Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer of Films: The Hobbit (1977)

One of my favorite animated films is The Hobbit. This classic blows away the sluggish, misguided six-hour bore-a-thon in theaters today. This one had heart. It fit the book perfectly, both in terms of content and feel. It was so well done, in fact, that once you see it, it becomes impossible to separate from the book.

Adaptations of books are always difficult. Should you do a straight up adaptation or should you only use the book as a guide? And even if do you a straight up adaptation, how do you handle the things that work well in books but simply don’t translate to film? These are all common problems, but none of these affected The Hobbit. Indeed, The Hobbit did it all perfectly.
The Plot: Unlike the Jackson film(s), which use The Hobbit as a base to make a completely different film, the 1977 The Hobbit follows the story very closely. In many ways, watching this version is the same experience as reading the book, and that is a good thing. In fact, not only does this version follow the plot as written, but it even gives you a similar feel. To me, this is the most remarkable aspect of this adaptation. When you watch this film, you get the same sense of timing, of tension, and of adventure that you get reading the book. That is rare indeed. By comparison, the modern film is nothing like the book in any of these categories.
The Images: Interestingly, the images presented in The Hobbit fit the story so well that it becomes impossible to separate the movie images from the book after seeing them. What the animators have done which helps them in this regard is that they’ve taken the time to make each named character distinct, they’ve paid attention to how they are described in the book, and most importantly, they’ve avoided the urge to “be cool.” This is the problem with Jackson’s interpretation. Jackson wants everything in his films to seem cool, so he basically copies the style of other modern films and comic books. The Hobbit copied nothing. The result is unique characters who appear as imagined rather than unrecognizable characters meant to compete with other action and superhero flicks.
The Characters: The best thing about The Hobbit is that it maintained the character arcs throughout the film. Bilbo has a brave imagination, but lives as a cowardly ninny. As the story progresses, he must learn independence and how to endure discomfort and the unexpected. From there, he must find confidence, cunning, and finally bravery. None of this remains in the Jackson version, but it’s all here and it truly makes this Bilbo’s journey from what he was to what he becomes, which is the point to the books. Similarly, the dwarves are selfish blowhards who need to learn to be better people. Again, Jackson skips this and makes them all accomplished warriors. This film doesn’t. The end result is a movie with characters who actually grow before your eyes, rather than just move from scene to scene.
The Music: Interspersed throughout the film are several songs. Some are sung by the dwarves, some by the elves, and some by the goblins. The songs in the Jackson version are overproduced and uninteresting. But the songs in The Hobbit are amazingly memorable. Indeed, I can still sing parts of each even when I haven’t seen the movie in a decade. Not only that, but they add a feel to the film that the Jackson songs do not. When the goblins sing, it feels ominous. When the elves sing, it feels wistful. When the dwarves sing, it feels mischievous. And the reason is that these songs are simple but telling of the inner-character of the characters. Since Jackson’s characters have no inner-character, those songs are just entertainment.

The one downside I would say with The Hobbit is that the animation is a bit stark. It’s a lot like Charlie Brown where a couple squiggles pass for a battle. But ultimately, that’s not much of a flaw because the story is so strong and the rest of the animation is so spot on. If you haven’t seen this one, you absolutely should.


Jim said...

I still consider it a close race between Andy Serkis and Brother Theodore for best Gollum.

shawn said...

I remember watching this when it first aired. My fourth grade teacher was reading the book to us at the time. Re-watching it recently, I have to admit the animation was stiff and dated, but the story was well told. I agree with you Andrew, this is a much better telling of the story than Jackson's version.

Jason said...

The funny thing about the animated Hobbit compared to the live action Hobbit…it’s actually about the Hobbit, and not a zillion other things involving the dwarves, elves, Gandalf, etc.

I had first watched this in high school after we had read the book. I haven’t seen it since then but I do fondly remember it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jim, Serkis and the cinematography are the two really good things about the Jackson films, but honestly, I do like Brother Theodore's portrayal better. I like the raspy desperation in his voice.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Agreed. The animation doesn't hold up all that well because it's minimalist and we are now accustomed to rich animation, but the story and the way they tell it is just so superior. I love watching this film because it really is like reading the book all over again. It offers everything. By comparison, the Jackson film just leaves me cold. Sure, it's pretty, but it's just not interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Bingo! And that's the key. This film is the story of Bilbo and his adventure. How he starts out as a reluctant adventurer with no skills and comes to the point of deciding the fates of armies. The Jackson film is about everything but Bilbo, and the biggest give away is the repeated "asides" where he pimps the LOTR films.

In terms of remembering it fondly, that's a great sign. That tells you that it has something special. :)

KRS said...

Welcome back, Andrew!

I saw this in college just after reading the Hobbit and I was amazed because the movie was such a good interpretation of the book. Whenever you read a good book, you always assumed the movie would be something different and far less satisfying (and it usually is), so the Hobbit was a great surprize.

JRR was hugely popular on campus in those days - I don't know if he still is - and I read the entire LOTR. I've reread it a few times since. I enjoyed the Jackson rendition of the trilogy, despite it's faults (the worst being the series of head fake endings). But I think I enjoyed them mostly due to the spectacle because the real story was well established in my mind.

The current treatment of the Hobbit is just criminal. I watched the first and I've walked away. Just like the Star Wars prequels, I only needed to see the one to know I didn't want the others polluting my mind.

Your review is spot on: give me this old movie any day.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks KRS!

I agree with your entire comment. I was floored how good of an adaptation this film was. It's just so enjoyable.

Like you, I also enjoyed the LOTR because of the spectacle and it's still a good film(s) even if it doesn't track the books all that well.

But like you, I also find Jackson's Hobbit to be criminal. He has killed everything about it that gave it its heart and replaced those with generic action scenes that have no place in that film. If there was any doubt that Jackson simply doesn't understand how to put characters and characterization on film, his Hobbit proves it.

Jason said...

The Jackson film is about everything but Bilbo, and the biggest give away is the repeated "asides" where he pimps the LOTR films.

The current treatment of the Hobbit is just criminal. I watched the first and I've walked away. Just like the Star Wars prequels, I only needed to see the one to know I didn't want the others polluting my mind.

I’ve actually nicknamed the Hobbit films as Lord of the Rings: Episodes I, II and III. I came up with it when I learned Legolas was going to be in the second movie.

KRS said...

I love these guys:


tryanmax said...

I first saw this film in my 7th grade English class. It was the prize at the end of the semester for finishing the book. The teacher had his room decorated with life-sized reproductions of the characters from this film, which he added to the walls one by one as they came about in the book. I assume he made the reproductions himself. (Okay, to be fair, Smaug was maybe a bit smaller than life, but he did get a whole wall to himself.) By the time we saw the film, they were all familiar.

It'd be a neat project if someone were to take the original film and "lush up" the animation.

PikeBishop said...

I've made this point on another thread dealing with Tolkein in films. Jackson's The Hobbit is almost the exact same film as FOTR! It's almost a scene (set piece?) by scene retelling of the same film. "Start in the Shire....reluctance....comic relief....battle....lesson...battle.......) Getting back to Andrew's point about adapting books, here Jackson doesn't do anything new, doesn't put any new twist or stamp on it, just repackages his earlier film. Yawn.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, Excellent nicknames... they are sadly well earned.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, They are pretty good and they really hit the nail on the head this time!

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That would be an interesting project indeed. Keep the main characters and the voice work, but give it a whole new background. Interesting idea!

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, It is. Jackson's version is the exact same film as Jackson's LOTR. This film simply doesn't have it's own feel, i.e. it looks, sounds and feels like LOTR.

Tennessee Jed said...

I gotta confess, I nevr read "The Hobbit", saw the movie animated or otherwise, so I can't really add to this discussion. I will say the actor in the Hobbit, who plays John Watson in "Sherlock" is immensely talented. I just watched him in season 1 of "Fargo" along with Billy Bob, and they were amanzingly good.

Rustbelt said...

Late to the fray, but better late than never.

I have to confess that I haven't read the actual book, "The Hobbit." I did read a graphic novel version that kept the narrative and actual words intact. (I also liked how the artist drew Elrond as a happy, welcoming person instead of angry Agent Smith.) I was actually introduced to this film during my time as a College Program Cast Member at Walt Disney World. I had a few Tolkien-obsessed roommates and got LOTR 101. And I wouldn't trade the experience for the world. Good times.

That being said, there's not a lot to add other than this version has a soul. The animation may be dated, but the music is terrific. As Andrew noted, the songs really set the tone. But the background music is criminally overlooked. (Gollum's cave is particularly well done, in a terrifically creepy way.)
Also, I'm joining the ranks and saying that Brother Theodore outdoes Andy Serkis as Gollum. (Hey, I take tough stances. IMHO, Brian Cox was a better Hannibal Lector- in 'Manhunter'- than Anthony Hopkins. There, I said it.) Serkis is good, but he's not hard to imitate. Theodore's Gollum is like nothing I've ever heard- a creature torn apart at the seems by the will of the One Ring. Unforgettable. I forget Smaug's voice actor, but he was also incredibly unique.

And that was my biggest problem with Jackson's 'Hobbit.' My brother dragged me to see the second film kicking and screaming- and I almost gave up on movie theaters because of it. (I finally returned last week for "Rifftrax: Sharknado.") On the way home, I complained about how bland Smaug's voice was. My word-for-word description: "I-800-DIAL-A-C-G-I-BAD-GUY." Haven't been so disappointed since Bay's first Transformers film where I really, really, REALLY found myself missing Frank Welker (Megatron) and the late Chris Latta (Starscream).
Also, it kept feeling like, "well, we have to shove some of the base story here and there." Jackson seemed to be annoyed when he had to do that and tried to get through the plot points as quickly as possible. And black arrows as artillery?! He completely stripped the story of Tolkien's cleverness and made it completely bland. the misery.
Oh, and the groan I made when the Hobbits entered the cave. 25-minute, meaningless, overdone action scene! (Or maybe it was the groan I made during the "Captain America: Winter Soldier" preview. After Cap and Black Widow exchanged one-liners, I actually said out loud, 'Is it too early to hate this guy?' and planned for some good old seppuku.) But I digress.

In short, this film only suffered from stiff animation and the limitations of time and budget. It truly matched the version I read (afterwards).

P.S. Pikebishop's complaint that Jackson's film is too much like LOTR's plotline is actually a common complaint of both Tolkien books. From the Shire to Rivendell to forming a company to Gandalf's departure to getting caught to entering the villain's lair... I'll be generous and say that, like George Orwell with 'Animal Farm' and '1984,' Tolkien was gearing up for his magnum opus and just needed a little practice in the form of a good, shorter story to get his genius creative juices a boost before he sat down to write the big one.

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