The first words spoken in Peter Jackson’s new movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, are “My dear Frodo.” With these words, Jackson informs his audience that The Hobbit is really an extension of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien does not mention Frodo in the book because his novel was about the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, and The Lord of the Rings was a sequel that followed the doings of Frodo Baggins. Jackson, however, has made The Hobbit a prequel, which means some bits will not make sense if you have not seen his The Lord of the Rings movies first.
Jackson turns The Hobbit into a frame tale. The movie begins on the morning of Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday, the event which kicks off The Lord of the Rings, and an old Bilbo Baggins, once again played by Ian Holm, is writing his memoirs to his nephew Frodo, once again played by Elijah Wood. After almost fifteen minutes the story of The Hobbit actually gets underway, when the wizard Gandalf, once again played by Ian McKellan, greets a sixty-years-younger Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman.
Freeman turned out to be an excellent choice to play Bilbo. He can communicate fussiness, confusion, loyalty, and obduracy all at the same time. It is worth noting, however, that his Bilbo Baggins is not terribly different than his Dr. John Watson from the BBC’s Sherlock. The good news is that both characters are fun to watch with Freeman in the roles.
Besides those that I have already mentioned, some other familiar actors make appearances in this movie. Andy Serkis is back as Gollum, the tortured slave to the ring. If anything, Gollum is more entertaining (and more lifelike) in this film than he was in The Lord of the Rings. The famous riddle contest between Bilbo and Gollum was one of the best scenes in the movie. I do not know how Jackson will squeeze Gollum into the next two installments, but he’d be a fool not to.
Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett are also back as the elves Elrond and Galadriel, and Christopher Lee reprises his performance as the wizard Saruman. Jackson invents a scene about halfway through the movie in which Gandalf tries to convince Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman that Sauron, the great enemy from The Lord of the Rings, is returning. The scene does not have anything to do with the current story, but, as I said, Jackson has turned The Hobbit into prequel.
In addition to a couple of invented scenes which tie The Hobbit more closely to the later works, Jackson also adds some Tolkien arcana into this movie. The brown wizard Radagast makes an appearance, as well as the dangerous orc Azog. Before I saw the movie, I was skeptical about these additions, fearing that they would detract from the straightforward story of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Now that I have seen the movie, however, I have decided that Jackson’s additions work well within the story. Yes, these additions will turn a relatively brief novel into eight or nine hours of film, but, when viewed as prequel, they work, and these additions will delight many diehard fans of Tolkien.
On the whole, I enjoyed the movie, but a few things disappointed me. First, the action sequences were too over the top, even for a fantasy movie. On a number of occasions Jackson gives in to his love for special effects and big action, and the film’s integrity is damaged. More than once, he takes a scene penned by Tolkien and ups the ante in a manner that turns an exciting adventure into something ludicrous. A couple of scenes looked like they belonged in a side-scrolling video game. The escape from the goblins of the Misty Mountains caused me to roll my eyes and groan audibly in the theater.
My second complaint about the movie has to do with Jackson’s portrayal of the dwarves. Tolkien’s thirteen dwarves are civilized people, who might not have the same manners as a hobbit, but they have manners nonetheless. Each dresses neatly in a different colored cloak and says “at your service” a great deal. Jackson seems to have gotten his ideas about dwarves more from Dungeons & Dragons than from Tolkien. Jackson’s dwarves are barbarians who are, for the most part, dirty and dressed in rags. In order to give each dwarf personality, Jackson has given each a different preposterous costume, but this extreme individualism communicates that Jackson’s dwarves have no common culture or civilization.
I was most disappointed to see Richard Armitage play Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves. Thorin should have been played by an actor who was about 15 or 20 years older than Armitage. Armitage’s Thorin is a fighter in the prime of his life who is suspicious, bad tempered, and above all brooding. It is as though Jackson couldn’t imagine making a Tolkein film without Vigo Mortensen’s brooding Aragorn, so he recreated Thorin’s character and cast Armitage to get the same effect. According to Tolkien, Thorin is an older, self-important dwarf who could talk “until he was out of breath, without telling any one there anything that was not known already.” Towards the end of the novel, the treasure makes Thorin suspicious and brooding, but in Jackson’s film he starts out that way. Armitage is by far the weakest aspect of the movie.
One final mention should be made about the technology used in the filming process. Movies are usually shot at 24 frames per second, but Jackson shot this film at 48 frames per second. This higher frame rate makes the movie screen look more like your HD TV at home than a traditional movie. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t care for it. Yes, it made some scenes richer, clearer, and more lifelike, but it hurt just as many scenes. Many scenes came off looking fake because Jackson showed too much detail. Part of the art of movie making is knowing what to obscure. Jackson shows too much in this film because he’s in love with the technology. Not all movie theaters are showing the higher frame-rate version, so double check when you buy your tickets. It’s worth seeing to notice the difference, but it adds nothing to the experience.
To sum up, I liked the movie. I was afraid it would be tedious and bloated, and I had prepared myself to be mightily disappointed because I love Tolkien’s The Hobbit so much (you can read about my love affair with The Hobbit here). Perhaps because my expectations were so low, the film easily surpassed them. No, it’s not a perfect movie because Jackson loses his self-restraint at times, but it is a worthy adaptation and will delight fans of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.