Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It probably comes as no surprise to you that I was super excited about the first installment in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. I loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy and am a card-carrying member of the “I know each extended movie was four hours long, but I still wish there had been more” camp. Plus I love the book of The Hobbit, and am a huge fan of the original animated version. And also — Martin Freeman! Could there be a more perfect Bilbo Baggins?

So despite all the hubbub leading up to the release — Three movies! 48 frames per second! 3D! Elijah Wood returns! — I couldn’t wait to see it.

Now, one piece of controversy I can’t weigh in on is the 48fps 3D. We saw the plain ol’ 24fps 2D version. BUT The Husband went back a week later to see the 48fps 3D with his dad, and came back telling me it was life-changing and the single awesomest thing he’s ever seen in a theater. I asked him, “what about the people who say it makes it look like obvious sets and makeup and detracts from the magic of the world?” And his response was, “I have no idea what those people are talking about, but I feel sorry for them.” So I guess that’s our official family stance. If you disagree, you have to take it up with The Husband. Who won’t engage, so really, it’s probably best if you just rage silently.

Anyway, how about the movie itself? How does it stack up to LOTR, and how closely does it follow the book? And how did Jackson stretch an only moderate-length novel into three epic films? Is it a case of gratuitous money-grubbing?

Well, honestly, as a direct comparison, if I think back to how I felt the first time I saw Fellowship of the Ring and compare it to how I felt after The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the honest truth is I liked Fellowship more. HOWEVER. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like The Hobbit. it just means the films are different — as they should be, because the stories have a vastly different feel, despite sharing a director and a fantasy world — and that I find the beginning of Frodo’s story a bit more compelling than the beginning of Bilbo’s.

But for what it is — an adaptation of the first third (ish) of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I think it succeeds. The casting of the new characters — Bilbo in particular — was spot-on, and much like with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, believing the characters played a huge role in accepting the fantastic story. Freeman’s Bilbo, in particular, was fabulous. He completely embodied the homebody hobbit and made me root for him in spite of the fact that Bilbo (in a that often goes unnoticed) is not heroic. In the book in particular, Bilbo pretty much never voluntarily goes into battle or stands up for his companions unless it somehow serves his own self-interest. Now in the movie, this is changed a bit, and although it made me tilt my head and go, “huh, that wasn’t in the book,” I understand why film-Bilbo needed to evolve a bit more than book-Bilbo. Some things work on paper that just don’t translate to screen. But Freeman made these changes seem totally organic to the character Tolkien created, and I think they worked.

The returning cast members — most notably Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and Andy Serkis’ Gollum — easily slipped back into their old roles. Kudos to the makeup department, because they made me believe that Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Hugo Weaving hadn’t aged at all. It helps that Elijah Wood hasn’t aged since he was about 15, but that’s beside the point. And they even made Ian McKellen look younger than he did 10 years ago. I tip my hat to them. That is no small task.

Aside from Freeman, the new cast members all performed admirably. The standouts was Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the motley crew of dwarves that Gandalf assembles. This film fleshes out Thorin’s back story a lot more thoroughly than the book does (using supplemental materials written by Tolkien), and I found it really interesting to learn about why he was the way he was. We don’t get a very in-depth a look at all the dwarves, as the film decides to highlight just a handful of them. I imagine that different dwarves will be highlighted in different films, so that by the end, we’ll know a good amount about each of them. I don’t mind this approach, as it would be really hard to get a close look at all 13 dwarves and still have anything resembling a story in just one movie.

As for the differences from the book, there was actually very little in the way of actual change. Most of the elements in the film that aren’t found in The Hobbit are chinks of back story that Tolkien himself filled in in his other writings. So they’re not changes, or additions, to the story. They’re just parts of the story that give context to what’s happening, and tie it into what happens in LOTR, that people who have only read The Hobbit wouldn’t know about. In my opinion, that doesn’t make them gratuitous or indulgent. They’re part of the story. Have been for decades. They’re just not the first book. So I appreciated them. Now, there are a few legitimate changes to the story. As I mentioned before, Bilbo has a bit more of an arc. There’s some fighting in places where there isn’t fighting in the book. The order of a couple minor events is switched around. But there weren’t any changes that I felt hurt the story, or marred the integrity of what Tolkien wrote.

And this film is overall more lighthearted and — occasionally — silly than LOTR. It’s received some criticism for this, but honestly, The Hobbit is a much more lighthearted book than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s got singing. It’s got something resembling slapstick humor. It makes bodily function jokes. If anything, the film toned most of this down from the book (for example, the goblins aren’t singing when they chase the dwarves into the trees. Good call, Jackson, as a song there may have diminished the intensity of that scene — but if the song had stayed in, at least he could say it’s in the book). So yes, the tone is different, which means it’s enjoyable in a different way. It’s still a spectacular fantasy adventure set in Middle Earth, but they come in all shapes and sizes. Kind of like dwarves.

Bottom line: I really enjoyed An Unexpected Journey. Was it the overwhelming awe I felt after Fellowship of the Ring? No, but that’s okay. I enjoyed the story and appreciate the way it was told. I loved the characters and look forward to getting to know them better. And I am still nothing but excited for future installments.

Discussion: Rooting for the Bad Guy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about villains, and what makes a great one. And although I put a picture of good ol’ Voldy up here, I actually am of the opinion that if the Harry Potter series has a shortcoming (GASP!), it is in the characterization of Voldemort (don’t worry, I will still take Harry Potter’s shortcomings over most other series’ strengths any day). And this is because he spends over half the series as just Super Evil Supervillain Who is Evil for the Sake of Being Evil.

Later on, he got some back story, but it was never really enough to make me feel him as a character. He was simply a foil for Harry (and, you know, the rest of humanity), because having a mega-evil über-wizard as Harry’s nemesis made for some awesome story lines.

So. If Voldemort is not the epitome of all villains, who is?

I’m pretty sure you are not going to be able to predict my answer here. Please bear with me.

Yup, my favorite villain of all time is Inspector Javert from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.

Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, seen the movies, or heard the music. Because the reason I love him can translate to something you are familiar with.

Basically, Javert is a police officer who spends the entire story attempting to hunt down an escaped convict and return him to prison. He also tries to serve his country by infiltrating a renegade group of students who are fanning the flames of rebellion among the citizens of France.

And he’s the bad guy.

The reason he’s my favorite is because he’s so well developed, that if Victor Hugo had decided to write a Les Misérables companion novel from Javert’s POV, he could have easily become the protagonist. His motivations are solid, and he honestly believes he is doing the right thing throughout the entirety of the story by thwarting our heroes at every turn. He is the hero in his own story.

Switching from the book to the musical for a minute (which is absolutely not completely accurate to the book, but which I love and have seen live five times, and am immensely excited for the movie), Javert also sings my favorite song in the show. If you didn’t know anything about the story and just heard this song, you could believe that this is a hero’s anthem.

So stepping away from 19th century French literature for a moment, how does this apply to modern villains? To Voldemort and Umbridge, President Snow and Cato, Victoria and the Volturi?

I think there’s a few things that set a great villain apart from a decent villain.

Decent: Has a well-developed origin/back story.

Great: Has a well-developed,  somewhat sympathetic (not necessarily entirely, but at least partially sympathetic) origin/back story.

Decent: Has his/her own reasons for wanting to thwart the hero other than because they are supposed to.

Great: Has his/her own compelling and understandable reasons for wanting to thwart the hero. Note: These do not have to be sane reasons. Some of the best villains are complete loons with no moral center. But even with the craziest villains, we should be able to follow their reasoning, even if we don’t agree with it.

Decent: Is dark and scary and kind of a caricature.

Great: Is dark and scary and real.

Decent: Thinks he/she is the hero of his/her own story.

Great: If the story was told through his/her eyes, we could easily be convinced that he/she is the hero of the story, and that the hero is the villain.

So who are some great villains? Well, none of the ones I listed above, sadly. But here are some I do think are great, taken from movies, TV, and books.

Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.

This would be a great example of the character being completely crazy. I don’t think he could ever convince any of us that his disturbing cannibalistic fashion statements were based on sane brain function. But even though he is certifiably nuts, he has a way of always making twisted, shiver-inducing sense. And that, to me, is the scariest part of his story.

Detective Jimmy ShakerRansom.

This isn’t the greatest movie ever, by any means, but I always thought Gary Sinise’s Detective Shaker was an amazingly nuanced and well-developed villain. If you haven’t seen this 1996 flick, I’d recommend it for Shaker alone.

Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

He was never a pure villain or a pure hero. Even when his mission in life was to kill our favorite sassy slayer, it was hard not to root for him. And even when he was trying to turn it around, you could sense the darkness just beneath the surface. Spike is one of my favorite characters of all time, in any medium, because of all these layers.

BoromirThe Fellowship of the Ring.

I have now officially seen the movie so many times that I can’t view Boromir objectively anymore — I can’t see any part of his slow succumbing to the ring without thinking of everything that follows — but I remember hating Boromir the first time I read Fellowship. But at the same time, it was so believable watching this gradual descent from a celebrated hero into a bitter man under the ring’s control. Speaking of which…

Gollum, The Return of the King

Granted, Gollum spends the entire Hobbit/Lord of the Rings series being villainous, but he reaches his most evil — and most sympathetic — in Return of the King. No matter how many times he deceived and sabotaged Frodo, I couldn’t help but feel my heart break for him just a little.

Severus SnapeHarry Potter.

Yes, I know that Snape’s status as a villain is up for serious debate, but I would argue that anyone who makes our hero that miserable for that long can be considered a villain, at least during the time the misery is occurring. But the fact that whether or not he even is a villain, despite the misery, is a testament to how well-developed his character is. Voldemort and Umbridge may not be on my list, but J.K. more than made up for it with Snape.

Darth VaderStar Wars.

I almost forgot one of my favorite nuanced villains, Anakin Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader. Ignoring for a second how terrible the prequels were (I used to think their one saving grace was the fight sequences, then I saw this, and now…), he totally embodies my theory that the best villains could actually be the hero if the story was told from their point of view. Anakin is the protagonist of the (awful) Episodes I-III and the villain of the (awesome) Episodes IV-VI. And that is kind of amazing.

Note: A story does not have to have an awesome villain to be successful. Lots of stories aren’t about a sentient antagonist, but are instead about heroes overcoming some other sort of conflict, and those stories can be just as good, if not better, than stories featuring intelligent, nuanced villains.

But if the foil to the hero is The Bad Guy, then I’d certainly hope the bad guy has a good reason for doing what he’s doing.

What do you think? Who are some of your favorite villains, and why do you love to hate them (or hate to love them)?

Top Ten Tuesday (July 24) – Top Ten Most Vivid Worlds/Settings In Books

It’s Top Ten Tuesday again, hosted by the fabulous folks over at The Broke and the Bookish! And the topic this week is one of those things that I think helps set “great” books apart from “good” books.

Top Ten Most Vivid Worlds/Settings In Books

World building! That feeling that you’re actually in the setting of the story instead of simply reading about it. Sometimes a book has a really interesting plot that engages me, but I have a hard time picturing the world, making the book simply “good.” Other times, I feel transported to a different time or place, and those are the books that really stand out to me.

So here are my Top 10 books that have the best world building, in alphabetical order:

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Defiance by C.J. Redwine

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Harry Potter (entire series) by J.K. Rowling

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb (Yes, this is technically the same world as Assassin’s Apprentice, but the two series focus on totally different aspects of that world, so I think it’s valid to include both)

Starting out

I’ve loved to read ever since I could read.

In elementary school, I devoured series like The Boxcar Children and The Baby-sitters Club.

In middle school, I ventured into the world of science fiction with Michael Crichton.

In high school, I dabbled in a variety of genres, from classic literature like Les Misérables, Jane Eyre and Lord of the Rings, to the legal thrillers of John Grisham, to the sweet and semi-sappy romances of Maeve Binchy.

The only limitation I put on myself was that I didn’t want to read anything that was actually written for kids my age. I viewed Young Adult Fiction with distain. I thought the only people who read it were kids who didn’t know any better. I was Above It All.

Then in college, a friend gave me a book for my birthday. It was a gag gift, since it was a series I had made fun of for years (and it wasn’t even the first book in the series). He knew if I owned it, I’d have to read it.

The book was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

I read it.

I loved it.

Fast-forward to over a decade later. I now read what I want. Sometimes it’s books about teenagers, written for teenagers. Sometimes it’s books written for adults about housewives, detectives, spies, reporters, librarians. If it sounds interesting, I’ll read it.

I finally realized that it’s not “mature” to look down my nose at a book simply because of its intended audience. Likewise, I was not winning any brownie points in life by only reading books written for adults (and let’s face it, there’s just as much — if not more — garbage out there targeted at adults as there is for kids).

This year – 2012 – I decided to start writing down my thoughts about the books I read. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I always end each book I read with my head swimming with thoughts, and often no one to share them with. So I’ll share them with you (whoever you are).

You may not agree with me. That’s fine. I don’t agree with anyone on books (or most other things) 100% of the time either.

So here we go.