Don’t. I mean it. You might do it anyway but you’re going to get angry. Not because I spoil elements of the movie,which I do, or because I’m critical of elements within it, which I am, it’s because The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, is so cherished by the fans (some I call friends and followers), it’s akin to social suicide to criticize them. Is An Unexpected Journey a great film? Yes. Does it measure up to the Rings trilogy? Not by a country mile. But when quantifying my issues with the film, I’m forced to reach the conclusion that many of my complaints are not just rooted in Jackson’s adaptation but with Tolkien’s original work.
Any film aficionada understands that many books simply cannot be faithfully adapted to a movie. The moment you make that transition, a viewer is suddenly broadsided with scenes which drag on too long, with characters that are introduced which go nowhere, and plot threads which are ultimately unresolved. Given the two-three hour running length of a film, you need to keep it tight and focused, a task forced onto the makers of the original trilogy, resulting in wise edits to the original story.
With The Hobbit trilogy, for the first time in cinematic history, a book is being adapted with insufficient content, forcing the filmmakers to pad. And pad they did. Swearing on a stack of carpet samples, I admit to not reading the original Hobbit. I read a graphic novel before diving into the LOTR novels later, but I knew enough of the source material. The big inclusion is the injection of the Necromancer storyline, something explored in the appendices but not detailed in the original novel. In the film, this plot is brought to the forefront, focused on for over twenty minutes, but is neither resolved nor adequately explored, and is left hanging without the slightest shred of evidence that it has anything to do with the primary quest the adventurers go on.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me step back. The first issue occurs early on, with the introduction of the dwarves. There are thirteen of them, which any screenwriter would have reduced, but given the love of the source material, this would have been inexcusable to the fans. An early scene has Bilbo’s door open with a solitary dwarf introduced. We spend a minute with him, and Bilbo tries to ascertain the purpose of this dwarf’s presence. We learn his name and are given a quick glimpse at his personality. A minute later, this process repeats with another dwarf’s introduction. A minute passes again, there’s a knock on the door, and two dwarves enter. At this point, I glanced at my watch and thought, Nine more to go, we’re going to be doing this for a while.
No worries, because a minute later, there’s a knock on the door, and eight dwarves fall to the floor. We’re not going to know anything about any of these guys, I discerned. And we never really do. It just becomes a furry fat mess with only a few—the few we were instructed to focus on—being given any attention. At no point are any of them dispatched, and there are moments where you’re certain that should happen, like the escape through the goblin kingdom. I understand this changes later in the book, but Jackson was smart enough to kill Boromir in Fellowship rather than Two Towers.
Then we’re forced into this necromancer subplot. The entire film screams to a halt, and the focus shifts away from our characters to another, and despite his account being later retold to Gandalf, at no point is this subplot directly investigated. It’s more like, “thanks for the news, now onto the mission at hand.” Later, when Gollum enters the story, we’re pulled into a magnificent scene playing between two characters which probably goes down as one of the best moments in the history of all Middle Earth. However, the scene before it shows our dwarvish heroes about to be killed and eaten by an army of goblins. All the while Gollum and Bilbo are having their riddle contest, I’m thinking these dwarves have long since died. But no worries, twenty minutes later, we’re back with them like no time has passed. In a novel, you can get away with this type of time shift, but on a movie, it can be jarring.
The final point involves a climax with a foundation rooted in a narrative technique Tolkien uses like a spray-can. This is the dues ex machina, admittedly ironic because of the name of my publishing company. Although technically defined as the machinery of the gods, it also refers to any calamity the protagonist faces which is conveniently resolved by an external mechanic introduced at the very last second, often with little to no justification. Lord of the Rings was well known for this but most of the time, it was forgiven. When Aragon jumps in to save Boromir at the end of the Fellowship, you knew he was on his way. When the Rohirrim charge down the hill to Helm’s Deep, you knew Gandalf was gathering them previously. However, their timing was always under question, just one second before being too late. In the Return of the King, it started to happen more regularly, but it was the convenient arrival of the eagles at the end which made people groan. It caused viewers to ask why these birds weren’t involved earlier, and why they decided to show up only at the end.
The Hobbit involves a deus ex machina or similar event no less than four times. This includes the sudden appearance of elves after the worg attack and the arrival of Gandalf to save the dwarves in the goblin kingdom. It was at the end where I was utterly dragged out of the film’s suspension of disbelief. The dwarves are on their last legs, death seems certain; Okenshield rises up to face against his nemesis, but fails. At the last second, Bilbo rushes to help. But alas, even Bilbo can’t save the day. Fear not, because now all the dwarves join in at the last second to save the day. And yet…and yet, they all still fail, and death looms certain again.
And then fucking eagles showed up.
That’s right, the god-damned eagles…again. None of the characters survived due to their own skill; it had to fall to an external unpredictable element to resolve it. This might have been good for an action scene half-way through a book but not as the climax of the movie. I was more surprised when I returned home from the film and read through the book synopsis to discover that this was how the scene was resolved in the book. At least Aragon dispatched that uruk-hai chief using only his sword and skill.
By the end, An Unexpected Journey has no real resolution. It just ends. At the end of Fellowship, the band of heroes has split. One of their own has died. A distinctive shift in the narrative has occurred. But in An Unexpected Journey, the movie simply stops running, with the only indication that the film is over being the music crescendo before the end credits. The only other occasion I encountered this was recently with The Bourne Legacy, where at the end, Moby’s signature theme cues in and I was shocked that the movie was ending without resolving any of its plot points.
Admittedly, the first installment of the Hobbit is very entertaining and looks stunning. I mean it looks incredible, with some of the best 3D you’ll see since Avatar, but don’t be fooled that it can measure up to the trilogy which came before…well, I guess after. This is a situation of giving someone (Jackson) too much time and too much money and seeing something which is in danger of feeling bloated, not unlike Jackson’s work outside of Middle Earth. Did we need King Kong to be three hours long? The Lovely Bones was a disaster of melodrama and unnecessary digital effects. I really hope the next two films justify the reason for a nearly nine –hour adaptation of a novel you can read in less time.