Way back when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came out, I meant to write a nice, long analytical review. I even went to a Hobbit movie conference hosted by the Mythgard Institute (Mythmoot 2012) which was one of the best weekends I can remember: Two days of movie discussion, debate, prize awarding, more discussion, music, food, more discussion, great friends, some more food, and did I mention the discussion? After returning home, the Tolkien Professor (organizer of said conference) continued to foster even more discussion through his podcast. I think after a few solid weeks of this I felt as though I had said about as much as I could say, and plum forgot that I had said none of this on my blog. Now, having seen the movie three times (twice in theaters, once on Blu-ray) I think it’s time to finally present my thoughts in written form.
If An Unexpected Journey has a flaw, it is its pacing. There is no question about that. As a film, it fails to live up to the technical achievements that were the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, that which makes it a lesser film may be the very thing which makes it the superior book adaptation. For, surprising purist Tolkien fans the world over, this first installment of The Hobbit movie trilogy was astonishingly faithful, and even catered to fans. Peter Jackson, for better or worse, seems to have thrown the rule book of conventional movie pacing out the window and decided to spend some quality time bringing the details of Tolkien’s books (both The Hobbit and bits of ancillary material from the LOTR Appendices and Unfinished Tales) to life. Who could have predicted that we would get the Dwarves’ dish washing song? The (conveniently nameless) mention of the Blue Wizards? For crying out loud, the golf joke! Any one of these moments could be cut, and from a film-making standpoint they probably should have been. But I know a lot of Tolkien fans who were thrilled to have them anyway.
Miscellaneous fannish details aside, there is much to love in this first installment. First and foremost, for me, was the revelation of Martin Freeman in the titular role of Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit himself. Combining aspects of the four hobbits as portayed in the original trilogy (especially Elijah Wood’s Frodo and Billy Boyd’s Pippin, a fitting acknowldgement to Bilbo’s warring Baggins and Took natures) he yet makes Bilbo more than a rehash or parody of hobbits as we’ve come to know them on screen and makes Bilbo a distinct character in himself. In fact, he helped me fall in love with Bilbo. Coming to The Lord of the Rings first, and having accepted the fact that it will always be my first love, I’ve always struggled to love Bilbo the way I see other readers loving him. Freeman’s perfectly nuanced and fully realized performance showed me why other readers love him as much as they do. Equally adept at comedy and drama, he is capable of being both hilariously funny and exhibit tremendous pathos, and both feel true to the character. If there was ever any doubt, Freeman stakes his claim of the most perfect casting in this award-worthy performance and I’m even more excited to see what he can do as we get further into the meat of the story.
More surprising were the successful characterizations of the Dwarves. I was pleased with the pains the writers and designers took to differentiate them as characters (echoing what Walt Disney did with Snow White’s seven dwarfs back in the 1937. For more on that, see Corey Olsen’s Tolkien Chat with Trish Lambert on comparisons between The Hobbit and Disney’s Snow White). However, in the months before the movie’s release, I worried that too much effort would be given towards giving every dwarf his own “arc,” that in trying to flesh them out Jackson would overcompensate and drown us in dwarvish backstory and angst. Thankfully, the writers struck the perfect balance. Each dwarf is distinct and recognizable, memorably his own person. However, only about half are given true personalities (Thorin, Balin, Fili & Kili, and most surprisingly Bofur) the rest remaining recognizable archetypes (fat cook Bombur, timid scribe Ori) or simply serving as textured background rabble without even the barest dialogue (Dwalin, Nori, Gloin, Oin, Bifur). I couldn’t have asked for a more balanced solution to the problem of the 13 dwarves than the one the filmmakers gave us. I loved the thematic parallels they added between the dwarves’ homelessness and Bilbo’s longing for his home, which I think will open up some fascinating doors in the two subsequent films as Bilbo’s decisions regarding the quest and his role in it become more complex.
One of the most fascinating aspects of any book to film adaptation, of course, are the expanded or “invented” bits, especially ones like the The Hobbit films where the adapted film is much larger than its source material. As I discussed earlier, however, Peter Jackson was never planning to strictly adapt The Hobbit but much of Tolkien’s other works relating to that period of Middle-earth history in order to make the world as consistently with The Lord of the Rings as possible, and understandably so. Therefore, much of the anticipation regarding the movies has surrounded characters who are Tolkien’s in origin but do not appear in the published Hobbit book: Radagast, Thranduil, and the White Council.
To take each in order, I have decidedly mixed feelings regarding Radagast. Despite my professed obsession with Doctor Who have yet to work my way through the Classic Series, and therefore I am new to (7th Doctor) Sylvester McCoy. I can see why Jackson cast him: His eccentricity comes through, and you believe him as a strange little hermit who lives tucked away in the woods, forsaking human company for his animal friends, much like T.H. White’s Merlin in The Sword in the Stone. Appropriate though the whimsy may be, however, I think Jackson perhaps overindulged in the frivolousness of the character, and missed an opportunity to develop Radagast in a more nuanced and interesting direction. For all I’ve heard of McCoy’s Doctor in Doctor Who, he seems to have been one of the more edgy, dangerous portrayals of that character, and I would have like to see some of this darkness and peril come through. We got just a hint of it when he pulls the poison out from Sebastian the Hedgehog (and wasn’t that hilarious?) and in his smack-down of the Witch King, but most of the time he came across as buffoonish. Some of his dialogue such as, “These are Rhosgobel rabbits: I’d like to see them try [to catch me]” were borderline painful. The subsequent warg/bunny chase was even worse, with Radagast leading the orcs in seeming circles around the dwarves, completely defeating the purpose of leading them away from his friends. For someone who normally constructions scenes of action so immaculately, I can’t help but wonder what Jackson was smoking while he was editing that scene.
We were given far less of Thranduil: Indeed, only a few shots in two very small scenes and neither include any dialogue. (We’ll see much more of him in the next two films). I was quite impressed with Lee Pace’s performance in Lincoln, in which he was one of the highlight performances in a film filled with great performances. He can certainly do “haughty,” and he’s turning it on full blast once more for the Elven King. The much-discussed scene of him coming before Thror was interesting concept, and gives us that taste of the otherworldly early on in this very dwarf-heavy film. Before we even see him turn away from the dragon attack, refusing to come to the rescue of the Lonely Mountain, I even had an uneasy feeling about him. Whether he was visiting to swear fealty or merely to pay his respects to another local sovereign, they way his unblinking, crystalline eyes stared up at Thror and his “divinely appointed” Arkenstone had an air of menace. Even though these woodelves are “lower” than the high elves of Rivendell or the Lord and Lady of Lorien, I think it will be interesting if Jackson chooses to emphasize the non-humanity or amorality of Thranduil and his elves. Given the scenes coming up in Mirkwood, which in the book are filled with the trappings of medieval fairy-tales about elves, I would very much enjoy to see this folk tradition portrayed on screen. A suggestion that they may be going this route is Thranduil’s elk mount. While a little jarring to the modern viewer, medieval elves and fairies were frequently portrayed as riding deer, which indicates that the writers/production team have done their research surround European fairy-lore.
Like Radagast, I also have mixed feelings surrounding the White Council and Rivendell scenes. Though it was nice to see a lighter side to Elrond and his elves, some of the humor worked (Ori’s reluctance to eat “green food”) while some of it fell flat for me (the dandyish elven musicians). It felt a little too close to self-parody, and took away from some of the majesty of the LOTR portrayal of the Last Homely House (only really present in Bilbo’s awed whisper, “Rivendell…”). They seem to have wanted to make Rivendell a happy place without resorting to elves singing “Tra la la lally,” but the result was a little clumsy. Similarly, the White Council scene was a curious and not altogether successful mix of humor with high drama. Rather than playing up the dramatic irony of the audience knowing Saruman’s treachery ahead of the other council members, they wasted time on stupid jokes about mushroom consumption. It was nice, however, to see the council members all together (although I wish Radagast was there to complete the set), and the blocking of the scene, with the two wizards seated at the table with the two wandering elves circling them, was quite interesting. I also really appreciated the strange moment at the end when Gandalf comes to himself to realize Galadriel was gone. We discussed this at length at Mythmoot, and in my interpretation she had been gone for a while, with Gandalf left in some sort of trance or meditative state. It serves as a nice parallel with other examples of this in Tolkien’s fiction, notably Beren/Luthien and Thingol/Melian in The Silmarillion. I would be ecstatic to find this was intentional, but even if not I still appreciate the thematic similarity.
Finally, to end with the crowning jewel, no discussion of this film would be complete without the tour de force Riddles in the Dark scene. This is the probably the most famous scene that Tolkien ever wrote. It needed to be perfect, and it was. I can forgive many other oversights in light of the amount of effort Jackson, the writers, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis put into this scene. It was truly scary and truly funny, often both at the same time and in the right measure. Serkis and Weta have created such a special relationship, and the vastly improved motion capture effects (which were pretty amazing 10 years ago) combined with Serkis’ mesmeric performance as Gollum is a simply historic moment in film history. And let’s not overlook Tolkien’s part in this successful scene. It is one of the few scenes of his which does not require or even suggest the need for adaptation: It plays beautifully as a piece of cinematic writing, with the dialogue flowing beautifully between the double-act of Bilbo and Gollum. As Jackson directed it, they actually filmed this scene continuously without breaks, much like a play, allowing the acting and the writing to excel. Though not every single riddle was included, most were and it was a joy to hear them spoken on screen. As a friend at Mythmoot pointed out, often treacherous Gollum (stinker) would ask the questions while playful Smeagol (slinker) would answer them, an inspired use of the split personality they’d previously established on screen. For all Andy Serkis’ usual brilliance, Freeman kept up with him, showing himself his absolute equal. The final moment in which Bilbo makes the decision to spare Gollum’s life after seeing his pathetic misery, the single most important decision any character in any Tolkien story ever makes, was fittingly poignant and momentous. The accidental kick in the face as Bilbo leaps over Gollum was a nice touch, physicalizing Gollum’s misunderstanding of Bilbo’s behavior as malicious and insulting. Flaws and all, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is worth watching if only for the triumph of this climactic scene, although thankfully for many other reasons as well.
If this fairly sizable review isn’t a large enough meal for you hobbit fanciers, I suggest listening to the three, count ’em three, hour long Riddles in the Dark post-release podcast. Although the purpose was to tally the results of the prediction game, the participants find time to cover every minute aspect of the film in exquisite detail, as well as expound on their philosophies of successful film adaptation. For the die hard fan of Tolkien and the script to screen adaptation process it’s a must-listen. To finish, I’ll just say that, along with Corey Olsen, I see Jackson’s Tolkien movies as a net gain, and although flawed have done wonderful things as ambassadors for Tolkien’s work and bringing these stories to a wider audience. Though I don’t necessarily think we need an extended edition of this particular installment, I nevertheless look forward to its release for the little gems it includes plus the extended making-of documentaries (the Appendices of the LOTR movies being, in my opinion, the greatest DVD special features of all time). I also enjoyed the movie enough to be great anticipating the next two installments. Let’s meet up for more discussion in the run-up to The Desolation of Smaug. Bring on the dragon!