Produced by New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Wingnut Films
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens
Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures
For this month’s column, I’ve enlisted my son Liam to write the review, since he knows far more than I do about J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of his works. For purposes of his review, Liam refused to see the movie in 3D and HFR (High Frame Rate—48 frames per second). This was not at my insistence. I eagerly subjected myself to these questionable technologies. Liam, however, forswore gimcrack spectacle, the better to engage Jackson’s intentions. He’s thus earned the right to assess their execution. Liam, if you will, tell us what you think.
The story begins this way:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
And so, in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien announced at the beginning of his fantasy, The Hobbit, that comfort is the middle way between extremes, and a highly desirable way at that. His protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, lives in his hole with an abundance of creature comforts: a commodious larder, replete with teas and tobaccos; a well-stocked library; and very comfortable furniture. Why would he ever want to leave his dwelling? Besides, Baggins, like every other hobbit, has a pronounced distaste for adventure, which he regards as a disreputable indulgence pursued only by the thoroughly daft. He prefers safety. He is, in short, wholly bourgeois, plump and content. Then Gandalf the Wizard shows up at Bilbo’s door and invites—nay, hectors—him to go on the adventure announced in the book’s subtitle: “There and Back Again.” In other words, a quest that will entail facing down beasts and thrashing in arms. And did I mention the 13 dwarves led by Thorin? They’re determined to regain their ancestral home in the Lonely Mountain from which they were dispossessed generations ago. Bilbo reluctantly joins them in the position of burglar, the better to take back the dwarves’ ancestral horde of gold now in the possession of Smaug, a dragon of daunting size and immense greed. Of course, there’s going to be more to it than just this. As a quest hero, however unlikely, Bilbo is going to learn quite a lot about himself and the world in which he lives. Furthermore, Gandalf promises Bilbo that, if he comes back, as the subtitle hints he may, he will not be the same.
Peter Jackson and his writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have chosen to make the implicit moral burden of Tolkien’s lightsome tale explicit. They’ve taken license to add some dialogue here and there, all of which seems to me entirely true to Tol kien’s intentions. For instance, when Gandalf (Ian McKellen, his every wrinkle doing justice to his 7,000-year-old character) presents Bilbo (Martin Freeman) with his first sword, the hobbit blanches, protesting he’s never used one. Gandalf replies, “And I hope you never have to . . . True courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” Later, Bilbo will have the opportunity to put Gandalf’s words to the test. After a protracted struggle with the villainous Gollum (Andy Serkis in his stunning digital makeup), the greasy bug-eyed creature who seems to be Tolkien’s embodiment of mad greed, Bilbo discovers he can make himself invisible with the ring Gollum has dropped in his underground lair. Desperate to get away and rejoin his dwarf comrades, he considers taking advantage of his invisibility to kill this weird homunculus with his sword but then chooses not to. In that moment (in both book and digital celluloid) Bilbo’s mercy changes the fate of Tolkien’s imagined realm of Middle Earth. For it is ultimately Gollum who will inadvertently destroy the One Ring, as it’s called. The ring represents the will to power, forged by the evil Sauron to give him dominion over Middle Earth and all its inhabitants. Jackson gives this scene of Bilbo’s clemency special weight and significance. It’s played beautifully by Freeman and Serkis.
Was Bilbo’s choice to spare Gollum correct? It’s a question that will be raised in Tolkien’s later work, The Two Towers, when Bilbo’s cousin Frodo remarks with some bitterness, “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill [Gollum] when he had the chance.”
Gandalf, however, disagrees:
Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this [battle with evil] is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
This underscores the theme that connects The Hobbit with the Lord of the Rings trilogy: It was Tolkien’s Christian conviction that mercy will win out over cruelty and evil, ultimately.
Peter Jackson and company have recognized the central tenet of Tolkien’s work, and have done their best to make it their own amid a big, bombastic fantasy adventure epic. By placing emphasis on this theme of the power of mercy, they have been able to elevate a film that could easily have been little more than another superhero spectacle. In short, they have honored Tolkien’s Christian imagination by dramatizing the importance of empathy when Gandalf (in another Jackson-invented scene) speaks with the elven queen Galadriel (played with otherworldly delicacy by Cate Blanchett). “I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”
Gandalf is explaining why he recruited Bilbo, whom many of the other characters consider to be a liability, someone entirely without mettle or bravery. Gandalf goes on to say that Bilbo gives him courage simply by being one of these “ordinary folk.” For Tolkien average people were just as important as any supposed warrior hero. As a lieutenant during the Great War, he remarked that he had developed “a deep sympathy and feeling for the Tommy; especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties,” finding them as brave and competent, often more so, than upper-class officers. In The Hobbit it is little Bilbo who proves to be the most clever and courageous of his company, going against his sedentary nature to save his fellow adventurers several times over and become the hero of the story. In The Lord of the Rings it is not the noble, heroic, kingly Aragorn that bests the wicked Sauron, but the two small hobbits, Frodo and Sam. In Tolkien’s world, the meek may not inherit the earth, but they often save it.
In order to inject his film with maximum cinematic pathos and excitement, Jackson has liberally reshaped, restructured, but not repurposed Tolkien’s lore. True, things get muddled at times by Jackson’s need to deliver a film that will excite the mass audience and thereby earn a staggering profit. This has led him to commit some excesses. When they charge through the underground lair of the supposedly formidable goblins, the dwarves find it suspiciously easy to toss the goons to their demise by the boatload. And then there’s the graphic violence. It’s too much for younger children. Heads roll, an arm is lopped off, and a belly slit open. Still, the battles and bombast retain a sense of levity and delight true to the narrative which, on the page, flies by almost as speedily as on the screen. In both media, our heroes are continuously whisked from one breathtaking sequence to the next, giving both readers and viewers few moments of respite to catch their breath.
By illustrating the theme of mercy as true courage, The Hobbit manages to transcend its action-adventure genre to be become a first-class entertainment with a truly moral dimension. This has been made possible by the collaborative efforts of talented actors, a production design of unusual sophistication, and the assured direction of Peter Jackson. Given today’s movie practices, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey succeeds quite against the odds.
An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of a Hobbit film trilogy. This may seem odd since, at 280 pages, The Hobbit text is less than a quarter of the length of The Lord of the Rings. But there’s a happy explanation. Jackson is evidently so enamored of The Hobbit that he’s decided to dramatize the additional material dealing with Bilbo and the Baggins family to be found in the appendices Tolkien attached to the third volume of The Lord of the Rings. I’m glad he did. When it comes to Hobbits, you just can’t get enough.