The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey into the History of Middle-earth

As an avid reader of Tolkien’s books and an avid watcher of The Lord of the Rings films, it’s hard for me to divide my thoughts about this movie into binary states of awesome and not awesome because I appreciate staying true to the source material while also understanding that book-to-film interpretations often require extra elements from outside source material. So let’s not waste any more time…

Here’s how Warner Bros. describes the plot: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey follows title character Bilbo Baggins, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which was long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior Thorin Oakenshield. Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever…Gollum. Here, alone with Gollum, on the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins not only discovers depths of guile and courage that surprise even him, he also gains possession of Gollum’s ‘precious’…a simple, gold ring that is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know.”

There was a lot of controversy when Peter Jackson announced that he was taking The Hobbit, a single book that’s only around 300 pages (depending on whether we’re talking hardback or paperback), and expanding it into THREE movies. The three movie parts will be An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), and There and Back Again The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). Personally, I found it a little ridiculous and very “money-grab” for a director who had been more concerned with winning over the legions of Tolkien fans with his unbelievably good LOTR films rather than with his own box office payoff (though I’m sure it wasn’t entirely out of this thoughts).

Unlike LOTR, which was one epic adventure over the course of three books, The Hobbit is much shorter and less epic. Where LOTR had an underlying sense of urgency to save Middle-earth, The Hobbit centers more on the adventure of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and the dwarfs, who attempt to reclaim the dwarfs’ former home, the Lonely Mountain, from Smaug the Dragon. See what I mean? Less epic than SAVE MIDDLE-EARTH FOR ALL RACES!

I’ve heard several people argue, “Well, they should’ve done The Hobbit before LOTR.” Quite frankly, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Do you really think The Hobbit would’ve done as well with non-Tolkien fans at the box office if LOTR hadn’t come first? No. And it certainly wouldn’t have given Jackson enough box office credentials to convince a production company to give him money. That would be like if George Lucas had started with Star Wars: Episodes I-III before introducing Star Wars: Episodes IV-VI. Now, just because I’ve admitted that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t as extraordinary as the LOTR films doesn’t mean that it isn’t good…

Let’s talk about the actors first. Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, was absolutely fantastic. I feel like he pegged Bilbo’s neuroses, confusion, and constant fidgeting as if he had read the book word for word (which he might have). You can tell that Freeman is a good actor because, just in An Unexpected Journey, we saw Bilbo with a range of emotions: annoyed, frightened, curious, rebellious, lonely, brave, etc. Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf, is always great (Please, God, let him fight his prostate cancer long enough to finish the final two films in this Hobbit trilogy). I’m glad he maintains a sarcastic obstinance in his portrayal of Gandalf. And then there’s Richard Armitage, who plays the homeless, dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield. While Armitage did a great job acting the part, I have mixed feelings about Jackson’s development of Thorin.

On the one hand, in a company of bumbling, comic relief dwarfs, Thorin does manage to stand out as a lone badass out for vengeance, which makes him a definable leader. On the other hand, I feel like Jackson is trying to make Thorin into the new Aragorn, what with his brooding glances and sexy, rockstar hair. Sure, Thorin and Aragorn are similar in that they were both displaced for many years before finally finding their purpose, and they both saw many battles. But where Thorin has stubbornness (because he’s a dwarf) and a “Give me what’s mine!” attitude as a leader, Aragorn had humility and caution. I know they’re trying to draw parallels to coax the non-Tolkien audience into seeing the movie, but Thorin and Aragorn really should not morph into one overarching idea of the ranger with a crown (because Christ metaphors are reserved for Aragorn).

On a similar actor note, how much does it kill you that Andy Serkis hasn’t been (and probably won’t ever be) nominated for his work as Gollum? Because it ruins me. If you’ve ever watched the behind-the-scenes features for the LOTR trilogy, you will see how much dedication he puts into his performance as Gollum. I mean, yes, Gollum is a CGI character, but what you might not know is that Serkis is in a CGI suit (I still don’t know what they’re called) running around on the set, doing all of the necessary expressions and movements for Gollum while also delivering his lines in an endearing yet disturbing schizophrenic manner. It’s fantastic. Not to mention, Gollum practically stole the scene in The Hobbit during his little riddle-off with Bilbo. I think that was probably my favorite scene of the entire movie. It was funny and frightening, and there was this never-ending tension that kept building and building until the moment where Bilbo escaped with the Ring.

I have to say, with so many characters, I was worried that it was going to get tiresome trying to keep up with all of the dwarfs (Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Dwalin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori, Ori, and Thorin) with the correct appearances. Fortunately, The Hobbit doesn’t focus too much on who’s who. Instead, it focuses on Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin, leaving the rest of the dwarfs to be recognized by their appearances, not their names. The dialogue and close-up distribution between all of the dwarfs worked out very nicely as well. Obviously, Thorin received more time than the others, but each dwarf in the company at least got to say something during the movie and had a few moments of screen time.

Now, one of the biggest points of discussion with The Hobbit was that Jackson used a high frame rate—48 frames per second (fps), to be exact. Currently, the standard frame rate for film is 24fps, also known as digital or analog. Basically, the difference between The Hobbit and non-high frame rate movies is that The Hobbit looks like it’s filmed in extremely good high-definition. Imagine watching a well-lit stage production from the front row, and you’ll know what I mean. Some people complained that it’s hard to get used to during the movie, which I think is bullshit because most people won’t notice unless they’re purposely trying to look for the high frame rate (Chalk that one up to linear perspective, bitches).

What’s amazing about the 48fps is that, unlike 24fps, it allows for movement—such as a camera spinning or actors moving quickly in the frame—without blurring. On top of that, the 48fps allows the scenery (even green “screenery”) to have more texture and definition, so that it looks like you could reach out and feel it better than 3D. With scenes in the Shire and Rivendell, this was the most noticeable (and beautiful). The other place where the high frame rate worked well was that it made Gollum, who is completely composed of CGI over actor Andy Serkis, look more realistic. Where it failed was with the CGI orcs and goblins; they were almost too unrealistically cheesy. Nevertheless, we should stop bitching about the 48fps because, if anything, it’s going to guide us into a new age of film technology—much like how James Cameron lead us into a new age with the creation of virtual reality cameras for his Avatar actors, so that they could see the fantasy world in which they were acting.

Speaking of cheesy orcs and goblins, what the hell?! Jackson went way overboard with CGI this time around. Not that he didn’t use a ton of CGI in the LOTR trilogy, but there was so much creative costuming and makeup for the orcs, goblins, and Uruk-hai in those films. This time, they were mostly (if not entirely) CGI. Sure, that probably saved money in the budget, so that they had more to spend on the high frame rate cameras. But really? That was bush-league.

There are going to be a lot of things that fans of The Hobbit book won’t like (or maybe they will, if they’re really into Middle-earth history). Azog the Defiler—also known as the “Pale Orc”—is this film’s antagonist, as there technically isn’t an antagonist until they reach Smaug. Azog led the orcs in the War of the Dwarves and Orcs that killed Thorin’s grandfather, Thror, King Under the Mountain. Although he isn’t really part of the story, Gandalf did mention him to Thorin in The Hobbit book: “Your grandfather, Thror, was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin.” He looks like a combination of an Uruk-hai with Gothmog, the pig-faced orc from The Return of the King. Sadly, his appearance is almost more hilarious than it is terrifying. Since Azog wasn’t killed in An Unexpected Journey, I imagine we’ll be seeing him again in the following Hobbit films as a constant force of trouble for Thorin and company.

Also included in this film is the White Council made up of Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Lady Galadriel, and Lord Elrond—though the true council also includes Radagast the Brown and Cirdan the Shipwright, whom we did not see in that particular scene. The White Council isn’t in The Hobbit book, and I can’t remember whether they were first mentioned in the Silmarillion or in the histories of Middle-earth, but they appear in An Unexpected Journey to discuss the Morgul blade of the Witch-King of Angmar found in Mirkwood by Radagast the Brown, which particularly worries Galadriel who says that the blade was buried deep with Angmar when he died. This scene, of course, foreshadows the rise to power of the Necromancer (who is actually Sauron).

Speaking of Radagast, he’s also in this movie. He was briefly mentioned in The Hobbit book, but he didn’t appear until The Fellowship of the Ring book. And since he was left out of the LOTR films, I’m assuming he was brought into this film to beef it up and foreshadow the coming of the Necromancer as well. Knowing this, my guess is that the Necromancer’s antagonistic role will only increase with each Hobbit movie, so that it will (perhaps) effortlessly lead right into The Fellowship of the Ring.

While these extra plot lines do bloat this movie at times, it does help fill the extra time that would otherwise be occupied with dwarfs sleeping or eating (*yawn*) and sets up the events necessary for Sauron to return to Middle-earth. I do agree that it’s nice to stay true to the books, I’m glad Peter Jackson at least drew his filler from the histories of Middle-earth, the Silmarillion, and LOTR.

Overall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is visually spectacular and has a slow but good start to the now three-part adventure of Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarfs. However, in comparison to LOTR trilogy, An Unexpected Journey seems more like a “good enough” and not a “great” film, as it acts primarily as the foundation for much better battles and plot lines for the following films. Then again, the same could be argued of The Fellowship of the Ring in comparison to The Return of the King. If you’re a Tolkien fan, you might be disappointed when you realize that a lot has been added to give this film some girth. But take comfort in the fact that Jackson at least drew his extra material from the LOTR appendices, The Silmarillion, and other various histories of Middle-earth written by Tolkien.

The Hobbit: A-

5 thoughts on “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey into the History of Middle-earth

  1. Yet again, you have managed to rationally organize your thoughts on the movie.
    I have to, again, agree entirely with your criticisms and also your recognition of the strengths of the movie. I suppose I would say that it was good, but not great. I have realized, after seeing the movie, that I am a little too harsh on it. Thank you for helping me see the good side of it. I find that I am continually saying only all of the bad things… (ahemm — don’t mind me, I am just a negative Nancy). 🙂

    1. I don’t think you’re a Negative Nancy at all! I would much rather someone criticize a movie for its mistakes than follow the blind masses in a slew of never-ending and unjustified praise.

  2. I saw the film yesterday and was pleasantly surprised, as I didn’t much like the look of the trailers. I only read The Hobbit once a long time ago and didn’t care for it much compared with LOTR – as I vaguely remember, it was episodic and random, and the motivations and characterisations were a bit arbitrary.

    The film was good fun and entertaining, though not perfect. It took a while to start; I suppose it started three times: the dwarf/Smaug ancient history, old-age Bilbo writing just before LOTR started, and finally the Hobbit story itself. When it did get going, getting introduced to the dwarves took too long and there were a few too many Bilbo-is-dismayed reaction shots. I think the tone varied somewhat alarmingly – from the portentous, non-childlike Council discussion mined from non-The Hobbit sources, to the cheerfully childish stuff such as the dwarves being cooked on a spit by trolls while still alive, which came, as I recall, from the book; and from the crunchingly violent, such as the opening battle or Gollum butchering his goblin prey, to the cartoonish and strangely small-looking, such as the cliff-surfing escape of our heroes from the goblin king.

    The LOTR films were, to my mind, too battle-heavy and too lacking in something I liked in the book, which was quiet periods of reflection where the characters told stories to each other that mined the deep time of the world about them. Some of The Hobbit battle sequences also went on too long, but this film did have some breathing spaces, such as when the dwarves all sang quietly in Bag End while Bilbo listened in, or the time when the white-beard dwarf (Balin, after a spot of googling) told the story of Thorin while they were all sitting around the camp fire. More of that would have benefited the LOTR films, I think.

    Maybe “retrospectively” larding The Hobbit with all the wider, deeper, stronger, higher etc elements familiar from LOTR and loading too much extra baggage on its thin plot will prove to be a mistake. But still, it will be fun to watch.

    As an aside, I don’t think any of The Hobbit movie added-in material can come from The Silmarillion, as I gather Jackson doesn’t have rights to that. So I think it is supposed mostly to come from the appendices of LOTR.

    If you’re a LOTR fan in various iterations, have you listened to the 13-hour BBC Radio 4 play adaptation made in 1981? I’ve seen the films only once, and read the book maybe four times, but I have listened to the radio play about 30 times I guess. It’s full of British thespian knights: Sir Michael Hordern plays Gandalf, Sir Robert Stephens plays Aragorn, and Sir Ian Holm, who is Bilbo in the movies, plays Frodo, plus plain Mr Bill Nighy is Sam. And a bunch of other good people are in it. The battle sequences are comparatively short, of course, (and the Pelennor Fields one is pretty poorly handled) but that means more time for other more reflective stuff. (And even this version has no room for Tom Bombadil).

    Finally – how well is Barry Humphries, the voice of the goblin king, known in the US? Here in Britain (and his native Australia) he is best known as his alter ego Dame Edna Everage. Dame Edna is a screen-dominating show-stealing force of nature; by contrast, when Humphries appears as himself on TV he is kind of diffident and soft-spoken, so it is hard to believe they are the same person.

    1. First of all, thank you for commenting often on my reviews to share your reactions of the films! I like hearing what other people think about the films, especially since not everyone sees them the way I do. It makes for good discussions!

      The somewhat bipolar tone of this film is definitely a problem. I completely agree with what you said about the White Council scene in comparison to the dwarfs on the spit scene (Side note: I was already scolded by another Tolkien fan for not using Tolkien’s plural “dwarves” in my review, but I told her that I just can’t bring myself to use that spelling because I’m not Tolkien, and I grew up with American English, haha!). I think it’s because The Hobbit was really written to be more of a children’s tale, whereas LOTR and its appendices were serious and written for more mature readers. The problem is that, while trying to fill the extra time due to the expansion of the story over three films, Peter Jackson and his screenwriters have taken a children’s tale and added more adult elements, like battle sequences, that threw off the tone of the original story. Sadly, I’m certain that another reason they added more battle sequences was because they knew they had to keep the average moviegoer entertained and focused, as the average moviegoer often can’t sit through hours of character development and dialogue without a reward. Having seen the movie and reading about Jackson’s plans for the following films, I feel like we’re going to see more battles and less reflection as the story continues.

      As for the BBC Radio adaptation, I actually haven’t heard it, but I’ve been told it’s worth a listen. And I love the fact that Ian Holm plays Frodo. It makes his inclusion as Bilbo in the film versions seem like more of a great tribute to the BBC adaptation. Do you know where I might be able to find that adaptation?

      Also, strangely, I didn’t recognize the name Barry Humphries until you mentioned Dame Edna, whom I’ve seen on a few TV shows. I doubt most Americans, especially those in my generation, would recognize him/her though. That’s hilarious that Humphries played the Goblin King. I kept trying to place the voice but couldn’t.

      1. Thanks, I’m glad you like my responses. Many of the movies you report on are ones I’ve seen or want to see (like Cloud Atlas) and I like the way you write about them.

        I looked on Amazon USA and you can get it on CD for less than $30. There seem to be two versions available, though I am not 100% sure of the differences. The original play was 26 half-hour episodes; one CD box set, which seems to be from BBC Radio itself in a 2008 re-release, seems to be on 12 CDs, another, which is from 1999 and is the one I picked up second hand myself, is 13 hours on 13 CDs.

        Note – the description for the 13-CD version is the same as and is for the 12-CD version, stating “The 12th CD is devoted to a selection of songs from the books, set to original music”. My copy, the 13-CD version, has no separate music disc. As the 12-CD version claims to be unabridged, I am assuming that each CD is longer than an hour. Or maybe it excludes each episode credits and intros, which are on my CDs.

        There’s also a tape edition in 13 cassettes on Amazon, an earlier version of which I still have; you can get that second-hand for $12 or so.

        Here’s more on the 2008 re-release.

        I heard the radio play long before the movies, and if you’re familiar with the movie voices then you might find one or two of the voices in that adaptation a bit odd; Aragorn’s voice can be off-putting at first (Robert Stephens is an old-style theahtah AcTor with a rich voice; he was once married to Maggie “Downton Abbey” Smith and their son Toby Stephens is also an actor these days), but then he is supposed to be a noble king; and Merry and Pippin are a bit posh too. Some people think Hordern as Gandalf is too plummy as well, but I really like him – he has the full range of twinkly firework-maker to High Dudgeon with some irritated asperity in there too. And I think Gollum is superb, and Ian Holm and Bill Nighy great as Frodo and Sam, especially Holm as the Burden weighs down on him ever heavier.

        In another aside, I just started reading Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth, which I got for Xmas and which looks into the early wellsprings of hobbitude, and the war’s impact, and the friends Tolkien knew before the war from school and university, the ones he wrote about in the intro of LOTR: “By 1918 [when he was 26], all but one of my close friends were dead.” At the moment they’re all alive still…

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