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.
The ensuing adventure is largely what fans of the film versions of Lord of the Rings hope for: A spectacle-filled return to Tolkien's vivid world—as interpreted by the visionary who won an Academy Award directing Tolkien's work. In the film's opening sweep through the once-glorious dwarf kingdom, I realized just how much I'd missed the grandeur and wonder of Tolkien and Jackson's Middle-Earth (though some effects do not seem as polished or convincing as before).
The movie is both dark and stormy and witty and wondrous. Its winsomeness is due to the charm of Bilbo and friends—and whimsical Tolkien touches like the inclusion of two of the book's several songs/poems. These scenes, along with Bilbo's meeting of Gollum (again played with unnerving and complete manic committal by Andy Serkis), are standouts among several memorable set pieces—including the stone giants (featured only in a paragraph in the book but given a fantastic sequence here) and the Goblin King's capture of the dwarf party.
We know the strength and gravitas that the saga's returning actors/characters (some best left to surprise) bring to the film. But three newcomers to the franchise are worthy of special attention. In the lead, Freeman (best known for Britain's The Office, Love Actually, and as Watson in TV's Sherlock) wisely contrasts Elijah Wood's big-eyed innocence as our hobbit guide. He is older and more stuck in his ways but also witty, brave, and likable. Secondly, the fellowship is now led by dwarf heir-to-the-throne Thorin, played powerfully with a remorseful dignity by Richard Armitage.
Lastly, I enjoyed the addition of a character only briefly mentioned in the Middle-Earth books, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). One of Middle-Earth's five wizards (along with the movies' Gandalf and Saruman), Radagast is sort of a hippie wizard, a rabbit-like hermit who oversees plants and animals. He's kooky, disheveled, and fun.
Additions to the story and changes to the structure unfortunately result in less time with the dwarves, whose personalities shine through in the book. Thorin, Dwalin, Bofur, Balin, Kili, and Fili are the only ones who get enough screen time to differentiate them from the others. My favorite in the book, Bombur, is barely seen. But, with two more epic-length installments coming, there is still time for me to get my Bombur fix. And for Tolkien's full story and meaning to be revealed.
In 1937, Times Literary Supplement noted that only "at a tenth or twentieth reading will [readers] begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone into making everything in it so ripe … and so true." The same can be said about the need to see the story in its entirety. Only then can we fully judge if Jackson succeeds in auspiciously and—some would say, audaciously—tackling what Tolkien himself didn't: Writing The Hobbit as a fully fleshed-out and explicit chapter of The Lord of the Rings.
Talk About It
- Gandalf says, "Saruman believes it is only with great power that evil is defeated. That's not what I've found. It's the little things. Simple acts by ordinary people." How is this theme seen in action in this movie or in Jackson's Lord of the Rings films? Biblically, how is evil defeated?
- The love of gold is described as "a sickness of the mind." How is greed a sickness? What in the Bible would confirm this as truth? Or challenge the idea?
- Bilbo reveals that he is homesick but that is exactly why he continues on the quest: "That's where I belong. That's home. That's why I came back to help. You don't have a home. It was taken from you." How does having a home (earthly and heavenly) actually move you to help those without one?
- How do you see the motif of light and darkness in this film?
The Family Corner
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images. Take the rating seriously. Some may consider bringing older children who've liked the book, but The Hobbit is filmed in the style of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy—often dark, scary and violent. Several orcs and goblins are beheaded. Many characters are cut, stabbed, and killed. One dwarf's head (a good guy) is triumphantly held aloft on the battlefield. Some humor is a bit crude with belching gags and a play on words with "balls."
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