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Will Critics Regret Trashing 'The Hobbit?'

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire January 3, 2013 at 4:33PM

Is "No!" an acceptable response?
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"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

Well, this is certainly a unique defense of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Poet and Huffington Post blogger Seth Abramson says that someday critics "will come to regret their relentless savaging of Peter Jackson's film." And why? Because, Abramson says, despite reviewers' complaints that Jackson was driven by "mercenary" impulses when dividing J.R.R. Tolkien's children's book into two, and later three, separate films, there were actually far more altruistic motivations at work:

"What these critics don't know, and what Jackson most certainly does, is the history of 'The Hobbit' as a text, and of Middle Earth as a holistic construction. While knowledge of the literature behind the film doesn't necessarily imbue the film with automatic cinematic bona fides, it does suggest that, in the long run, critics of 'The Hobbit' will be made to feel rather foolish for their circumspection and (in many instances) their open hostility toward both Jackson and his creation. If there's a reason most critics panning the film don't also encourage moviegoers to avoid it, it's likely that they sense -- as they ought to -- that future generations will view the effort considerably more kindly, and that therefore 'The Hobbit' is worth seeing now, whatever its infelicities."

Abramson then goes on to list all the various events that occur before "The Hobbit" that connect it to "The Lord of the Rings" films, and tie the two trilogies together as one enormous work of art (8 years before "The Hobbit," for example, "Aragorn is taken to Rivendell to be raised by the elves." So he's got that going for him). "It is upon this larger narrative that Jackson has undoubtedly been focused for the fifteen years he's been working on bringing Tolkien's literary vision to the silver screen," Abramson says, adding that his "knowledge of Tolkien lore can be presumed to exceed that of any small-city film critic by a factor of twenty or more, and way he shot 'The Hobbit' reveals it unambiguously."

In other words: in Jackson we trust. And, if I've got this right, it's a bit unfair to judge just one-third of "The Hobbit" on its own, because there are larger plans at work here, and ideas and themes we won't fully understand until the trilogy is complete. Fine; Jackson is a gifted filmmaker and he's earned a certain amount of respect. He definitely knows more about Tolkien than most small-city film critics -- and he certainly knows more about him than this one, since I've never read a page of the man's work. Everything I know about Middle Earth, in fact, I learned from Jackson himself. It's possible that as the first third of a massive nine hour epic, "An Unexpected Journey" will grow in stature and esteem.

It's possible -- but unlikely. And it's certain that as a single film -- which i paid nearly $20 to see -- "An Unexpected Journey" was an incomplete and not particularly satisfying unit of storytelling. You know from the outset that this is only a third of the whole saga; my gripe isn't necessarily that there's no resolution, but that so little of the film even seems to hint at an inevitable resolution. No wonder Abramson liked the movie -- Jackson was far more concerned with ticking off Middle Earth characters and subplots for the Tolkien hardcores than telling a sleek and exciting tale for average moviegoers. As a relative Middle Earth greenhorn, I marveled at the effects, pondered the HFR, and mostly didn't care a bit about any of the characters, many of whom seemed totally interchangeable. 

Plus, even as he dwells in the darkest depths of Mordor minutia, Jackson changes things. Apparently, the primary villain in "An Unexpected Journey," a vicious orc named Azog, barely appears in Tolkien's "The Hobbit." In Jackson's telling, he's introduced in flashback, battling dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, who beats him and leaves him for dead. Later, Azog reappears to chase Thorin, Gandalf, Bilbo, and the rest of their team as they make their way to the Lonely Mountain. In Tolkien's version, Azog actually is killed in that past battle (and not by Thorin, either). 

So what is Jackson's "The Hobbit?" Is it a transcription of a great book, or an interpretation of one artist's work by another? If it's a transcription, then it sounds like Jackson missed a few words. If it's an interpretation then it's a wildly bloated one. At least until I come to regret this post. 

Read more of "Dislike Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit?' Then You Don't Know Tolkien."

This article is related to: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, From the Wire


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