The debacle that is the movie version of The Hobbit, part one, reminds me of an old story that Dr. C Everett Koop told me over drinks just after he became Ronald Reagan's Surgeon General. "When I was surgeon in chief at Philadelphia Children's Hospital," Koop said, "a lot of my work was fixing mistakes made by other doctors before the kids were sent my way. We used to get a lot of botched circumcisions. I remember one where they left everything they should have taken and took what they should have left."
So it is with Peter Jackson's first installment of The Hobbit. The spirit of the book has been almost entirely lost and replaced by a movie that looks as if it was made to spin off theme park rides and videogame derivatives rather than to tell the story as written in the beloved children's classic.
Unlike The Lord of the Rings film trilogy that largely succeeded in maintaining the spirit and details of the books, The Hobbit departs so far from the text that is has little to nothing to do with the original. Worse, the film as a film is just another overblown barely coherent effects extravaganza dud more akin to Transformers in spirit than to anything that Tolkien wrote.
If you were unfamiliar with the Lord of the Rings trilogy (books or films) The Hobbit would be unintelligible. Enter the overused theme music for each event that is borrowed out of the earlier movies and only serves to remind the viewer of how far The Hobbit falls short of the earlier trilogy.
The subtle characterization of the leading characters in the book has been lost. The scale of the film is entirely wrong. And extraneous elements have been added that wreck the story line of the book while adding nothing but confusion to the movie.
The dwarves are now action heroes. Gandalf mostly adds what in other movies would be a voice over to explain a failed director's attempt to tell a story. Bilbo is now an unlikely swordsman/hobbit proving his ability to kill creatures he never fought in the original story.
The bumbling grumbling dwarves of the book are a heroic crew of warriors led by a dwarf king utterly unlike Thorin as Tolkien wrote him. Instead of Bilbo Baggins gradually earning the dwarves' trust through a series of small heroic acts in small episodic adventures everything is scaled up into theme park ride size as an excuse for over-the-top computer-generated imagery (CGI).
It's as if the book has been made into a movie trying to rival the epic spirit of Lawrence of Arabia plus Raiders of the Lost Ark but with no story to carry the bombastic load. And it is about as appropriate to do this to this modest, lovely children's story that once was The Hobbit as it would be to render Winnie the Pooh in the style of Star Wars.
The Hobbit movie is little more than a prequel to the three movies of the Lord of the Rings. Battle scenes are scaled up to epic proportions for no reason. Small subtle events are replaced by massive set pieces that go on and on... and on. The few good scenes remind one of what's been lost. The first scenes in Bilbo's home (even though some of the dwarves are horribly miscast and look like refugees from a boy band) and the Gollum/Bilbo ring discovery scenes are good. And that's because unlike the rest of the movie they more or less stick with the book.
Tolkien is an infinitely better storyteller than Jackson, so where the movie embroiders on the book nothing is improved on and lots is lost. For instance, the simple and elegantly told story of the first adventure and encounter with the trolls becomes needlessly complicated and expanded and not in a way that improves on the old scenes. The rest of the action and interminable battles are not in the book and huge-for-no-reason.
Turns out being able to do anything via CGI isn't always a good thing. Add unlimited budget and hubris and we're a long way from Tolkien and much closer to the mental illness that seems to overtake certain Hollywood types (even if they're working in New Zealand) of the kind that had producers in the 1930s giving happy endings to Shakespeare tragedies. And now the silliness that passes for creativity knows no limits because there's always some guy with a computer that can add a "cast" of thousands where none is needed. No deaths are simple now. Everything can be played to infinity and beyond. Action without reason is just plain boring.
The extraneous bits and pieces Jackson added have to be supported by an intolerable amount of explanatory dialogue -- death by expository dialogue -- very much in the spirit of filmmakers giving up entirely and simply replacing dialogue with voiceover.
The Hobbit gets lost in Rivendell (a long way from the "Last Homely House East of the Sea" of the book and closer to some sort of New Age Sandals Resorts hotel spread over a geographically inept mountainside) and never recovers. We have to stop the movie again and again and have everything and everyone explained -- say who and what Radagast the Brown is when he shows up (for no reason) with a sled pulled by rabbits that never was in the book and is just as stupid as it sounds.
The excuse for how bad this film is is that it was made for children. But the level of carnage, violence and needless clutter "noise" in the form of extravagant needlessly complicated action that accompanies almost every scene precludes any responsible parent from wanting a child to see this movie. Smart teenagers will be bored out of their minds because for all the CGI wonderment the story fails to actually deliver anything new. The simplest scenes in the now ancient Matrix were more creative. And Avatar leaves this movie in the dust when it comes to original creative CGI use.
Peter Jackson's watchwords in this latest series seem to be Bigger, Louder, Longer and More Violent as if somehow sheer scale provides cover for having failed to tell the basic story Tolkien wrote well, let alone faithfully. If Jackson undertakes the Jesus story next, expect 10,000 Jesuses to be crucified alongside a million thieves and a crèche scene set in a stockyard with a million head of cattle and armies of wise men in combat hacking their way to the Nativity scene. As for faithfulness to the book, the more you love The Hobbit the more you'll hate this sorry commercialized excuse for an adaptation. Peter Jackson may look a bit like a Hobbit but don't let that fool you. He's Hollywood all the way.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His books include Portofino: A Novel (Calvin Becker Trilogy)