It’s symptomatic of the film as a whole that it takes about 15 minutes into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey before we even hear uttered the first sentence from the book.
I enjoy The Hobbit more than The Lord of the Rings as a read, mostly because Tolkien’s writing was a little more lively and playful in The Hobbit, but also because I admire the slightly more nuanced themes of avarice and tribalism that emerge by the end. It could make a hell of a movie adaptation, maybe two if needed to really fit in all the juiciest details. But to paraphrase a quote from Saruman the White, it must be said that with a three-part trilogy where each part will be three damn hours long, Peter Jackson has dug too greedily and too deep.
I hate to say it, because I am of course a big fan of this material. But The Lord of the Rings became an epic film trilogy because it needed to be – three books needed three movies, and even in the extended editions much content was smartly left out. Sure, some diehards probably still grieve the loss of Tom Bombadil, but I don’t doubt that excision made The Fellowship of the Ring work better as a movie.
The Hobbit, on the other hand, is only being made into a trilogy because it’s being forced to be. And I fear it’ll end up being a loss for all of us.
Jackson, to his credit, is only following a trend that started after his Rings trilogy. If I’m not mistaken, Harry Potter crossed this Rubicon first, splitting Deathly Hallows into two films, presumably because 1) it meant raking in hundreds of millions of dollars more with an extra movie, and 2) it’s an especially large book, the finale to an epic series, and they wanted to do it justice. Fair enough. Then The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn got the same treatment, and it’s already been announced that Mockingjay, the last Hunger Games book, will get two films as well. Hell, Game of Thrones is giving 10 one-hour episodes per season to each damn book in that series.
So no, Jackson isn’t doing anything especially and uniquely flagrant here, and sure enough the original plan with The Hobbit was to make it two films, as well. Based at least on the evidence presented so far in An Unexpected Journey, I wish that never changed.
The biggest problem with The Hobbit is that it’s a book that least requires a multi-movie adaptation. This is not a blaoted final installment in a long-running series, nor a complex, multi-layered narrative with dozens and dozens of characters with individual motivations like Game of Thrones. Besides Gandalf, Thorin, and of course Bilbo, there really aren’t any other characters for the audience to engage with on any kind of deep level. This is especially problematic with this first movie, as any other characters of any interest don’t appear until events not covered here (Beorn, Bard the Bowman, Thranduil the Elvenking), and all of the other dwarfs are only defined by their names. Can anyone but the most hardcore of Tolkien fans tell you the major, fundamental difference between Bifur and Bombur, or Oin and Dwalin? Shit, at least Legolas and Gimili were different races.
This is not a critique of the book, because the book simply isn’t interested in conjuring deep, psychologically complex characters. It’s a brisker, more episodic tale of adventure, incident, and spectacle, and more about myth-making than character-driven storytelling. This is a narrative that demanded a visual adaptation that went by as quickly as possible, not what will ultimately be a nine-hour epic that dwells obsessively on every single detail and particular.
Yes, material outside of the book has been added in, particularly backstory from The Return of the King’s appendices, with Azog the Defiler given a much bigger role as an evidently series-long antagonist. But this added material ends up coming off more as indulgent fan-fiction than natural, ahem, “embellishment,” to steal another quote. The fact that the writing is often surprisingly clunky doesn’t help, either (says the Goblin King of Azog: “Did you think his defiling days were done?!” …ugh).
So here we are, with a three-hour movie that covers 1/3rd of a fairly brisk book. It’s an absurd reality when you think about it that this even occurred, but let it be said that this is not, solely, Peter Jackson’s fault. It’s said in The Hobbit that Thorin and his line suffered from a “Dragon’s sickness,” making them prone to greedily horde their gold and ever seek more to sate their lust. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we fans need to acknowledge we have a lustful sickness of our own.
I understand the obvious financial incentive to break The Hobbit into three movies. But I also understand a deeper, symbolic, emotional desire for a new trilogy, too. The LotR films were a major cinematic and cultural experience for a generation, myself included, and yes, I only even got around to reading the books after seeing the movies. That generation is ten years older now. I’m ten years older now. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and I get the desire to recreate what it felt like to watch those movies for the first time and look forward all year to the next one.
But unfortunately, unlike the story’s dwarfs, or Bilbo, the reality of life is you sometimes just can’t go home again. Once-in-a-generation cultural, artistic experiences are once-in-a-generation for a reason, and that’s the very thing that makes them special. To desire a recreation of those exact feelings is just plain greedy.
I look forward to the next two installments of The Hobbit, not least because that’s simply where the most interesting material takes place (Beorn! Smaug! Battle of the Five Armies!). But this book simply required a different adaptation than what worked for The Lord of the Rings. My fear is that in not following whatever form of adaptation naturally worked best for this source material, and forcing the previous method on it out of a nostalgic impulse to relive meaningful experiences of the past, we might have robbed ourselves of a wholly different and new experience that may have been just as good.
In an alternate universe, Guillermo del Toro never left as director, and The Hobbit was made into two films, neither one of them exceeding the two-hours-and-thrity-minutes mark. And a new generation gets to experience their own watermark film event that they still remember with fondness 10 years later.
(…But then I suppose we wouldn’t have Pacific Rim to look forward to next year, so let’s all hope this turns out to be a wash.)