Middle-Earth and Back Again

A Review of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

The-Hobbit-An-Unexpected--010Eleven years ago, fans of The Lord of the Rings besieged cinemas, many of them caped, cloaked, and bedecked with odd prosthetics, to see their beloved books come to life onscreen. Those nerds among us who have loved J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction since childhood found ourselves vindicated as millions of latecomers jumped on the bandwagon of Peter Jackson’s adaptation, which promoted Tolkien from a cult classic author to a cultural icon. (I’ll never forget the edition of Bill Amend’s newspaper cartoon strip, “Foxtrot,” in which teenage Paige discovers that “there are Lord of the Rings books now, too?”)

But the generation that watched those films, bought those action figures, played those games and—hopefully—read those novels has grown up, gone to college and become altogether more serious about life. Ironic, then, that the long-awaited motion picture prequel to Jackson’s first trilogy should look to perhaps the least adult-targeted work in Tolkien’s library: “The Hobbit.”

In a time when filmmakers are deliberately pushing for an ever “darker and grittier feel,” and with audiences already wed to the medieval-“Saving Private Ryan” look of the previous films set in Middle-earth, would a glorified (if walloping good) bedtime story really fly?

Personally, I was very skeptical, even dismissive, when I heard the news that “The Hobbit” had finally gotten a green light for the silver screen. I believed that this story, like C. S. Lewis’s recently besmirched Chronicles of Narnia, simply did not lend itself to the motion picture medium. An entire chapter devoted to a game of riddles seemed about as likely to translate well on camera as the oddly paced, episodic, yet wonderful “Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

But as excitement built over the ensuing months, I began to get my hopes up. And now, after donning my elf ears and catching the midnight premiere, I can admit that “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” did not let me down.

What worked

(WARNING: Spoilers ahead.)

The Lord of the Rings this is not, as astute fans of Tolkien could have told you. But if a return to the Shire, Rivendell, and Weathertop, or appearances from Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen and the rest—not to mention Peter Jackson in the director’s chair and Howard Shore’s soaring score—don’t make the whole thing feel like coming home again, you’ve been smoking too much pipeweed.

What’s familiar makes it resonate instantly. The first scenes in Hobbiton and Bilbo’s home, Bag End, complete with Frodo and the hubbub of an approaching eleventy-first birthday bash feel like Christmas morning. And as the film seamlessly rewinds 60 years, grafting Martin Freeman into the role of a younger Bilbo, it just gets better. Beloved scenes of riotous mischief adapted beautifully from the book might have audiences wanting to just cancel the movie and recline by the crackling fire of hobbitish hospitality for 166 minutes.

But there’s an adventure to be had, and about the time Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield begins crooning a Dwarvish lament for lost treasure in his haunting baritone, you get a feel for the scale of what’s to come.

As soon as the journey begins, alternate spates of gravity and humor set the pace, and make it clear that Jackson and his crew (unlike others I could name) have an enormous respect for the fantasy source material they’re working with.

In contrast with The Lord of the Rings—which, though treated well, suffered a good deal of compression and cutting—“The Hobbit” takes its merry time, exploring nearly every crevice available in Tolkien’s prose and even sifting through some of the hidden treasures in his famous notes and appendices.

But the whole picture really starts to shine during the scene that most closely ties The Hobbit with the story to come—and which I most expected to sabotage the book’s motion picture potential. Bilbo’s famous match of wits in the dark with Gollum, rather than subtracting tension or trivializing that moment in the history of Middle-Earth, actually surpassed the rest of the movie. Andy Serkis’s irksome imp (whom we all secretly know is kind of cute) looked even more convincing and perverse than ever—and gained a grip on my emotions he didn’t achieve a decade ago.

What didn’t work

Despite delighting in this first installment of The Hobbit series, I also found much of it unnecessary, and some moments downright disappointing. At times, the satirical spirit trespassed all reasonable boundaries and embarked on rampages that seemed calculated to kill the movie.

Kitschy character design among the goblins left me feeling like I was watching Cartoon Network. Perhaps worse was the treatment Gandalf’s fellow Istari, Radagast the Brown, received. Described by Tolkien as a reclusive, nature-loving wizard, Radagast is reduced in this film to a gibbering, elfin nincompoop, encrusted with bird feces, who rides a sleigh pulled by gigantic rabbits. I can only compare the image to an awkward cross between Father Chistmas and a leprechaun that is supposed to be adorable but just gets annoying.

Since I had always imagined Radagast as the mysterious, Middle-Earth equivalent to St. Francis of Assisi, I hope Jackson does something to redeem his dignity in the next film.

“The Hobbit” also suffered from a catastrophic overreliance on computer-generated imagery. While it’s not alone in this, it disappoints more in contrast with The Lord of the Rings’ faultless special effects.

Throw in a cringe-worthy chase sequence through the goblin underground, the obligatory Wilhelm scream, and some obvious grandstanding for the 3-D crowd, and much of “An Unexpected Journey” left room for improvement.

What was perfect

“The Hobbit,” as I hinted earlier, might belong in a different genre entirely from its more famous and sober successor. In a lot of ways, Middle-earth “grows up” in the 60 canonical years separating the two works, and perhaps more importantly, in the mind of their author. “The Hobbit” has always occupied a warm place in the hearts of children whose parents read it to them before bed. The Lord of the Rings tends to attract the teenagers who have begun to see that life is serious and often dangerous business.

That Peter Jackson resisted the temptation to mature “The Hobbit” to match his previous films’ tone and style deserves applause. And to the delight of longtime fans, the hints of Christian light breaking through what Tolkien called his “deeply Catholic story” survive the transition to celluloid and shine all the brighter. As in the book, gold-lust betides woe, and Gollum’s desperation for the One Ring reminds us of how the sinful heart loves its own imprisonment.

Perhaps the most poignant moment occurs when Bilbo, invisible with the Ring on his finger, prepares to slay Sméagol and escape the creature’s lair. But as he draws back his blade to strike, tears of anguish start to break from his foe’s lamplike eyes. Seeing this, Bilbo relents, gripped (like the audience) by profound pity. The scene prefigures Gandalf’s words decades later, when the wizard cautions Frodo not to thoughtlessly deal out death in judgment.

And when asked why he chose Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf replies with an invented line that I think Tolkien would have approved: “Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I’ve found. I’ve found it is the small things, every act of normal folk that keeps the darkness of at bay—simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”

What’s next?

By the end of nearly three hours, I felt like I had just watched a short film. I wanted more, and certainly wasn’t interested in waiting a year to see it. That, I suppose, bespeaks success better than anything else.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is far from perfect. But while it may have unnecessary warts (mostly on the goblins) and too little material stretched over too much film, it has undeniably preserved the spirit of Tolkien’s original. Spot-on acting, breathtaking visuals, an engrossing story and obvious affection for that wonderful little book so many of us loved as children make this film, if not quite the soul-shaping experience The Lord of the Rings was, a joy to watch.

Image copyright New Line Cinema.

G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.

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