Last night I saw Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Shuffling out into the lobby afterwards, Shauna remarked, “You’re disappointed, aren’t you?” And I was. But maybe disappointed isn’t the right word. Conflicted is probably more to the point.
I mean, what wasn’t to love? The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey invites us back into the wildness and wonder of Middle Earth. It’s not long before we’re ducking our way through Hobbit holes, squaring off against dagger-fanged Wargs, Orcs, Goblins, and dark magic. Even better, we’re back on the trail with grumpy old Gandalf, our beloved Hobbits, and a delightful new company of dwarves.
This is a fine movie. It’s quite enjoyable, exciting, heartwarming… so what’s my problem? After sleeping on it, I think I can articulate my issues.
1. Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a single, giant flashback.
As a writer, I can tell you that flashbacks are tricky to use. They’re usually employed to help readers (or viewers) experience a critical element of backstory. Most often, they highlight a single scene and then jump back into the present moment where the real action is happening. But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a single, giant flashback. The unintentional message this sends is, “Don’t worry, none of this is actually happening right now. It’ll be okay in the end, because look, Bilbo is now an old man.”
I got the message, and this robbed me of some much needed plot tension. When combined with my second issue, the problems mount uncomfortably for me.
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey spends too much time creating seamless links to the LOTR trilogy.
The story begins with an elderly Bilbo working on the memoir he would finally complete in the LOTR series. Elijah Wood’s Frodo also gets screen time in the first ten minutes.
What’s wrong with that? First of all, there is no tension in any of it. Watching Bilbo writing a book is boring. Worse, there is no character development either, because there is a sixty-two year gap. A basic rule of writing is, “If a scene doesn’t move the plot forward or develop characters in vital ways, cut it.” Jackson doesn’t. Dramatically, the first few minutes of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is reduced to the status of a family gathering. We get to spend a few minutes with old friends for no apparent reason. When the Dwarves arrive, the real story begins.
Links to the LOTR series are sprinkled throughout the movie, including a scene with Sauruman, Galadriel, and Eldrond. The purpose of this scene is to “build a case” for the growing evil that will eventually saturate The Fellowship of the Ring. This means it serves no real purpose for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
These “link winks” feel forced to me, probably because The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was written before the LOTR series. Imagine re-writing the Old Testament after reading the New Testament so we could create a more seamless integration between the two. Remember how we rolled our eyes when George Lucas went back and attempted to prequel us (a little too seamlessly) into to A New Hope? Bad George. Bad.
3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey can stand on its own.
I think my biggest issue with my first two issues (yes, even my issues have issues) is that The Hobbit was poised to be it’s own great movie. It’s more comedic (it had to be), more stylistically cartoonish (the Hobbit is a children’s book), and somewhat less realistic (in enjoyable ways). I found myself regularly jarred from the plot of a great movie to think about the other three films. But I paid twelve bucks to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, not The Hobbit: A Prequel to The Stuff You Love.
By giving the first ten minutes to elderly Bilbo and Frodo, we rob young Bilbo of ten minutes of character development. We actually needed that time to build a more credible case for his decision to embark on his adventure. Give me young Bilbo from scene one. Martin Freeman is fantastic. Let him have his movie, and I will follow.
There. Now that I’ve vented, I’m going to grab my son and return to the theatres later this week. I’m going to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Imax 3D. I’ll look for spiritual parallels. And I’m going to love it.