The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien wasn’t the first book I read, but it was pretty close. After Paddington Bear, the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarfish companions must have been a close second. To be honest it was so long ago I can’t even remember the first time I read the book. I do know, each time I go back to read the book is how surprised I am to discover how much of a children’s book it is. For unlike The Lord Of The Rings The Hobbit is written in very simple language and told in the broad tones of a child’s adventure story. It’s also very British, full of expressions and sayings familiar to any child who had spent time at boarding school or reading boy’s adventure stories.
When I heard director Peter Jackson was going back for another kick at the can by directing a movie version of Tolkien’s first book I admit to being rather surprised. It seemed like a lot of cost and expense to tell what is a rather simple story. On top of that, it’s just not as adult a story as the other books so he’d have to sexy it up somehow to give it a wider appeal.
The initial announcement that Jackson was going to film it in two parts only added to my doubts about the venture, so hearing it was being expanded into a trilogy made me wonder what the heck he was doing. However, I was still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all I had been sceptical of the whole Lord Of The Rings trilogy and had then like his adaptation. So when I walked into my video store and saw a copy of The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey on the shelves, I didn’t even think twice about buying a copy.
I’m going to try and avoid giving away any of the surprises in store for you if you haven’t seen it yet, but I’m going to have to mention some things in passing in order to comment on what he’s done with the narrative. First of all he has made the decision to have an older Bilbo writing out the story just prior to the birthday party opening The Fellowship of the Ring. In this way he’s able to give the back story of the destruction of Dale and the kingdom under the mountain by Smaug right off the top.
Instead of hearing about the events second hand as we do in the book In this way Jackson utilizes the power of the camera to show us what happened. Of course once you’ve seen how he’s prepared to adopt the narrative to suit the needs of his media, you’re not going to be as surprised by some of the other changes he introduces later in the film. The most major change is how some subplots are made more important. In the book the troubles in Mirkwood Forest concerning somebody called the Necromancer are only briefly mentioned and at one point Gandalf leaves the company to go off and deal with the matter.
While we don’t hear anything more about it in the book, Jackson is obviously going to be dealing with it on screen as the trilogy progresses. Extrapolating from various tidbits of information included in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the latter’s appendixes he not only introduces the sub-plot, but a new character, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) the Brown, one of Gandalf’s wizard compatriots. While this plot line has little to do with the story being recounted in The Hobbit, it is a piece of the overall story concerning Middle Earth and the finding of the Ring. Purists might decry it as being filler, but if done properly it will help place Bilbo’s adventures with the dwarfs in their proper context.
Jackson has also drawn upon the appendix ofLord of the Rings dealing with the history of the dwarfs to create an entirely new subplot. It involves vengeful Orcs and their really nasty chieftain who has a personal grudge against the dwarfs Bilbo’s travelling with dating back to a run in with them at the Mines of Moria after they had been evicted by Smaug. It looks like they’ll be having meeting up with him all the way through the trilogy. I can see these Orcs being part of the Battle of the Five Armies at the end of the story.
I don’t know if these two additions to the story are what have caused people to be unhappy with the movie, but if that’s the case, they really need to calm down. Not only do they not detract from the story, they help to bring the world the movie is set in to life. For through them we learn more about the history of the dwarfs and events happening in the world beyond their quest. Jackson and his design people have done a wonderful job of bringing this world to life and making audiences believe in the reality of Middle Earth technically. As long as the new information is introduced in the rest of the movies with same effortlessness as it was in this one, it can only make the experience of watching these movies that much more enjoyable.
As with Lord Of The Rings Jackson has used an international cast of British, Irish, Scottish, New Zealand, Australian, Canadian and American actors. While Sir Ian McKellen reprises as Gandalf, and a few familiar other faces from the other movies show up, the rest of the lead cast are all new to Middle Earth. Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins.
His transition from the very proper middle class gentlehobbit, who thinks adventures are nasty inconvenient things which cause you to be late for dinner, to adventurer facing down Orcs is perfectly believable. For it’s not until the end of the movie he even begins to feel like he belongs with his companions. Up until then he makes it perfectly obvious he has his doubts about the whole operation and given half a chance he’d turn around and go back home.
As the King seeking to regain his grandfather’s and father’s throne under the Lonely Mountain Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield with the perfect mixture of arrogance, pride and fearlessness. He doesn’t ask you to like him, in fact he doesn’t really care if you do or not. However, you can’t help but respect his bravery and the way he feels personally responsible for his people. You have the feeling while revenge against Smaug is important, it’s not the only thing driving him. It’s just as important to him for his people to be restored to their rightful places.
Of the other twelve dwarfs, the two most prominent are Ballin, played by Ken Stott and Bofur played by James Nesbit. Ballin is a mixture of elder statesman and councillor to Thorin, having been with him through all his adventures. He is the one who Thorin might listen to when it comes to accepting advice and who the others look to for explanations as to why Thorin is doing something.
Bofur at first appears to be a bit of a clown, always ready with a joke or prank. However, Nesbit is too good an actor for his character to be one dimensional, and we find out Bofur’s humour comes from a well of compassion and empathy. He’s the one who is the most supportive of Bilbo and pushes him to stay the course. It would take far too long to run through the entire cast of dwarves, but there are no weak links in this chain of actors to drag the rest down. Watching them in action you get a real sense that no matter what, they are each prepared to die for the others and would follow Thorin into a dragon’s mouth. Which is a good thing I guess.
A lot has been made of the movie being shot in 3D and at an increased rate of frames per second. (Normally film is shot at between 25 and 29 frames per second while The Hobbit is being shot at 45) Now while I do have a high definition plasma TV, I don’t have 3D capability. However, as far as I can tell you don’t lose anything by not having 3D, as visually the movie is still stunning. The increased speed of the film seems to make the picture sharper as details and colours stand out more. Comparing it to my extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring I did notice a substantial difference in picture quality.
The DVD comes with a second disc of bonus features. The majority of the bonus features are the video blogs shot by Jackson during filming over the course of 2011. So you actually get to meet actors who aren’t in the first film but will be appearing in the second movie and are given some clues as to what to expect in the future. You’ll also notice that most of the way through the special features everybody from Jackson to the cast only refer to two films. It’s obvious the decision to expand to three movies wasn’t made until they had almost finished the editing process on part one and realized how much footage they actually had.
If you’ve been holding off buying a copy of the DVD or Blu-ray of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey because of what other people have been saying about it, do yourself a favour and see it for yourself. Personally I think Jackson has done not only a marvellous job of adapting the book to the screen, but of bringing the world of Tolkien to life. His decisions seemed to be based on how I can make the world and the story more believable for those watching not how can I make this more spectacular. As far as I’m concerned Tolkien’s legacy is in safe hands as this is one of the best examples of adapting a book to the screen I’ve seen.