I saw the Hobbit last night. I didn't expect to love it, knowing what I know about Peter Jackson's love for battle scenes. I was right. I didn't love the movie, though I do love the book. And as a sort of catharsis, I'd like to say my piece.
The Hobbit himself
Martin Freeman was a marvelous choice for the hobbit. The narrative voice of the book is what makes it charming and quaint and enjoyable. But because we don't have a narrative voice to hold our hand during the movie, all that weight is put on Bilbo in his reactions and facial expressions. Freeman portrayed the hobbit as much less polite than he is in the book - and much of the early humor in the book stems from his aggravated politeness - but he is still likable and funny and believable. Three cheers for Freeman.
It was also lovely to revisit the Shire, even if it was only briefly in the beginning. But from there, I felt that Jackson's liberties with the plot crammed a beloved children's book into a mold that didn't fit.
The problems of turning an adventure novel into a movie
One of the main problems of turning the Hobbit into a movie (and three movies at that) is the fundamentally different plot structure of an adventure book vs. a movie. In a movie, you want a simple narrative arc: Setting the scene, rising conflicts and tension, characters who are transformed by the conflicts (for better or worse) and a resolution to the conflict - most preferably brought about by the characters themselves and not by chance or rescue.
But in an adventure book, the arc is simply different - or perhaps it's a much longer, more gently sloped arch. The characters go through many adventures. Some advance the plot; some are just for the fun of it. In the book, Beorn, the man who turns into a bear at night, serves the purpose of a respite for the plot. But he also is just a fun adventure - imagine if your host in the woods for an evening turned into a bear and scratched on your windows, trying to get in. There isn't plot advancement or character development (or if there is, it's of the very slow kind). It's there for the thrill of it. In an adventure book, you have a number of misadventures along the way that make the story a story.
The problem is when these stories are forced into contrivances for the sake of a movie's narrative arc.
At the end of the first Hobbit movie (spoiler alert), the scene with the hobbit and dwarves stuck up in pine trees is no longer just one misadventure along the way. It is forced into the mold of heroism. In the book, the wizard, the dwarves and the hobbit cower in the trees, unable to do anything but throw pine cones at the wolves and goblins who have trapped them there. They wait in the trees for their certain doom. But by chance the eagles hear them and rescue them. At the last moment, the hobbit is plucked from the tree and whisked safely away. The hobbit isn't heroic. At this point in the book, he is simply trying to survive and wondering why he ever left his afternoon tea and pipe on the porch.
But because Jackson has broken this book into three movies, Bilbo is forced to become a hero before he has had time on his adventures to develop heroism. Jackson couldn't simply let his heroes be passively rescued by eagles. Any decent screenwriter can tell you that the hero must be the author of his fate. So rather than being stuck in the trees, the hobbit defies fate and attacks a huge orc to save his friend. Quite a brave act for a little hobbit who has only just left his hole in the ground.
But Jackson's hurried heroism lacks depth. Rather than being a slow transformation of Bilbo from a settled country hobbit to a brave and loyal friend, it's a flash in the pan. One minute he's at home eating seed cakes. The next he's an offensive tackle of goblin warriors. The slow and subtle change of character is satisfying to the reader because it's real. We can relate to transformation by degree - how each of our small choices slowly changes us and builds us into a better or worse person. Bilbo's sudden leap into greatness in the movie is inauthentic and therefore unsatisfying.
Battles and beheadings
My last, and unsurprising, nit to pick with the movie is the excessive action. As a cousin said it on Facebook: "If I could sum up the book's and Bilbo's style
in one word, it would be "subtle." It was impossible for Peter Jackson to convey
this because he was always trying to go too big too often. In the
spirit of Bilbo, less is more."
Although Tolkien's books are full of battles, I don't believe he relished them. The battle in The Two Towers movie which is shown in great detail and lasts for what seemed like two full hours was only about one page in the book. He did relish clever escapes from sticky situations, like the trolls and the spiders. But it's clear that the narrator is disgusted by cruelty and violence. It's part of Tolkien's books, because that is the world, but he doesn't revel in the description of violence. He might have a goblin threaten to rip someone's arms off, but he doesn't spend undue amounts of time describing someone's actual arms being ripped off.
And I think there's a big difference. Partly, it's a difference of medium. It's very different to write that the wizard slashed at goblins chasing them in caves, and a very different thing to show it in a movie. Any visualization is naturally more gruesome. But the problem is how relentless Jackson is (and was in the LOTR movies) in portraying the violence. In the caves, it's not enough for several attacks by goblins, followed by much running away (as in the books). In the movie, it's constant killing. There is no respite. There is no time to breathe. To me the excessive action seems very un-Tolkienesque, a subtle Englishman.
The fighting becomes, in my husband's word "tiresome." It loses any meaning or heroism or plausibility when it is constant.
(And don't get me started on the White Orc, who was responsible for much of the added fighting, which was a departure from the plot that dominated the original material, rather than complementing it.)
To end on some good notes
There was still much I enjoyed in the movie. Gollum was wonderfully awful but still humorous. And Gollum was a necessary creepy comic break from everything I mentioned above. Serkis managed to make Golllum both funny and terrifying.
And lastly, Richard Armitage was the best looking dwarf that ever has been. Jackson did give him a prosthetic nose, to save women the uncomfortableness of swooning over a dwarf. And for that, I thank him.