like being at the theater rather than at the movies.  It is very different. 
 
First the downside: The downside is that lots of things look less cinematic and more theatrical. The closer, personal scenes, say of Thorin & Gandalf talking in Bree, now looks like two actors in fantastic costumes on a set performing right in front of you – but it feels like actors acting because it does not feel like cinema. Similarly it is so much more immediate and detailed that when you see a character’s face lit by say a setting sun, or a distant fire, it looks a lot more like “a spotlight from stage left”.  So for a lot of these scenes, it might not be a change for the better.
 
But then there are the upsides: The big upside is that all the effects look much more like live theater as well – that is to say they look real & not like effects because you are watching them live. For an effects laden movie like “The Hobbit” – this is simply AMAZING.  The spiders in 3D HFR look alive and not 40 feet from your face – amazing and terrifying.  All the CGI characters look less like CGI and look live (like the main orcs, Azog & Bolg).  Smaug himself was amazing – though truth be told he didn’t feel as “more real” as the spiders – but that might be because I kept thinking about how amazing HFR was rather than enjoying the dragon at that point.  
 
The other upside about HFR is the detail – it is simply stunning – everything on screen is so much more tangible and detailed.  It really shows how painstaking the attention to detail is in all these films, and it does make it feel more immersive.  This detail made long vistas and big sets (the halls of the dwarves in the Lonely Mountain) feel like real actual places rather than CGI backdrops and they made insane action scenes feel much more real – honestly I’m stunned.  I might need to go see it yet again.
 
I really need to see the first film in HFR 3D now & preferably HFR IMAX 3D.  I’m hopeful they will have a special showing somewhere when Part 3 comes out.
 

*If you live in SF, as of this writing, Part 2 is still showing in HFR in Daly City – right near BART. If you are elsewhere, the movie’s website has listings of where you kind find it in what version on the “tickets” page, here.

Odds & Ends

  • One of the joys of these films is Martin Freeman as Bilbo.  I simply love him.  A master stoke of casting & acting.  The scenes in Part 2 where he begins to realize the hold the Ring has over him are particularly fantastic.
  • It is not lost on me that one of the reasons I can enjoy “The Hobbit” movies so much is that I have lower expectations of them than I did the LOTR movies.  Similarly, Jackson’s changes to this story are more likely to be for the better.
  • A few weeks ago, I went back and watched all of the LOTR extended editions back to back over the course of a few nights.  First, I should say that watching them as one long miniseries over several evenings is really the best way to experience them.  The extended editions, especially, work really well as one long continuous story watched without a sense of them as 3 separate movies (which is something Jackson intended.)  I really recommend it! This was the first time I’ve ever done that and the first time I’ve watched them in years.  They really are fantastic movies & I find the disappointing parts of “Return of The King” less a devastation since they are not a surprise.  There simply so many great things in those movies.  I’m really glad I re-watched them & think I will do so again every few years or so.(return to earlier reference)
  • “The Hobbit” was originally going to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro & I was looking forward to his take & was hoping he would do away with some of the Jacksonisms I don’t appreciated (not every emotional moment needs music to get it’s point across PJ!) – but in hindsight I’m glad he didn’t.  I don’t want a Hellboy/Pan’s Labyrinth/Kaiju Hobbit as much as I want PJ’s.
  • Was it just me or does Legolas come across as a little racist towards dwarves?
  • I’m amused at Stephen Colbert’s Tolkien geekery (he has a cameo in Part 2 & shows up in the production diaries asking geeky questions)
  • What’s the story with PJ’s cameo in Part 2? He’s eating a carrot & it looks so Bugs Bunny that I can’t help but think there is a joke or reference there.
  • Gollum, as always is fantastic to watch.  The new Gollum in Part 1 is amazing – the facial expressions especially.  This more than anything is why I must go find Part 1 in HFR – I really want to see live Gollum!  Andy Serkis is just amazing. I love this
  • I Wasn’t Talking To You!

     And Gollum is why I call Baozi “the Pupses” 

  • I’m also enjoying all the various bits of Tolkien Geekery on the Web! Here are some great links (I might add some more later)

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