With an $84.8 million debut last weekend, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey tells the story of a hobbit who goes on an adventure with thirteen dwarves and a wizard to reclaim a mountain and its treasure from a fire-breathing dragon. Based on a book initially written for his children, The Hobbit is the prequel which shaped Tolkien’s signature style in The Lord of the Rings epic. Though obviously prolonged to three separate movies in order to gain maximum profit from fans, the movie is a mixture of storylines from The Hobbit and the Unfinished Tales, a posthumous collection of incomplete stories which try to fill in the unexplained gaps of Middle Earth’s history.
The movie has a rocky start, where Jackson tries to clumsily link the movie back to his original Fellowship of the Ring movie with a cameo appearance by Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins inquiring after his Uncle Bilbo’s book. Similar to the first movie, Jackson ensures that the old hobbit begins by recounting the history behind The Hobbit, beginning with the desolation of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, and how the dwarves were driven from their mountain stronghold by the dragon, Smaug the Terrible. The scene then cuts into “A Unexpected Party”, the first chapter of The Hobbit, where Bilbo is recruited as the burglar of the company of dwarves and must find the inner courage to brave new dangers with his fellow warriors.
The movie dips in and out of the Unfinished Tales, which becomes varyingly delightful and irksome to Tolkien fans. While many appreciate that Peter Jackson decided to include the gaps in the story supplied by other books, Fran Walsh’s interpretation of them puts many loyal fans off. For instance, the wizard Radagast is portrayed as a David Suzuki-like hippie bordering on senile and allegedly hopped up on mushrooms – a far cry from the powerful wizard dubbed the steward of herblore and beasts, and the “master of shapes”.
Most of the scenes from the book have been garnished with sporadic moments of comedic relief and breath-taking moments of on-location backgrounds and CGI imagery. It need hardly be mentioned that Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, and Ian McKellan made stellar performances, leaving Sherlock fans anxious to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in the upcoming movies as the Necromancer and Smaug. The duel of wits between Bilbo and Smeagol/Gollum was a work of art, though loyal fans could have been spared the overdramatic and unnecessary portrayal of the Orc chieftain Azog as Thorin’s arch-enemy. Not to mention our geeky disappointment that the director decided against having “bearded” dwarf women in the initial scene.
Jackson did not underrate the value of the poetry and song that interweaves Tolkien’s book. The dwarves conduct hauntingly beautiful chants in the movie, staying true to the lyrics. Moments like these can still make members of the audience unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work uncomfortable, so the best advice is to recognize that Middle Earth escapism is a full contact sport requiring an open mind and the ability to be held captive by the mythic reality of the story.
Walsh does not disappoint when she manages to find crucial moments for life truths to resonate with the audience. In the movie, Gandalf is asked by Galadriel why he brought Bilbo onboard his quest. After initially admitting his uncertainty, he reflects that it is not great power, but the small everyday acts of love and kindness done by ordinary people which keep the forces of evil at bay. In the face of Gandalf’s own fear of the knowns and unknowns of Dol Guldur, Bilbo’s simple trust and faith is a source of courage for the ancient wizard, overburdened by his great task to stand watch over Middle Earth.
The movie ends at the point where the Eagles save the company from a pack of wargs and goblins who have driven them to a cliff. From atop the Eagles’ eyrie, they can see the Lonely Mountain from afar. A healthy guess expects the next film to focus on the companions’ trip through the Mirkwood Forest and an epic Gandalf-Galadriel battle against the Necromancer at Dol Guldur, though Jackson may botch his second movie as he did with The Two Towers by overstretching and going too much off-text.
Coming away from the movie for a moment to reflect on the book itself, LOTR virgins should know that Tolkien was always skeptical of the use of allegory in literature, rejecting the notion that a story had to be didactic with a lesson imposed by the author on the reader. He preferred history, myth, and parable as a better way to guarantee the freedom of the reader wandering in a new fantastic world, at leisure to pursue those far-offs gleams of truth that might be discovered in such a world. Unlike C.S. Lewis, Tolkien was far more of a libertarian than we realize.
In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, he notes that “it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of “escapist” literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say ‘inexorable’, products”. Call it naïveté or a product of his own horrifying experience in the Battle of the Somme, but Tolkien’s Manichean romanticism (derived heavily from his Catholic values) had a vision of individual liberty enshrined in mortality, redemption, and eucatastrophe.
In spite of some of its clumsier scenes and a runtime of almost three hours, The Hobbit movie still manages to bring home the importance of the quest to its viewers, especially at Christmas – namely that we are capable of greater goods when we learn to do small things with great love.