Three Adaptations: The Hobbit, Life of Pi, and Les Miserables

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THE HOBBIT

For better or worse, Peter Jackson and company have decided to create more than a simple adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” With the inclusion of stories from “The Silmarillion” and even some of the legendary author’s incomplete works, the team have taken what will be their final opportunity to present us with as much of Middle-earth as possible.  This has resulted in some very mixed reviews from mainstream critics and moviegoers alike.  But if you are like me, and you want to get sucked into Tolkien’s universe for as long as possible – forgoing bathroom breaks and the use of your lower limbs, you will love every minute of it!

“The Hobbit” were the bedtime stories the professor read to his sons when they were mere boys.  “The Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand, were the stories he wrote when they had grown old enough to fully understand the complexities of adult life.  Tolkien even went back and reworked one particular chapter from “The Hobbit” to further flesh out the tale: my absolute favorite passage from any of the books, “Riddles in the Dark.”  In the original story, Gollum was an honor-bound creature who gladly gave Bilbo the ring after being bested in their puzzles.  However, in the new context of the rings power, Gollum was given greater depth and an obsession for the possession of his precious prize.  Tolkien had wanted to create a whole new work from “The Hobbit,” creating a parallel narrative that would have the same emotional complexity and violence of “The Lord of the Rings.”  Taking the advise of his publisher, “The Hobbit” was left with only minor alterations.

Now it is Peter Jackson and crew that have given “The Hobbit” the long shadows that trail towards the Oscar winning series.  The additions of more combat, grittier imagery, and more frightening villains have allowed the story to keep the whimsy and charm of the child’s tale and also carry some of the adventure and gloom that the earlier films’ fans expect.

And that’s where the controversy starts.

If you’re a purist, this adaptation will not satisfy you.  If you’re a fan of the original films and are not prepared for the musical numbers and slapstick, you will not be satisfied.  If you are joe-blow movie-goer, you will probably find the length and pace tedious and will not be satisfied.  And to confound the issue even further, if you are easily distracted by new technology, the 3D and 48 frames per second will probably hold you back a bit too!  (I recommend seeing it more than once, and seeing it at the most advanced theater available to you.  I’ve seen it twice, and it was much better the second time around, and it was twice the movie at Arclight Cinemas versus AMC.)

For the rest of us, this is the movie we’ve been waiting for, and I for one was not disappointed.

Martin Freeman makes a very sympathetic Bilbo.  Sir Ian McKellen brings us more of the Gandalf we all love, and the Dwarves come across as diverse, fleshed out versions of their literary selves.

It all reminds me of when J. R. R.’s son Christopher (who drew the original maps of Middle-earth) tried to complete his father’s incomplete works based on his father’s notes.  Here was one of the children for whom this fantasy was created attempting to give all that was left of that world to us.  Since 1977, he has made difficult decisions in how to best present his late father’s work in “The Silmarillion,” “Unfinished Tales,” the twelve volumes of “The History of Middle-earth, and”The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.”

He too was met with harsh criticism.

OVERALL: 8/10

LIFE OF PI

When Ang Lee tried to tell a delicate story about man’s struggles with our monstrous nature in “The Hulk,” he failed to capture the essence of his subject.  With “Life of Pi,” however, he has brilliantly created a masterpiece with similar subject matter while presenting us with the adapted material with careful and reverent sensibilities.  This is easily one of the best pictures of 2012.

“Life of Pi” touches on two of my favorite subject matters: religion and storytelling.

The major dramatic question of the bookends revolves around whether Pi can tell this cynical writer a story that will make him believe in God, and we are given a possible parable that allows us to make up our own minds.  There is whimsy and merriment in this spiritual journey, but there is also harsh reality and an argument for reason.  Yann Martel’s book certainly tells a story about life that is so different from our own experiences, yet in many ways no different from our own lives, and David Magee’s adaptation floats on waves of splendor.

In some ways, this film reminds me of Tim Burton’s masterpiece, “Big Fish.”  It is an argument for the importance of storytelling.  The gift of a great story can alter us in ways that very little else can.  I was inspired by this story as I watched it, and I know it will stay with me for many years.

OVERALL: 10/10

LES MISERABLES

There is an unbroken four minute close-up of Anne Hathaway working through dozens of emotions through song.  And I could have sworn that I saw scripted, golden letters appear at the bottom of the screen: “For Your Consideration.”  When the music faded, I leaned over to my companion and whispered, “Well, she’s won the Oscar; now they just need to give it to her.”

Another adaptation, this one based on the musical that was based on the French language concept album that was itself based on Victor Hugo’s book, “Les Miserables” has been performed many times before.  However, the films (including the 1998 version starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Daines) have generally stuck to a dramatization of the novel and not the staged-musical.  A major undertaking, this is the first film to bring the hit Broadway show to an English speaking audience without simply being a filmed version of the play.  Tom Hooper was very brave to take on this project, and doubly so to film it in the manner he chose.

This film is remarkable in so many ways.  To start, the singing is not recorded in a vocal booth and played over for the actors to lip sync to.  These characters are piloted through the most emotionally driven performances of any filmed musical in history.  And they might very well be the most emotionally guided in any story told on screen, soundtrack, or stage.  The orchestral score is completely dictated by the actor’s decisions as well, and every note lifts the story upon it’s shoulders and carries the audience with it.

The cast is superb and perfectly cast.  Hugh Jackman shows the world why he’s such a stand-up guy on Broadway’s boards, conjuring the hardships of slavery and the worries of a haunted man in his eyes and face.  Russel Crowe bellows his opera with a dash of rock and roll, walking the line between solid ground and the abyss with a demeanor befitting his station as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.  Amanda Seyfried and Isabelle Allen both create a Cosette worth fighting for, and Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone, and the others at the barricades bring their hopeless cause to life with passion and a tangible trepidation.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes shared by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who milked every comic moment with a zeal that was both delightful and dangerous.  Yet even with such a diversely talented group, all of whom exceeded even the least managed expectations, Anne Hathaway was the stand-out.  She opened herself up to us all and treated us to the most rare of vulnerabilities, creating a performance in this film that will be remembered by history.

We live in a truly remarkable time.  Les Miserables was created under circumstances that few filmmakers would dare to contemplate, and it is a triumph.

And we live in a time where an actor can travel a road that has stops at both Wolverine or Catwoman and a French period piece opera.

OVERALL: 9/10

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9 comments

  1. Regarding The Hobbit-is this how you imagined feeling after seeing it on the screen? It sounds like you thought it was a well-made film. But, did it FEEL magical? Fantastic? The FOTR was the only film that felt like it was based on fantasy and not just a bunch of (over-the-top and never resolved except by a deus ex machina) fight scenes. Maybe it’s our times, but that cannot be an excuse for a movie being based on fantasy being un-fantastic. I’m curious, if you post back, how the movie made you feel other than Jackson & company nailing it technically. I was hoping for more whimsy and charm.

    1. I’ve heard a lot of criticism that the movie was too whimsical, so I think that’s too subjective for me to comment on. For me, I felt like the adventure was enough to suck me in.

  2. Which leads to Life of Pi. I’ve seen The Hobbit, not seen Life of Pi. I’m more interested in this film because it made you think and feel, whereas the other film made you feel better that they pulled it off. Am I right in thinking this?

  3. Thanks for the reviews! Even from detractors of The Miserables, there’s universal praise for Hathaway. Seeing as this takes place in France did you happen to notice any foul odors coming from the screen? The French aren’t known for their hygiene. Or bravery.

  4. Have you seen ‘Lincoln’ yet? I haven’t. I was reading an interview w/ Samuel L. Jackson and he said that he didn’t know what Spielberg was thinking and that the movie felt like it could’ve ended earlier. “The movie had a better ending 10 minutes before.” Hmm, now that doesn’t sound like Steven, does it? ; )

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