For some J.R.R. Tolkien readers, this first installment of director Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy may hold an unexpected journey—perhaps even a conflicting one. It is clearly Tolkien, but not always The Hobbit as he wrote it.
The divisive issue is not omissions, as is often the case with adaptations; in fact, all major events of the book's first six chapters are fairly depicted. The issue here is that Jackson has made wholesale additions that make it all feel less like the book and more like the darker cinematic journey Jackson took us on not long ago with his Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that seems to be exactly Jackson's goal.
In notes and appendices to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote entire histories of battles, characters, and places. Much of this supplemental material helps bridge the two works. While the published work of The Hobbit shared characters and settings but stood independently from the later The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson chose to adapt not just the original work but Tolkien's expanded universe. And so, The Hobbit becomes a sort of Lord of the Rings: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace.
Jackson chose to break The Hobbit—which is not that dense or long of a book—into three movies (the first checking in at an often stretched-feeling 166 minutes) specifically to include more of Tolkien's complex world previously only published in the books' appendices and in collections of unfinished writings edited posthumously by his son.
Cutting The Hobbit into thirds has two major effects on the story. First, we obviously see only the tip of the full story here—and only the seeds of the rich, biblical themes sown into the saga by Tolkien, a devout Catholic. The movie is chiefly introduction and exposition (with lots of walking and fighting a laFellowship of the Ring). Still, several ideas do begin to surface: the corruption of greed; the need for home but also the need to leave one's comfort zone; the dangers of power, racism, and prejudice; and the virtue of ordinary acts by ordinary men. Also notable: The consistent metaphor of light vs. darkness. As in Scripture, light in this film is repeatedly shown to reveal, expose, illuminate, and defeat darkness.
Secondly, the division of the story lends this film an odd familiarity. The plot is this: The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) recruits a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), for a dangerous mission among a large fellowship (including a displaced king), they get chased, they regroup in Rivendell, they get chased, the hobbit finds an odd ring, eagles save the day, and there's a final standoff with a Jackson-embellished Big Bad Guy.
Yeah, it's an awful lot like Fellowship of the Ring.
In fact, the movie begins on the same day as did The Fellowship of the Ring. As he prepares for his 111th birthday party, an older Bilbo (again played by Ian Holm) writes a letter to his nephew Frodo about his first adventure outside the Shire. After Bilbo—in voiceover—explains how a powerful dwarf kingdom was overcome by the vicious dragon Smaug, the film settles into a narrative 60 years in the past.