Thursday, January 3, 2013

Watching The Hobbit

Of all the many new films to come out around the Christmas holiday season, I looked forward to Peter Jackson’s first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit more than any other. I noted my anticipation when re-reading the book some time back. My original plans were to see it in IMAX 3D just before Christmas Day. But events conspired against us. My family’s holiday schedules were complicated this year. The theater was sold-out during the dates and times we could most easily attend. So, we waited.

New Year’s Eve worked out to be the next best date for us. For the sake of precious time, Jennifer, my daughter, and I decided to forgo the IMAX experience and see the film in "regular" 3D at a nearby theater instead of driving all the way into Atlanta. We chose the first matinee which was at noon.

One advantage to seeing the film later than we originally intended was that the hype had run its course. Sure, The Hobbit was a financial boon but by the last day of 2012 the three of us ended up receiving a private showing of the movie. We were the only people in the rather large stadium style theater. We literally went from not being able to see it the way we intended due to the showings all being sold-out to watching it all by ourselves. Funny how life works out like that sometimes.

None of us were disappointed. Jackson’s presentation of The Hobbit, while certainly not a pristine telling of Tolkien’s 1937 children's book, was grand and glorious and completely within the spirit of Tolkien’s overall body of work. While everything that happens in the book more or less happens in the movie, there is a great deal more to the film version than the original narrative.

Ultimately, Jackson will turn the small children’s book into an epic film trilogy to rival what he did with his wonderful Lord of the Rings (LOTR) adaptation. In this case, however, he has the opposite challenge from the original trilogy. With LOTR, he was forced to cut and condense large swaths of the narrative in order to fit the story into three very long movies. With The Hobbit, he is forced to beg and borrow bits and pieces from the Appendices of LOTR (and perhaps from Unfinished Tales as well) in order to flesh out and extend the short book into this massive three-film project.

Never fear, it works. At least so far. What was added to the original story certainly does not detract from nor burden The Hobbit. Several characters are expanded such as Radagast, the Brown Wizard, who was only mentioned once in the original book.  Even though the character is created from almost nothing, I found him to be thoroughly enjoyable. The great Elven Lady Galadriel does not appear in the book at all but she is presented in the movie as, in all likelihood, Gandalf would have consulted her during his frequent disappearances from the original narrative, where Tolkien presents the Gray Wizard much more mysteriously.

The inclusion of the great Orc Azog, taken from Appendix A that follows Return of the King in the original trilogy, gives the film an important subplot and helps beef up the narrative with some complexity that simply does not exist in the original children's book.  As with Radagast, this character is embellished in ways that are purely the invention of Jackson, but I see nothing wrong with this.

The biggest surprise for me was to see Saruman the White, played wonderfully (as he was in the LOTR films) by an aged but still capable Christopher Lee, even though he is only in two short scenes. Like Galadriel, Saruman is not in the original book, but Jackson's liberties with the characters helps to thread The Hobbit with the LOTR films in a way Tolkien could not have done in the order and manner in which all the texts were originally written. I fully approve of them. They give The Hobbit, a modest story really, the significance necessary to be a worthy companion to LOTR films rather than simply a lesser prelude.

These are but a few examples of the major changes and minor tweaks in the film compared with the book. Overall, however, the book has far more in common with the movie than not. The alterations do not render things beyond all recognition. On the contrary, I think they clarify and enhance the story as a film.

The encounter between Bilbo and Gollum is presented very faithfully, much of it quoted directly from Tolkien’s text. This important scene is masterfully delivered and was certainly one of the highlights of the film for me. Seeing this chapter of the book visualized so meticulously by Jackson is perhaps the closest and most favorable comparison between his filmmaking skills and Tolkien’s writing. In fact, a great many lines uttered throughout the movie come straight from the printed page. Jackson brings Tolkien to life in a splendid sense, despite the enormous expansions and liberties taken with the original text.

The 3D aspect of the film might have been more impressive in IMAX, but I doubt it. This format continues to strike me as more of a gimmick than a useful accentuation of virtually every film I have seen with the notable exception of Avatar. There is just no viewing benefit to anything in The Hobbit being shown in 3D. My advice is save your money and see it in just a "standard" format.

But, there is still something noteworthy to the presentation of The Hobbit. Instead of the usual 24 frames per second, Jackson chose to shoot the picture in 48 frames per second. This presents a noticeably crisper image. The whole film almost looks CGI. Almost. The colors seem more vivid but, more importantly, the image itself has a sharpness to it that really jumps off the screen at you - even without 3D glasses. The Hobbit features beautiful cinematography expertly delivered. The glory of the images on the screen match the greatness of the story as it is told.

Though many critics are lukewarm to this film, I give it a solid 8. I have a few minor quibbles. Howard Shore's musical score does not seem to match what the film demands to the degree his score for the LOTR films did. The company of dwarves are interesting and funny but they often come off as a confusing mishmash and the interplay between them is not very well established. Perhaps that will improve as we move into the second film. Nevertheless, these are small complaints compared with what the film delivers. The Hobbit is grand entertainment and highly recommended even of you know nothing of Tolkien or if you don't care for fantasy. This is definitely not just a genre movie, it is an entertaining feast for the eye and the mind.

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