I went to see The Hobbit again today determined to enjoy it for what it is. For me this is very hard to do. It is very hard to look at the film as an interpretation rather than an adaptation of Tolkien’s writing. I came fairly close this time around, and it was largely due to a different frame of reference. I read the Tolkienist’s post recently, “Why the ‘film purists’ and the ‘book purists’ will never understand each other – on how (not) to appreciate Peter Jackson’s work,” and was inspired. Yes I would most likely fit best in group three, but groups 1 and 2 rear their heads now and again as well. What really struck me was the distinction between adaptation and interpretation.
According to Dictionary.com, to adapt means ” to fit, change, or modify to suit a new or different purpose,” whereas to interpret means “to perform or render (a song, role in a play, etc.) according to one’s own understanding or sensitivity.” One is a translation, the other an explanation. One implies recreation of the same end product in a different media, while the other recreates the original in a new light originating from the creator. One looks to the source exclusively, the other to the source and the interpreter.
What we have in Peter Jackson’s films are Jackson & Co’s vision of Middle Earth, their interpretation.
And while I’ve been well aware of that fact, being more in the purist camp, I still find it hard to accept, even though it makes complete and logical sense. Thinking about it, part of the reason for The Lord of the Ring film’s initial success for me was due to the fact that I had only read the books twice by the time they came out. Granted, the seeds of my own interpretation were well sown, but were not fully dominant, so I was able to enjoy those films easily. After many years, and just as many rereads, the approach to The Hobbit is much more fraught with peril for the potential film-maker.
At least it was so for my first two viewings.
This time around, I came to the theater with a better grasp of what I was going to be seeing, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of the adaptation/interpretation question. This time around, I approached the film as I would fan-fiction, fun, adventurous, daring, but also flawed. I came knowing I was looking through another’s eyes at the world Tolkien discovered. Seeing differently, just as if I’d borrowed someone else’s glasses.
It was a revelation.
My concerns, frustrations, and quibbles largely fell by the wayside. I really enjoyed the film! The changes, twists and additions, though still troublesome as an adaptation, I was mostly able to accept as an interpretation. They may not be the choices I would make, but I understood and appreciated them in the context of the three prospective Hobbit films and the previous trilogy.
For this viewing, I brought my mom along to see it for the first time. She has never read the book, or even seen the original Lord of the Ring’s movies (other than bits and pieces perhaps), so I was able to get a new-comer’s view on things. She really enjoyed the movie, even going so far as saying she’d like to see the next and even read the book. Her first reaction was confusion at the end, “That’s it?” she asked. I had to explain there are two more movies to come, and the one book expanded to three by way of the LotR appendices. Watching her watch the movie, and hearing her reaction, proved to me the triple goal of Jackson’s interpretation, as I’ve previously stated, to appeal to fans of the books, of the films and the new fans yet to come.
My primary goal in writing this blog, starting in 2007 to this day, has always been to encourage greater readership and scholarship of Tolkien’s writing as well as to discuss and share the wonder to be found in it. If the film gets more people to read Tolkien’s work, this adds greatly to its appeal.
Now, even viewing the movie as an interpretation, I still had issues with it. I think the reason why is fairly simple. Peter Jackson and his crew have created a vision of Middle Earth which is at times exceedingly close to the reality of my own vision, and at others light-years away. This duality between right-fit and wrong makes it difficult to maintain either the separation of interpretation or the connection of agreement. It makes it next to impossible to wear the same “hat” throughout the movie: either purist or carefree.
Though the description of the film as fan-fiction may seem harsh, other than the fact that the screen-play is a re-imaging of the original work rather than a side-bar creation, the metaphor fits well. In fan-fiction, it is generally easy to separate yourself from canon, at least for a short time, in the name of fun or discovering a new twist. The further removed the new creation is from the plot and characters of the original, while maintaining the hallmarks of the world or universe at question, generally the easier I find it is to accept. Many of Jackson’s choices would fit exceedingly well in this category, if not for the fact that the story has already been told.
The truth of the matter is that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is remarkably faithful to its source material. Where closest, and where Tolkien’s dialogue is used, the film truly soars. This may be part of the problem though; because in this environment, the few additions and diversions are quite obvious to those familiar with the books.
I can live with Azog. Heck, I could even live with the buried and dead “Witch-King” if need be (though I’m inclined to concede that most likely this will change once more is revealed in future films). Both fit into the film as created. If we are to take Tolkien’s “Necromancer” at his word, he is a black sorcerer, capable of raising the dead. It should be remembered that as Bilbo’s diary, The Hobbit is not a perfect resource. The Necromancer, who would turn out to be Sauron, appears to be what he’s been named. Take the name to its logical conclusion, and you have the Witch-King of the film. Azog adds improved structure to a film/plot that hasn’t yet gone far. He lends added danger, a continuing villain and a satisfying hero’s arc to end the film. All of this makes sense for the medium and for the interpretation of the book as three films.
However, I still cannot deny what I feel are the two most egregious errors of the film.
First, the finding of the Ring. I paid very close attention during this scene. I’ve heard and read from many that Bilbo is hidden behind the mushrooms and so we are to believe that he doesn’t see the Ring fall, only we as spectators do. From memory, this seemed plausible. Watching today, my first impression was confirmed. The camara, quite pointedly, shows Bilbo looking through the mushrooms at Gollum as he fights the goblin and as the Ring falls, switching focus from one to the other. Then without any hesitation, Bilbo comes to the exact spot where the Ring fell, and though he first looks towards Gollum’s cavern, he then looks down. There is no reason he should look down, no stumble, no feeling something odd, only the fact that he knows something fell! He reaches with confidence, and picks up the Ring, knowing it is there. How far indeed this is from the way it’s written!
The second makes complete sense for the three movies, allowing this first one to stand well on its own. This, of course, is Bilbo’s battle with the orcs in Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire. This is just so completely out of character for Bilbo, it cannot be ignored. Though it makes sense as an ending to this first film, it diminishes the importance of and the surprise of Bilbo’s rescue of the Dwarves from the Spiders, where he first draws blood and names his sword. That future moment has been marred, but I can only hope it will be salvaged and not eradicated completely by Tauriel and Legolas as seems to be hinted by some of the merchandise (Lego set, I’m looking at you!).
Other than that, though, it was an illuminating experience and thoroughly entertaining. Maybe I need to try this approach on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Please find below all my reviews and musings on the first Hobbit film:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Initial Thoughts
The Hobbit: AUJ, Contemplating Change
Secondary Impressions, TH:AUJ