The Hobbit: Now You’re Tolkien

If you were Peter Jackson, would you want to stop making Lord of the Rings movies?

I expect not. Which is one reason why the first Hobbit movie took us only to the end of Chapter 6, and the second takes us only to the end of Chapter 13.

In the book – spoilers follow, should you not yet have read it – – this part of the story takes us from the edge of the Misty Mountains, with a rest at Beorn’s home, through Mirkwood and the Halls of the Elvenking, another rest in Laketown, and up into the dragon’s desolation around the Lone Mountain, where they search for the hidden door that only Thorin’s silver key can open.

“stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks … and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the keyhole.”

During most of this time Gandalf is offstage, having simply announced – as they are about to enter Mirkwood – that he has pressing business elsewhere.

But in the movie, understandably, Peter Jackson allows Ian McKellen some barnstorming scenes confronting the Necromancer in Dol Guldur: and, less understandably, despite the company of dwarves having been rescued by giant eagles at the end of the first movie, the posse of orcs and wargs are still pursuing them at the beginning of the second. No explanation is offered for how the orcs and wargs caught up with them after the eagle rescue: the movie opens with Thorin having a confab with Gandalf in the Prancing Pony in Bree, and leaps to Bilbo reporting back to the dwarves that they are still pursued by orcs: whereupon Gandalf takes them all to shelter in Beorn’s house.

(No, we do not get the scene of the dwarves popping along two by two as Gandalf tells Beorn the story of their adventures so far. Not really surprising. It seems likely that Beorn will be showing up for the War of Five Armies in the last film, though.)

The One RingThere is a nice moment just as Gandalf is leaving them when Bilbo almost tells him what he found under the Misty Mountains: and doesn’t. “I found my courage,” Bilbo says instead.

The transit through Mirkwood is also shortened – it seems to take no more than a day or so (and the river of sleep is gone entirely). This I am sorry about: I would have liked to see Peter Jackson’s take on an entire forest gone subtlely but horridly evil. He does keep the moment when Bilbo climbs the tallest tree to find himself suddenly in daylight, surrounded by giant black moths: and the expression on Martin Freeman’s face, Bilbo suddenly happy, is one of the delights of the film. And there are giant spiders. Of course there are giant spiders. If you are arachnophobic, there are several seconds during which you would be well advised to keep your eyes tight shut and remember that tickle on the back of your neck cannot possibly be a giant spider crawling up the seat behind you. (For one thing, these spiders are so big they wouldn’t fit into modern cinema seats.)

Martin Freeman is tremendously good at being a hobbit, and much better at being Bilbo than I’d expected. And one of the small, subtle, CGI’d details (at least, I think it’s CGI: I’m pretty sure a human face can’t do that) is when Bilbo senses something not quite right, and an expression that begins like a human sniff turns into a full nose-wriggle, most remarkably like a rabbit: reminding you that a hobbit is not a human.

Bilbo does a splendid job of slaying spiders with Sting, and then they’re all rescued by elves. (Yes, there is a Warrior Elfmaiden. Yes, unfortunately, she does seem to have been dropped into the plot for Romance. [Much against Evangeline Lilly’s wishes, apparently.] No, she doesn’t romance Bilbo, or Thorin. Yes, Legolas shows up. Yes, he is a terrific archer.)

The part of the movie that takes place in the Hall of the Elvenking goes very much as in the book – in fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the escape by barrel is rather more convincing when it’s dwarves using the barrels as boats than Tolkien’s idea of stuffing each dwarf into a barrel to be floated down a river for several days and they all miraculously survive. The only major change is the Warrior Elfmaiden romance. (No, the movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Until the narrative gets to Laketown, the Warrior Elfmaiden is the Smurfette. In Laketown, there are two girls and one old lady, but as they don’t say anything to each other, it’s still a Bechdel-free zone.)

Laketown is splendid. It’s a grubby, rotting, convincingly-smelly Venice in a ice-clogged lake. The dwarves and hobbit enter hidden under a load of fish, and the town politics in the movie are pretty much as Tolkien gives them in the novel, right down to Thorin’s speech convincing the Master and the Laketowners to support the dwarves on their way up to the Lonely Mountain.

And then – finally, with an hour of the movie to go – they reach the Lonely Mountain and find the hidden door.

One of the oddest things about Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit in narrative terms is this.

It’s not surprising that he gives Gandalf more to do, and lets us see what this “pressing business” is. When you have Ian McKellen contracted to play wizard, why wouldn’t you? And although we know (the informed audience) that Bilbo has picked up the One Ring and carried it out of the depths of the Misty Mountains, and this is quite possibly why the Necromancer is awakening – no one else does. Bilbo knows he’s found a magic ring, which he doesn’t want to tell anyone about, and which is useful because it makes him invisible. But he doesn’t tell Gandalf, who only knows that the Necromancer is stirring and the imprisoned Nazgûl have broken loose. This is all good cinematic logic, and makes sense of Gandalf’s disappearance from the narrative from the point of view of Thorin’s Company.

In the novel, by the time they reach the Lone Mountain, Bilbo has become the de facto leader of the expedition: he is the clear hero of the narrative.

In the movie, Thorin is the hero, with Bard (I am glad we are likely to see much more of Bard in the third movie) and Kíli as secondary heroes. Yet, all the while, there is Bilbo: not a hero, not a king or a warrior: just a hobbit, armed with a sword and a secret ring, trotting barefoot through huge adventures. In a sense, this is close to what Tolkien intended: the hero as everyman, the unexpected ordinary English chap, very small and not at all heroic, who finds himself in the middle of huge events: not a king and not a warrior, not a wizard, a mere commonplace hobbit doing the most astonishingly brave things.

As when – as burglar of the expedition – he goes down into the Mountain to meet Smaug.

There And Back Again: A Detectives Story by Irise
There And Back Again: A Detective’s Story by Irise

Benedict Cumberbatch is a fine actor. I don’t think anyone doubts that. But there is not a question in my mind: he got to be Smaug because Peter Jackson thought it would be a wonderful lark to have Sherlock the dragon confront John Watson the hobbit – but as with the riddling scene in the previous movie, Bilbo’s meeting with Smaug is very nearly pure Tolkien and is dead pure brilliance.

The designers of Smaug did a wonderful job. He’s not six-limbed: he walks on huge leathery forewings and long reptilian hind legs. He has huge snaky eyes. He has a furnace in his belly hotter than most volcanoes – hot enough to melt Rings of Power. He’s stronger than stone. And he is huge.

And then the movie departs from the novel, quite extensively. In the novel, Bilbo flees Smaug and he and the fifteen dwarves barricade themselves inside the mountain and hear Smaug rampaging outside. In the movie… well, that scene of a few lines lasts about half an hour and is visually tremendously impressive and physically very improbable –

– and the movie ends on a climax.

Unlike with the three Lord of the Rings movies, each of which was more-or-less self-contained, Peter Jackson is counting on a consistent audience that will keep coming back this year and next. The second movie begins in medias res and ends with dragonfire.

Well. The third and last Hobbit movie will be in cinemas on 17th December 2014, and yes, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

But “The Empty Hearse” will be on BBC1 in less than an hour…

Bilbo and Smaug by Lightning-W0lf
Bilbo and Smaug by Lightning-W0lf

2 Comments

Filed under Film Reviews, J. R. R. Tolkien

2 responses to “The Hobbit: Now You’re Tolkien

  1. I had girl-Bilbo in my head through the whole movie because of reading this just before: http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2013/12/18/one-weird-old-trick/

    I was kind of surprised that it was possible to keep thinking Martin Freeman was a girl though.

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