Many an hour of my pre-teen/teen life was spent with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. I devoured those books; I wrote little messages in Elvish, I created visions of the characters and creatures, and I generally longed for a film adaptation of the books.
For some reason, I skipped over The Hobbit entirely. Perhaps it was its billing as a "children's book", which for me--a young man frustrated by childhood--was the kiss of death. Perhaps it was the Rankin and Bass animated version of the book, which I found to be substandard, and which came out during the prime years in which I was reading the LOTR series for the first time. But the sad truth is that I only read the Hobbit all the way through for the first time about two years ago. I found it to be much as I thought it would be--of interest, but of much less interest than the LOTR series. The story moves along at a good clip (in the book), something that can't always be said for the longer volumes of LOTR. But it just isn't as good of a story. Furthermore, Dwarfs are among the least interesting characters Tolkien introduced us to, paling in comparison to Elves (for instance), or the Uruk-hai.
Which brings us to Peter Jackson's long awaited rendering of The Hobbit for the bigscreen, the first of three of which (An Unexpected Journey) I went to see today. My bottom line? Good, not great. Lots to unpack here, so if you aren't a Tolkien geek, you may want to go elsewhere.
First of all, it would be almost impossible for The Hobbit NOT to suffer by comparison to the Lord of the Rings trilogy as made by Jackson. In my view, these are among the finest films ever made. Technically perfect, wonderfully acted, true-enough to the story, and loaded with heroism and derring do, I remember the sense of anticipation I had as I waited for the first (The Fellowship of the Ring) to come out in December 2001, and I remember being crestfallen at its conclusion, wondering how I would pass the next year waiting for "The Two Towers". When "The Return of the King concluded, I may even have had tears in my eyes--not from the storyline, but from a sense of finally having grasped something of real perfection.
It is now eleven years after my trip to the theater so see the first installment of the Lord of the Rings. The series won a ton of Oscars, and is universally regarded as great film-making. I have since then, re-watched the movies several times over. I have even re-read the books.
And so I come to The Hobbit a bit biased--by my past, and by Jackson's past. He had a huge bar to clear for me, and he didn't do it. Not that the Hobbit isn't good--it is. It simply isn't great, or even near great.
First of all, there simply isn't as much "story" to work with. Three long movies is a movie and a half too many to capture the storyline of the Hobbit, even as three movies were one movie too few to get all the great parts of the LOTR books onto the screen. I will of course, go to watch the next two installments as they are released--out of curiosity, out of wanting to see good movies, and out of a sense of respect and awe for what Jackson can accomplish on screen. I will not do so because I feel somehow drawn or compelled, as I was with the earlier movies.
Secondly, let's face it. Dwarfs are kind of boring. I was SO relieved when Thorin's band wound up at Rivendell so that I could look at good looking creatures with gravitas. Elves--simply put--are bad asses. These Dwarfs though are a far cry from the relatively immobile and quite rotund "Gimli" from The Fellowship, exhibiting great athletic skill and nimble feet.
Thirdly--Jackson has taken a bit of a "George Lucas" turn on us in this first installment, in that some of the characters (trolls and goblins) get remade into cockney dwarf rats, adding a comicality (and immaturity) to creatures which were heretofore simply only to be feared. Additionally, one of Gandalf's order (Radogast the Brown) appears to have a great load of birdshit streaming down the side of his head, something I simply wasn't able to take my eyes off of. In his defense, Jackson has the books to fall back upon--which were indeed aimed at a younger audience.
Finally, we're back to Gandalf the Grey--before his "resurrection" after the battle with the Balrog. He seems less sure of himself, less powerful (because he is) and much more in need of a good bath and change of robes.
What's good about The Hobbit? Well, mostly everything. If you don't have the biases that I have, you're treated to a rollicking good time, with some of the most amazing special effects around. The movie opens with a familiar Bilbo and Frodo (from the first movies), ostensibly earlier in the day in which their three movies begin. The fellow playing a young Bilbo is doing a great job so far, and I'm sure I'll grow to like him even more as the movies go on. And Gandalf is still a wonderful character. Nothing bad about the Grey Wizard.
My recommendation? Go see the movie--you won't regret the decision. But try and keep your expectations packaged up and filed among great memories of years gone by.