The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It’s been years since I’ve made it to a midnight release of a movie. Too many responsibilities and practicalities, etc. But, for the return to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit, certain concessions were made. For, you see, I am a Tolkien fan. Of all the many things about which I geek, the works of Tolkien rank one of my most geeked about. I made it to the midnight release of every one of the Lord of the Rings films, and I’m not about to break that trend with the three parts of The Hobbit.
I’m thrilled that Peter Jackson was finally able to return to the helm of this project. For years the project was in jeopardy because of a long-standing dispute between Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema regarding royalties owed over the Lord of the Rings films. As a result a number of different directors were considered, and some even hired on for a time, including Guillermo Del Toro, who does end up with a writing credit. But, because Peter Jackson did such a masterful job with Lord of the Rings it seemed unjust that anyone else should get to work on The Hobbit. Whatever understanding was come to with New Line, it was no doubt influenced by the fans of the movies, as well as the actors who appear in both stories, who, from my understanding, banded together to make sure the project was put back in Jackson’s hands. This loyalty paid off.  Along with all the necessary actors, Jackson’s creative team also returned. WETA continues to make some of the most beautiful props, costumes, and set pieces in the industry. Alan Lee and John Howe, easily the two most dominant names in Tolkien art, also return to their highly influential role as concept designers. The finely tuned machine that Jackson and company were able to put together for LOTR doesn’t seem to have missed a beat, and everyone stepped right back into their vision of Middle-Earth with an ease that belies the fact that it’s been nearly a decade since they were last there. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful film.
Now, my Tolkien fanboying would not be complete unless I made a few complaints. These are almost exclusively issues of artistic liberties taken with the story. Jackson took a number of these liberties with Lord of the Rings, and many of them I found understandable as a means for turning three good-sized books into digestible, though still very long, movies.  I thought that these liberties would be fewer with the Hobbit, because of the text’s shorter length and less complicated story line. Contrarily, though, a lot of things were added or changed to the story that did not quite sit right with me. One of the most notable examples of this in the movie is the character of Azog, the long-standing enemy of dwarves who hounds the party from the get go. While he is a character from Tolkien lore, he does not figure prominently in the book. It seems that he was expanded as a character in the movie to add a sense of constant threat tying all of the movies together. Azog also plays off the character of Thorin Oakenshield, his fear, jealousy, and sense of vengeance. Smaug sufficiently fulfills a nemesis role for Thorin in the book. Azog seems to have been added to provide an on-screen villain since the party won’t actually be seeing Smaug until late in the second, or possibly into the third film. As such, his addition is somewhat understandable.
The other significant change is the character development of Bilbo Baggins himself. In the book, Bilbo’s progression out of timidity and self-doubt is very gradual. In the movie, though, he seems to make great leaps at a time, and he takes actions in the movie that were not his in the book, or throws himself into dangerous situations in ways that he would not until much later in the story. Indeed, through easily the first half of the book, the dwarves have very low regard for Bilbo. I think making Bilbo more heroic early on was meant to endear him to the audience as well as to the dwarves. But this misses the point of Bilbo. He’s not supposed to be heroic. He’s supposed to be the everyman character. We relate to him because he isn’t heroic, because he does prefer the safety and comfort of home. This change could also be rationalized if we consider that what is a short book is being spread across three films being released far apart from each other. I assume Jackson wanted to have Bilbo establish a sense of pride in his abilities by the end of the first film.
As with The Lord of the Rings, I will overlook, and no doubt come to accept, these differences because of all of the other things that the movie gets right. The company of dwarves, though, in my opinion, somewhat short on facial hair in some cases, are each given unique appearances and personalities. This is important because in the book the dwarves, except for Thorin, are sort of a collective character, without distinct personalities of their own. In such a visual medium, though, it’s necessary to have each stand apart, even if their roles are relatively minor. I ended up liking the dwarves a lot more than I was anticipating. There are other story additions that I am okay with, as well. The films will be emphasizing the conflict with the Necromancer. This part of the story is not really elaborated on in the text of the Hobbit itself, and it is not directly relevant to the story of the dwarves return to Erebor. However, in the larger scheme of continuity between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, the Necromancer is a pretty pivotal character, though I won’t spoil this for those of you who aren’t as big Tolkien lore nerds as I am. Though the Hobbit was originally written as a self-contained story, the lore was later retrofitted so that events in that story more adequately serve the story of Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson has tapped into this wider source material, which will help tie this series in more closely with his LOTR films. And I’m pretty excited about that.
Dave here. This review also appears on my Geekazoid! blog. So if you see it there, just know I only plagiarized myself. Hit me up on twitter and let me know what you think @ilovegeekazoid

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