Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), trying to decide if he’ll join the dwarves’ quest to recover their kingdom and their gold, reads the “standard” contract and discovers a clause absolving the dwarves of liability in case of incineration by dragon, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s planned three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel.
I’m not sure how detailed a map of Middle Earth J.R.R. Tolkien had drawn in his head when he sat down to write The Hobbit or how deeply he expected to explore the terrain or how minutely he planned to chronicle its history. I believe he had the stories that became The Lord of the Rings percolating but I don’t know if he yet knew where he would take them or where they would take him. But The Hobbit is written as if he meant it as a one-off. And it’s written for a different audience than the trilogy would be aimed at. The Hobbit is a children’s book, with plenty of nods and winks to adults who might be reading along and aloud. In fact, the primary intended audience sometimes seems to be adults reading it at bedtime and Tolkien seems to be directing them on how to tell the story. At any rate, it’s meant to be read out loud (but not loudly), and that’s how I got to know Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Gray, Gollum, Smaug, Thorin Oakenshield, the Shire, the Lonely Mountain, and the less terrifying precincts of Middle Earth west of Mordor. One night, when I was ten and we were on vacation on Cape Cod, in a back room of the house we were renting, with the black ocean spreading out towards a chain of lights on the horizon that was all we could see of Provincetown across the bay, Pop Mannion started to read to us The Hobbit.
I can still hear Pop reading the song the dwarves sing as they clean up after helping themselves to a supper that cleans out Bilbo’s pantries, cupboards, cellars, and larders (and how Hobbit-like is it that Bilbo’s house must be described in terms of pantries, cupboards, cellars, and larders plural?) :
Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates—
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat!
Splash the wine on every door!
Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl;
Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you’ve finished if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!
And because that song in Pop’s voice is still in my ears, I can tell you that that scene, where Thorin Oakenshield’s company takes over Bilbo’s house for the night, or at least that part of the scene, is one of the many things Peter Jackson got very right in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of what will eventually be a three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s book.
Whether you’ll agree with me or not depends on how your father or your mother or your big brother or sister or your teacher or you read it to you.
Ok. It’s too long. Two hours and forty-nine minutes, and that only brings us to page 122 of my edition of the book. (That’s a spoiler. Don’t look it up.) It’s padded. It drags. The pacing is off. The editing is sloppy. Things that should have needed only a single shot, get five. If you remember the book well, you’ll wonder why things you know are going to happen are taking so long to happen. If you don’t remember from the book, you’ll wonder what everybody’s waiting around for. The first visit to Rivendell isn’t dream-like, it’s soporific. It’s good to see Hugo Weaving as Elrond again but Jackson asks nothing of Cate Blanchett making a return appearance as Galadriel but that she stand there radiating light while he seems to expect we’ll respond to this vision with more awe and reverence than Bernadette showed at Lourdes.
Scenes and images and lines of dialog meant to evoke and foreshadow episodes from The Lord of the Rings seem only to repeat them. Most of the dwarves are interchangeable. The stone giants look and fight like Rock’em Sock’em Robots. Worst of all, the trolls are a botch, their scene played for laughs that just aren’t there.
I loved it. My family had to drag me out of the theater or I’d have sat straight through it again. I can’t wait to go back.
Like I said, much will depend on what from your first reading of The Hobbit you still hear in your heads, but if you go and are watching anything on the screen instead of Martin Freeman, you aren’t watching the movie.
The first smart thing Jackson did in making The Hobbit was cast Freeman as Bilbo and he and Freeman together have taken a long first step towards making Bilbo not just the hero of this trilogy but one of the heroes of the next one. I should say the previous one, but I suspect in the future fans won’t think of them that way.
I think that there’s a good chance, assuming that the next two movies aren’t just more of the same, that Freeman will be to the Lord of the Rings what Ewan McGregor is now to the original Star Wars, a star presence both felt and missed. Maybe even more so. I think it’s the case that Obi-wan is now McGregor’s Obi-wan and he isn’t playing a young Alec Guinness in the prequels, Guinness is playing an old Ewan McGregor in the sequels. Bilbo is now Freeman’s Bilbo, and although I don’t think audiences mind at all that it’s Guinness as the old Obi-wan, in the future, poor Ian Holm will probably disappoint audiences by not being Martin Freeman in a white wig. I’m not sure what effect it’ll have on audiences’ feelings about Elijah Wood’s Frodo, but probably they’ll be saying to themselves, “Bilbo would have handled that one better.”
I don’t feel I’m expressing my admiration for Freeman glowingly enough. How’s this?
Freeman is on his way to being to fantasy-adventure epics what Daniel Day-Lewis is to historical dramas.
And Andy Serkis is his Tommy Lee Jones.
I’ll try to rein it in.
Freeman’s Bilbo is very much a hobbit divided against himself. Gandalf has volunteered him for the dwarves’ quest on the grounds that he is a Took on his mother’s side and from her has inherited a taste and a talent for adventure. But he thinks of himself as his father’s son, a Baggins of Bag End, and from that side of the family he’s inherited as a principle a love for staying at home and minding one’s own business. But we can see the argument between the two sides of him going on in his head. It’s there in his eyes, whatever he’s up to, a look of self-accusation coupled with self-doubt. The Took in him pushes him forward. The Baggins holds him back. But whichever side is winning at the moment, the other is there watching with angry disapproval.
It’s not just in his eyes. It’s in his whole body. When he runs, his legs, pure Took, are well-ahead of his Baggins shoulders and it’s a contest---is the Took going to pull him onward or will the Baggins haul him back? It turns out, both sides win, and that’s what saves him and his friends time and time again. The bold and adventurous Took in him takes him into situations where he’s needed to be a hero and the practical Baggins in him then figures out how best to get out of it. This makes him both brave and smart. He is the thinking-est Hobbit around and it’s why it takes four Hobbits to take his place in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo or Sam or Merry or Pippin pick up a sword---or in Sam’s case a frying pan---it’s emotional. They’re reacting out of love or fear or outrage and there’s a desperate, forlorn hope to their charges into battle. But Bilbo never makes a move that isn’t intended to get him safely back to Bag’s End.
The roots of his heroism are his intelligence, his courage, and his complete and principled determination not to have to be a hero. Freeman’s Bilbo is a swashbuckler in spite of himself.
He’s also funny.
There’s much more lightheartedness and humor in The Hobbit than in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which is a matter of course. But while there are plenty of jokes, wisecracks, and moments of slapstick, the wit and the truest laughs belong to Freeman. His timing is brilliant and he can put a spin on any line or find a bump or a groove in it and make it sound as scathing, as revealing, and as full of irony as Hamlet’s best one-liners, keeping in mind that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s best and most ruthless comedian and that I’m inclined to exaggerate for emphasis.
As was probably clear up above, The Hobbit is a special book in my memory because it’s also a special event in my life. And as such it lives in my heart apart from The Lord of the Rings, which I read on my own only a couple of years later, all three books in a week when I was home sick from school, which makes them a different, separate special event. If I’d never read a word by J.R.R. Tolkien after Bilbo handed Gandalf the tobacco jar, The Hobbit would still be as wonderful and important in my memory and I’d have no inkling I was missing out on anything or that my understanding of the story was incomplete. I would never have known that the most important scene---as opposed to the best scene, which it happens to be---was Bilbo’s pocketing of the ring.
This is an accident of circumstance, but it’s possible because The Hobbit doesn’t present itself as a prequel. It’s complete unto itself, without even an implied To be continued at the end. If the narrator knows he’s telling the first chapter of a much longer story to come, he doesn’t let on. So I would guess that this is where a lot of young readers have stopped, with Bilbo safe at home, his armor donated to the museum, Sting hung up over the mantle, and the ring a secret treasure put well out of the way, and it’s only adventurous readers with some Took in them who find their way back to the Shire to start reading The Fellowship of the Ring.
At least, I would guess this is the way it went until Peter Jackson came along.
The novel The Hobbit stood and can still stand on its own in a way the movie was never going to be able to. The primary audience for the movie is fans of Jackson’s trilogy. Jackson had to take into account that most of the people buying tickets for The Hobbit would be expecting to see a prequel. That didn’t mean he had to make it as prequel. He could have made it as if it was simply an adaptation of The Hobbit as Tolkien originally published it, as a story complete unto itself. But that’s not what he decided to do. The thing is, he apparently decided not to make it as a prequel either.
What he’s doing is finishing his Lord of the Rings movie by finally getting around to making the beginning.
A lot of what happens in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t there to advance the plot of Bilbo’s adventures but to set up the story and the themes of The Lord of the Rings. So, much of what feels like padding and is padding is intended as exposition and much of what looks like recapitulation is meant to be introduction. It helps, then, if you know where Jackson’s going but can make yourself forget you’ve already been there.
Note, I called Jackson’s Lord of the Rings a movie, singular. Remember he filmed them all of a piece and they can be watched---if you have the time and the endurance---all at one go. And Jackson intends that in the future the marathon will begin with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. At the moment most people are finding their way to The Hobbit by way of (a long way around now. It’s hard to believe The Fellowship was released eleven years ago!) The Lord of the Rings. But it won’t be long before most people are finding their way into The Lord of the Rings by way of The Hobbit: There and Back Again.
Jackson has set up some big challenges for himself. First, he has to compete with Tolkien again. But, second, this time out he has to compete with himself, a tough order, because there was no way he could top his most significant achievement in The Lord of the Rings, bringing Middle Earth to life on the screen. And here’s where I think Jackson has been very smart. He hasn’t tried to top himself here because he knows---or hopes---that future audiences will see him as topping himself in there, that is, in The Lord of the Rings.
I, seeing The Hobbit in 2012, might be a bit disappointed in Goblin-Town because I can’t help comparing it to the Mines of Moria, but my grandchildren in 2032 will see Moria as an intensification of what went on in Goblin-Town.
Then there’s the problem of style and tone. Tolkien’s Hobbit is a very different kind of book from his Lord of the Rings, and not just in its being a children’s book. The Hobbit is told as if it’s a folktale or a fairy tale and Bilbo’s literary brothers and sisters include Simple, Jack the Giant Killer, Aladdin, Snow White, and Belle. The Lord of the Rings is modeled on the great epics and romances. Aragorn is pretty much a reiteration of King Arthur. And, never mind the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are comedies. They work their way towards weddings and “they all lived happily ever after” while the endings of epics and romances are usually something along the lines of “…and the good king died.”
And The Hobbit is a treasure hunt while The Lord of the Rings is a chase. Treasure hunts don’t always have happy endings, but most do and that makes them intrinsically hopeful. And while chases often end with the characters you’re rooting for to get away getting way, the possibility that they won’t gives the chases an air of dread. Jackson has set himself the job of being true to the spirit and story of Tolkien’s The Hobbit while making it fit together with his own version of The Lord of the Rings. He appears to be going about this by slowly blending the one into the other and we won’t know how well this is working until probably at least halfway through the next installment, The Desolation of Smaug. In An Unexpected Journey, it’s only just begun to be sorted out.
There’s one more problem Jackson’s inherited from Tolkien. There just aren’t enough interesting characters to fill out an epic. Besides Bilbo, there’s Gandalf, Gollum, and Smaug, and that’s about it. Unless you count the trolls, Tom, Bert, and William. I’ve never been a fan of Beorn but he’s not in An Unexpected Journey, anyway, and Smaug’s big scenes are yet to come. Which gives Jackson only a handful of performances to build his movie around.
Freeman carries the day, as I’ve said. But Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is a welcome, reassuring, and grounding presence. And Andy Serkis has done a fine job of showing us Gollum before he was changed by the loss of the Ring. Here he’s a more confident, happier creature---happy being a relative and subjective term---driven more by whim and malice and appetite than by obsession and hate. He’s less wheedling, less cringing, more clever in some ways but because he’s not focused on anything in particular except his next meal, more manipulatable than manipulative. Otherwise…
A little of Sylvester McCoy’s dotty wizard Radagast the Brown goes a long way and unfortunately we don’t get a little of him. Barry Humphries’ Great Goblin is amusing, to a point, but that point gets crossed quickly. And as I said, most of the dwarves are interchangeable. This might get fixed over the course of the next two films, but in this one Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman as Kili and Fili stand out only by being twin stand-ins for Legolas, Ken Stott’s Balin is the wise old man who has seen too much but still can’t help hoping, and James Nesbitt gets laughs as the company’s resident wiseacre, ironist, and happy-go-lucky fatalist.
No, I haven’t forgotten him.
Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves.
It’s curious to contemplate, but Richard Armitage may be establishing himself as a romantic male lead by playing a character close to two feet shorter than he is in real life and a few hundred years older. As Thorin, he is bold, energetic, commanding, firm of purpose, dashing and even handsome in a grim and glowering way, every bit the king he was born to be, except in his lack of humility and in his being unable to separate his pride from his responsibility. And if the blending of The Hobbit into The Fellowship of the Ring is underway, it’s happening through Thorin, who’s looking to be the thematic precursor to Boromir, the heroic captain of Gondor who comes tragically close to betraying Frodo and taking the Ring from him. Boromir thinks he wants the ring to save his people. What he wants is the glory of having saved them. Boromir’s sin is mixing up duty with ambition. It must be remembered that the Ring doesn’t corrupt by putting ideas into anyone’s head. It corrupts by offering the ambitious the power to realize desires already at work corrupting them. Hobbits are resistant---but not immune---because they are naturally less ambitious than other folk. But ambition, vanity, and the desire for power are corruptions that don’t need the Ring to wreak their havoc. In An Unexpected Journey, the other dwarves are in a comic folktale. But Armitage makes us feel the gravity of his anger and ambition pulling them into his tragedy.
One of the themes of Tolkien’s The Hobbit is Bilbo’s resistance to that pull. It will be interesting to see how that works itself out in Jackson’s next two installments.
So…again, yes. There’s too much there there. Enough to make me wish that the DVD includes an un-extended edition. But amidst the clutter and confusion, what’s also there, in spirit and essence, is The Hobbit, mainly but not exclusively in the person of Martin Freeman, and that’s enough for me. It carried me back to the book and to the Shire and to that night on Cape Cod and to the moment when Pop Mannion began to read:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort…
Only this time I know what’s coming and that the best scene, which is the best scene, is also the most important scene…
Viewers advisory: We saw the movie in 2D shown at the old-fashioned rate of 24 frames per second. 3D gives me headaches and there’s no IMAX version showing nearby. But from what I’ve gathered from reading reviews and comments elsewhere, I think the 2D version may be best. What about you?
There and back (to the blog) again: In case you missed it, here’s a post from 2010 that’s sort of a prequel to my review, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Middle Earth.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson, screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Barry Humphries, Sylvester McCoy, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Now in theaters.