On the eve of 'The Hobbit'

Late tonight, I’ll be sacrificing my sleep along with some friends and coworkers at the midnight opening of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” It’s a film I’ve been anticipating for some time and have written about at length twice on this site.

I hope to give my reaction to the movie over the weekend, after seeing it at least once (and possibly a second time, in the novel and controversial 48-frames-per-second format it was filmed in, though I’ll have to travel out of state if I want to see this). In the meantime, I wanted to gather my thoughts going in to the prequel to my favorite movies of the past decade.

Initially, Jackson’s production design for the movie gave me hope. The concept art for the movie’s 13 dwarf characters showed an intent to differentiate them, which, I hoped, reflected a better understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of the dwarven race from his books.

As a fantasy reader, I hold the minority opinion that dwarves are the best fantastic race floating about the genre — cooler than elves, or unicorns or dragons or faeries. What makes them so attractive is their innate tragedy, as I wrote:

Elves are perfect. Dwarves decidedly imperfect. It seems no contest.

And yet, it’s the imperfections that make them so compelling. Angels are boring; watching people with flaws, who make bad decisions, is where real drama comes in. Dwarves make incredible things — whole cities carved out of the insides of mountains, weapons and crafts of surpassing beauty, mines tunneling deep into the earth with medieval technology. But in true dramatic fashion, it’s their very greatest gifts that prove their downfall. The accumulated wealth from dwarf craftsmanship lures raiders, none deadlier than the great dragons who, like Smaug of “The Hobbit,” pillage dwarf strongholds and seize their treasure. And their deep mines awake fell powers like Moria’s Balrog, which rise up from the depths to wreak havoc. Even in the best case scenario, when the dwarves don’t die, they inevitably turn inward and cut their underground cities off from the rest of the world.</blockquote>

In “The Hobbit,” Tolkien describes the elven haven of Rivendell, run by Elrond (of mixed elven and human blood, but someone who lives as an elf and is “noble,” “fair,” “strong,” “wise,” “venerable” and “kind”), in idyllic terms: “His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or storytelling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley” (Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel, and Douglas Allen Anderson. The Annotated Hobbit: Revised and Expanded Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. 94.). That sounds very charming to visit — but also boring. Give me an adventure in the ruined Mines of Moria or the vast halls of the Lonely Mountain any day!

The production designs were followed by the release of the initial trailer, which was anchored by the dwarf cast singing a haunting song about their lost home, a Tolkien original called “Over The Misty Mountains Cold.”

This was balm for any anxieties I had about the movie — the baritone lyrics captured the tragedy, loss, and rootedness of the dwarves better than any dialogue could have:

Far over the Misty Mountains cold

To dungeons deep, and caverns old

We must away ere break of day

To find our long forgotten gold.

The pines were roaring on the height

The winds were moaning in the night

The fire was red, it flaming spread

The trees like torches, blazed with light

The scene also seems a pitch-perfect dramatization of Tolkien’s original scene, where the dwarven company and Gandalf the Grey, having thoroughly put out unwilling host Bilbo Baggins with a raucous dinner party, quiet down and begin to sing.

They came back with viols as big as themselves, and with Thorin’s harp wrapped in a green cloth. It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill…

…The dark filled all the room, and the fire died down, and the shadows were lost, and still they played on. And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep laces of their ancient homes… As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. (Tolkien. 43-44.)

Jackson previously proved he could capture the epic adventure of Middle-Earth, and his work so far suggests he gets the drama at the core of “The Hobbit,” too.

So I should be bubbling over with excitement about the “Hobbit” release, right? Not exactly.

I’m still looking forward to it — and a good thing, since I let myself be persuaded to see it at the midnight opening on a work night — but I have distinctly tempered enthusiasm. This is fueled by the early reviews, which reflect a good-but-not great movie that falls short of the near-universal acclaim “The Fellowship of the Ring” drew upon its 2001 release.

Specifically, reviews seem to focus on two things: the 48 fps format (which won’t apply to my initial viewing of the movie, in traditional 24 fps), and the slow, deliberate pace of the movie, which multiple reviews say is inflated by too much exposition, too many uninteresting scenes, and characters who seem to serve no purpose.

Part of that reflects a director who perhaps should have been more aggressive with the cutting-room scissors. In “The Lord of the Rings,” Jackson was condensing three huge books down into workable movies, whereas in “The Hobbit” he’s expanding a slim volume by bringing in extra material. Did he get carried away? Perhaps.

The first movie is 170 minutes long, just eight minutes shorter than “The Fellowship of the Ring” (and 38 minutes shorter than the extended edition). Supposedly there’s another 20 minutes or so of footage for an extended home video release of “An Unexpected Journey”. This was far longer than I thought — when Jackson first announced he would split the book into three separate movies, I was certain they’d be closer to two hours in length than the three-hour “Lord of the Rings” films. I’m not going to complain about more material, but perhaps some of this material that fleshes out the world at the cost of slowing down the plot would have been better suited for an extended edition for the fans, not the theatrical release of the movie.

But part of the negative reaction to the film seems to reflect the decision to make three films, which has left the first book covering only a few chapters of Tolkien’s original — and ending, apparently, at a more-or-less random point without any real resolution to plot or character development. Jackson made the decision to make three films late in the development process, just a few months ago, after filming was complete, and recut the films to reflect a new, unintended breaking point.

He insisted at the time the move was made for artistic reasons, not as a cash-grab as has increasingly been the case with epic fantasy movies (the Harry Potter and Twilight movies each split their final installments, to avoid trimming large books but mostly to milk another few hundred million out of moviegoers). In an open letter, I expressed doubt about this move, but said I’d give Jackson the benefit of the doubt.

The sense I’m getting from early reviews is that the recutting into three movies may have cut short character arcs and plot points, leaving a less satisfying dramatic product. If so, that perhaps bodes well for the second two movies, which will presumably cash in on the exposition in the first movie to deliver conflict and change. But it’s unfortunate this is coming at the expense of “An Unexpected Journey.”

Will this detract from my enjoyment of the film? I’m sure I’m still going to like or even love the movie — I’m a huge Tolkien fan and adore Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But I also enjoy cinema and want to see a dramatically successful adaptation, not simply the book translated onto the screen. (In the “Harry Potter” series, the first two movies were faithful recreations of the book, and also flat and largely boring. In contrast, the best movie of the eight is the third entry, Alfonso Cuaron’s “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” which took great liberties with the source material but ended up with an elegant, rich and interesting piece of fantasy cinema.) Moreover, as a human I have a base desire for validation — for other people to recognize and share my passions. If Jackson’s decisions end up disappointing this broader mass audience, I will at some level feel this as a personal judgment. It’s illogical, but passions always have a little bit of madness about them. When it comes to Tolkien, I am perhaps madder than most.