We went to the movie of the first part of "The Hobbit" a couple of weeks ago, but yesterday was J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday, so the time is clearly right for me to post my review now. (Beware, if there's anyone reading this who doesn't know how the book or movie goes, there may be Spoilers…)
I have to begin by saying that on first hearing that director Peter Jackson was going to milk out The Hobbit into three long movies, the same length as the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, my initial reaction was disgust. I still think it reeks of self-indulgence and greed. But that said, our whole family did absolutely enjoy watching "The Hobbit Part I," so while I would have preferred that Jackson had made some different decisions, he certainly did a good job over-all.
I would divide Jackson's changes from Tolkien into two main categories: those intended to tie "The Hobbit" more to "The Lord of the Rings" movies that are already made, and those intended to be more cinematic in some way. In the first category are the representation of Gollum's split personality and the blurred effect Bilbo sees when he puts on the ring. Neither of these is present at all in Tolkien's descriptions in the book, but they make sense for consistency with The Lord of the Rings. I also rather like the idea of including some of the stuff that never appears in the book, but which we know is happening off-stage during that same time, such as the conversations among the wizards and elves. ('Though all the rigamarole with Radagast was eons longer than it should have been in a movie that claimed to need so much extra time. And the slapsticky eye-crossing schtick was just stupid. Also, I don't think quite so much time need have been lavished on past battles.) However, on the whole, I did not object to this category of changes, even though they rather altered the tone of the movie.
The thing is, The Hobbit is a children's book, drawing heavily on folk tales, humor, and whimsy. It has a very different tone from The Lord of the Rings, which draws on the more epic mythology, legends, and histories intended for adults. Of course, The Hobbit itself changes tone somewhat over the course of its own length, starting with the rather self-consciously childish description of the Hobbit hole and ending with epic battle, betrayal, and redemption that looks a lot more like Lord of the Rings -- so getting the right tone was going to be a tough balancing act for anyone trying to film it. But there's no doubt that Jackson has chosen to make "The Hobbit" into a serious chapter in a serious epic rather than a cute children's adventure, so anyone considering taking young children to this movie should definitely reconsider.
I was a lot less happy with the decisions Jackson made merely to make filming easier or to conform to box office fashions. For example, take the battle of the stone giants in the Misty Mountains. Tolkein wrote four sentences mentioning this (and it wasn't even a battle but a game between the giants). It was not, in his story, a major action sequence. His party of travelers was not riding the giants, who did not look like shaley Transformers, there were no screaming dwarves being swung all over having hairsbreadth escapes, with crashes and smashes that defied all survival odds, and major percentages of the landscape being hurled into abysses so that the entire mountain range would have to be redrawn on all the maps… But Jackson spent at least ten minutes on all these shenanigans, in a movie that could easily have been ten minutes shorter. Clearly this whole sequence was a kiss-up to demands for more action sequences. And then the entire goblins' kingdom was wrong wrong wrong! Tolkien's goblins live in tunnels hewn through rock: dark, twisty, low tunnels. They do not live in an airy filigree of rope bridges and wooden platforms suspended in a cavern that hollows the entire interior of the mountain. Now, I do understand that logistically it's difficult to film much of anything in dark, low tunnels, and especially difficult to film chases, fights, and lots of action. But I don't care! If you're such a genius director then figure it out! Goblins live in tunnels, darn it!
One last complaint: in Jackson's version we see the Ring fall from Gollum's finger, and Bilbo picks it up immediately after. I'm not quite sure whether or not we're supposed to think that Bilbo saw the Ring fall and knew that Gollum was its owner, but even the slightest shade of ambiguity on this point changes the story radically. One of the main reasons the Ring had so little ability to corrupt Bilbo over the years he held it was that he had not stolen or killed for it as so many others had before him. But if you see someone drop a valuable and you deliberately pick it up and keep it for yourself, that's simply stealing, which is wholly contrary to the spirit of Bilbo's relationship with the Ring and with Gollum.
Those are my main complaints (T complained that the dwarves didn't enter each with their differently colored hooded cloak, but that's probably only because she'd just reread the beginning and it was fresh in her mind.) Let me end with some praise. As with the other "Lord of the Rings" movies, "The Hobbit" is absolutely beautiful. From the landscapes to the props, everything has been meticulously designed and filmed. The acting was excellent (with the exception of Radagast). Thorin is younger and handsomer than I always imagined, but he has a palpable enough charisma that you can really understand the loyalty and love he inspires, which I always found a little weak in the book. But most importantly, the movie successfully evokes that thrill of adventure, that curiosity for the stories of interesting characters in an epic world, and that awe at the beauty and peril of fantasy, that The Hobbit has ignited in so many readers. And for that, despite my disagreements with some of Jackson's choices, it's a wonderful movie.
[Pictures: Chapter heading (An Unexpected Party), pen and ink by David Wyatt from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Collins Modern Classics edition, 1998 (Image from H.O.B.B.I.T.I.S.H.);
Over Hill and Under Hill, pen and ink by Eric Fraser from The Hobbit, Folio Society edition, 2001 (Image from Babel Hobbits).]