Those of us who reside in the realm of fandom can praise nothing higher than the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The books are the defining modern expression of world building and epic storytelling, and the films represent the most complete, artistically responsible and, above all, mind-blowingly awesome adaptations of books to film in…well, ever. If we have faith in nothing else, we have faith in the name Sir Peter Jackson.
Getting excited was easy, therefore, when it was announced that Jackson would return to adapt the Lord of the Rings’ predecessor, the original introduction to Middle Earth, and a feature of the childhoods of many of us.
In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is part one of a three-part adaptation of that children’s classic. As always happens when you go into a movie with such excitement and high expectations, every little nitpick can feel like a needle in the eye. Let me be perfectly clear, however, before I begin: it was fantastic!
In the Shire, a bucolic little slice of Middle Earth, Bilbo Baggins, a respectable gentle-Hobbit, who never has any adventures or does anything unexpected, finds his day thrown askew by the arrival of the famous wizard known as Gandalf, who is looking for someone to share in an adventure. Flustered, Bilbo finds his attempts to rebuff the proposition ignored as a party of dwarves arrive at his door, empty his pantry, and confront him with the quest at hand: to retake the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug, along with the vast treasure of their people and restore their leader, Thorin, to his rightful place as King Under the Mountain. Bilbo finally gives into the deep attraction this has, and finally signs up as the expedition ‘burglar.’ But, if you’ve read the book, you already knew that.
Everything that was great about the Lord of the Rings is still here: the characters both stories share, like Gandalf and Elrond are back, played by the same actors, who get to show us more aspects of these characters than before. The fine-detailing in the sets, costumes and weapons is as great as ever, and Howard Shore’s music – well, I’d call it ‘exceptional’ except that HowardShore is always this good. And New Zealand continues to favour us with her breathtaking natural beauty.
The movie also expands on the plot. Tolkien had a whole backstory on the quest’s place in Middle Earth’s affairs: a sinister Necromancer has appeared in Mirkwood forest, orcs and trolls are ranging over once-peaceful lands and signs of a link between the mysterious Necromancer and an ancient enemy of Middle Earth cause much anxiety for Gandalf and his colleagues among the Wise.
There was a lot of anxiety about the ‘bulking out’ of the movies. I think a lot of people just didn’t realize that Tolkien had all this backing material in place, and Jackson and company were just going to make a lot of stuff up. I say Jackson was justified; the Hobbit had to make some effort to blend with the sheer scale and depth of the Lord of the Rings, and there just isn’t enough of the Hobbit on its own to do that. It is a lot more kid-friendly, since that was the Hobbit’s target market. The trolls and goblins are more bumbling, moustache-twirling villainous than their sinister, vicious counterparts in Rings; the humour is more frequent and sillier. The expansion is enough to make it accessible to all ages, though. In general, it’s lighter and fluffier, and that’s really how it should be.
Having said that, the balancing act between source material, cinematic style and responsible adaptation isn’t carried off with total success. Like the Lord of the Rings, it has a prologue sequence. The Hobbit’s is visually breathtaking and it gives you information you need, but it is excessively wordy, there are lots of details that we really didn’t need to know and indeed, would have worked at least as well if deployed elsewhere. I had this experience with the Golden Compass movie; when I hear the establishing exposition and can immediately think of better ways they could have done it, that’s a bad sign.
Fifteen main protagonists was always going to be a big challenge, and so far I’m underwhelmed by how it was handled. Bilbo himself frequently gets hard to focus on in the shuffle. We barely hear from half the dwarves and only about four are characterized beyond a single note. Bombur, the gluttonous and overweight dwarf I find particularly annoying, but I’m one of those tiresome politically correct types and just don’t find fat jokes very polite.
That said, once it got going it was plenty of fun. A lot of nods to the first trilogy and to the book tickled my affections – the Riddles in the Dark sequence was absolutely perfect if you ask me. It takes a while to stop looking at Bilbo and thinking “hey look, it’s Martin Freeman” because he’s already a well-known actor, but nevertheless his performance reflects the character just fine and his skill at playing a perpetual state of ‘what the heck’s going on’ is as funny as ever.
I was expecting the expanded content, but I was thrown to find they collapsed the timeline. The discovery of the Necromancer, which indirectly triggers the quest for the LonelyMountain, happens before the Hobbit begins in Tolkien’s writings. Here they overlap, which gives rise to a plot hole here and there. It’s understandable though; the novel spends quite a long time having the characters wander through one unconnected peril after another, and the integration of the Necromancer plot gives it a unity that works better on screen.
A regrettable side effect of this however is something I never thought I’d say about a fantasy adventure movie: there’s too much action. It wasn’t long into the movie before I found myself thinking ‘oh dear, another bloody chase scene.’ Jackson put the occasional high-tension sequence into the Fellowship of the Ring (the broken stairs during the Balrog chase, for instance) but they were just fairly brief punchy moments in a first chapter aimed at building character and atmosphere. In Unexpected Journey, these are strung out into protracted, carnival-ride sequences – there’s one in the Misty Mountains that’s particularly pointless – so often that I found it obnoxious. However, the only truly bad choice in the film (and I’m going to SPOIL a little bit to explain) is, in a word, Azog.
In the book, Azog was a goblin king Thorin killed many years prior, establishing his cred as a warrior and dwarvish leader. In the movie, Azog was merely mutilated and spends the whole film chasing the company in pursuit of revenge. The idea, I surmise, was to give the villains of the piece a consistent, immediate face, like Lurtz the Uruk-hai in Fellowship of the Ring. But Azog doesn’t appear to answer to the any of the main villains, and distracts from the dragon that Thorin really should be obsessing over right now. There are a lot of flashback sequences in this movie anyway, but we have to take a lot of time out for one to tack him on. He isn’t even slightly compelling. He’s a cliché who doesn’t do anything except issue kill orders, strangle the occasional minion and look scary. In a very deep way, he just doesn’t belong, as if he wandered in from some other movie.
If the Lord of the Rings films were a house built in a great style, then the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful cottage in the same style; there are a couple of loose nails, the door doesn’t quite fit and the kitchen floor slants a little, but it’s still flippin’ gorgeous. It’s really good, and I don’t wish to suggest otherwise. Bilbo and Thorin’s character development was great, Gandalf and the other Council members make a really interesting aside, the themes that are being built up are promising and beautiful, and when it gets truly exciting, it’s a real thrill. It’s a lot less serious, which is fair enough. The only downside is that it is, so to speak, flabbier. Jackson’s team made lots of choices to tighten or streamline the plot, most of which are pretty reasonable, but moreso than in LoTR the stitches still show and a lot of stuff is added in the name of flash and sparkle at the expense of originality.
Even the best creative team would be hard-pressed to make the Lord of the Rings lightning strike twice, and the good stuff is so good that it’s totally worth it. Any sense of something missing or out of joint may, I will also point out, be temporary. Remember that this is the first part of an integrated trilogy, and will be best appreciated as a full set. So stick with it, folks…
“Home is now behind you, and the world is ahead!”