Down The Rabbit Hole - a review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

by David Larsen / 13 December, 2012
Is this train wreck really the work of the team that made <em>The Lord of the Rings</em>?
Do you remember the story of Bullroarer Took? He was so huge - for a hobbit - that he could ride a horse. "He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul's head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented in the same moment".

Gandalf tells this story to Bullroarer's great-great-grand nephew Bilbo Baggins, a short way into the desolate expanse of time that trades under the name of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. "I believe you made that up", the hobbit replies, not without asperity. "Well", says the wizard, a little sheepish, but his eye a-twinkle, "all good stories deserve embellishment".

It's a nice moment; at least, it is if you do remember the story of Bullroarer Took. And you probably do, if you've read The Hobbit; and if you're a Tolkien geek, then of course you do. It's an etymological joke trading as an outrageous tall tale: as pure an example as you'll ever find of the language-loving Oxford don allowing himself some child-pleasing fun in his own private voice while he figures out where his story's going next. Gandalf's embellishment remark is an answering bit of fun, Peter Jackson making a joke of the fact that the Bullroarer story isn't actually an embellishment at all. Bilbo has in effect accused our screenwriters of inventing one of the few bits of the book that have made it into this film intact.

So when I ask whether you remember the Bullroarer story, I'm asking whether you're someone who's going to get Jackson's joke, or whether you're someone who hasn't read the book. In the latter case, you're not going to be troubled by the fact that Jackson has comprehensively undermined Tolkien's story, and so I imagine you're going to have a softer landing with the film than I did. You're still likely to find the tone uneven, the story chaotic, and the overall effect remarkably generic and bland, but you will at least be spared seeing a childhood treasure ripped into confetti and sprinkled randomly across the better part of three hours by people smart enough to know better. Is this train wreck really the work of the team that made The Lord of the Rings?

Yes it is, and in fact that's part of the problem. Far too much screen time is wasted on efforts to jigsaw the film neatly to its predecessors, so they'll all fit together as a single magnum opus. We open seemingly on the very same day as The Fellowship of the Ring, with that film's elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) sitting down to write the true, never fully told story of his youthful adventures, as a parting gift to Frodo. Frodo meanwhile is pottering about Bag End in the background, until he goes off to wait for Gandalf, who's due to arrive any moment to help with Bilbo's birthday party. Why, we're seeing the bit just before Fellowship's charming Gandalf-Frodo meeting! How lovely!

No, how forced, how clunky, and how beside the point. This is DVD-extra material, and all it does is delay the moment when the story proper can begin, with the younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) sitting outside his hobbit hole smoking a pipe, and Gandalf walking up the hill for their charming first meeting. Which really is charming: well scripted and well acted, and the first moment in the film to feel alive and engaging. It comes at least fifteen minutes in.

Those initial fifteen-plus minutes include more than Bilbo/Frodo byplay. We also get a major chunk of Bilbo-narrated exposition, laying out the story of the Kingdom of Erebor and its dragon-assisted fall. This is another sequence apparently designed to echo the opening of Fellowship, with its Galadriel-narrated expository introduction. It's misjudged.  In the book, we get the story of Smaug's assault on Erebor when Bilbo gets it, as a dinner party tale, told after his home has been invaded by an unwanted throng of dwarves. This is only a very little way into the story, but for that brief period, he has no idea what's going on, and neither do we. This is part of the reason the book is called The Hobbit, not The Dwarves: Bilbo, young, ignorant and good-hearted, is our way into this world. But not here, he's not. Right from the outset, Jackson and his usual co-writers, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens, sever the link between what we know and what Bilbo knows. He isn't our window onto Middle Earth, he's just the smallest and least capable of a large cast of characters, constantly struggling to keep up.

photo James Fisher

Does it matter? Well, it throws away a powerful technique for fostering our identification with the most important person in the story, but there are other ways to encourage that, so no, it needn't matter too much. But it's done for no better reason than to make this film trilogy a matching set with the Lord of the Rings one: Fellowship opened with an expository flashback, so forget waiting a few minutes and having the Erebor exposition at the dinner party scene. We'll have an opening flashback too. This turns out to be symptomatic of a general and dismayingly misplaced faith on the part of the writers that they can structure Tolkien's story better than he did.

(Though it's quite possible, I should note, that the Erebor flashback, which involves plunging point-of-view descents through the mountain kingdom's interior, looks great in Jackson's new high-frame-rate 3D - I've so far seen the film only in 2D. I have no desire whatsoever to see the film again, but I already have tickets for the HFR 3D version and I've promised my son a chance to see it; so I'll try to post a comment soon on the new 3D effect and whether it's worth paying extra for).

I enjoyed quite a lot of the dinner party, I should add. It's where we meet the dwarves, and many of them are vivid characters, well acted and well enough written to get by. Dwalin (Graham McTavish), the first dwarf to stomp through Bilbo's door, is one of the strongest presences in the film, despite - or perhaps because? - he doesn't get to say much, a dour, grimly charismatic figure pleasingly untainted by the Lord of the Rings' Gimli disease, a.k.a. the "never mind characterisation, let's have a dwarf-tossing joke!" syndrome. Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner) establish themselves early as likeable analogues for the Rings films' irresponsible younger hobbits, and Thorin (Richard Armitage) is arrestingly intense, despite the lack of help from an overly broad script, which is constantly requiring him to state things that could better be left unsaid. (The quality of the spoken language throughout the film is a nagging and sometimes mood-obliterating irritant; Bilbo, for instance, narrating his adventure to Frodo at the very outset, announces that "quite by chance, and the will of a wizard, fate decided that I should play a part..." Quite by chance, things were decided by fate, with a bit of help from a wizard? Did anyone bother to read that line over a second time and ask whether a subliminal hint that Bilbo may be senile is really what the film needs at this point? Very occasionally, the writers lift a whole chunk of Tolkien's language verbatim - as with the Bullroarer anecdote - and the sudden shift in register is almost too jarring to be worth the gain in fluency and stylistic coherence).

There are all sorts of odd choices undermining the effectiveness of the dinner party, which is admittedly a hard scene to launch the story with: it has to be funny, frightening, information-dense, and in addition to these requirements the film makers have decided to keep the songs, a bit of fidelity to the text which I must admit I could have done without. It's no wonder the sequence doesn't entirely work. But if you come into the film caring about these characters, and with mostly fond memories of the Rings trilogy, and hoping to think well of a major New Zealand-made film, the mood the actors manage to generate here will carry you along well enough. It's a few more scenes before the wheels really come off. That's to say, it's a few more scenes before we meet Radagast the Brown.

Radagast. Oh, Radagast. Words fail me. Words fail him too, in the book; that's to say, he never gets any dialogue, and in fact never appears at all, though there's a brief mention of him in one of the later scenes. ("Not a bad fellow, as wizards go", remarks someone in passing: so much for Radagast). Here, we find out early on that he's one of Middle Earth's five wizards, and lives in the great forest of Mirkwood, a place Bilbo is not due to visit until halfway through the story. If the second film stays true to the book (I'm not taking bets), Bilbo will get lost there, and find his courage, and then find his friends, and then save them all from two terrible dangers: it's the hinge of the story, in fact, the point where great pressure fails to crush our hero, and he becomes a hero, just in time for the moral and physical challenges of the final act.

photo James Fisher

It matters, for our emotional investment in Bilbo's journey, that we journey with him: that we encounter Mirkwood only when he does. Well, Tolkien thought it mattered, and I think it matters; Jackson, Walsh and Boyens (I should mention that Guillermo del Toro has a screenwriter credit as well, which may or may not be purely a courtesy gesture) decide it doesn't. As soon as Bilbo asks Gandalf about the other wizards, and Radagast's name comes up, we cut away to Mirkwood, to meet the brown wizard himself. A whole new wizard! How exciting! But what a shame he's so severely brain damaged.

Radagast, of all the characters in this film, imposes the fewest constraints on Jackson's team. They can do anything they like with him, since he doesn't exist in the book and barely exists in the Lord of the Rings books; and what they like, it seems, is comic relief. He's written in the style of a crazy-but-secretly-wise uncle from an isn't-this-cute story for very small children. He has hedgehog friends and rabbit friends. He walks with a funny shambling gait, and he runs in a way that suggests the screenplay may well have used the phrase "Radagast scampers". And he does run, or rather scamper, because ever such scary things are happening in Mirkwood, and he has to move quickly! The hedgehogs need his help!

It was much discussed, geological ages ago when the Hobbit films first got the green light, that there were going to be problems of tone, in matching the light children's adventures of the early chapters with the later parts, not to mention with the Rings films. The problem is one Tolkien would have acknowledged; he once wrote about the book, "In so far as it was dressed up 'for children', in style or manner, I regret it. So do the children". I am flabbergasted that, so far from solving this problem, Jackson and his colleagues have opted to make it exponentially worse: the Radagast scenes are not just gag-inducingly "dressed up for children", they're infantile. Have I mentioned that Radagast has a rabbit-drawn sled, or that his rabbits are very very brave and can out-run wolves?

Ah yes, the wolves. We're getting far enough into the story that I need to ease back on the detailed complaints in order to avoid spoilers, and in any case I'm going to reduce myself to difficult-to-transcribe outraged spluttering noises if I tell you much about the next part of the film, but suffice to say, Tolkien does not supply enough danger or enough generic fight scenes for Jackson. So some extra villains have been thrown into the mix. They turn up with no regard for plausibility or logic, their leader is large, nasty, and entirely lacking in non-generic-villain characteristics, and they do a lot to render the later parts of the film boring, in that special "lots of violence is happening very fast but none of it will matter to the outcome of this story, so feel free to doze" style so typical of lazy action films. (I did, however, appreciate the chief villain's expressive comment on one particularly lucky dwarvish escape, which was "Blaaaaarrrgh!") They also provide Radagast - who, in the middle of a story about the challenges of long-distance travel, has somehow managed to get his rabbits and his sled across a major mountain chain overnight - an opportunity to show off the rabbits' turn of speed. This brings Jackson's absurd kiddie-lit addition to the story into close proximity with his ridiculous generic-fantasy-violence addition to the story; I became afraid that if the two elements actually came into contact, the narrative-modes equivalent of a matter/anti-matter explosion might cause the whole film to blow up.

Martin Freeman does not have a great deal to do while all this is going on. Jackson seems to be aware this is a problem, because at one point he takes the time to have Bilbo nearly fall to his death during a storm in a mountain pass: a nicely representative instance of the major problem with the action sequences the film keeps throwing at us, in that it seems intended to be exciting, but there's nothing actually at stake, since Bilbo is the only hobbit in the first of three films all called The Hobbit and a fall would be fatal. So all the sequence really contributes is a few moments of extra running time, plus the implied directorial acknowledgement that our hero is being side-lined rather more than is ideal.

photo Todd Eyre

But shortly after this we arrive at the one really effective and powerful scene the film has to offer: and if you don't want to know what this is, please note for the record that I do have one strongly positive thing to say about the film, and now skip to the end of the next paragraph. Jackson and his people have made some major changes to the book chapter called "Riddles In The Dark", in order to create a version which will fit neatly with their Rings films. Tolkien had to do the same thing, ironically enough - after the Rings books established that Bilbo's magic ring is a bit more important than it had previously seemed to be, he had to go back and rewrite this chapter from the ground up, making it far stronger and more entertaining. Jackson's retrofitting achieves something very similar.

Because this, of course, is the point in our story where we meet Gollum, so very well played by Andy Serkis in the Rings films. Bilbo is trapped underground, and Gollum can show him the way out; but Gollum would rather eat him. Bilbo has a sword, which is inconvenient, but he doesn't really seem to know what to do with it... In the book's version of the scene it isn't fully apparent that Gollum has the split personality which emerges in the Rings books and films, and which gave Serkis so much to chew on. So the scene has been rewritten as a three-way encounter between Bilbo, Gollum, and Gollum's other self, Smeagol, and it's been rewritten really well. Serkis and Freeman don't waste their chance. The uneasy battle of wills which eventuates is taut, funny, intense, and never for one moment dull: until, that is, Jackson chooses to dilute the hard-won tension by cutting away to a  fight scene going on elsewhere.

Do you remember the Argonath statues in The Fellowship of the Ring? So massive as to be beyond pharaonic, a genuinely spectacular image: two forbidding statues, standing there in the middle of nowhere, holding up a hand each, saying "Go no further". The Fellowship characters were awe-struck, because they were seeing relics of a lost past. We were awe-struck - well, I was - because we were seeing something which in 2001 was still quite new, the power of digital technology to create realistic images on a whole new scale. We were looking at the future. So we were in emotional consonance with the characters we were watching, and yet we were seeing something diametrically different, and that in itself was additionally impressive. And it wasn't just a free-floating sense of wonder set loose for the sake of showing off; the statue's warning took on the power of the moment, and one of the Fellowship was, indeed, about to go too far. Peter Jackson: the man who knew how to imbue fantasy with a genuine sense of the fantastic.

There was one brief moment, watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - a film, if I've failed to make this clear, which I desperately wanted to like, Tolkien child and parent of Tolkien children that I am - when I felt a fleeting sense of wonder. It was when an abrupt scene shift from indoors to outdoors was signaled by a view of moonlit waterfalls, seen from beneath: a beautiful image, deployed to striking effect at a moment of revelation. We've had a solid decade of spectacular imagery since the Rings films conquered the world, and spectacle has, predictably enough, got as old and as weathered as those giant statues: they were right to warn us to go no further in that direction. But beautiful images can still give fantasy films the ability to take your breath away. Sometime in the last 12 years, Peter Jackson seems to have lost something - if not his instinct for how to create those held-breath moments, then his sense of how to root a film in them, so that the fight scenes, if there have to be fight scenes, are about something more than the need to have fight scenes. He's moved off into a realm where bigger-louder-sillier-faster constitutes better. An unexpected journey indeed. Having made it to this spectacle-ridden wasteland - his own personal version of the Desolation of Smaug - I devoutly hope he takes Bilbo Baggins as his inspiration, and turns around, and makes it back again.

To read about the origins of The Hobbit, click here.

To read an array of reviews of The Hobbit all in one article, click here.
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