“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, THE HOBBIT (book)
So reads the starting lines from a cherished book from my childhood, THE HOBBIT, by Tolkien, a book I am very familiar with. I was introduced to this book as a present when I was sick at age 8, and have read it many times in the years since then. I have grown up with the Hobbit, and that book’s big brother the Lord of the Rings trilogy, firmly embedded in my imagination. I am delighted with the books. And in turn, even though they were awful movies, I was delighted with the Rankin Bass and Bakshi interpretations of The Hobbit and LOTR. Not for quality’s sake, mind you, just that they were even being made into movies at all. So when Peter Jackson brought out the trilogy on the big screen, and we could all see that, yes, here was a director who really got it, who really loved the source material like we Tolkien geeks did (and do), it was something special. I have seen the Trilogy movies many, many times. I own the extended edition DVDs and am not ashamed to say so.
All this ambling verbiage must suffice to state that I am both a fan of Peter Jackson, and a fan of the source material that contributed to the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey movie, which I took my children to last night. On a parenthetical note, I have taken my children to opening night of every Peter Jackson Tolkien movie so far, even now, with my daughter in her first year in college.
There is much to say. I will start with the statement that a movie is a movie, and a book is a book, and they are two very different forms of entertainment. They should not be judged by the same yardstick. I enjoyed the LOTR movie trilogy for what they were, which were extremely entertaining visual stories crafted by a very dedicated team of professionals at the top of their respective games. I know Peter Jackson loves Tolkien. I know he had a very visual story to tell, and could not rely on nuance and inference as much as Tolkien did. Indeed, the Professor was very guilty of making an odd decision or two about plot focus– he would leave out entire chapters of critical information and have them play out of focus from the reader in a paragraph or two. So Jackson, in adapting the written word to screenplay, had to fill in certain holes with his visual adaption of events that had transpired “offstage” in the books, such as the great confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman in the Fellowship of the Ring.
In adapting the Hobbit to screen, Peter Jackson is taking a much smaller book than the LOTR trilogy and making a trilogy out of it. So the viewer of these movies has to assume that Jackson will be filling up holes and freely adapting from an even smaller source, the Hobbit novel, with some generous assistance from the Appendices from Lord of the Rings. And this Jackson did do in spades. We see things that we know transpired at roughly the same time as the Journey of Bilbo but were never alluded to in the plot, just the Appendices. Events like the White Council meeting. Or visiting Dol Goldur. Or a long meeting with Radagast the Brown, and even that wizard’s participation in an action scene. We see scenes that even I (at 9 years old) didn’t think Tolkien meant as anything but exaggeration, or allegory.
What were my thoughts on the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a movie? Overall, extremely enthused, but still a bit mixed. This is a fun action movie and with some great action sequences. The writing is more uneven than the Lord of the Rings and the overall tone far brighter and more cheerful– of course, we are adapting a children’s book which was more cheerful than the Lord of the Rings, too. I can’t help but like the thirteen dwarves and Martin Freeman as the younger Bilbo. It was wonderful to see all of the principles again– Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Sir Christopher Lee as Saruman, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, even cameos at the very beginning by Ian Holm as older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as Frodo. I loved the connections being made between the older trilogy and this new one. You will see many of the obvious ones in the trailers, I don’t need to spoil anything.
There is much more padding in this story than in the LOTR.. in that series Jackson had too much material and not enough time to cram it into. In this movie, you have a slender source for inspiration and the expectation of a 3 hour movie to stretch it out into (more like 9 hours, when you are speaking of trilogies). So we get to see a lot of private conversations, extra dialogue, and even the Dwarves bursting into song. Peter Jackson was pretty adamant about NO SONGS in the original trilogy and they are all over this movie. I didn’t mind that so much, but it did feel like padding. I’d say the worst offender was the overwhelming weight of exposition that is in the script. Do we really need to be told everything, all the time? Doesn’t Jackson and his team know we know already?
The performances are quite good– Martin Freeman is a wonderful actor and delivers a surprisingly nuanced and thoughtful performance as Bilbo. The combination of Andy Serkis and the WETA shop gave us a Gollum that didn’t have the screen time he did in the earlier trilogy but was still amazing.. at a critical moment, Bilbo has the power to kill Gollum (you know what I mean, Tolkien fans), but “pity stayed his hand”. Gollum sells us on that pity. McKellan, Holm, Weaving, Lee and Blanchett, they were all outstanding. Richard Armitage as Thorin was a standout.. not at all what I had pictured, but really quite charismatic and heroic.
The visual effects were less impressive than I would have imagined after a space of ten years from the original to now. There are far too many shots where the CGI models are all out of proportion and distorted by the animation process. I don’t think the movie scales Hobbits to Men to Dwarves very consistently either. And some dwarves look entirely man-like (like Fili, Kili, and Thorin, who appear to be cast for “hunk potential”). But these are quibbles. There are some cringey moments, too.. where the viewer is left wondering why this or that was added in (a rabbit chariot? really?), but I found myself pushing these to the back of my mind as I enjoyed the narrative enfold.
Summary: Expect a bit of plot-bloat. Expect Jackson to show you stuff you kind of already know if you have seen the LOTR. Expect a LOT of background material you might find surprising compared to the LOTR movies. Expect a brighter, funnier, faster and more effects-laden movie than before. If you love Tolkien (the author), this is a must-see. If you love LOTR (the movies), this is also a must-see. If you’ve NEVER HEAR OF TOLKIEN, I strongly recommend it, though if you are taking smaller children, you’ll need to hold their hands through a few scary parts. Yes, I’ll be seeing this one again.