The Best Version of a Worst Case Scenario: The Hobbit Trilogy

In 2012, the world was treated to a return to Middle-Earth via Peter Jackson’s sensibilities with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  I remember at the time being strangely muted in my excitement upon its release.  This was no doubt because of the news that The Hobbit, a relatively brief novel, was being turned into three really long movies for reasons that only make sense to studio executives and accountants.  But whatever, the Lord of the Rings films were great, and the cast for this new film seemed pretty spot-on.

When the film was released, the dog pile started.  It made a shit-ton of money of course, but it was a film that was just shy of three hours, and it told only a portion of the story with a bunch of other stuff thrown in.  I actually enjoyed it when I saw it in theaters, but it was clearly not in the same league as the LOTR films.  I mean, how could it be with the conceit of stretching a short novel intended for young people into an epic saga?

Much of the criticism leveled at the film was sensible enough.  The additions to the story slowed the pace of the original narrative, and sequences seemed to go on forever.  The action set-pieces were awash in advanced CGI that somehow looked worse than the blend of “bigatures” and computer augmentation that had created such a unique look for the Rings films.  The methods had advanced, and yet the end result seemed like a compromise.

The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, was more of the same (and yet I paid to see it in theaters–and still ended up enjoying it well enough).  Each set-piece was turned into a Richard Lester or Gore Verbinski-style Rube Goldberg contraption, with escalating absurdity that defied any sort of streamlining or efficiency in storytelling, and again the additions to the story felt poorly grafted on (at least to anyone familiar with the material).  There was this sense that, despite the talent making it and the proficiency of the product, it simply wasn’t able to replicate the grandeur, depth, and impact of the previous films.

Even though I enjoyed the first two films as slickly made epic fantasy films, my enthusiasm was essentially drained by the release of the third film of this series in 2014.  Even the lukewarm reviews that seemed to be an uptick in terms of positive reception did nothing to move me.  I finally watched it when it became available through On Demand platforms in 2015, and I kind of hated it.  The Battle of the Five Armies was great when it hewed to Bilbo and his relationship with the dwarves, but every single expansion of the story did nothing but bloat the film, and what was good was swallowed up in some really weak extended action sequences.

The impression that I carried after watching each of these films, and then together as a complete sequence, is that there is, in fact, a GREAT Hobbit adaptation buried somewhere in this nearly eight or nine hours of movie.  So, once the films were done and some clarity was given to HOW we ended up with three films when there should only have been one or (maybe) two, it’s hard not to appreciate what we ended up with.

I guess the story goes that Jackson, serving as producer, was set to give the director’s reigns to Guillermo del Toro (a well known fact), that the legal wrangling over the rights to the books, and MGM’s near financial collapse, basically screwed over the schedule, and del Toro left in frustration to do other stuff.  Jackson was basically left with a directive once the legal stuff was sorted and the money changed hands: The Hobbit will be made within a confined deadline, there will be three movies, and Jackson has to direct.  All the pre-production done with del Toro was cast aside, and while some prep was done, much of the del Toro-lead development was dumped, and the Weta Workshop had to turn around and re-design everything to be more in line with Jackson’s sensibilities.  Where Lord of the Rings had a cohesive direction and lead time for planning, The Hobbit films were given virtually no time at all to prep a back to back to back trilogy, relying on nothing but the experience of the same crew to pull this thing off.  In essence, The Hobbit films were not the labour of love that the Rings films were, but a product on a punishing deadline.

Viewing The Hobbit films after some time and distance, it is clear that Jackson is a really strong director.  The movies are watchable, and even have moments of inspired genius.  They are cohesive and fit together relatively well, and create an interesting intersection of the source and a unique interpretation that also fits within another existing adaptation.  The groundwork for Lord of the Rings being retroactively incorporated into The Hobbit isn’t necessary, and in some cases is clumsily handled ala the Star Wars prequels, but I have to admit that there is a part of me that thinks it would be neat to view these, unfamiliar and unspoiled by release dates, as one big story with the Rings films.   I imagine some enterprising amateur editor could do wonders incorporating two trilogies into one seamless, epic series.

All in all, when The Hobbit films stick to Tolkien, they manage to recreate some of the magic of the earlier film series.  The main characters are well cast and given some solid dramatic material that carries through all the films.  Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is so perfect that I can’t even imagine anyone else in the role.  It’s not that his performance is always perfect (because Freeman is one of those guys that you can sometimes see the acting), but the match of role to actor overcomes much of that, and he nails the important notes and moments.  Richard Armitage is handsome, kingly, brooding, and intense from the get-go, a man that you may not necessarily like, but seems natural in his role as a king.  And the tragedy of his madness in the third film works beautifully (even if Jackson over-plays his hand with a really fucking idiotic visual metaphor).  My personal favourite of the Dwarf Company is and always will be Balin, as played by Kent Stott.  He’s a warm, supportive, and friendly character, tasked with delivering exposition in each film at key points, and the fact that he’s so brilliant adds so much more to Gimli’s mournful realization that Balin has died at the hands of the Moria Orcs in Fellowship of the Ring.  Most of the other dwarves get short shrift, sadly, but Bofur (as played by James Nesbitt) manages to shine in some key scenes, and I can’t help but love the guy.  He has a twinkle in his eye, and has a wonderful voice.

The Desolation of Smaug, as a standalone film, has the strongest material in terms of set-pieces.  The road through Mirkwood, and the attack by the spiders, is fantastic (I just like giant spiders), and Smaug is AMAZING.  I had my doubts that Smaug would be a better on-screen dragon than the Vermithrax from Dragonslayer, but Jackson’s sensibilities are always keenest when he’s dealing with evil, and boy howdy does Smaug fucking OWN.  Cumberbatch’s voicework is exquisite, and the design and effects of realizing him are some of the best in all six films.  If you have to get one thing right, Smaug is at the top of the heap, and they nail him here.

I’m wrapping this up pretty soon, but there are a few points that I want to make before I’m done.  This re-watch was with my wife and oldest son, after watching The Lord of the Rings extended editions with them.  So, this was a first pass for my son, a fresh perspective divorced of all the expectation of either the previous films or the material.  Watching these films with him is a way to borrow someone else’s eyes, and as pure fantasy adventure films, I think these work pretty damn well.  There is NOTHING ELSE out there that comes close to the Hobbit films in terms of scale and quality outside of the Lord of the Rings, and so on some level I have to appreciate them for what they are.  Jackson has a really devilish sense of humour, and he clearly relishes the gruesome, pulpy aspects that adapting this material affords him.  He’s always at his best when dealing with monsters and goblins and orcs, and his Sam Raimi-like pleasure in severed heads and weird close-ups is employed in these films.  That puckish glee for grue really lends itself to the enjoyment for a certain kind of kid (and adult), and I think some of the gags here that seem stupid to grown-ups work quite well to puncture the grandeur and flowery language of the other parts of the story.

There is no getting around it though: there’s too much goddamn movie for the story.  But considering all the studio wrangling, legal hang-ups, last minute personnel changes, and other extra-textual crap that buggered up the works, The Hobbit films contain a GREAT adaptation of the book, buried under too many divergences, rushed visual effects (in the case of the third film especially), and over-indulgence.

But the re-watch did nothing but good for these films as far as I’m concerned.  Jackson pulled off something that, while not quite miraculous, is still worthwhile.

A few parting questions:

  1. Has anyone seen the extended editions of these films?
  2. Does anyone like the additions made to these films?  (I like Tauriel, but hate the love triangle bullshit.  I also kind of get why Azog the Defiler was turned into a major villain)
  3. Has there been a good fan edit done of the three films into one?