Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)


“All great tales deserve embellishment,” opines Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a statement that as much as anything in the film sums up the guiding principle behind the first part of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy adventure, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Embellishment is not always a bad thing and can help elucidate truth, which is what Gandalf is trying to get at in his tale about Bilbo’s great-great-great-grand-uncle, Bullroarer Took and the invention of the game of golf. I don’t take a great deal of issue with Jackson’s desire to stretch Tolkien’s young adult novel over three films. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is a rich enough setting to deserve such exhaustive treatment. If I think of this film as more of a prequel to Jacksons’ Lord of the Rings trilogy, rather than purely as an adaption of the novel, it sits much better. The accusations of betrayal and anger from some quarters strike me as a rehash of the Star Wars prequel debates of the last decade, something I’d rather not relive here.

Still, I think that even in this brief, informal critical appraisal it is okay to state that An Unexpected Journey does fall short of the greatness of the Lord of the Rings films, though not grievously so. Part of the reason why it does is the relationship to nature of the source material; another is where Jackson and company chooses to add embellishment.

Firstly, The Hobbit, the novel by Tolkien, as a tale is focused primarily on a specific adventure undertaken for money. The objective is simple: retrieve gold from the dragon, Smaug. The reality is that the stakes are lower than in The Lord of the Rings. I think there is an idea that audiences have a hard time scaling back expectations. It is always a move to something bigger, more intense. Thus, I can understand why, from a storytelling standpoint, in order to justify the epic treatment of the material, screenwriters Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh, decide to “raise the stakes” so to speak (Guillermo del Toro, a favourite filmmaker of mine, worked on the early drafts of the film, but I have no idea how closely it hews to his vision).

The film version of the story is given two prologues before we even get to “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” First we are treated to the story of Erebor, a dwarf kingdom of great wealth and the coming of Smaug and the diaspora of the dwarves across Middle-Earth. After that we are re-acquainted with Ian Holm as the aged Bilbo, writing down the tale of his adventures for his nephew Frodo, with Elijah Wood reprising his role from the Lord of the Rings.

The second frame-narrative prologue makes sense in the context of The Hobbit as a prequel to the earlier Jackson films, but by the time Bilbo puts those immortal words to the page, I was already getting impatient to get on with the adventure proper. I’m sure that the actors such as Elijah Wood were more than pleased to reprise their roles, but it adds very little to the film and only prolongs the meeting with Gandalf and the dwarves. Incidentally, the prologue fits chronologically just before the “Long Expected Party” that kicks off The Fellowship of the Ring. Still, it’s a nice call back to the original films, which in the short decade that separates The Hobbit from them have become about as close as we have to “contemporary classics.”

The first prologue, elaborating on Erebor and featuring the deaths of Thorin Oakenshield’s (Richard Armitage) kin, seems to me to be in the wrong place. It’s an attempt to give the dwarves a sense of grandeur about them (in the Lord of the Rings, Gimli is mostly played for laughs), and to turn their quest into an effort to recapture a lost kingdom seems to be a pale imitation of Aragorn’s journey to reclaim the throne of Gondor. It also serves to make the dwarves less dwarvish, and more like smaller versions of humans. It robs them of their particularity as a race. These efforts to instill Thorin with a sense of seriousness continue with the fact that he arrives after the other dwarves at Bilbo’s hole, not partaking in the more light-hearted aspects of their visit to Bilbo. Giving him an arc in which he at first doubts Bilbo’s abilities and then learns to appreciate him for his strengths turns him into a second-rate Boromir.

It’s a different emphasis from Tolkien’s characterization of Thorin. My complaint about making the dwarves the human stand-ins, in a company made up in this film of a wizard, a hobbit, and 13 dwarves, is that for Tolkien, it is the hobbits that are the human avatars for English country folk. It is the disruption to Bilbo’s staid, comfortable life that offers the dramatic arc, not the dwarves’ quest to reclaim their lost homeland. The change of emphasis will definitely play out interestingly in later installments.

If it seems like I’m nitpicking it is simply the importance of these stories to my own imagination and the strange feeling of disliking aspects of the film. However, my efforts to parse just what it was that rubbed me wrong about the adaptation shouldn’t take away from the rest of the film. The moments that are best in the film remind me of how good Jackson’s Middle-Earth films are when they are really good. Particularly, the return to Rivendell rekindled in me the atmosphere of high fantasy and also has one of the moments where I think the embellishments are going to pay off and be quite interesting.

The meeting of the high council, between Gandalf, Radagast, Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel, in which they discuss the Necromancer who has taken up residence in Dol Goldur and any possible connection to Sauron, has me excited for the expansion of what is only hinted at in Tolkien’s novel. Strangely, it reminds me of the best fan fiction, where we can explore characters we love in new or hinted at situations, rather than wholly reimagining them. Cate Blanchett manages to remind me of how well she can portray the elvish nature of Galadriel. Christopher Lee’s Saruman is a treat as always.

Jackson has certainly not forgotten how to direct an action sequence, with the sequence in the goblin hall a stand out, but the film could probably have cut two orc battles (particularly the one just before the Rivendell sequence, where Radagast attempts to lead them away from the group; enough has been written by others, but suffice to say it is a low point in the film for its silliness, and the special effects seem to lack a kind of physics or sense – note, I didn’t see the film in the new HFR 3D, so I will avoid much comment on that aspect which Aren and Anton will cover in a later piece).

As many have noted, the section of the film based on the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” is a particular stand out. Andy Serkis as Gollum once again delivers some of the most memorable moments in the film, and Martin Freeman’s Bilbo manages to communicate the conflict within him at the moment that he decides to spare Gollumn’s life. The only complaint in the whole sequence is the strange decision to have Bilbo witness Gollum dropping the Ring, changing the nature of his “riddle” to Gollum; it is particularly strange in how it contradicts the portrayal of the scene in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, especially in a film that has gone out of its way to emphasize the connections to the earlier films.

All in all, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an enjoyable experience. I think many fans of Jackson’s earlier films will relish the chance to revisit his version of Middle-Earth over the next couple of Christmases. Despite my reservations about the film as an adaptation of Tolkien’s book, so do I.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien; starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, and Ian Holm.

8 out of 10