Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Review (Part I)

There is a disturbing trend happening with major movie releases these days. According to critics (and many audience members), a new film is either an amazingly surprising hit, or it is a disappointment. This verdict can almost be completely pre-determined by the collective expectations preceding the film's release. With almost no films budgeted over $100 million based on original material, all major releases are either sequels (or prequels, which are still actually sequels) or based on other media such as books, tv shows, comic book characters, or, rarely, plays; which means that each has dedicated fans who have very ingrained pre-conceived notions about what their favorite thing is really all about.

Calypso and Assante from
"The Odyssey" (1997)
Before 2001, this was why most successful works of fiction were not made into films. The conventional wisdom was that film adaptations could not do major works of fiction justice. One only has to watch the Armand Assante version of The Odyssey or the BBC productions of The Chronicles of Narnia to see that this is true. Even most comic book films of the period were dismal both in their quality and in their ability to translate what millions loved into something that worked on the screen.

But The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) changed all of this. A hit with fans of the book and general audiences alike, this film opened the door to what has become a decade of, well, unoriginality at the movies. So, in 2012, the tentpole releases were The Avengers (sixth in a series), The Dark Knight Rises (third, or seventh, or eighth, depending on how you count), The Bourne Legacy (fourth), Skyfall (23rd), and now The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. With The Avengers, many doubted that anyone could make a film with so many super heroes in it work. They were pleasantly surprised that it did work and so one of the slimmest plotted films of the year went down as one of its best. Whereas the critics were expecting the second coming of Christ with The Dark Knight Rises, and instead greeted it with indifference, perhaps not liking so much what it had to say.

A similar phenomenon occurred with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in that The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is one of the few films of the last decade everyone can admit to liking without drawing looks of disgust from one corner of the room. So, many in the media were looking forward to experiencing a new revelation in cinema. Suffice to say they did not. Nor should they have.

Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring is arguably his greatest single work. The amount of character development and pathos in that book is unmatched in his other writings. If you've read The Silmarillion, you know he actually writes in a very distant, objective style. This is actually one of the reasons The Hobbit is such a short book, page count wise. The stone giant sequence in the film that has been criticized by many is straight from the book, but it only occupies one sentence. It is not described. But in those days, people weren't as critical (or so it would seem), and this was not considered a problem. When translating such a story to film, where things are shown, and not told, one cannot avoid depicting such a fantastic sight. Tolkien's writing is full of such little asides and tangents that are irrelevant to the overall plot but essential to the atmosphere of his fairy tale world.

Daniel Craig in "Skyfall"
The Hobbit simply isn't as strong a book as The Fellowship of the Ring; however, it's a great book. It's a funny book, a moving book, a (melo)dramatic book, and a wonderful story. But it is different; and movie goers (and especially critics) don't like "different." They say they do; they will say "this film breaks new ground," or it "defies the stereotype," but it actually doesn't. Skyfall earned a lot of praise for being a "different" kind of Bond film; when in reality, it simply wasn't a Bond film. Had that same film been made under a different name or with a different character, it would not have merited their notice, because it is exactly like every other action film of the past five years. It is in essence not "different," but in line with the styles of the time; this dark, "ultra-real," "gritty," aesthetic that is currently in vogue, where no CGI is used and lots of people die horrifying deaths. In Skyfall, our "hero" saves no one, and does nothing remotely heroic. This was loved by the critics of our day. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" does not fall in line with this aesthetic, and therefore has not earned their favor.

Continue on to Part II - An Unexpected Pleasure.
Or skip to Part III - The Relevance of the Hobbit Today.

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