Thursday, December 20, 2012

I'm Packin' My Bags for the Misty Mountains...

After I got home from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, directed by Peter Jackson), I dug out my copy of The Hobbit to see how many pages of the book the movie actually represented. My copy, an old paperback from the 1970s, ends the "Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire" chapter on page 114. This is where the movie ends. The movie is 160 minutes long. There's an axiom in screenwriting that says one page equals one minute, so there's obviously more material on screen than is provided by the book. Critics of director Jackson's brand of "more is more" cinema will almost certainly view this as another example of how Jackson's movies tend toward bloat, and they wouldn't be wrong, exactly. An efficient movie adds more information to the screen to advance the plot or theme from shot to shot. Jackson sometimes adds material to show off his technology or his exuberance as a filmmaker. The result with this particular film and the two that will follow it is, perhaps, the first cinematic literary adaptation that takes longer to watch than it does to read.

But maybe I'm being unfair. In truth, I didn't notice that the film was bloated while I was watching it. In the moment, scene to scene, I was grooving on what I was seeing. In Jackson's defense, he's not just taking material from The Hobbit. He's also folded a lot of the back story of Middle Earth into The Hobbit, drawing from the appendices in The Return of the King and scattered material from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales (particularly "The Quest for Erebor"). Most of it makes sense. Most of it is fused into the story more or less seamlessly. Jackson isn't inventing anything that isn't canonical from the books, even though it sometimes feels like it. Jackson and his partners have pored over the minutiae of Middle Earth and gleaned everything they can find that might make for a cool set piece or for heightened drama. What Jackson sees in Tolkien is a vast playground and he apparently wants to try out every swing and seesaw. I don't blame him, really. I grew up with Tolkien and were I in Jackson's position, I might do the same.

The story is mostly intact--indeed, reverentially preserved--from the book. Fussy hobbit Bilbo Baggins is cajoled into going on an adventure with a company of dwarves, who intend to retake their ancestral home beneath the Lonely Mountain. Their kingdom was lost years ago to the great dragon, Smaug, who still sits atop their vast treasure. Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, has come into possession of a map showing a secret way into the mountain. The company finds itself in need of a burglar, and the wizard, Gandalf, has nominated Bilbo, much to the hobbit's consternation. At first, he refuses, but wanderlust niggles at him and eventually he hies out for the wild, the lucky fourteenth member of the company. Unfortunately for them, the wild is dangerous. They encounter a trio of trolls intent on eating them, a pack of orcs led by one of Thorin's old enemies, and stumble into Rivendell for a brief respite among the elves before tackling the dangers of the Misty Mountains. Gandalf, for his part, has come into troubling knowledge about a power that has taken residence in Mirkwood, and senses that the quest of the dwarves is tied to that power. The Misty Mountains, it turns out, are dangerous indeed. The pass our heroes take is the playground of stone giants and the shelter they seek turns out to be the front porch to a goblin kingdom. The goblin king captures them all, save for Bilbo, who gets lost underground. As he gropes through the darkness, Bilbo finds a gold ring and comes across the strange creature, Gollum, who offers him a game of riddles with his life as the stakes...

Visually, this is more of the same carried over from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. New Zealand once again provides a rocky landscape for figures to trek across. The orcs and goblins are once again disgusting monsters. The elves once again live amid pre-Raphaelite design, shading ever so slightly into art deco (the kingdom of the dwarves, shown in a prologue, is much more in tune with deco). Also retained are Jackson's swooping, CGI aerial shots, and his love of vast, frenetic battle sequences.

What's new is the cast. Oh, some of the principles from The Lord of the Rings return. We still have Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Christopher Lee as Sauruman (I love seeing Christopher Lee still getting work, by the way). There's even a prologue that begins where the The Fellowship of the Ring begins, Elijah Wood and Ian Holm included. But once the story proper begins, it more or less belongs to new characters. To Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins, in particular, and to Richard Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield. Thorin gets a bit more back story than is provided by The Hobbit, which is not a bad thing given that some of his actions late in the novel are totally inexplicable without this kind of grounding. This is one area where Jackson's passion for "more" actually makes sense. Freeman is pitch perfect as the flustered hobbit. Watching him get discombobulated by his uninvited guests makes an overlong first act palatable. Enjoyable, even. He's also pitch perfect later in the movie when the plot demands heroism out of him.

I think I can see a broad outline of where this project is going, at least as far as Bilbo Baggins is concerned. Jackson seems to have internalized the notion that great fantasy is about power, about the powerless finding power within themselves, and that's the arc he emphasize in this movie. Bilbo begins as a timid, content, mediocrity, more likely to be killed in the wild than to do anything valorous or useful on a quest. This is certainly the conclusion Thorin reaches upon seeing him. But Gandalf sees something else, and coaxing that something else out of the hobbit is the business of this movie. It reminds me a bit of the first line of The Mekons' "Rock 'n' Roll": "Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late." That's what Bilbo does and he emerges from the crucible stronger. If Jackson follows through on the plot of the book (in a way he avoided in the Lord of the Rings), Bilbo's arc will curve toward the cost of heroism. I hope he manages it better than The Return of the King did.

As with the other films in this franchise, this is a highly variable experience. Most of the people I've talked to about the film find the opening dinner scene to be unendurably long. Tedious. I liked it, though. By contrast, the long action sequence in which the dwarves escape from the Goblin King strikes me as the kind of punishing action movie sturm and drang that numbs me. I checked out a little while this was raging on screen. It reminded me a bit of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is a similarly boring action movie that doesn't realize that keeping everything at one hyperactive pitch is just so much noise if you don't modulate it and give it a rhythm. Jackson, like Spielberg, is a better filmmaker than that. By contrast, the "out of the frying pan" sequence immediately afterward is a model of action rhythms. This part makes for a pretty good climax, particularly given that it's action as character development. The things the characters do in this sequence have meaning, which makes all the difference in the world. Compare this to the previous sequence: you can see what the characters are doing here, where in the Goblin Kingdom, every shot is high above the action and the participants might as well be so many ants. The dwarves, who are the main participants in this, aren't differentiated enough by the film to make their actions meaningful, either. Jackson should know this, but he does like his mass combats and charges ahead with it anyway.

I like the fact that the monsters have more personality than they did in the previous films. Barry Humphries lends the Goblin King a droll menace that is mostly absent from the other villains in the series. I presume this will be true of Smaug, when the time comes (given that his voice will be provided by Freeman's Sherlock co-star, Benedict Cumberbatch). The trolls have fun dialogue bits, too, which lends them more character than most fantasy film "others." This is essential to the working of the plot, actually, since talking his way out of a jam is Bilbo's most reliable weapon. This comes to the fore in the best part of the movie--taken directly from the book practically verbatim, I should add--during the riddle game between Gollum and Bilbo. Nary a stunt or action beat to be found here, but it ratchets up the tension. It's pure suspense filmmaking. Hitchcock would recognize the technique.

As I said at the start, when I got home after seeing the movie, I dug out my copy of The Hobbit to confirm that I was remembering it correctly. I didn't remember the stone giants, but sure enough, they're there. I knew that Galadriel wasn't in the book, but I don't begrudge her presence in this movie. It would be a total sausage fest otherwise. I like the versions of Galadriel and Elrond here better than I did in The Lord of the Rings. Elrond seems wiser and kinder. Galadriel seems more approachable and less terrifying. Cate Blanchett, it should be noted, is a splendid choice for Galadriel given that her screen image, fair or not, is one of stately and unapproachable class without much emotionality. The difference between the elf characters here and in the previous trilogy is suggestive, as is the depiction of Radagast the Brown, because The Hobbit is an earthier, less high-minded book than the Lord of the Rings. The movie version, it seems, has figured this much out at least.


Antonio Mendoza said...

What did you think about the new format - 48 fps?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Unfortunately, I don't have an opinion. It's not showing in that format within 100 miles of me. I saw it in 2D. I'd be interested in seeing it in the 48 fps, but I'm not going out of my way.