Am I the only person who thinks that Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie really shat? (Warning: spoilers.) After coming back from the theater I had a quick surf on the Twitter hashtag #TheHobbit and skimmed a couple of geek-site reviews, but only ran across one person who remarked that talking about it with her friends afterward was more fun than seeing the movie.
Has anyone read the book? Man, the Tolkien family is never going to let Jackson get his hot little hands on The Silmarillion now, and I’ve come around to thinking it’s a good thing.
It’s not a question of demanding slavish adaptation. Film requires you to do things differently than prose narrative; instead of saying “Orcs are massing in the mountains,” you show Orcs doing some massing-type things, and it’s a little corny, but acceptable, for Thorin to have a hereditary grudge match with a distinctive Orc. Likewise, film can start to grind when the whole cast marches everywhere in a lump, like women going to the restroom; I don’t mind that Jackson split the party up after they arrived in Lake-town. But, sorry, The Hobbit is not the story of thirteen Dwarves and a hobbit crossing the wilderland with a pack of Orcs on their trail. The company gets out of the goblin caves, survives pursuit until the Eagles rescue everyone, and don’t see an Orc up close again till the Battle Of Five Armies.
What do we get from Jackson? A criminally foreshortened encounter with Beorn the skin-changer, mostly shoved to the side by skirmishes with Orcs. Gandalf leaves the company in Mirkwood and takes his side trip to Dol Guldur; fine on Jackson that he interpolates material that only appeared in the Appendices of the books, so as to change scene and perspective. I quite hoped for some quietly spooky, hair-prickling moments, but no, visually it was a reprise of Jackson’s Isengard, only with Ian McKellen fighting Orcs. Lots of Orcs. (I think this may be where I went to the bathroom. One more ominous long shot of McKellen standing precariously on the edge of a broken stone span and I would have started to rave and throw popcorn.)
And Mirkwood? Where were the feasting, singing Wood-elves, disappearing in a flash of light and leaving the Dwarves thwarted and benighted? Where was Bilbo’s glorious uprush of courage and wit as he scampered invisibly through the trees, chanting derisory verses at the spiders? There was plenty of time for those episodes, you know, those old narrative concepts called incident and character development, if so much screen time hadn’t been blown on another big fight scene introducing some deus-ex-machina Elves. Trust me, Peter, by the time we got to that point in the film I was already sick of pitched melees even if a red-haired Valkyrie Elf was involved.
I was quite looking forward to the Dwarves whitewater-rafting in barrels — it promised high suspense and low comedy. But oh, God, the minute they’re out of the flume, here come more Orcs — way more than Jackson needed as an excuse for Legolas and Tauriel, another fairly forgivable interpolation, to track the company to Lake-town. Oh well, I thought, now we’re in the town, and he’s done a decent if heavy-handed job fleshing out local politics and the character of Bard the Bowman, on to the Mountain. But no, Jesus Christ on a bicycle, what now, it’s Orcs on the roof! And Elves fighting them! Ninja Elves! Let me go out and look at the poster, no, I’m in the right theater, this isn’t 47 Ronin that I wandered into. I’m stumped at how little reaction the Lake-towners showed to two other
gangs races of Middle-Earth brawling at tedious length right outside their first-floor windows, unless Lake-town is poor enough that it’s gotten a little rougher than Tolkien bothered to mention and the residents have become inured, like the people living near the Union Jack pub up the road from me a bit.
And then Bilbo tackled the job he was hired to do — I was so waiting for the line “Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool!!” — and everything turned into a Saturday morning anime serial. I can understand the desire to show the great smithies and mines of the Dwarves actually operating, but this was not the time to do it or the way, especially while asking the audience to believe that Smaug, the dragon who reduced Erebor and Dale to cinders in the space of a day, wouldn’t just get a little loft, scorch a troop of intruding dwarves to ashes, and roll back over to sleep some more. If they’re all going to troop in there and perform acrobatics with ropes and pulleys and bellows, what was the point of engaging a burglar? That was the point when I turned to the Cute Engineer and said “Jackson has officially jumped the shark.” Or, well, the dragon.
I’m not actually sorry I went. The project started well and who knows, it may end well, though I have a horrible feeling that it’s mostly going to be special effects of the dragon smashing everything and more interminable CGI beheadings and stunt fighting. And since Jackson’s inserted a little romance — again, forgivable, elaboration of the Aragorn and Arwen subplot didn’t really hurt LotR — I gotta know whether Kili ever gets any hot elf-stuff.
Smaug’s gradual, enormous emergence from his mounded treasure was good. Stephen Fry’s smarmy Master of Laketown was good. Martin Freeman couldn’t screw up if he tried, and Richard Armitage makes you believe that he is (1) a dwarf and (2) a king. Visually, these films remain celestial — Bilbo’s emergence into the roof of Mirkwood and a cloud of blue butterflies, the elaborately believable Laketown sets. The moments when Jackson did Tolkien straight, or used subtle dialogue to show his characters’ hearts, were perfect. But — sorry, Peter, endless fights are boring. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Really. Promise me that the DVD will include a shortened edition.