The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey–Movie Review

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4 Stars

I went to see Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Hobbit (IMDB) with some trepidation. Much of the scuttlebutt that I had heard was fairly negative. However I was pleasantly surprised. Judged on it’s own terms, as a fantasy-adventure movie, standing on its own without reference to the source, this is actually pretty good.

Much of the controversy centers on Jackson’s decision to split J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1-volume novel into three parts. This is just Part 1. After all, Jackson earlier adapted the three volumes of Tolkien’s sequel The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) into just three movies (IMDB1, IMDB2, IMDB3).

Jackson’s goal is to expand The Hobbit, originally a simpler and less ambitious story, into a epic comparable to LOTR (though with more humor.) This is clearly perilous.

Peter Jackson is obviously a Tolkien fan and his adaptations follow the novels more closely than the usual movie adaptation of a novel does. This may or may not be a good thing. You can’t just film a novel line by line. The media are just too different. You have to make changes and attempting to follow the novel too closely may make the changes even more disconcerting to fans of the novel.

The movie version of The Hobbit turns out to be quite similar to the LOTR movies (though funnier). Once again we have stunning scenery, great special effects, grotesque monsters, bloody battles, noble elves, awkward hobbits, boastful dwarves and a wise old wizard who seems a bit too full of himself.

The big difference between the Hobbit movies and the LOTR movies is that a lot of material had to be cut from LOTR while with The Hobbit a lot of material needs to be added to fill out three movies. For the most part Jackson takes things that happened off-stage in the novel, which were originally described in a few sentences, and actually shows them to the audience. In particular it looks like we are going to see a complete dramatization of the White Council’s campaign against the Necromancer of Dol Guldur (which might risk overshadowing the main story about Bilbo’s quest with the dragon.)

You may or may not be a fan of Tolkien’s writing style but I think most people would agree that his writing has a certain resonance and vision which is hard for the average Hollywood screenwriter to match. When the LOTR movies deviated from the original text the result was often cringe-worthy. The characters just didn’t sound right or they did things that didn’t make sense. That being the case, how bad are the additions to The Hobbit?

I can’t make a final judgement having seen only the first movie, but so far they aren’t too bad.

1) There is a long leisurely prologue that introduces the Middle-Earth and the background of the story. People have complained about this but I think it is actually a good thing. Someone who has never read the novels or seen the other movies should be able to watch The Hobbit and have no trouble understanding what’s going on–no small feat with a world as complex as Tolkien’s.

2) We see a lot of Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a gentle nature wizard who is mentioned in the books but never actually appears in them. I think these scenes are terrific, a great addition.

3) The meeting of the White Council in Rivendell is the weakest addition. It stops the action without accomplishing much. Also I think Jackson misses a bet by making Saruman (Christopher Lee) too obviously evil. At this point in the story he should be basically good; perhaps just starting to be was already corrupted, but easily able to conceal it from his friends. By not showing us a glimpse of the original noble and good Saruman, Jackson misses the chance to show us the true tragedy of the character.

The best performance is by Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo, who actually comes off as more decent and likable than the character in the novel. The second-best performance has to be that of Andy Serkis as Gollum, perfectly depicting a creature who is both frightening and pitiful.

One warning: I would not recommend this movie for young children even though it is based on a children’s book. It is violent and scary enough that I think age 10 is probably the absolute minimum. Still I’m not sure that Tolkien would have disapproved.

When he wrote The Hobbit in the 1930’s there were such things as adult fantasy stories but they tended to be obscure and disreputable, usually published in sleazy pulp magazines. It was natural for him to write the story as a children’s book with a simplified vocabulary and a whimsical tone like an adult talking to a small child.

The book sold well but he was disappointed by the reaction of his own children. They liked the story but hated the patronizing way it was told. He vowed never to write that way again. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings he pulled no punches, using complex language and darker imagery.

Thanks to the success of The Hobbit he was able to find a publisher. LOTR was slow to find its audience but it eventually became a long-term best seller thanks to the support of a few literature professors and hordes of teenage fans. This paved the way for the adult fantasy industry that we know today.

Even if you don’t like Tolkien’s stories (or the thousands of elf-dwarf-halfling-quest imitations) if you like any fantasy novels that are not shelved in the children’s section of the library you should reflect that they are probably there due to his influence.

Incidentally, if you have trouble keeping the 13 dwarves straight, LOTRProject has a handy cheat-sheet. (via. Wired)