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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

January 6, 2013
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

And so it begins: Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was always more of a children’s story than an epic, and for the most part this comes across in the film. Still, they’ve punched up all the action and battle scenes they can find to the point that it does start to feel a tad bloated, but personally I can deal with the occasional dip into mediocrity as long as none of it is outright bad.

And they need a fair amount of padding to bulk the single novel up to three full three-hour movies — as long as the full preceding series. It starts off at the beginning, with a quick coverage of the history of Erebor — the Sindarin name for the old dwarven enclave known to men by a name commonly translated as “The Lonely Mountain” — which Tolkien fans will remember from the Unfinished Tales and some other passages from the History of Middle Earth as an expansion on the backstory of the dwarfs of the Lonely Mountain. And then there’s a tie-in to The Lord of the Rings itself, as the nearly-111-year-old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) composes his memoir to his adoptive heir Frodo (Elijah Wood). There’s going to be a lot of tie-ins, by the way, many of which are seriously bulked-up from the novel.

Only then do we get to the familiar opening lines, properly introducing the titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), at a spry fifty years of age. Content in his home in Bag End, he is somewhat visited by Gandalf (Ian McKellan), whom he vaguely remembers for his fireworks at celebrations in years past. That evening, he receives a number of other unexpected guests: thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) forming a company to reclaim their ancestral home. The list of the others is a bit long to unseat reindeer or that other company of dwarfs as a memory test, and few are distinguished as independent characters in the film: brothers Dwalin and Balin; brothers Kíli and Fíli, who are nephews to Thorin; brothers Dori, Nori, and Ori; brothers Óin and Glóin; and Bifur and his cousins, brothers Bofur, and Bombur.

The story follows the book fairly closely, especially for having nine hours to cover the whole thing in. At every possible point, an offhand reference is expanded into a set piece, and the adaptation takes pains to tie the story into The Lord of the Rings, presumably because at this point that property is better-known through its movies. Yes, the company do meet Elrond (Hugo Weaving) who helps them read their map, but the presence of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and their conference with Gandalf is wholly new to the movie.

And, in a way, this represents a major departure from the way that I and many others first experienced these stories, with The Hobbit as a lighter, more self-contained children’s story — a fantasy fairy-tale that contained some few hints at a much larger and deeper world beyond its borders, which a hooked young reader could later explore in the epic legend of The Lord of the Rings. The inversion is understandable; it would likely have been much more difficult to fund The Hobbit as a lead-in movie, if only because the economics of writing and filmmaking are so different. And yet it necessarily changes the way this movie feels.

On the other hand, this reaction has a lot to do with my own experience with Tolkien’s writing. Like everyone else in my generation I’m convinced that episodes one, two, and three of Star Wars now ruin the impact of the climactic scene of The Empire Strikes Back, but it seems that kids who were raised on those movies in their “story order” simply process that revelation differently. It’s very possible that for the vast majority of fans whose first introduction to Tolkien was through Peter Jackson’s movies, there is no dissonance at all.

Either way, I can’t deny that the action is exciting, even when — like the “thunder-battle” — it’s thoroughly extraneous. For all his excesses, Jackson brings a true love of, and respect for, Tolkien’s fantasy. I would rather get way too much of that than suffer through the works of filmmakers who toss off the genre as mere silly popcorn-fare.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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