The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates

Martin Freeman as Bilbo BagginsI’ll just say this right out of the gate: this is the only review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that matters.  Why?  Not because I’ve written and directed a film based upon the works of Tolkien, but because I approach criticism from the perspective of a reader.  I’m more inclined to relate (not “compare,” of course) the film to its source material, not the indulgent Peter Jackson trilogy loosely based upon Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings a decade ago.  The media monkeys keep asking, “Does this movie live up to the original trilogy?”  I promise you that no one asking this question has any idea what they’re asking.

Jackson again plays somewhat loosely with the material, but overall, the story feels much leaner due to its focus on a single protagonist.  Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the titular Hobbit (as anyone who made it through fifth grade knows), lives at ease in the Shire, where he relaxes, blows smoke rings, keeps a pantry full of every food imaginable, and doesn’t mind eating alone.  A hobbit hole, as Tolkien writes, “means comfort.”  Why would anyone feel the need to go on an adventure and get into trouble?  Soon, of course, Bilbo’s way of life is subverted: Gandalf (Ian McKellan), a mysterious wizard, arrives at Bilbo’s door, claiming that he has chosen Bilbo to join in an adventure.  Bilbo refuses and thinks he’s off the hook, but after Gandalf engraves a strange rune into the front door, the hobbit is visited by thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), son of Thrain, son of Thror, the fabled King Under the Mountain, a descendant of the heralded Durin’s folk.  The dwarves, to Bilbo’s dismay, devour everything in his pantry, sing an impromptu song mocking the hobbit’s stuffy nature, and explain their plans to reclaim their gold from Smaug, a dragon left over from the First Age, who sacked their mountain a century ago and left their people ripe for an attack by Orcs. Jackson’s film version, before beginning the plot action, features an extensive prologue which not only explains the dwarves’ origin story – featuring Smaug’s sacking of Erebor and Thorin’s epic battle with Orc chieftain Azog (Manu Bennett) – but also an appearance by Ian Holm as the older Bilbo Baggins, who takes a break from his birthday preparations to write some more of his book.  He begins with the first line of the original novel: “This is a story from long ago,” and also gives us the first line of chapter 1: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  Smiles were abound.  Much of the opening dialogue between Gandalf and Bilbo is also preserved, including their “good morning” routine and the famous “I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me.”

The film follows the events of the novel up to the beginning of chapter 6, and due to the employment of what I have come to call “Peter Jackson Elements,” it goes on for longer than it needs to and doesn’t cover half the book material that it could.  These PJEs include Azog, whose counterpart in the novel is killed 150 years before the story begins and whose son, Bolg, actually runs the goblin army.  Azog and friends stalk Thorin and company throughout the movie in order to provide a foil for the King Under the Mountain, but it’s completely unnecessary and panders to the action movie crowd.  It’s also a bit disrespectful to the original text – don’t you think Tolkien knew what he was doing?  One of the lore-related issues here is that Azog in the film is referred to as the “pale orc,” a unique characteristic making him mythically large and fearsome.  In the novel, there are no orcs.  These characters are all goblins, though Tolkien, after being pressured by his publisher to write a sequel, later retrospectively changed some of this material, making goblins a type of small orc – this and many other pieces of The Hobbit, including language, modern references, writing style, and changes in the lore, indicate all too clearly that The Lord of the Rings isn’t a direct sequel to this story.  Jackson not only tries to make it consistent with the later story, but also consistent with his own films, which perverted many elements of The Lord of the Rings beyond recognition.  To achieve this, he also includes scenes that build up to the story of The Fellowship of the Ring.  The White Council – Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Gandalf meet in Rivendell to discuss the appearance of the Necromancer, a cryptic sorcerer who turns out to be the bereft Sauron, the main antagonist of The Lord of the Rings (lightweight compared to his predecessor in the First Age, but let’s not get into that).  The scene is satisfying in and of itself, and it’s a relief to witness the inclusion of Galadriel (the only female character in the film), but it’s ultimately a distraction, as is a divergent scene featuring Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), who investigates the Necromancer and reports his findings to Gandalf.  This is material best left to an extended cut.

The sections of the film that are actually adapted from novel material are wonderfully done.  The chapter Roast Mutton, in which three trolls capture the dwarves and discuss how to cook them while Bilbo attempts to buy time, is largely faithful, aside from the inclusion of a fight scene, with the trolls’ cockney accents preserved (a sad reminder of Tolkien’s intolerance for the English working class).  The Great Goblin (played by Barry Humphries) is deliciously repulsive, with goiters the size of your head, and the humor of his conflict with Gandalf remains, as does his song about “Goblin Town,” a carved out village in the pitch-black of the Misty Mountains.  The stone giants are included, though their proximity to the main cast is amplified in the film (and not to the detriment of the story).  The most love for Tolkien’s work, however, is displayed during the famous Riddles in the Dark, wherein Bilbo makes a deal with the gangling Gollum (Andy Serkis): if Bilbo can solve all of Gollum’s riddles without a single incorrect answer, he will be led safely out of the Misty Mountains.  If the inverse should occur, Gollum will eat Bilbo for dinner.  “Fair enough,” Freeman’s Bilbo flatly states.  This scene never cuts away and includes nearly every riddle from the book, and even most of the blocking.  Not only do Bilbo’s actions tie together some of the story’s themes, but this is also Gollum at his best.  He looks better, acts more like the novel’s Gollum and not a cartoon character, and doesn’t overstay his welcome.  When he screams and weeps after losing his “precious,” the audience feels some real sympathy at his plight: he may be grotesque and deceitful, but he’s still (or once was) a person, and this is all he has.  The scene is capped off with Bilbo losing his shirt-buttons while squeezing through an opening in the cave, an event in the novel that leaves him miffed for quite some time.

A common complaint is that the scenes in the Shire take too long.  False – sure, we spend a lot of time there, but if anything, Bilbo’s decision to go on the adventure is actually too abrupt.  There never seems to be a lack of urgency in these scenes if you know where to find it: Bilbo doesn’t want to go on the adventure.  That’s the conflict.  If he goes with the dwarves, he will almost surely die; even Gandalf does not deny this.  If by “urgency,” you mean there should be more battles and action and jump-cuts, you need to relax and open a book. Performance-wise, Freeman is the correct choice for Bilbo.  He’s satisfied with his life of solitude, somewhat of an oddball in Hobbiton, perpetually irritated with his predicament, and far more concerned with getting home to his hearth and a warm meal than with helping the dwarves reclaim their home.  He finds Sting (and the lore of Gondolin is preserved) but never shows any adeptness at swordfighting, and haphazardly swings it at any monster that comes near him.  He’s the lens through which we are introduced to Middle-earth, and sometimes we wish he would stop for a moment and try to appreciate some of the beauty around him.  McKellan shines once again as Gandalf, and it’s much more pleasant to see him on the small scale – taking meals, speaking intimately with Galadriel, and helping the group defeat trolls and goblins, never quite letting slip that he’s much more than a mischievous old man.  Armitage portrays Thorin as well as anyone could; in the novel, he has a relatively one-track mind and doesn’t care much for Bilbo.  This attitude is retained in the film without too many distractions (aside from the aforementioned inclusion of a sworn enemy).  As there must be character growth by the end of a film, however, Thorin’s tolerance of Bilbo, not to mention Bilbo’s discovery that his own soul houses at least a small bit of bravery, is pushed forward.  Make no mistake, though; their friendship will be more than tested once Erebor is taken back and the Arkenstone comes into play. The idea to split The Hobbit into three films is unforgivably ham-handed and serves two purposes: a money grab on the part of New Line, and a cushion for Jackson to build his own “film universe” with invented material.  Even the first installment features music from his The Lord of the Rings films, which feels out of place and seems at times like an advertisement for other movies.

The gap between releases is even worse.  Will the other films be good?  I’m hopeful.  Will they falter in their faithfulness to their source material as egregiously as The Two Towers and Return of the King did?  Let’s not even speculate yet. Here is the question you should be asking.  Forget other films.  Does this film live up to the spirit of the novel?  Yes.  That fact enough is worth a look.  A book, the most complex of art, can never be “made into” a movie (as so many like to say), only adapted, but this series can continue to retain the spirit of the novel by preserving the magic of Middle-earth’s more beautiful corners, by not getting caught up in battle scenes, by minimizing the PJE issues, and above all, by focusing on what the story is all about at heart.  As Tolkien wrote, “This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.  He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained – well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”

The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012); screenplay by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro; adapted from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; directed by Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, and Andy Serkis.