Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

From 2001 to 2003, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was treated to a three-part film adaptation by New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson. Using amazing actors, groundbreaking CG, beautiful music and a plot adaptation that did the books justice while not adhering to them too strictly, the story came to life for both old fans and new.

The film trilogy quickly shot into popular culture, complete with merchandise of all forms, including multiple editions on DVD and later Blu-Ray. These included extended versions of the films, which were notable for creating a richer viewing experience.

Fans of Tolkien quickly began to speculate on a possible film adaptation of The Hobbit, the much shorter and less complex novel originally for children that The Lord of the Rings was written as a sequel to. Fan scripts (including one by yours truly) popped up online, and fans realized that there were ways a film could expand on the story using additional material that Tolkien wrote after the book's publication.

Production-wise, it was a project that was up in the air, the rights to distribute a film based on The Hobbit were held by MGM, while New Line Cinema (later swallowed by Warner Brothers) held the rights to make any films. Also, Peter Jackson didn't quite want to make the film. He wanted to see another director helm it. Eventually, MGM offered to cooperate with Warner Brothers/New Line to make the movie happen. Soon, director Guillermo del Toro was attached to the project, and he assisted Jackson and his fellow Rings screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens to adapt the book to a screenplay, and they announced they would produce two films.

Two films based on The Hobbit? It was initially announced one film would be The Hobbit while the other would be a Lord of the Rings prequel that would look at Middle-Earth leading up to the events of the 2001-2003 film trilogy. Eventually, though, production was delayed and del Toro had to step out of the director's seat to pursue other projects, but not before revealing they had decided to make The Hobbit into a 2-film adaptation. Shortly, Jackson announced that he would helm the films, and soon production was underway. At the 2012 Comic Con, Jackson announced they were considering extending the project to three films, a plan soon confirmed by Warner Brothers/New Line.

The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey debuted in the US December 14, 2012. The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, will be released in December 2013, and the final installment, There and Back Again, is expected in December 2014.

So, what is The Hobbit about? Bilbo Baggins, a peace-loving hobbit living in the comfortable land of the Shire, is invited by the wizard Gandalf to help a pack of thirteen dwarves take back their ancient home and treasure. Bilbo joins, thanks to a wild streak from his mother's side. During the quest, he stumbles upon a magic gold ring that makes him invisible, but it will prove so important to the plot of The Lord of the Rings.

An Unexpected Journey is well-cast. All cast members from The Lord of the Rings films whose characters also appear in The Hobbit return in those roles. The only exception is Ian Holm, who—at the age of 81 now—was far too old to portray a young Bilbo Baggins, but Jackson and Co. decided they would blur the lines between old Bilbo and young Bilbo by having Holm return to play an older Bilbo in a prologue sequence that is set just before the start of the first Lord of the Rings film.

Playing the younger Bilbo is Martin Freeman, famous for his roles in the original UK version of The Office, the recent film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and recently Dr. John Watson in the BBC's Sherlock TV series. Freeman is a suitable Bilbo, and while I was worried that I wouldn't buy him as the character against Ian Holm, there was no problem. Period. Freeman makes the role of Bilbo completely his own while not contradicting anything of Holm's character. (There's the problem of a scene from The Hobbit that appears in The Lord of the Rings not matching up with this film, but frankly, I'm not caring right now.)

The main cast is enormous with fifteen characters. Alongside Freeman's Bilbo and Ian McKellan's return as Gandalf are thirteen dwarves: Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Stott), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Fili (Dean O'Gorman), Kili (Aidan Turner), Dori (Mark Hadlow), Nori (Jed Brophy), Ori (Adam Brown), Oin (John Callen), Gloin (Peter Hambleton), Bifur (William Kircher), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Bombur (Stephen Hunter). They manage to be comical but also brave and daring as well. It was strange that many roles were filled by handsome men when dwarves are typically stocky. The leader of them, Thorin, is easily the most developed character of the bunch (and to be fair, Tolkien gave him the biggest backstory), though the others are not relegated to filling the background. They fight together, look out for each other, offer banter and comic relief. Balin is quite friendly to Bilbo and gets a bit more development than the others as well.

The film is about three hours long. Some may not like to see a three-hour film without the ability to pause when they want and to take a break, but I was able to sit through the entire thing. While it covers the first six out of nineteen chapters of the book, it is paced briskly enough and really feels like Jackson took every possible chance to bring Tolkien's world to life in its fullest glory. A little streamlining has been done, and elements that likely won't be relevant until the third film are already set up.

On the expansions, despite my being quite familiar with Tolkien's book, they felt natural considering these are films by Peter Jackson. While this is very much Tolkien, it is also a revisionist take on the story. In the book, Gandalf says he received the map critical to the story from Thorin's father, who was found in the dungeons of the Necromancer. In the film, Gandalf is made aware of the Necromancer by his fellow wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) after he has given the map to Thorin.

Something that I look forward to seeing unfold in the next two films is the involvement of the White Council. Almost entirely absent in the book (it requires Gandalf to leave Thorin's company and it gets a very brief mention later), it was expanded upon in Tolkien's appendices in The Lord of the Rings, and now further expanded here. This brings back Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) from the first trilogy, and gives an expanded role to Elrond (Hugo Weaving). This plot will actually set up quite a big part of The Lord of the Rings.

The music by Howard Shore heavily harkens back to cues from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but as the films cover very similar ground and go to many similar places, it really isn't bad at all. It creates a musical continuity for the films, though I suspect we will hear more new music in the next two films.

I was worried that Jackson might do what George Lucas did with the Star Wars prequels. I only saw the first of those because it was the first Star Wars film I'd seen and it made absolutely no sense to me. Seemingly, enjoying it required familiarity with the original films. The Hobbit book stands on its own, and I think the films will as well, though they have been designed to dovetail with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I will envy people who will view all six films in chronological order as their first experience to this film series.

The film has been noted for introducing a new format for 3D film: using a frame rate double the usual speed. This seems to have been both loved and hated. I saw the film in 2D at normal frame rate. I don't care for 3D myself, and to me, making films look really realistic ruins the fact that this is supposed to be a fantasy epic. Also, 2D matches the look of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Overall, I loved seeing Middle-Earth return to the big screen, and feel that Jackson has produced a quality film. I look forward to seeing the next two installments, and am even considering seeing this one again soon! I even look forward to the home video release!

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