Thursday, January 24, 2013

Heath Holland On: The Hobbit and Why It's Better Than You Think

Welcome to my study! Come in. Sit down in one of my fine leather chairs. Help yourself to some of my pipe tobacco. You didn’t bring your pipe? That’s alright. You can use one of mine.

I have been given the opportunity to elaborate more on my thoughts pertaining to the first Hobbit movie. I’ve become a champion for it, and think there’s a lot more there than first appears on the surface. It was just last week that I heard someone say that they felt like Peter Jackson was really taking advantage of his audience. Well, I disagree. I’m going to do my best to tell you why.

For those who read my Top 10 list recently, some if this will not be new information. Hopefully, some of it will be. You see, I LOVE movies. Movies with big action scenes, movies with explosions, movies where I laugh, movies that take me to a place that doesn’t exist -- I just love movies. I also love me some fancy books, and how a good writer can take words and put them together in a way that can transport me to another place, much like a good movie can. But when you put a book and a movie together? Magic can happen. So given that, we can all agree that The Pagemaster is the greatest movie ever made. That, and The Neverending Story. I’m not sure why people continued to make movies after that, but they did, and I guess we’ve gotten A FEW good ones since then. Actually, it’s very tough to adapt a book into a movie, retaining what makes the book special while also using the tools that make movies special. I’d go as far as saying that most movies based on books aren’t all that great. There are exceptions, but, for the most part, I’d be better served reading the book.

I love J. R. R. Tolkien. Not personally, cuz he’s dead and we never met, but I love his books and I love how he obsessed over his imaginary world for his entire lifetime. His stuff had a big influence on me. The way I use parenthetical asides (like this one!) comes straight from him. Stephen King does it too, but I suspect Uncle Stevie stole it from the Professor. So given that Tolkien has a huge influence, was THE founder of modern fantasy, and that his body of work is gigantic (thousands and thousands of pages of notes, manuscripts, ideas, detailed histories of peoples, languages, yada yada), it’s REALLY, REALLY hard to adapt his work into a movie. It’s been tried several times. The Lord of the Rings could have ended up looking like The Beastmaster or Conan The Barbarian. Not that those movies aren’t AWESOME, but I think Tolkien’s work deserves way better. And so did Peter Jackson.

Peter Jackson wanted to start with The Hobbit way back in the '90s, long before Orlando Bloom donned his pretty blonde wig and Elijah Wood stuffed his petite feet into those hairy Hobbit slippers. Circumstances, film rights, and the studio system steered him toward skipping it and going straight to The Lord Of The Rings, telling the story of how Bilbo found the ring during the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring.
The point is, Jackson always wanted to start with The Hobbit but wasn’t able to, which was a huge disservice to Bilbo, Gandalf, and the 13 dwarves who were all unionized. He made The Lord of The Rings instead, which took upwards of 6 years, and he crammed as much as he could into those movies to flesh them out and make them as cohesive as possible. The glaring omission was that the first part of this story, the one told within The Hobbit, was missing. Fast forward to early 2012, and you have jaded and cynical moviegoers like Hollywood Heath Holland who are cautious about this prequel (but I hope you’ll soon share my opinion that it’s NOT a prequel) and who feel like this new Hobbit movie is a cash grab -- a return to safe territory for Peter Jackson after middling success away from Middle Earth and an attempt to market a simple children’s story as something epic and grandiose. Payday, baby! Peter Jackson’s kids need new Hummers and a Kiwi roller coaster in their back yard!

Look, it may be all of those things in the end, but it’s also incredible film making: carefully wrought, meticulously detailed, and lovingly crafted (like a Werther’s Original!) to be the best rendition of The Hobbit that we could ever expect. Far from taking liberties with the story, this movie is obsessive almost to a fault about getting every theme and nuance from the book (and some things that weren’t in the book, but were in the appendices of The Lord of The Rings and even some of Tolkien’s notes and unpublished ideas) onto film to make it a visual representation of Tolkien’s world. The Lord of The Rings is a cinematic achievement like few others, but listen, folks, it PALES IN COMPARISON to the level of detail in this first Hobbit movie. People that dismiss it as Jackson going back to the well and saying “it’s nowhere near as good as The Lord of the Rings” are missing the point. This is twice the vision of The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson has been working on this movie for almost 20 years. He’s been working on the story for three times as long (since Salt-n-Pepa were a big deal). This is the story he wanted to start with in the first place, and you can see every minute of his obsession and fine tuning on the screen.

For instance, in my top 10 post, I commented on the different levels on which you can watch this movie. It can play to a six-year old (and it definitely did; my six-year old touts this as her favorite movie in the whole wide world) and be a fun movie about dragons, dwarves, wizards, and halflings, but it stands up to a much deeper scrutiny and can actually be studied and torn apart for its themes. Go ahead, pull it apart. Few movies will reveal as much beneath the surface as this movie does. And it does so because it’s a line-for-line adaptation of one of the most meticulously written fantasy sagas ever. Dig deeper and you’ll see that there’s a running theme of vengeance here, and how the people in positions of power in Middle Earth are almost always corrupted by that power. In Middle Earth, almost all of the kings and rulers fall to their own desires and lead their people into darkness. Tolkien didn’t think much of people in positions of power.

You’ll also see how the different races represent different qualities of humanity. They each have their own virtues and vices. But the continuing theme in all of Tolkien’s work -- which Peter Jackson has wisely picked up on -- is that life leads us through many trials, and we never come out of them unscathed. Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s world) is a very real one in which there are no happy endings. Life beats you down, and nobility comes from surviving it and trying to do the right thing in spite of the toll it takes on you. In The Lord of The Rings (spoilers for LOTR!) Frodo has been irreparably damaged by his quest. He didn’t ask to be chosen to return the ring to Mordor, but he sees that he is the only one who can do it. While it does not physically kill him, it does destroy him. By the end of the last movie, he can no longer live in the world he once knew, and so travels to the Grey Havens with Gandalf. He has been ruined by what he has been through and by the burden he has been asked to bear. You’re going to see a lot of those themes in these next few Hobbit movies, too. These characters will rise up against insurmountable odds, but no one gets out unscathed. This is not The Little Mermaid. There’s a cost. As Gandalf says to Bilbo when Bilbo asks him if he’ll can promise that he will make it back to the Shire, “No, and if you do, you will not be the same.” And he won’t. Kudos to Jackson for keeping that theme. Life changes us, and often times, life sucks. It takes some big balls in this movie climate to make a film where your characters face legitimate consequences. Not all endings are happy. If you follow them far enough, all endings are sad.
And it’s not just a slavish devotion to Tolkien’s books that I applaud, either. They’ve made some changes that I think are actually for the better. In the book, Bilbo finds Gollum’s ring on the ground, like we see in the prologue for The Fellowship of the Ring. In The Hobbit, that’s been changed, going against both the novel and Jackson’s own first LOTR film. Now, instead of finding it on the ground, we see IN SLOW MOTION that the ring leaves Gollum, not the other way around. Jackson has gone out of his way to make it clear that this is no coincidence; Gollum didn’t casually misplace or drop the ring like he did in the book. The ring CHOSE to leave Gollum to follow a higher destiny. It knew it had gotten all it could from Gollum. That’s a subtle change, but a brave one, and one I think actually benefits the story. It’s one of the many things Jackson has had the opportunity to improve on since The Return of the King almost ten years ago. Also, Jackson’s decision to bump up the importance of Azog the Defiler, albino orc and all around tough customer (and proud member of the Mordor’s Angels biker gang), is probably for the best. That dude is straight from Tolkien, but he didn’t have the importance the movie gave him. The movie needed that guy, and the quest for vengeance that he inspires in Thorin. After all, in both the book and the movie Azog is responsible for the death of hundreds -- if not thousands -- and is PERSONALLY responsible for the death of Thorin’s grandfather and king. I think that would be a big deal to ME, so I like that the movie gives it a logical place of importance. If you split this story up into three parts, you need a bad guy you can do something with between the first and third movie.

Another improvement from the book is the dwarves themselves. 13 dwarves is a lot, and Tolkien didn’t really give many of them a personality or much dialogue. A few dwarves get to speak, but if you read The Hobbit and have a clear picture of who is who after you’re done, you’re better than me. In the movie, each one is an individual with his own quirks and personality. And did you notice we have Gimli’s dad Gloin is here? He looks like Gimli’s dad should look. Do you remember in The Fellowship of the Ring, during the trek through the mines of Moria? Remember Gimli getting so upset at seeing his dead ancestor? That ancestor is Balin, the white bearded companion of Thorin, and he’s here also. And the lines in that old book that they read about how the orcs came out of the east, and then trailed off with “They are coming…” Ori wrote that, and he’s here too. He’s the young dwarf who doesn’t like green food. These things are all tied together subtly, but really solidly for those willing to dig. If you pay attention, you can connect the dots between all these characters. The events of The Hobbit have direct and massive ramifications on The Lord of the Rings. I’m loving seeing how some of this stuff happened. There’s a lot of other things the movie does right too, like show how when great evil moves into a territory, desolation follows. Think of the area around The Lonely Mountain. It’s just barren. Evil cannot exist alongside prosperity. Those two things cancel each other out. The evil that is rising has taken a toll on the land itself.
As crazy as I am about this movie, there are some things I still have a hard time with -- namely Radagast, the Patron Saint of the Stoner. While his purpose is to show the connection of the evil that has come into Middle Earth and the physical effect it has taken on the trees, the land, and the wildlife, I could do without his repetitive eye crossing and the implication that when Gandalf gives him a puff of “old toby” (tobacco), he’s giving Radagast some of that sweet Mary Jane. That part got loud chuckles and gasps of delight from the frat boys in attendance at every screening I saw. Tolkien was a Victorian, and he’d have been mortified by the insinuation that Radagast was a joker, a smoker and a midnight toker. Pipe smokers have few examples of the hobby in pop culture outside of these movies (we have Mickey Rourke in The Expendables, but his pipe was probably full of crack; we also have Frosty The Snowman, but he melted and has yet to come back again someday), so to get Radagast puffing on Gandalf’s pipe, crossing his eyes, and then putting on a Grateful Dead record before riding off on a sled carried by bunnies IS NOT HELPING. Having said that, I do like that there are five wizards in Middle Earth, and we’ve now met three of them.

So…look. I love this movie more than I’ve loved a movie in a long time. I love it more than The Lord of the Rings. I love it more than Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I know! Shocking. It’s Joseph Campbell on steroids. The closest thing I can think of that has this level of myth and multi-tiered watchability is the Star Wars franchise, which is oozing with mystique and taps into the questions we all wrestle with (again, Joseph Campbell), because Star Wars has a lot of philosophy naturally built in. They’ve been built on myth and age old spiritual questions about where we go when we die, the nature of a Force or a God, and destiny vs. free will. But those movies, especially the prequel trilogy, can’t stand up to some of the questions that this movie can, because George Lucas was no Tolkien.

In the end, I’m left wondering who exactly The Hobbit is for. In some ways, it’s for everybody. In others, it’s incredibly esoteric and detailed, and I know not everyone wants nine hours (not including the director’s cuts which, will be released in the fall of 2013, 2014, and 2015) of this kind of thing. In fact, all these themes and questions mean nothing if you don’t fancy short dudes with hairy feet and a dirty old robed wizard who needs a shower and a shave. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I can assure you, Peter Jackson is not trying to take advantage of anyone. He’s an obsessive Tolkien fan who has been laboring over this story for 20 years, sticking to his vision and telling it in the best way he can. He knows it’s a dense story that is rich in detail, and that by incorporating all of these disparate elements from other sources, he can make something HUGE and even more organized than Tolkien ever got a chance to publish. That’s why Tolkien put all that stuff in the appendices of The Lord of The Rings, anyway; he was almost two decades past The Hobbit and realized that he’d only told a simple version of a much more complicated story. He decided that, in his imaginary world of Middle Earth, the published version of The Hobbit was a tale told for children, but was based on a much more detailed tale that had yet to be written. I believe Peter Jackson is now telling that story. 

Yes, it’s millions more dollars for Jackson, the studios that financed it, and for all the action figure, licensing, and publishing companies. But don’t let that keep you from enjoying a movie of a scope and depth that’s perhaps never been done to this degree before. The Hobbit is a masterpiece in adaptation, and I think it’s going to take a few years before people start to realize how special it is. After all, it’s following the mega-success of Peter Jackson’s first trilogy a decade ago, and we’re all a lot different than we were back then. We’ve seen transforming robots, pirates, boywizards, blue aliens on Pandora, a man in a bat costume fight an evil clown, and the world’s greatest superheroes unite together. But a long time ago, in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Now…I really hope part two doesn’t suck.


  1. Nice write-up Heath! I admit that I missed a lot of the connections between LOTR and The Hobbit when I saw the new movie. I'll give it another try when it hits Blu-Ray. As of now, I much preferred your write-up to the actual experience of watching the movie.

    And I unironically kind of like The Pagemaster. It's so defiantly not cool and I really dig that.

    1. I am unironically thrilled that you like The Pagemaster. I wasn't picking on it, I was just having fun with it. I've never even seen it. In fact, my mission statement not just here but with life in general is to enjoy things that you enjoy and not to care what other people think. That's why I love this site and all you guys, and it's what sets this place apart from...everyone else? Okay, maybe not everyone, but it's become so mainstream and "cool" to bash on things and to tear them apart. Every movie is someone's favorite movie. Movies are art, and art is subjective. It takes some big ol' cojones to look down on someone else's personal preferences. It takes a lot to offend me, but judgment over others is a sure fire way to get me riled up. If you ever see me seriously do that, please, call me out.

      Thanks for the words of support. I very much appreciate it.

  2. Hollywood Heath - nice article! I can barely keep up with all of the new content on the site these days and have been too busy (juggling work and a nasty stomach virus that magically turns everything I eat into pond water - TMI?) to do much commenting, but having just seen The Hobbit this past weekend I wanted to comment here.

    I really liked it when I was watching it (in spite of a lady behind me emitting a delighted "Hmmm!" EVERY time ANYTHING happened - knock on the door - Hmmm! - open the door to a dwarf - Hmmm! - some artifact revealed - Hmmm! - it was weird but I couldn't be mad because she was having such a good time) and have only grown to like it more as I've thought about it the past few days.

    The people I've talked about it with, on the other hand, almost completely dismiss it as too much more of the same, which kinda pisses me off because it's another one of those pre-established narratives about a movie that people buy into and build their actual experience around. Remember the outcry when it was revealed that this was going to be a trilogy? What the fuck?! THREE movies out of that one little book? And they're 3 hours each? JESUS! Now I'm going to go watch the movie so I can validate that preconceived notion and, yep, ugh it was SO long and I can't believe I have to go watch more of this and complain about it TWO MORE TIMES. I'll take a theatre full of delighted "Hmmm!"s over that.

    Your write-up is definitely a help for seeing some of the deeper meaning - I was content with how wonderfully it presents basic themes of comraderie, loyalty and being bigger than you think you can be (size matters not) but to anyone willing to look for it there's so much more to it than that. As so often happens after reading/listening to the essays and podcasts on this site, I appreciate the movie so much more having read yours, especially given that is's not getting the love it deserves.

    Two quick notes:

    Am I the only one that damn near choked up when a care-free pre-Ring Frodo ambled in to chat about the festivities with Bilbo? Something about seeing him so completely oblivious to everything he is about to endure really got to me for some reason and I felt that Jackson directed the performance to emphasize that.

    Regarding the use of parentheses in writing (something I'm also a big fan of) if you really want to see an author take their use to the limit, check out Something Happened by Joseph Heller - the parenthetical asides can go on for pages and I think there are even parentheses within parentheses - fun stuff!

    P.S. This got too long for me to bother going back and editing - hopefully it's not too rambling!

    1. Hmmm! I really like your description of the way people go see things now. First an opinion, then a cursory viewing just to validate an opinion that's already been formed. It's so true. Like Patrick's example of John Carter last year.

      I thought it was really cool to see Elijah Wood in this movie. And while Ian Holm has obviously had some prosthetic work to make him appear the same, Elijah Wood looks like he hasn't aged A DAY, which is just proof that he's an alien. I stayed far away from spoilers for this movie, so when he walked out I nearly peed myself. Okay, I did pee myself, but I'm not proud of it. Yes, sometimes I pee myself. Let's not make a big deal about it. Let's not make a big deal out of the fact that I just peed myself while typing about peeing myself.

      I hope you feel better soon, buddy.

  3. In the end waiting was the best thing so that Jackson could realize he had to have Martin Freeman. :-)

  4. I havent seen The Hobbit yet (maybe this weekend as it is the cheap movie of the week at my local), so I havent read all of this article yet...but I just wanted to say it is great to see HHH stepping up as a contributor to the site. Im really looking forward to these articles and I love the length. Nothing like a good solid read to look forward to.

    Also same congrats to Adam Riske too. Good to see the F-Family grow. You're like Hunnicutt and Winchester or Lando and the Emperor, great additions to an already fantastic cast. (I was going to include Scrubs: Med School, or Saved by the Bell: The New Class, but that would have ruined the sincerity of my comment.....but we all know Doug is Screech).

    1. Am I Lando?! Please say I'm Lando. I got my Colt 45 and everything.

      "Well Well, what have we here? You truly do belong with us here among the clouds."

  5. HollywoodHeathHoganHolland-

    Nice writeup. I appreciate the love you have for this movie, especially since it is definitely getting a chillier reception than LOTR. I've realized that I need to dial back on what I think of this one until I see the rest of them. I still have my issues (Thorin looks too human, Bilbo ascends to bravery far too quickly), but in the interest of fairness, I think some of those might go away upon seeing what the others movies do.

  6. I've never noticed this before, but I just want to say, you have a very awesome mustache.

  7. That’s a great piece HHH; makes me wish I got as much out of the film as you did. I would disagree with you about the dwarves all having their own personality though. I found with the film, much like I did after reading the book, I couldn’t have told you a great deal about most of them, other than to describe their wacky hair or something. I do agree with the central point you make about it being a labour of love for Jackson and I think, like Lucas, he’s just obsessed with getting everything how he sees it in his head and that it’s not necessarily about making boatloads of cash, although of course that’s a nice little bonus too.

    Is this going to become a regular column?

    1. I want it to be a regular column - i.e. HHH defends The Hobbit in 1500-word essays EVERY week. Let's see how much he REALLY loves this movie.

      As I said above, I liked it quite a bit, though your complaint is also of my few. I found there was a lot more individual characters to care about in The Lord of the Rings where for me, not being as familiar with the book as Heath, other than the lead dwarf, they all kinda mashed together. I kinda thought one of the dudes looked like Gimli, so it's cool that he is his father, but I basically left the movie feeling like the only characters I cared about were Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin with the other 12 dwarves being pretty expendable.

    2. I can see that the dwarves don't get a lot of individual screen time yet and can see how they could blend together. I didn't really have that problem, but it could me my connection to the book? Although I didn't think they had ANY individuality in the book. This is a big step up for me, and I think that they all had enough to do that you could tell them apart and notice quirks. But then, I also saw it multiple times.

    3. Oh, and yes. I'm planning on making regular contributions to the site. They will not all be about The Hobbit. In fact, it's time to be honest, I have not actually seen The Hobbit. But I did read the children's story book in Barnes and Noble. Seriously though, each installment should be my take on something from the world of movies. They will probably rarely be like this one, though.

    4. As I said I’m familiar with the book, too, and don’t think Tolkien did a great deal to differentiate many of the dwarves from one another. In the film they all had different looks but beyond saying the fat ginger one, the James Nesbit one or that dwarf that hates green food, I didn’t think they really had a right lot to them. I did like the film by the way it’s just that that was the one thing you brought up that I disagreed with.

      Any chance you could do a column on Dolph Lundgren in the future, I remember discussing some of his recent straight to DVD films with you a while ago on here.

    5. I actually totally plan to do a Dolph Lundgren column before too long. By the way, can we always refer to the dwarves from now on as the fat ginger one, the James Nesbit one and the one who hates green food? I'd also like to add "the one with the axe sticking out of his head."

  8. Heath, how much do you think Guillermo del Toro's influence has to do with how well (perfect based on your thorough analysis) "The Hobbit" came out? I don't just mean the work he put into the movies and scripts before he left, but also (maybe?) what Peter Jackson and his team did to course-correct once del Toro left. Maybe del Toro was the obstacle to all these super-mega nerdy obsession with Tolkienesque detail (or its biggest proponent?) and, once he left, there was no stopping Jackson. Would "The Hobbit" be as perfect if Guillermo were at the helm, or is it because he's nowhere near it?

    BTW, I'm also the type of guy that writes a lot using parenthesis (see? :-P). I read Tolkien a lot when I was a little (so little that I've forgotten that I read "Lord of the Rings" books back in the day) but, apparently, the books' true lasting influence lives within me by the way I've adopted parenthesis in my everyday writing. I never really put these two things together until you wrote about it.

    Also, is 'Heath Holland Says...' a new semiregular feature on 'F This Movie'? Because if it is please clarify what exactly is the 'hook' (besides your opinion). Not every movie is "The Hobbit" or based on Tolkien, both of which lends themselves to your considerable familiarity (and ability to express that familiarity in a way that doesn't lose us). Is it analysis of movies based on books given your considerable love of both? Can we look forward to an in-depth study of the contrast between Joseph Heller's "Catch 22" and Mike Nichols' 1970 movie version of the novel? Gore Vidal's "Myra Beckenridge" versus Michael Sarne's cinematic abortion? And of course the most important thing on everybody's mind: what's on the pipe? :-)

    BTW, I'm going on record saying that Hollywood Heath Holland will be asked by Patrick and appear on the inevitable "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" podcast (next week as a lead-in to the '91 twitter fest?). I mean, look at the book Heath's holding in the picture (not even the real novel but the novelization of the movie!). I really hope Heath comes on the same way Jason did in the "America Pie" podcast: a superfan that has a personal connection with this flick. It'll be such a Chris Farley Show the interwebs will melt (which we could use up here in the East, it's freaking freezing out here).

    My new-to-me movie for today, 1/24/13:

    The directing debut of revered avant garde director Jean Vigo, A PROPOS DE NICE (1930) on Blu-ray:

  9. I'm not sure how much Del Toro brought. I'll be really interested to see what we get to find out on the special features when the blu-ray comes out, though. I don't see a lot of Del Toro's signatures in the movie, but I see tons of PJ's. Not pajamas, but Peter Jackson. Maybe Del Toro and Jackson sat around eating Oreos and talking about what they wanted to do. I dunno.

    And yes, this is planned to be a regular column. I don't have much of a hook other than each installment will be me giving my thoughts on a movie related topic. NOTHING will be as personal as this column was, and I will promise you here and now I can't do this every week. The next one should be about one of those late nite Sy-Fy cable movies, just to take it to the other end of the spectrum.

    You've got quite a conspiracy built up around Robin Hood, almost of tne Beatles "Paul Is Dead" proportions. Did you know Heath really died in 1966 (Wednesday morning at 5 o'clock as the day begins) and Billy Shears had facial reconstruction surgery to look like him? If you listen to the last episode of F This Movie backwards you'll hear Patrick say "I buried Heath."

  10. I'm very happy to see that this column will be an ongoing concern. I was fairly underwhelmed by The Hobbit, but this has me champing at the proverbial bit to see it again. Your passion for it shows, and it's infectious. Thanks for this, and I can't wait to read more. As Brad L said above, it's exciting to see the F This Movie! family of contributors expanding (this goes for you too, Adam!) and everybody has been knocking it out of the park with their contributions. As a once-great man once said..."Welcome to the party, pal!"

  11. Thanks are all great peeps to say such nice things :-)