I watched The Hobbit on the morning of December 16th (and then a second time in January) and Les Misérables on the evening of December 23rd. I enjoyed both movies! However, there were aspects of each that I did not like. This is by no means to say I hated the movies for what they did to stories I care about. I understand that in adapting a story from one medium to another it is necessary to make changes. Ever since I watched The Fellowship of the Ring and realized that Tom Bombadil wasn’t included my need for adaptations to be true to what they adapt has diminished. (But how could they do that! He’s such an awesome character and the scene with the barrow wights explains why Merry’s sword is so deadly to the Witch King—the sword was forged by men who fought against the Witch King—not to mention his songs and the fact the One Ring doesn’t affect him.) So rather than being in a rage, I enjoyed both of these films as adaptations.
As you have probably figured by now, there will be spoilers. Hopefully my vulpine helpers have edited away any big ones. If you haven’t read The Hobbit, then do so—it’s short and I recommend it—and if you haven’t seen Les Misérables, then I encourage you to see it. Because from here on out it will be hard not to reveal info about them. I may be able to hide major plot points, but aside from putting all of what follows in a spoiler box, there isn’t much I can do to hide all the details.
I’ll start with The Hobbit, since I saw it first. The film is the first of, I think, three parts, which means it ends about a third of the way through the book. It was wonderful to venture back to Middle Earth on the silver screen and I rather enjoyed the music. The Misty Mountain song is probably one of my favorites (in fact, I’m listening to it on repeat right now). Compared to Rankin and Bass’ animated Hobbit this film is visually superior but not as true to the original. So both are worth a watch.
The first difference between the book and the Peter Jackson film is immediate. The movie starts with an old Bilbo and takes a while to get to the opening line. I actually liked this and disliked this. I liked it because it references the frame narrative Tolkien established in The Lord of the Rings (LotR)—that he was the translator of an old manuscript containing LotR and The Hobbit which was written primarily by Frodo and Bilbo respectively—and the fact that during the writing of LotR Tolkien revised the part of The Hobbit that talks about how Bilbo came by the One Ring to make it fall in line with what the One Ring is. And I enjoyed the glimpse of Erebor and Dale prior to Smaug’s arrival. But the problem with this beginning is that it altered the pacing of the story. By seeing Smaug annihilate Dale and oust the Dwarves from Erebor at this point in the movie we have already had a bit of action. So the exposition that follows ends up feeling slow. As someone who read and enjoyed The Silmarillion, which reads more like a history book much of the time, I didn’t mind the crawl—especially since it included the songs the Dwarves sing in Bilbo’s house.
The inclusion of Radagast the Brown was another departure from the book. I rather liked seeing him. In all of the books of Middle Earth he only really gets mentioned a few times. He does play an important role in LotR in that he helps Gandalf escape Orthanc when he sends the Eagle Gwahir to report to Gandalf on the movements of Sauron’s forces, but we never really meet him. Since his portrayal in the film was my kind of crazy and yet sane, I really enjoyed the scenes featuring him. And when we first meet Radagast we are shown that there is trouble brewing in Greenwood the Great, which foreshadows the second part and provides irony when, following their rescue by eagles, one of the company states that they are through the worst of it. But while the absurdity of Radagast would fit in with the character of the book—since it is a light-hearted children’s story—it feels out of place in the more serious movie.
Speaking of the movie being more serious than the book, nowhere is this more evident than in Rivendell. I attribute this to the fact that the elves of Rivendell are far more serious in LotR than in The Hobbit and that it doesn’t make much sense to have the elves of Rivendell be as frivolous as they were portrayed in the book of The Hobbit (just read their song). The film version is not a children’s story like the book was. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—Tolkien reportedly was working on trying to bring The Hobbit more in line with LotR in terms of tone through revisions, but was convinced not to. It just means that the telling of the story in the film is trying to be more epic than the book was and that the intended audience is a bit older.
The film gives Bilbo more of a heroic role than the book. While I can see why this is the case, I don’t really like it. I understand that giving Bilbo a more active role in the early part of his adventures may make his later actions seem more reasonable, give the company a reason to keep him around that isn’t because he makes the 14th member (thus preventing it from having an unlucky number of members), and gives audiences a hero to look to. But it ends up compressing his character development. Take the scene with the trolls. In the book, Gandalf confuses the trolls by making them hear each others’ voices, which causes the trolls to argue with each other until the sun rises, but in the movie it is Bilbo who distracts the trolls through wit until Gandalf splits a rock and the light of the rising sun is able to shine on the trolls. The movie is setting us up for what Bilbo does later on in the story. It’s trying to establish early on in the movie aspects of Bilbo that are found later on in the book, so that it seems reasonable that Bilbo would act how he does later on in the story—at least, that’s what it seems like the purpose of this is. I feel that it takes away from Bilbo’s character development. Rather than seeing Bilbo grow into the mantle of company member and burglar as the book does, the movie has him assume the role right away.
Now, I understand the desire to make the characters more active—to give them more agency. But this takes away from the current of providence that runs through both The Hobbit and LotR. It is a major theme of Tolkien’s work that stems from his Christian worldview and the loss of it in the film transforms the narrative. This change is the one that really makes it clear that the story we are watching is not the story from the book because it fundamentally changes the world and how the characters relate to it. As long as the core of the story is left untouched—that those pieces that are the heart of the story aren’t removed or modified—it is possible to make all sorts of changes and still have nearly the same story. But tamper with the heart and everything changes. And providence lies at the heart of middle-earth.
So while I think the movie is a good movie, it is not The Hobbit. It is an adaptation of that story that deviates enough to be a new story. It’s basically professional fanfiction. (And since I don’t view fanfiction as a bad thing, this isn’t intended as a slight–there is some really good fanfiction out there in addition to all the ones that shouldn’t see the light of day.) So while I would say that you should watch The Hobbit, don’t go expecting it to be the story of the book. I was able to enjoy the movie precisely because I went into the theatre knowing that it would be an adaptation and thus different in some way and saved all the analysis for “quiet” contemplation some days hence. Had I gone in expecting the same story, I would have been sputtering during the film and raging on the walk home.
Les Misérables, in contrast, sticks fairly close to the musical (an argument could be made that it is an opera, but I will stick to calling it a musical), though the musical is greatly different from the novel by Victor Hugo that it adapts. Since I have yet to read the novel (something about long digressions on sewers and other such things), I cannot judge how closely these two adaptations stick to the gist of the novel’s plot and characters. Nor do I have my wife’s level of familiarity with the musical (she’s seen it multiple times, including in London, and was stage crew for a high school production—I’ve seen it once). So I probably won’t say as much on this film.
The opening sequence was great. The setting for the first song I felt worked rather well with the song itself. And it seemed natural that the convicts would sing the “Work Song” while hauling in a ship to drydock. While the vocal quality of the chorus of convicts I felt was allowable, the quality of singing in the duet portion of the song between Javert and Jean Valjean should have been better. I felt that the spoken quality of this duet actually jarred me out of the film. It’s a bit strange to say that, since normally characters bursting into song about things would be more jarring, but since almost all of the spoken word in the musical is sung, it feels more jarring when they don’t sing when you know they should be.
The quality of the singing improved as the film progressed. There were still moments when I felt the infusion of emotion into some of the songs made them less powerful, but generally from “Look Down” onward the songs were at least good enough. The actor who played Éponine did a fantastic job with the character.
The only other major thing about the film that I really dislike was the prevalence of close-ups. Granted, being able to see the actor’s face when they are singing is useful in conveying emotion and something that you don’t really get if you are not close to the stage or they have screens projecting what is on stage when watching the musical. But I think we were shown too many close-ups. We weren’t often allowed to see where the characters were in relation to each other. For “One Day More,” in which the sets of characters aren’t anywhere near each other, it is understandable, but for “In My Life” and “A Heart Full of Love” the focus on close-ups makes it hard to see the relationships between the characters and how they are reacting to each other. Because film’s gaze is fixed (as opposed to a stage production where the audience chooses where to gaze), it is important for the shots to help convey information about characters, relationships, plot, et cetera. And these close-ups that the film’s gaze bounces between fail to let us see those relationships. So Cosette has a pretty face. That’s great, but I want to see how she is interacting and reacting to Marius and see Éponine lurking in the background the whole time. And I want it done without too many cuts between camera angles. Some are great, but too many cuts and the scene starts feeling frenetic and restless like a kitten presented with the dots from several laser pointers.
I also thought that Les Misérables was a good film. It’s a lot cheaper than a theatre ticket and does a decent enough job at adapting the musical to recommend seeing. I enjoyed it, though I enjoyed the stage version I saw more.
If you agree with me, have insights to add, or think these are just fox words fooling people feel free to leave a comment!
Finally, if you are interested in reading my thoughts on adaptations, you can read the piece I submitted on deviantArt.