In a little over a week, audiences nationwide will be transported back into the mystical realm of Middle-earth in the new Peter Jackson film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first in a trilogy of movies detailing the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the history of the infamous Ring of Power. Much has been said about Jackson’s decision to split a single book into three movies, and none of it has been particularly enthusiastic. While he will be drawing inspiration from other Tolkien tales to help pad out the features, the main crux of the story will still be focused on Bilbo’s solitary discovery of the unknown hero inside himself.
Now, most people seem to be approaching this first new movie with apprehension, frightened of a repeated letdown like they experienced back in 1999 with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And with the first batch of reviews hitting the Internet, responses seem to range from reservedly positive to blandly neutral. However, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is something of an anomaly when it comes to criticizing. It is essentially an elongated first act in a three act story. Now, many will argue that that is the same structure as the original trilogy, but they couldn’t be more wrong. The Lord of the Rings was separated into three distinct books when it was published, and while they make up a greater adventure, the books also standout as three individual stories that form a larger narrative. There isn’t a sense of episodic nature to Lord of the Rings (there is a broader epic feeling rather than something deliberately serialized), but that sensibility seems exactly right for a smaller story such as The Hobbit.
We live in a far different age of movie-going than the days of yesteryear. Studios make movies with an almost brazen certainty that a sequel will take place, and this gives them the confidence to put certain things in a movie that either tease a sequel, or even worse, that don’t resolve issues or scenarios brought up in a film because they know they can take care of it in the next one. The movies that fail at this become laughably dated and at best an unfulfilled curiosity (did anyone else see the post-credits sequence of Green Lantern? Exactly). But, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in a unique position to take advantage of these tropes because it does have guaranteed sequels. There is no way we won’t get two more Hobbit films, which means the movie can’t be judged as a single entity. While it hopefully will hold up as a singular piece of cinema, it is not a standalone story and I hesitate to call it a movie since it seems to be more of a…dare I say, episode one? I mean that in the most literal sense, and not just as a cheap Star Wars joke.
In an era where most television shows are giving the silver screen a run for its money, cinema may be embracing a more serialized structure in order to guarantee return customers. The Hobbit seems to be one of the first to embrace this kind of tactic and maybe this experiment will pay off by making people eagerly anticipate the next installment (much like they eagerly anticipate the next week’s Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead), or maybe it will turn off people who don’t want to sit through nearly three hours of what amounts to the exposition section of a three act story. And that’s why I think full criticism must be reserved for when the final film is released in 2014, because it’s not really the first film in a trilogy, but more like the first episode in a miniseries.
The Hobbit is easily one of my top five favorite books of all time. I enjoy it far more than the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy and more than any other fantasy novel I’ve ever read. It’s a simple tale that is the perfect length for what it is: a children’s bedtime story. The choice to elongate the film into a trilogy (in order to match up with the original films timeline) is a strange one, but only if you look at them as three separate movies instead of one cohesive picture. Again, while The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy that forms one story, each film has its definitive arcs and goals for the characters, while The Hobbit is attempting to stretch those same things over the course of three films. The miniseries comparison is the best one I can come up with, since no one usually judges a miniseries by each episode, but rather as a whole experience. That seems to me the best way to approach this new trilogy from Peter Jackson, especially if you want to curb your expectations. It’s hard to stand in the shadow of three of the best blockbuster films of all time.
And I’m not saying, “Wait until 2014 so you can see all three movies together.” Go see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but treat it like instead of having to wait a week for the story to continue, you have to wait a year. I’m still just as excited as I was when it was announced they would be returning to Tolkien’s world, but I’m keeping my excitement at a reasonable level, knowing that we won’t be seeing the full scope of the story until two years from now. If you can master the art of geek patience (it’s practically impossible), we may find that The Hobbit trilogy will be a great singular experience. Until then, don’t be so quick to listen to people ready to bury it in the ground or raise it up on a pedestal.
What are your thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? Are you brimming with anticipation, cautiously optimistic, or just don’t care? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!
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