I saw Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night. (We saw it in "IMAX" -- I'm not sure what people think that adds to the movie-watching experience, but...there it is.) I thought the movie was wonderful.
I know. I'm supposed to be disappointed that it wasn't exactly like the book. That's how we lit. nerds and those "fan-boys" are supposed to, as my brother-in-law recently pointed out in conversation, assert our ownership of the material. It is also very (nauseatingly) fashionable to be hard on "prequels" or follow-ups to beloved movies. George Lucas knows this all too well.
Well, I was not disappointed that the movie was different than the book. Jackson and his team did what they needed to do. Remember, please, that this is a statement made by a guy who credits Tolkien and his work with changing his life. Tolkien's works set me on a path I walk until this day.
(Bear in mind that Ray Bradbury rewrote the story of his own Something Wicked This Way Comes for the movie version. This is because he realized, accurately, that a movie is not a book. And, in fact, it is not a good conversion at all. I one heard Michael Chabon speak. Someone asked him what it is like to turn one of his own books in to a screenplay. He said, "Imagine turning a bull in to a walrus by grabbing its horns and dragging them down under his chin. It's very bloody and, in the end, you still just have a bull with horns under its chin.)
Some "changes" were clearly not really changes to anyone who has delved into Tolkien's work. In fact, Jackson pointed it out in one interview: they used material from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings to add elements to the plot. Almost everything in the film was written by Tolkien, even if it does not appear in The Hobbit. Not all -- almost all is from Tolkien. The rest? It worked.
For instance: (plot-spoiler coming -- kind of) the scene in which Bilbo and the dwarves are
stuck up in the trees and surrounded by orcs and wargs (and, in this case, Azog -- a vengeful orc dropped into the plot from elsewhere in Tolkien to add dramatic tension: he's after Thorin and Thorin hates Azog. Watch the film to see why...) In the book, Tolkien introduces a mildly annoying deus ex machina: Gwahir and his giant eagles come, from out of nowhere, to rescue them, just as the orc-lit fires below begin to lick at the feet of our heroes. I'll just say that Jackson's version of the scene is a vast story-telling improvement. Very dramatic and entirely conducive to theme-development.
And that is okay. I can still love Tolkien without disparaging those who recognize his flaws. The Hobbit is not the Bible. And while Tolkien is certainly the god of fantacists, he is certainly not The Almighty. He is as flawed as anyone.
I heard someone complaining, as well, about the "addition" of Bilbo's explanation of his reason for having decided to go on the journey, after all. In the text, written for children, it is good enough that, after a visit from Gandalf, Bilbo, after some thinking about it, decides to go on his journey. No real reason given. The key is to get the fun started. Kids are cool with that. But it you are making a film for grown-ups, you need to offer more (sadly).
In the film, Bilbo explains that he decided to stick with the dwarves because he misses his own home very much, but he realized that the dwarves are homeless -- they are trying to reclaim theirs. He wants to help them to know his comfort of the hearth, if he can. This is not a violation of the text, oh lovers of knee-jerk hating, out there; it is called "interpretation." It is a damned good one, in my book. In fact, I buy it completely as a motivation for a journey whose motivation I have questioned in my own mind since the age of fifteen.
One of Jackson's most challenging tasks was tone. The Hobbit was once done by Rankin and Bass (of Christmas-special fame) in quite a whimsical version. The dwarves were goofy. Everyone was cute. Tolkien hated that sort of depiction. (He couldn't stand Disney dwarfs. He wanted all creatures of myth to have dignity.) Jackson did a fine job of maintaining the whimsicality and, at the same time, keeping us aware of the deep-running river of often harrowing history that surges below all lands and times of Middle-earth. It was a heck of a feat, on his part, and it was my biggest concern going into the film.
One critic said the film felt "stretched" (like butter over too much bread?) -- as if Jackson was just trying to cash in on another trilogy that did not need to be a trilogy. Ah, no. Just no. At least, not if you truly know Tolkien.
And I knew Tolkien before he was cool. (And heaven knows I got enough flack about it from those who knew what "good" literature was... Hmm...sounds like a wheel turning, doesn't it?)