The first entry of the Lord of the Rings’ prequel trilogy based off Tolkien’s children’s book proves to be greatly embellished (for better and sometimes worse) but provides excellent spectacle and detailed fantasy adventure.
Oh lord, this will be a big review. First, some history. The Hobbit was the original book that Tolkien wrote for children while he was a teacher marking school papers back in the 1930s, and he offhandedly wrote the immortal opening line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit”. The book was short, forgiving and easy to read (by Tolkien’s infamous standards!) and all together innocent. Afterwards, publishers asked him to write a follow-up story and to make it more adult driven. The Lord of the Rings was born.
I loved reading The Hobbit story as a child, so much so that I remember starting Lord of the Rings and despising Frodo initially because he wasn’t Bilbo! Imagine that. I’m re-reading The Hobbit now and I can say that I remember it beat for beat, and the news of Peter Jackson’s trilogy gave me a lot of room for trepidation… The Hobbit simply isn’t as epic or trilogy-worthy as Rings.
The film therefore strikes on a knife edge of over embellishment and fine detailing; playing a dangerous balancing act of several audiences’ expectations at once!
Set sixty years before the Rings trilogy, we see Bilbo as a sheltered, ignorant and contented Hobbit, who is set on an adventure by Gandalf the Grey. In a party of thirteen dwarves led by the mighty Thorin Oakenshield in a quest to retake their kingdom from the dragon Smaug, Bilbo must first come to terms with his destiny and the wider, exciting world beyond his home comforts.
Where to begin. The film is a marvel to watch. It is visually astounding and each frame is crammed with beautiful details and compositions that relay book illustrations; we have been here before, Jackson, his crew and WETA special effects people have never made something more fantastical and wonderfully rendered. The casting and acting are great; they are doing what comes naturally to them now, but the newcomers (especially Richard Armitage as Thorin) are bringing their A-games also.
As I re-read The Hobbit, I saw the obvious desire from Jackson to exaggerate. Tolkien himself writes huge events very casually… almost absurdly so… The Mountain Giants for example. Huge rock giants who are (in the book) casually lobbing massive rocks around while our waddling heroes pass by completely unhindered. Read it, it happens. In the film, this mere sentence is given a full action sequence! Is that wrong? No… it makes more sense in the way the film portrays it, it is danger and it is happening nearby, and makes for very creative sequences. But did it need to be in the film at all? That is a harder question to answer… and Jackson’s (wayward?) desire for a trilogy may answer it for some cynics…
This example can be said about nearly all of the scenes in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, except for those that people remember fondly, and these are naturally given the most attention! From the three trolls who attempt to cook our heroes to of course The Riddles in the Dark, which is frankly amazing to see on the big screen as one of my favourite pieces of fictional writing (Gollum himself looks jaw-droppingly real here, even more than in Rings!)
But it is not all about Bilbo (much to my inner-child’s slight disappointment) as the story is given direct ties to the Rings trilogy. This isn’t as bad as one may theorise. Tolkien himself edited The Hobbit after publishing Rings to accommodate. The appendices of the Rings books are carefully added and suggest greater things to come in The Hobbit trilogy. This does give the otherwise simple story more subplots than traditionalists would ask for; you can say that the filmmakers wanted to make The Hobbit somehow bigger than Rings, even make it as serious as Rings, which it simply isn’t! These grand sequences and serious subplots can be seen as huge deviations from what the book was about, and that perhaps there is a nicer version of the story yet unmade. But when considered fully, you can appreciate the choice. It aids consistency for cinema goers and adds lore that Tolkien readers will happily devour.
I could go on and on, but there are two more films after all!
Wow, this review has gone on hasn’t it.
– Should you go and see The Hobbit in the cinema, you ask? Yes, absolutely, definitely yes.
– Is it a faithful adaptation of the original book? Yes and no, it is embellished to accommodate the massive cinematic event that was the Rings trilogy, and if you expected anything other… you may want to re-address your expectations.
– Should you see it in 3D and/or HFR? The 3D doesn’t feel necessary, so you don’t need to splash out to experience more. The HFR is a new experience and takes some getting used to. If you suffer from motion sickness or similar you may want to reconsider as you may feel uncomfortable… But if you are keen to see developments in film-making I would highly recommend it. It is unique to say the least, and you will have an opinion on it afterwards (see above!)
I was happy to dive back into Middle Earth once again, and I love consistency within films. Learning more about the world (through added details I’ve not read up on) I can safely say I want to see the next films and conclude the tale! Some may find it too ponderous, biding time before things really kick off, but I came out of this film with a smile on my face
I should flesh-out my thoughts on Peter Jackson’s HFR (Higher Frame Rate) 3D. Most films are shot in 24 frames a second, as a rule, since the human eye can only see so many still images in one second to convey motion. However here we have 48 frames per second (since in actuality the human eye can perceive more) and the effect is… curious. Initially I feared I would hate it; characters appeared to move too quickly, from the simplest nod of the head to walking appeared rapid, as if a fast-forward button had been pushed. I wouldn’t handle three hours of that!
However as my eyes adjusted, it settled into regular motion, and details (especially in motion) became alarmingly precise and crystal clear. Similar to comparing Standard Definition to High Definition, only more so. The only issue I had was (curiously) during “tracking shots”, when the camera moves laterally through a set or room, my eyes knew they were seeing more than usual, and would try to take it all in only to see an almost shuddering motion while doing so. This was however only during long tracking shots.
The 3D effect therefore did not hinder the film; there was no strain on my eyes or blur present, everything snapped and popped out. Maybe a little… too much. At times characters appeared as though they were in front of a flat background, like they were before a matte painting or theatre backdrop. Again, curious. I couldn’t tell if this was the HFR adjustment, poor 3D use or both! I actually took my 3D glasses off at times, and I could see the 3D was only slightly used…
I can see HFR becoming the norm, or at least with 3D films; the motion is incredibly fluid and you feel immersed even further and details strike out more. I will say that The Hobbit does not use 3D nearly as well as it could have, we are not watching the same quality as Avatar (speaking of which, James Cameron should look into HFR for his future Avatar sequels) but that said, it means the 2D version will not suffer! I think I counted one 3D “gimmick” moment.