The Hobbit (review) & On Adaptation

So I recently saw The Hobbit in theaters and in Imax 3D, and while I thought it was great there's a slight problem (for me at least) with reviewing it. The movie, if you haven't heard, is the first of a three part trilogy and is very nearly three hours long. Stretching the book that long has allowed Peter Jackson to pull essentially all the material from the book as well as (I've heard) material from The Hobbit's appendices and perhaps other sources still. Because of this, writing a review of The Hobbit the film is little different from writing a review of The Hobbit the book, and while part of me still loves to analyze literature I have no intention of reading the book simply to review the movie.

For obvious reasons then, Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit revives the constant question of adaptation itself, both because of the pure fact that it is a literary adaptation and the fact that it attempts to keep so close to the source material. For this reason I thought it prudent to explain (very briefly) my position on the adaptation of literature to film.*

For me there seem to be two major camps with relation to the theory of adaptation. First of all, there are the purists who believe that the film should not only capture the spirit of the source material but should also replicate the symbolism and themes. Second, those who could basically care less about the source material and just want to watch a good movie.

Having a degree in English and being a lover of Shakespeare, I might seem a prime candidate for the purist category, but believe it or not I think that source material should provide inspiration and nothing else. Film and literature are completely different media, and expecting what amounts to an exact copy of a book in the form of a film (or vice versa) seems unreasonable and unwarranted. From my own experience both watching film adaptations of books I've read and reading books that provided the basis for films I've seen, I believe that disappointment in either media results from an understandable but illogical libidinal attachment to one or the other. If you loved The Hunger Games, don't go to The Hunger Games expecting the same thing. If you want the same thing, go read the book again.

That said, I did see the Hobbit in both the theater (2D) as well as in Imax 3D, and have some minor opinions as to the quality of each.

While I'm not a huge lover of 3D in general, I think it can have its place in certain movies (for example, I would have been disappointed if I had missed out on seeing Avatar in theatrical 3D despite the film's unoriginal plot), and The Hobbit is in some respects one of those places. Peter Jackson's long, wide-angle shots of the New Zealand landscape with the little dwarves running across it are well worth seeing on the big(ger) screen in 3D.

On the other hand, either the 3D or the Imax experience in general (I didn't see The Hobbit in Imax 2D or in theatrical 3D) makes the green-screening more obvious. The scene where the dwarves discover they've ended up at the gates of Rivendell is meant to be a glorious and beautiful surprise (and in the theater I thought it was), but in Imax 3D you can tell the dwarves are just staring at a giant green screen.

So with that plethora of caveats, I believe I feel safe enough to delve into a short review of the film itself.

In terms of an action/adventure movie it certainly provides what you'd expect (although this isn't exactly my favorite genre). The fight scenes are plentiful and well orchestrated: the dwarves fight trolls, orcs, and goblins, and get caught in the middle of an epic (if obviously computer generated) battle between thunder giants. My personal favorite part of the movie is when Bilbo gets stuck with Gollum. Gollum's lines and his character in general are both hilarious and pathetic (in the traditional sense of evoking pathos). For delivering on its action/adventure promise, but being both slightly longer than necessary and at this point rather formulaic, I give The Hobbit 4 out of 5 beers, although Gollum is certainly pulling his weight (what little he has) pushing that 4 up towards the 5 range.

As for theoretical issues, the premise of the movie seems slightly paradoxical to me (and perhaps this is due to Jackson's meddling with the source material—suddenly I've switched sides! Just kidding). The dwarves quest is to venture back to their homeland of Erebor and reclaim it from the dragon Smaug. To translate into Lacanese, what it seems to me that they're doing is putting themselves in constant danger of encountering the Real in order to regain the security of the Symbolic. As Balin points out in the first act of the movie, however, the dwarves already have a new home, so there's clearly something more at stake. Perhaps the dwarves are seeking revenge on Smaug, or perhaps they simply want their gold back (as seems to be the case in the book). In any case the film provides us with some interesting symbols and themes to think about, and treats them with enough respect that I think it deserves 3 out of 5 Slavojs, although I can see myself possibly regretting this based on how the next two movies turn out.

*Malgorzata Marciniak, a film professor at the University of Toledo, has an excellent (as well as short and readable) essay on adaptation of literature to film which I think is well worth the read if you're interested, and which, for the sake of length, I have resisted the temptation to plagiarize (her essay can be found here).