The answer to the question fans of Tolkien have been asking about this movie for months is “no, not really.” But we’ll get to that in a moment.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three movies covering J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is anything but “unexpected.” In many ways, it is precisely the film most of us knew that Peter Jackson would make: another Lord of the Rings movie. It has the same epic scope, breathtaking cinematography, and Hobbit-based charms as the first trilogy. The dwarves are funny, the elves are beautiful, and Gandalf shows up in the nick of time. Twice.
But there are still some great surprises along the way.
The opening 45 minutes of this 169-minute movie takes place in the Shire, and more specifically in Bag-End, the home of Bilbo Baggins. Much has been made of the casting of Martin Freeman (of The Office and Sherlock fame), but the Bilbo we first see is played by the part’s originator, Ian Holm. Bilbo is preparing for his 111th birthday party, the same one celebrated early in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and putting the final touches on his book There and Back Again, which documents the adventure that made Bilbo very rich and, in the eyes of the other inhabitants of the Shire, vey eccentric. His nephew, Frodo, played by Elijah Wood, helps him in this endeavor and sets up a trope in the film–the introduction of characters and actors from the first trilogy. I’ll not give away who makes appearances, but there are a few that will absolutely delight.
The film quickly shifts into a flashback, some 60 years earlier, and we are introduced to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, a very different Hobbit. Pre-adventure, Bilbo is a nervous, provincial, and awkward creature whose response to the dwarves and wizard who invade his home makes it clear he’s the last person the party should pick as their burglar. And Freeman isn’t just good as Bilbo, as anyone might have predicted. His performance is Oscar-worthy in the best possible way: rather than giving the impression of an actor doing a good job pulling off a difficult role, Freeman’s depiction is seamless and seemingly effortless.
Nor is Freeman the only one putting in an excellent performance. Of course, Ian McKellan and Hugo Weaving are excellent in reprising their roles, but the most surprising performances (and writing to some extent) is that of the dwarves. In Tolkien’s book, few of the dwarves beyond Thorin (Richard Armitage) have distinct personalities. In Jackson’s film, however, these characters are subtly fleshed out and by the end, we have specific impressions of about half of the dwarven band. Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner), as the young warriors, are great to watch in action, and Balin (Ken Stott) provides a well-grounded wisdom that keeps the group–and Thorin–from going too far astray.
Now if only he could have the same effect on the plot.
The question, of course, is “Can you turn a 200-page book into a three-part, nine-hour movie experience that really works?”
Perhaps it’s possible with a very dense and action-packed book—like ones that make up The Lord of the Rings. But it’s important to remember that The Hobbit wasn’t written for the same adult audience as the trilogy. It is essentially a children’s book, penned for Tolkien’s children, the eldest of whom was only 13 when he started writing it, and thus it’s a much more airy and conversational story. There’s simply not enough there to fill all those hours. And what was an unfortunate but occasional issue with the first trilogy (Jackson making dramatic and wholly unnecessary changes to Tolkien’s storyline) becomes very problematic in The Hobbit.
In fact, what Jackson does to stretch the tale is to vacillate between two polar strategies. In the first, he milks every bit of the text dry. This is most obvious in the dwarven party scene at Bag-End. I did not have a copy of the book with me, but I’d read it enough to recognize each piece of dialogue from the book, as well as virtually every narrative nook and cranny. What’s more, Jackson takes Tolkien’s widely acknowledged writerly (annoying) habit of lengthy and often very dry descriptive passages—something The Hobbit is much less guilty of than any of the rest of the author’s work—and inserts the filmic equivalent. And he applies it even to the interior of Bag-End. In utilizing the text to the fullest and then further expanding on it, Jackson takes a sixteen-page bit of story and turns it into forty-five minutes of slow-paced cinema that threatens to bog the tale down before it even gets out the door and on the road.
On the other extreme, Jackson feels compelled to not just change or severely embellish Tolkien (think Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers), but actually adds not one but two distinct major parallel plot lines. One involves the emergence of a shadowy figure called the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch), a character to whom there are only three exceedingly vague references in the original story. Jackson turns this into a somewhat intriguing but equally distract side story involving another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), who saves the band from a terrible threat.
This threat is the second and much more problematic embellishment: the vengeful orc Azog. Plucked from a brief description in an appendix to The Lord of the Rings, Azog is established as the killer of Thorin’s grandfather, Thror. But where Tolkien tells us that Dain Ironfoot killed Azog in retaliation for Azog’s murder of his own father Nain 130 years before the beginning of The Hobbit, in Jackson’s film, Azog is very much alive and bent on the destruction of Thorin for nearly killing him in battle earlier. This will set up later issues in the remaining films, as Dain plays an extremely important role at the end of The Hobbit, and part of his claim to power is based on this heroic action that, in Jackson’s film, is not his own.
Unfortunately, this change is not just an issue for the Tolkien purists out there. The use of Azog detracts a great deal from the main story line of the film, interjecting unnecessary chases and fight scenes that seem intended to thrill and entertain us. But in the end, those scenes disrupt the pace of the film and come off as Jackson doing in his first theatrical release what so many of us hated about George Lucas’ re-releases: adding in impressive special effects and picking scenes up from the cutting room floor simply because he can—never asking whether he should but only whether he could. Jackson would do well to learn from the mistakes of the master. (I mean, Storm Giants? Really?)
Luckily, he does manage to keep himself on track in a couple of key places, at least one of which sells the film for me. The entire sequence between Bilbo and Smeagol (Andy Serkis), deep in the heart of the Goblin’s mountain is perfectly done. Jackson juxtaposes the quiet menace and deadly intent of the Riddling Game between the two with the obnoxiously loud capture and torture of the dwarves by the Great Goblin and their salvation by Gandalf. But what really works is the way in which the scene reveals a great deal about both characters. In Smeagol, we get a real sense of the geographical and emotional darkness to which the Ring has driven him, as well as the scale of desperation for it that would be necessary and which will draw him back out into the light. In Bilbo, we see the essential goodness that Gandalf also sees in the Halfling—the reason he was chosen and the reason Frodo will also be selected—in Bilbo’s decision to spare the murderous creature. We also see, in both characters, a depth of cleverness which will be necessary on the journey ahead of each of them.
And it is scenes like that one that hold out for me a flicker of hope that perhaps Jackson will be able to make this all work in the end. He does seem to get what makes Tolkien so great, and his ability to craft a believable Middle Earth is astounding in itself. But at the same time, I think he misses one of Tolkien’s main themes in The Hobbit: that of the destructive nature of greed. Because there can be little doubt why one would choose to make such a short book into nine hours of blockbuster cinema. Unfortunately, he is now committed to all nine hours.
So the only thing we can really do at this point is to take the same leap of faith as Bilbo—we’re already out the door without our handkerchief. And hope that things will turn out as well for us as they will for the little hobbit hero.
Posted: December 16, 2012
Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers