Friday, October 7, 2016

'The Hobbit' extended in a three-day event: part 1

Last year on this date I posted the following review on Since that time, Examiner has ceased to exist and pulled all their context off the internet. So, here's another one saved for posterity...

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey extended edition

The extended edition of "The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey" was screened in select theaters Monday. The screening was part of an event which will include all the extended versions of the three movies over three evenings. The two other movies, "The Desolation of Smaug" and "The Battle of the Five Armies," will be presented Wednesday and next Thursday – one movie each evening. To find a theater near you, check out the Fathom Events website.

The movie shown Monday night is the same version as the DVD and Blu-ray extended edition which was released in November of 2013. Although many find the almost-three-hour theatrical cut more than enough, the eighteen minutes of additional footage fills some gaps in the story, especially regarding the motivation of the dwarves sneaking away from Rivendell. In the Prelude, the footage of young Bilbo interacting with Gandalf not only adds a welcome tidbit about the character, but also helps the pacing. Even the Goblin Town song was a nice tribute to Tolkien, although it does extend that scene too long.

In dividing the story into three parts, the writers had to make choices on how to make each part complete—an entire story within a story. This affects the character arc of the protagonist. Specifically for "An Unexpected Journey," by the end of the movie Bilbo reaches a point of being admired by the dwarves which he has not attained by that point in the book. Which is not so bad in itself, if it were not for the way in which he reaches it.

Tolkien’s Bilbo is no warrior, and he never becomes one. He earns the dwarves’ respect in more subtle ways. Jackson’s Bilbo, on the other hand, has a rather berserker-like moment, gaining him the admiration of Thorin. Ironically, the screenwriters, not Tolkien, are the ones who put these words in Gandalf’s mouth:

True courage is about knowing, not when to take a life, but when to spare one.

Unlike some dialog placed in his mouth by the filmmakers, these words of Gandalf are ones Tolkien would most likely agree with. Tolkien’s hobbits are not great warriors; their strength lies not so much in being able to fight with swords, but in being able to think with their brains, and act prudently from a wise heart. Jackson and crew find the words to express this, but are often unable to back up the words by what their hobbits do.

It is true that in the book Bilbo does play the hero later with the giant spiders. But he has also gained the use of the ring at that point, so it is not quite as heroic an act as Jackson’s Bilbo taking on an orc. The sequence has some other problems, such as the inconsistency of Azog telling one of his orcs to cut off Thorin’s head after specifically telling his cohorts that Thorin was his to kill. Jackson and crew rightly decided Bilbo was not ready to tackle Azog, but the way this plays out just does not make sense.

Part of what has made "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" so great is the “everyman” character of Bilbo, Sam, and, to a lesser extent, Frodo. In the fifth chapter of Colin Duriez’ biography of Tolkien, "The Making of a Legend," he comments how Tolkien was pleased with (fellow-Inkling) Charles Williams’ evaluation of what would become "The Lord of the Rings." In a letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien comments upon the roles of Bilbo, Sam, and Frodo ("Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien," p. 105-6):

"Cert[ainly] Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit. Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation. The book will prob[ably] end up with Sam. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures; but S[am] will settle down to the Shire and gardens and inns. C[harles] Williams who is reading it all says the great thing is that its centre is not in strife and war and heroism (though they are understood and depicted) but in freedom, peace, ordinary life and good liking. Yet he agrees that these very things require the existence of a great world outside the Shire – lest they should grow stale by custom and turn into the humdrum…."

For Tolkien, war and heroism are on the periphery. They are part of the story, and a catalyst for change in his protagonists, but they are never the main focus. Jackson makes them the main focus, with “freedom, peace, ordinary life” at the periphery. It is probably a subtle difference to many fans, but an important one. When the focus is on heroism and war, too often the result is an attitude of "winning at any cost." As Jesus said, "what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?" [Mark 8:36 NLT]

Jackson’s prologue, besides being a shift in emphasis from the mundane to war, fails because it is not Bilbo’s story. Why does it start with Bilbo saying he hadn’t told his whole story to Frodo, and then proceed with a history lesson from long ago? There is a jarring disconnect there. The later flashback, continuing the dwarves’ story, works much better coming out of the mouth of Balin, who was actually there. When we finally get back to where Bilbo actually comes into the story, the famous first few lines of JRR Tolkien’s book, written in a narrative, third-person style, sound strange coming from the Hobbit’s mouth. As much as PJ and company wanted to meet fans’ expectations by including those words, they should have been able to come up with a better way to present them. (Would a hobbit actually call his home a “hole in the ground”?)

The Unexpected Party sequence of the film, despite having some brilliant moments, is rather tedious and drawn out. The rest of the movie is rather well paced, but once Thorin arrives on the scene, the mood becomes somber for too long. Even Bilbo’s fainting spell falls a little flat.

There are some other problems, like the over-the-top video-game-like fight sequences in the goblin tunnels, and the anti-climatic demise of the Great Goblin. The screenwriters seem to be attempting to combine both the darkness of "The Lord of the Rings" and the whimsy of "The Hobbit." Jackson did a great job in "The Lord of the Rings" providing comic relief while telling a dark story. But his attempt at whimsy this time around sometimes comes off as childish rather then whimsical.

However, one whimsical sequence that did work rather well was the Trolls. Some fans have complained a bit about the crude bathroom humor, but after all, they are Trolls! The scene does find a balance between tension and comic relief, and gives Bilbo a chance to show his quick wit, even if it was Gandalf’s wit that saved the day in the book.

Despite the misplaced, over-the-top heroism of Bilbo, Jackson does end the first movie with a positive change in the hobbit's attitude. Tolkien’s subtitle to "The Hobbit," "There and Back Again," was meant as more than just a physical summary of what happens in the book. Tolkien, as a soldier in the First World War, knew what it was like to live a life of relative ease and to be thrust into a "wild" environment. The "adventure" many young British men found themselves in either made or broke them. As with Bilbo, their safety certainly could not be guaranteed. (About a million British soldiers lost their lives the The Great War.) Those who went there and came back were never the same.

Tolkien’s book is more than just an adventure. If Bilbo had understood fully what he was to endure, I’m sure he would never have left the Shire. But he was better off going. Peter Jackson at least seems to understand that the story is about more than a change of physical location. Tolkien certainly would not have approved of Bilbo becoming the crazed warrior he is already becoming by the end of the first movie. But he would approve that Bilbo now cares about more than his own comfort. The journey started out as an “adventure” to satisfy his Tookish predilections. It is now about wanting to help the Dwarves regain their home. Not a bad motivation to keep him going.

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