As Snowball noted in Friday Catblogging this morning, was there really a need to turn a 317-page book into three full films, the first one running almost three hours?
I’m going to reserve judgment on that until I see the last two installations of the telling of the tale of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, but if the first episode foretells the future, I’d say it will probably work.
I did not see the 3-D version because I don’t have 3-D vision in real life. I’ll never know if it makes the experience any better, but I doubt it can improve the storytelling. Fortunately, director Peter Jackson has a good story to work with, and thanks to his work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he has a great deal of respect for Tolkien’s work. The difference is that in the case of the first series, he had to make some cuts to the original material, leaving out characters such as Tom Bombadil and shortening the end of the story that left out an important denouement. In the case of The Hobbit, he felt the need to expand, including bringing in characters from the first series to provide background for the beginning of the tale and extending some episodes that on screen lasted a lot longer than it took Tolkien to tell them on paper. (In fact, I’ll bet you can read the whole book in the the running time of the first installment.) And the inclusion of some non-textual events such as the tale of the wizard Radagast the Brown, who spends far too much time communing with nature (and mushrooms), was an episode that could have easily been left out.
Mr. Jackson was fortunate that he had good talent to work with in the cast. He was able to bring back Ian McKellen as Gandalf as well as Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee in their roles from LOTR, providing foreshadowing of events that will occur later on in Middle-earth (that viewers who have seen LOTR will know about, which means he was foreshadowing events that, in real time, have already happened.) He also found in Martin Freeman an actor who could play Bilbo Baggins, the country squire hobbit turned burglar and adventurer, with the right balance of courage and trepidation.
The only unfortunate casting was the company of the dwarves, whom Mr. Jackson chose to portray as comical gypsies and bumblers rather than the refugees of a noble kingdom cast out of their land by the dragon Smaug. Some of them seem to have been made up as if they wandered in from Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz. It makes you wonder if Thorin, the leader of the band (played with smoldering dwarvish sex appeal by Richard Armitage), could have chosen a more serious band of compatriots. (Although given the situation of the dwarf diaspora, it’s understandable.)
Because the film has been done in 3-D (along with IMAX and high-speed film versions), there are a lot of action scenes with lots of loud (and I mean LOUD) music and sound effects. At one point I thought that a chase scene was more a pitch for a ride at a theme park than an actual advancement of the story, but then, that’s going to keep the franchise alive, I suppose. And while I understand the need by filmmakers to go to the complete sensory absorption that 3-D and IMAX provide in order to sell tickets (and add the premium for the required viewing glasses), you had better have a good story to tell no matter whether it is in 3-D or not. In the case of The Hobbit, the original story was written long before 3-D film was invented; in fact, talking movies were a novelty at the time of the book’s publication. So the tale that Professor Tolkien began when he jotted down the sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on the margin of an examination paper he was grading survives in the telling, even if the embellishment turns that first line into a bit of narration a full ten minutes into the film.