I was first introduced to The Hobbit in junior high school. The Language Arts instructor taught from a textbook that included the short story Riddles in the Dark. It was actually a condensed version of the chapter from a novel called “The Hobbit” by some fellow named JRR Tolkien. It told the story of Bilbo Baggins entering into a riddles contest with some subterranean creature.
Intrigued, I asked the teacher about the book. He gave it a hearty ‘thumbs up,’ so I checked out a copy from the school library. When I finished reading it, the teacher wanted to know what I thought. I distinctly remember telling him that I only had two reactions: (1) dwarves sure like to sit around and sing a lot; and (2) so far as wizards are concerned, this Gandalf character is pretty useless.
Of course, anyone who knows a Gamgee from a Brandybuck knows that The Hobbit works best when considered a stylistic back-story to Tolkien’s truly epic work, The Lord of the Rings. That’s where the action’s at. That’s where the magic really happens. It’s no wonder that so many scholarly academics cite LOTR as one of the greatest imaginative works of the twentieth century (if not all of mankind).
In fact, I’d argue that’s precisely what Peter Jackson had in mind when he launched his campaign for the motion picture trilogy adaptation of the LOTR: why not tell the part of the massive Tolkien library that’s most adventurous, most relevant, and most relatable? Sure, it may be out of chronological order, but there’s just so much more to sink your teeth into with the tale of Frodo, the One Ring, and the fate of Middle-earth. Plus, LOTR has Gollum as a pivotal character, not just an aside for a single chapter exploring the who, what, where, when, and why of Bilbo’s discovery of the ring.
He did it. New Line pitched in. And the rest is cinema history.
Now that the franchise was proven wildly successful, talk immediately sprang up about bringing a filmed adaptation of “The Hobbit” to multiplexes.
Jackson and New Line had suffered a falling out that was being resolved legally, so it appeared he’d be an unlikely candidate to helm this new adventure. A handful of names were thrown around, but the only one that rose to the surface (and stayed) was Guillermo del Toro. While he remained attached for some time, del Toro eventually dropped out of the project (though he retains a writing credit on the first of the completed films). Jackson was back in the director’s seat, and, thus, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey began as Part 1 of an all-new trilogy.
The film premiered domestically on December 14, 2012, mostly to mixed (though largely positive) reviews. Much of the critical hula boo centered on Jackson’s decision to photograph his picture in 48 frames per second, perhaps bringing Middle-earth alive with too much reality. This being only the first part of a trilogy, many reviewers seemed a bit reticent to discuss the actual story or, even worse, Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s original story. I think that’s a shame because, for my tastes, that’s where An Unexpected Journey comes apart slightly at its 48fps seams.
Now, I’ve no doubt that there’s no one better suited on the planet to take audiences back to Middle-earth than Peter Jackson. What he did with the LOTR was phenomenal – paradigm-shifting, even – especially when you consider that Jackson was a largely unheard of name in Hollywood. Yes, he had a few modest hits on his resume, but his wasn’t a name commonly shared in the same breath as a Spielberg or a Lucas or a Zemeckis. He proved it should be, and here we are.
Methinks the problems Jackson and his writing peers had centered on adapting “The Hobbit” into a truly cinematic experience. Anyone who has read it knows that, unlike the LOTR, the novel entirely focuses on Bilbo, his adventures, and what scholars ascribe as “his maturation in an outside world.” While he’s among a company of dwarves, the point-of-view focuses entirely on Bilbo, even when that means the Halfling only observes the action from afar.
Furthermore, unlike the LOTR’s central theme of saving life as we know it from extinction, “The Hobbit” is more a personal fable exploring greed – the dwarves spend countless pages coveting food, drink, song, and their jewels. Even Bilbo gets into the act toward the end of the book – I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but Mr. Baggins finds a way to use the Arkenstone to accomplish what he believes as proper and just (which can be said to be another form of greed).
In bringing this story to the screen, I thought Jackson had to take far more artistic license with the material than he had to do before. Many sequences – while derivative of events from the book – almost feel as if they were made to copy, reflect, or echo moments from the first trilogy. Isn’t much of the visit to Rivendell a bit too familiar to the same sequence from The Fellowship of the Ring? Doesn’t much of Gandalf’s rescue of Thorin and company from the underground kingdom of the goblins feel and look very much like the vastly superior (and much less hokey) Mines of Moria sequence? And, thematically, how does Boromir’s stand-off with Lurtz and the Uruk-hai truly differ from Thorin’s throw-down with the orc leader Azog?
I hate to nitpick (though fellow readers know I’m far from above it!), but I expected a bit more from An Unexpected Journey than a visual throwback to a greatly superior film. I reserved judgment for awhile (that’s why I took so long to pen something about my sentiments), and, as a fan of the films, I’m willing to give Jackson some time to prove me wrong.
But I’m warning you: if Smaug starts talking to himself, I’m outta here.