The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

TheHobbitPosterPeter Jackson’s The Hobbit is three more hours (give or take) of Lord of the Rings filmmaking. Whatever that means to you, that is what you get. Beautiful landscapes, rousing adventure? Puffed-up portentousness, constant and obvious CGI? Startling fidelity to a source (at times) and complete, sometimes infuriating divergence (at others)? That is this.

The Lord of the Rings films are some of my favorite movies, some of my favorite 21st century things, regardless of medium. They engage me, and overpower me. I would never argue that they were perfect (though if you find the “why didn’t they just have the eagles fly the ring to Mordor” line of critique convincing, I think you’re kind of a moron, or at least unsuited to the rigors of watching fantasy). Nothing as long and as vast as that trilogy could be perfect – hell, it was like a long military campaign, and however well-planned one of those is, people on the wrong side die. But the blemishes hold no candle to the beauty. And The Hobbit is, for good and ill, more or less the same.

Which raises the immediate problem: for, the book of The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. The tone and intent are different, though in broadest outline they tell much the same story. A most unassuming character achieves greatness, to the surprise of even those who believed in him. He’s different, and can never completely return to his old life.

What separate the stories (beside the bare details) are their tones. The Hobbit is a fun (though often dire) adventure for children, that in its end develops a real sense of resonance because it takes the power of Bilbo’s decency seriously. Whatever larger things happen around Bilbo, he anchors the story. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit spends much more time with those other things – so much that these three hours of movie only get through 100 pages of book (as opposed to 400+ pages of The Fellowship of the Ring in the same amount of time). There’s a necromancer; there’s Radagast the brown, another part of Gandalf’s order; there’s a pale orc pulled from the appendices. There’s a lot of stuff that is not needed to tell the story of The Hobbit, but that sure comes in handy when you’re making The Lord of the Rings: The Prequel.

The Hobbit, as the title implies, is about a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. In one of two (two!) prologues, we see Bilbo played by Ian Holm finishing up his memoirs, and thinking back over old times. The double prologues set up the current trilogy, and bridge the current film with Fellowship, reinforcing the specifically cinematic lineage of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films. Bilbo is a regular hobbit, a normal sort of fellow who takes pride in his normality. No one has stories about Bilbo, and that’s the way he (and hobbits the Shire over) like it.

But Gandalf decides his life needs to be shaken up, and so hires him out to a group of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, looking to reclaim their long-stolen ancestral home from the terrible dragon, Smaug. Gandalf claims that Bilbo is a great burglar, and will happily burgle them into Smaug’s lair. Reluctantly, Bilbo enters into a contract with the dwarves (and there is a contract-signing drama, which I found particularly charming).

To get annoyingly allegorical for a moment, hobbits (the race) are a send-up and a celebration of a way of life – easy, agrarian and rural, but clean. Gardening and farming and being genteel. Consuming tubs of ale without ever getting embarrassingly drunk. Middle-class early 20th century village British life, as Tolkien saw it. A people with a real sense of propriety, even stuffiness. And this is the people that created one of the largest empires in the world and twice in the 20th century fought back the Hun. The point, I think, of all this is that you cannot tell, just from looking at an apparently simple, even silly people, what they are capable of when challenged. Peter Jackson has turned this charming and resonant pastoral into an action epic.

He did much the same with the Lord of the Rings films, but the broader scope of those tales took on the mantle of motion picture epic more readily. The Hobbit doesn’t have such strong shoulders, and the simplicity of Bilbo’s journey means some things are lost. When Frodo makes his decision to take the ring to Mordor, it is heartbreaking. When Bilbo decides to journey on, it is…kind of rousing, but there isn’t the same feeling. Never is this more apparent than in the post-climactic scene, where Thorin (spoilers? I suppose) finally accepts Bilbo into his company, and praises his courage, but all the emotion feels forced.

All of which seems to add up to a negative review – but no. See The Hobbit, if you loved Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. It has the same intelligence and audacity in the adaptation, and the long scene between Gollum and Bilbo, where the ring is first found, is mesmerizing, beautifully staged and realized, and close (though not exactly so) to the book. And, though much of what happens is unsurprising, the stone giant battle that takes place on the dwarves’ mountain pass is awe-inspiring, a demonstration of Peter Jackson’s visualizing skills at their apex.

It is not an unreserved triumph. It is, more than any film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, one-third of a story. In two years, we will see if the longeurs about the Necromancer and the White Council and Radagast were worth it. But Jackson’s Middle-earth is a warmly realized, literally wonderful place to visit. I want to do so again.
Rating: B

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