After the success of The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003), many were ready to anoint Peter Jackson as the newest great cinema master. His output since then has not impressed critics nearly as much. There was a lot of pressure and hope that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) would be the equal to its Tolkienesque predecessors. However, while the first chapter of The Hobbit is very good (I for one thought it was much better than the critics have written and highly recommend it) and in the same style as Lord of the Rings, it feels a bit lacking.
So why does the first chapter of The Hobbit fall short of the masterwork that is Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings? First, while I appreciate what Jackson is trying to do and thought he accomplished his goal as well as possible, The Hobbit just isn’t as good of a story as The Lord of the Rings. There is a reason, after all, why Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a sequel instead of just writing “The Continuing Adventures of Bilbo Baggins.” He had far more world to reveal and far more to say about the nature of evil, despair, and hope than could fit in the rather limited world of Bilbo Baggins. Certainly Bilbo’s adventures are part of Tolkien’s larger tale and Jackson does an admirable job placing Bilbo’s story into the context of the larger Middle Earth, but audiences shouldn’t expect the same amount of depth or grandeur that Jackson supplied them in the earlier films just because they share a common setting and a few common characters.
It should be noted that Jackson has tried adapting a small story into a sweeping, epic one before, in 2005’s King Kong. The original King Kong (1933) is an hour and forty minutes. Jackson’s King Kong is nearly twice as long, clocking in at three hours and seven minutes. It is an above average film, but it is weighted down by its unnecessary marathon of a running time.
The first chapter of The Hobbit succeeds where King Kong fails however. While the story doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a three part opus, there is enough material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings to fill a ton of gaps. Unlike King Kong, The Hobbit doesn’t feel long while you’re watching it, especially if you are familiar with the Middle Earth stories (anyone who isn’t should see The Lord of the Rings first).
It is a tough task to expand something small into something large. However it is far easier when that small story exists in the universe of a larger one, which can’t be said about King Kong. In any event Peter Jackson’s current project should be compared more with King Kong than with The Lord of the Rings. While I look forward to the remaining two Hobbit films, I really hope that Jackson decides to adapt a story worthy of the scale of his ambition next time, like War and Peace or the Odyssey.
(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe