December 18, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Expansion


So. I finally got to see the first part of Peter Jackson’s new trilogy set in Middle Earth – and found it definitely worth the price of the ticket. Wifey and I saw it in regular 2D, so I can’t comment about the 3D or HFR experience.  What we did see, however, was more of Middle Earth than we’d expected from  an adaptation of a very short book. Plus or minus?

For a Tolkien and Middle Earth history geek, personally I found this a big plus.  I’m not sure that studios will fork over for a production of The Silmarillion or the many possible historical epics that can be mined from just Silmarillion and the appendices included with The Return of the King (then again I may be wrong, the franchise does seem to have proven profitable), so I like it that Jackson expanded the scope of the movie to include a lot of what was ‘off-camera’ in the book.

I believe a big factor in Jackson’s decision to do this (aside from Jackson really being just a big hobbit at heart) is the difference in experience between the books and the movies.  The Hobbit was written as a children’s tale, which grew in the telling so that its intended sequel became The Lord of the Rings, far grander, graver and darker in tone.  The thing is, as a reader, it’s pretty likely you’d have experienced The War of the Ring, from its opening moves to its finish, the way Tolkien presented it – as an innocent children’s adventure first, then a grand epic based on the previous material. 

Moviegoers, specially those who’d never read either The Hobbit or LOTR, have the experience backwards, since the chronologically later trilogy was produced and shown first. Thus The Hobbit adaptation was produced with people who’d already seen LOTR in mind, and Jackson uses the opportunity to show the story in the wider context of the coming War of the Ring.  Some of the treats from this expanded scope include:

(Spoilers will follow for those who’ve not seen the movie yet, so continue at your own risk … )

The Coming of Smaug
The movie begins with a narrated montage of the glories that were Erebor and Dale, and the coming of Smaug.  Erebor is very impressively designed, and truly gives the feel of a fantasy dwarven kingdom – it really pulls you into Middle Earth, and I’m hoping it encourages more kids to get into FRPGs!  Jackson uses the classic Hitchcockian technique of never showing the whole of the monster to make it even more fearsome.

The Battle of Azanulbizar
We get a somewhat over-the-top montage of the dwarves battling the orcs at Azanulbizar, and the origin of Thorin’s nickname Oakenshield.  Jackson replaces Dain Ironfoot in the battle with Thorin, which makes me wonder whether Dain will appear at all in the trilogy.  That said, it’s a nice setup and establishes a lead villain for the movie in the person of Azog (who btw is also a modification – Azog is killed by Dain at Azanulbizar, and it’s his son Bolg who commands the orc  horde at the Battle of Five Armies).  It whets your taste for the scene where he gets his comeuppance at the Battle of Five Armies.  I rather wish Jackson had included shots of the dwarves burning their dead afterward, though, and made the tale of that part of the voice-over.

The Necromancer of Dol Guldur
Some viewers may find the portrayal of Radagast downright silly, but hey, the kid in me enjoyed it.  (And the adult in me said … aha, mushrooms!) What’s nice is that Radagast becomes the vehicle in the movie for the discovery of Sauron’s having moved into Dol Guldur.  There’s a nice scene where the wraithly Witch King, Sauron’s No. 2, attacks Radagast, but is foiled and loses his blade to the Brown Wizard who later shows it to Gandalf and Galadriel. 

The Machinations of the White Council
Galadriel of course only appears in LOTR, nor was Saruman at Isengard when Bilbo and the dwarves arrived.  But in the Council’s discussions it becomes plain that Saruman is at cross-purposes with Gandalf and Galadriel.  We start to get glimpses of Gandalf’s true role in Middle Earth, as he manipulates people and events to frustrate the Enemy. Thinking about this, though, it almost feels like poor Bilbo was dangled like a nice fat worm before Smeagol in order to get the Ring! Yes, Gandalf comes out as one sneaky bastard here, a machinator who hides his cards even from his allies. Hooray for Gandalf!

Riddles in the Dark
Other reviewers are already calling it the best scene in the movie. It is.  No epic battles happening here, no flashy swordplay, just one very terrifying little creature and one very frightened but plucky hobbit. But the pacing, the lighting, the delivery of the dialogue (Serkis deserves an Oscar) really highlight the evil of Smeagol in a way LOTR never quite achieved.  It also helps that the prelude to the scene shows Gollum brutally dispatching and then dragging off an injured goblin for later dining. Brrr.

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