If somebody asks me what my favorite book is, after I hem and haw for a while, I usually end up falling back on The Hobbit. I'm pretty sure it's the book that not only started my love of fantasy, but of books in general. "Formative" isn't even a strong enough word. So yeah, I was going to have to see the movies based on it, even though they're being made by Peter Jackson, whose Lord of the Rings films I can hardly bare to watch anymore because of how much they diverge from the source material.
I'm happy to say, although the first of the three (!) Hobbit films does in some places diverge quite a bit from the source material, I still enjoyed it very much, because it mostly remains true to the characters and the spirit of the original, and because it's just a really entertaining movie that brings to vivid life so many classic moments from a truly classic book.
(I should point out here that, depending on what theater you go to, it's possible to see the film in a bewildering array of formats, but this review is of the regular old 2D version. I hope to see it again in 3D HFR soon, at which time I may add some extra notes about that format.)
One of the things Jackson is able to incorporate here that he mostly had to leave out of Lord of the Rings is the singing. Tolkien puts a lot of poems and songs into his work, and some of the songs in The Hobbit are really wonderful. Of course, it's not always easy to just drop a song into an otherwise rather straightforward fantasy adventure film, but Jackson manages to fit them in so that they flow with the rest of the action very well. I was very glad to see "Chip the glasses and crack the plates" make it into the movie; it's one of the funnier songs, and makes for a very entertaining scene. And the scene where the dwarves sing "Over The Misty Mountains Cold" together is one of the most moving and well done in the film; it sent shivers down my spine. Even the Great Goblin gets to sing a song!
If you ever wondered what Gandalf was up to all those times he ran off in the book, wonder no more! Jackson has filled in all the blanks, using references in the text itself and the end notes of Lord of the Rings as his guide. Also, although the book features only the one wizard, Jackson manages to fit in references to all five of the Istari that Tolkien mentioned in his various novels and notes (even turning the fact that Tolkien never got around to naming the blue wizards into a clever in-joke), and give screen-time to three of them. Yes, not only do Gandalf the Gray and Saruman the White appear, Radagast the Brown gets his own lengthy subplot, involving a sick hedgehog, giant spiders, a rabbit-pulled sled, and the mysterious Necromancer, whose true identity Tolkien fans know well. Radagast (played by Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, no less) is an odd duck. Tolkien doesn't say all that much about him in the books, except that he's a great lover of animals, so Jackson has a lot of room to invent, and invent he does. Giving the guy a bird's nest on his head with bird crap running down the side of his face seemed to be going a bit far to me, but overall Jackson does pretty well with the character. He also puts Radagast at the center of a couple of rather silly drug jokes in the movie, involving pipe weed and mushrooms. (The pipe weed gag is almost unavoidable, but the mushroom one I did not expect.)
As far as the other wizards go, of course, we all know Saruman goes bad eventually, but it seemed a little weird, though also kind of funny, that Gandalf would already be wincing here when he realizes Saruman is in the room with him. I thought at this point they were still buddies?
Splitting the book into three movies, though perhaps a bit excessive, does make it possible for Jackson to include a lot of the really charming details from the book that he might otherwise have had to leave on the cutting room floor. I realized as I was sitting down to watch the film that I was going to be really upset if he didn't include the story of Bilbo's ancestor Bullroarer Took, who thwacked the head off a goblin so hard that it went soaring through the air and down a rabbit hole, thus winning a battle and inventing the game of golf in the same moment. So I was much gratified when Gandalf told that very story early on in the movie.
I also really enjoyed all the references Jackson managed to fit in to the ancient past of Tolkien's world - Angmar and its Witch-King and the hidden city of Gondolin, among other things. I was also really impressed by the visual effects. Even in the short time that's elapsed since the last of the Lord of the Rings films, technology has apparently advanced quite a bit, and the fully computer-generated characters that appear in this movie, like the Great Goblin and Gollum, are just spectacular. Even though Gollum is a warped, twisted, and inhuman creature, his face and body language (to say nothing of his voice) convey a gamut of authentic human emotions with a level of detail and subtlety that is just astounding. Certainly much of the success of the character is due to performer Andy Serkis, but we no doubt also have a bunch of technicians and computer equipment to thank.
Given that the original book was a single story, and had no obvious breakpoints, I was impressed with the way Jackson was able to turn this first film into a whole story in itself, with complete character arcs for Bilbo and Thorin (even if Bilbo changes just a bit too much for my taste). Although not all the dwarves get a lot of screen time, some of them are given a chance to become more deeply realized, individualized characters than they are even in the book. The very end of the film also provides some truly fantastic foreshadowing of what's to come, giving us a quick, terrifying peek at Smaug the Terrible.
(UPDATE: A few things I forgot to mention that are great about the movie - the music, and all the acting, especially Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Freeman didn't seem quite plump enough to me at first, but he's very funny and likable. As for the music, Howard Shore alters and reuses the main themes from his Lord of the Rings soundtracks here to great effect. The music from those movies was one of the greatest things about them so revisiting that sound was a good call.)
Of course, the movie isn't perfect. I would have preferred if the sequence with the trolls had stuck a bit closer to how it happened in the book, although giving Bilbo more of a hand in saving the party does make dramatic sense. And why, after they'd just finished explaining that the swords would glow blue when orcs are near, did they not bother having Orcrist and Glamdring glow blue in the goblin stronghold? I'm hoping that effect gets added for the home video version.
There are also a few added lines of dialog that I feel are a bit lacking in subtlety and could have been cut. But my least favorite change is probably the scene near the end (and this might be a bit of a spoiler, I suppose, so beware) in which Bilbo leaps out in front of an injured Thorin, sword out, to defend him from his enemies, and even wins in a fight with an orc. I see how this makes dramatic sense in the context of the character arc that Jackson has created for Bilbo in the film, but it makes no sense at all in the context of the character of Bilbo as he exists in the book. Even at the very end of the book, during the Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo never gets into a head-on sword fight with anyone. That's not his way. He's not a fighter. He's the burglar - the quiet, invisible one. It's just not in his nature to go rushing headlong into battle. It's a bit upsetting to see Jackson just completely disregard the essential nature of his main character in this scene. That being said, if I look at the scene separate from the book, and as part of an unrelated movie, the scene actually does work quite well. And overall I feel like Jackson understands the characters well, and has made a fine, entertaining movie about them. Anyway, I'll definitely be back for the sequels.