Where's Bilbo?

TW Review by Martha Nichols 

An Unexpected Journey Into Bad Storytelling

 


When I first read The Hobbit, I don’t recall feeling wowed. A jaded tween, I'd already inhaled The Lord of the Rings, struggling with Frodo and Sam through the reek of Mordor.

But this past summer, when I reread The Hobbit with my ten-year-old son, Tolkien’s prequel delighted me. My boy often giggled at the dialogue ("Confusticate and bebother these dwarves!") or the songs, which I sang in a goofy voice for him.

I finally got it. Tolkien intended the adventures of hobbit Bilbo Baggins to have the quality of a saga told aloud. For instance, after a perilous ascent up a mountain pass, Bilbo and his companions find shelter from a storm. Tolkien wrote:

It turned out a good thing that night that they had brought little Bilbo with them, after all. For, somehow, he could not go to sleep for a long while; and when he did sleep, he had very nasty dreams. He dreamed that a crack in the wall at the back of the cave got bigger and bigger…. Then he dreamed that the floor of the cave was giving way, and he was slipping—beginning to fall down, down, goodness knows where to.

I love the yarn-spinning quality of Tolkien’s book. In many ways, The Hobbit is a far more tightly crafted and voice-driven work than The Lord of the Rings, which has a thick braid of plotlines and characters. Bilbo’s journey with a company of dwarves and Gandalf the wizard to battle the dragon Smaug—over the hills, through the dark forests, under the Misty Mountains, into the Goblin King's lair—seems perfect for a movie.

One movie.

And that’s the trouble with director Peter Jackson’s adaptation. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which opened in theaters around the country on December 14, includes most of the key scenes in the first third of Tolkien’s book. Many are fun to watch on screen: the arrival of the dwarves at Bilbo’s hobbit hole, the idiot trolls arguing with each other about how to cook their captives, giant eagles swooping through the air.

It’s the extra stuff troweled on by Jackson and his New Zealand Weta Workshop, visually inventive as it may be, that makes this revamp so tedious and disappointing.

I could complain about Ian McKellen’s overacting as Gandalf, or that the hotshot dwarves Fili and Kili appear to be played by surfer dudes, but what’s really wrong with this movie is the writing. To date, An Unexpected Journey has garnered mixed reviews, with many critics rightly pointing to how much the story has been savaged. I’d go farther and say that, beyond a muddled mess of a plot, the feel of Tolkien’s original has been lost.

By deciding to turn The Hobbit into three movies, the filmmakers and producers have sucked most of the whimsy out of the main storyline. They’ve attempted to make The Hobbit a serious epic embedded in the larger mythos of The Lord of the Rings, but I winced at the clinker dialogue and comic book-like battles with a zillion orcs.

It's the Rings movies gone haywire. I've watched Jackson's earlier cinematic spectacles many times, but even those terrific films are easily parodied. (Try googling "Legolas! What do your elf eyes see?")

Still, I eagerly anticipated Jackson's take on The Hobbit, so it's foul news indeed when a fan like me rolls her eyes and laughs in the wrong places.

The thing I truly didn’t expect of An Unexpected Journey is how far Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) has been shoved into the background. In the movie version, there are too many protagonists, starting with the leader of the dwarves. Glowering Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) has become a handsome hero who just happens to be a tad short.

The screenwriting trio of Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens (Guilleremo del Toro also gets a screenplay credit) is certainly capable of adding emotional depth to a quest story by Tolkien. But here they’ve opted to beef up Thorin and Gandalf—even Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), an addled wizard of the woods who’s a cross between Saint Francis and Mr. Bean.

Freeman's Bilbo is appealing, yet the script offers few insights about what his hobbit character imagines or expects or observes. Early on in the book, for example, the company go to Rivendell to consult with Lord Elrond. Of their arrival, Tolkien wrote:

Just then there came a burst of song like laughter in the trees…. They were elves of course. Soon Bilbo caught glimpses of them as the darkness deepened. He loved elves, though he seldom met them; but he was a little frightened of them too.

Nothing in the movie conveys Bilbo’s point of view in this way. In one climactic scene where Thorin admits that he was wrong about the hobbit, Bilbo sweetly says, “I would doubt me, too,” adding that he's no warrior.* Unfortunately, Freeman’s offhand delivery and the lack of dramatic foreshadowing give this speech no heft.

One of the most amusing threads in Tolkien’s tale is Bilbo’s ability to think himself out of a pickle. Alas, the hobbit’s calculations don't drive the movie's plot, and when Gollum appears, the evil little creature steals the show. As played by Andy Serkis, Gollum eats up the screen. The trouble is, Bilbo doesn’t seem like a worthy opponent.

They ask each other riddles, as Tolkien had them do. Gollum agrees to show Bilbo the way out of the mountain if Bilbo wins their riddle game; if Gollum wins, “we eats it, my preciousss.” But the book's Gollum chapter (“Riddles in the Dark”), which Tolkien revised after The Hobbit’s initial publication in order to make the events match his Rings trilogy, generates far more creepy, hilarious tension between these two:

‘All right!’ said Bilbo, not daring to disagree, and nearly bursting his brain to think of riddles that could save him from being eaten.

'Thirty white horses on a red hill,
First they champ,
Then they stamp,
Then they stand still.'

That was all he could think of to ask—the idea of eating was rather on his mind.
It was rather an old one, too, and Gollum knew the answer as well as you do....

‘Teeth! teeth! my preciousss; but we has only six!’

This riddle appears in the movie, but the answer is swallowed by the theatrics of slinking Gollum and Bilbo leaping around with a sword. Much as I enjoy Serkis’s display of multiple personalities, The Hobbit was not named for Gollum. As soon as Bilbo escapes from him with the ring, Gollum has no more part in Tolkien’s prequel. But I wouldn’t put it past Jackson to bring Gollum back in his second and third installments.

 

 

I’m not a book purist, much as I'll always love Tolkien's trilogy. I thought Jackson and crew made excellent changes to the complicated storyline of The Lord of the Rings. They captured the gravity and feel of that epic, regardless of details. I could even go with young Elijah Wood standing in for the original thirty-plus-year-old Frodo.

But when Wood shows up again at the beginning of An Unexpected Journey, as part of a larger frame story about old Bilbo writing the book, it already feels as if The Hobbit has been hijacked. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment in the new movie when the Rings magic fizzles, but it does. Perhaps it’s the subtitles for Orc speak: Drink their blood! The dwarf-scum are over there! Perhaps it’s the completely unnecessary appearance of the Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) drifting around a council meeting in Rivendell.

Perhaps it’s the bird shit streaking Radagast’s hair—or Saruman (Christopher Lee) at that council, dismissing the wacky brown wizard because he’s eaten too many mushrooms.

The whole trumped-up council scene, in fact, seems like an outtake from the Rings franchise. Hey, let’s not waste anything on the cutting-room floor, even if it's an asinine hippie joke about magic mushrooms.

Maybe that’s too snarky. And it’s inaccurate, given that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is far from a low-budget affair. But still, as I watched this latest cinematic evocation of Middle Earth, the word “franchise” was never far from my mind.

Indeed, a great sadness clouded my eyes. A shadow descended, as I contemplated the passing of all good things into the glimmering lights of the West.

 

*Editorial correction, 12/22/12: The following passage has been revised to correct an error: "In one scene where he overhears Thorin complaining about the hobbit, Bilbo sweetly confronts him: “I would doubt me, too,” he says, adding that he's no warrior." Bilbo does confront Thorin, and he does say this line, but not in the same scene.

 


Publication Information

  • The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien, originally published by George Allen & Unwin, 1937 (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

 


© Hadley Langosy

Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing.

She and her son are now almost finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring—and it's a glorious tale, no question. But there's nothing like reading The Hobbit out loud, Martha insists, even if your audience is occasionally squirmy and mischievous.

"Too often, I’ve suppressed my creative fire. For too long, I’ve ridden my anger like a beautiful tiger, running, running—on the attack, until I panic and swerve in the other direction, locking away all that glorious strength." — "Wrath: The Tiger Inside"


 

 

Comments

I know, Ken. What saddens me is how this franchise-driven film cheapens the whole LOTR experience. I really didn't expect that Jackson's Hobbit would go off course in the way it did. The joy of his Rings movies is that they have the courage of their nerdly convictions, instilling the essence of Tolkien's epic into action-packed spectacles that managed to attract huge worldwide audiences. But now, it seems, we're back to the same lack of originality as in so many movie franchises, and the fine writing that can make something as improbable as The Fellowship of the Ring convincing in a movie now seems to have gone up in one of Gandalf's smoke rings.

Thanks,Susanna. Yesterday, I watched it again, this time with my ten-year-old, and a second viewing only reinforced how badly the new material Jackson added just keeps stopping the narrative action dead. My son hated all the unnecessarily gruesome stuff with the "pale orc," and kept checking his watch to see when the movie was over.

At one point, I only convinced him to stay by saying he should wait for Gollum. He did love Gollum and said he felt sorry for him. That's the right response, I think—but it shows how all the other trumped-up heroics in the movie are all action, no heart.

Gary, you're very right that if Jackson had kept us with Bilbo as he does in "The Unexpected Party" scene, The Hobbit as a movie would have worked fine on its own terms. (That scene even has Bilbo saying, "Confusticate these dwarves!", a version of the line my son loves so much in the book.) My "nothing in the movie" statement was a rhetorical exaggeration, of course (forgive me my own writerly license), and Jackson and his screenwriting partners are certainly capable of creating a character's point of view, as they do with Gollum and Thorin--and as they did with all the main characters in LOTR.

But the writing failures are what disappointed me here, one of which is their decision not to open the movie with "The Unexpected Party" scene (which is the first very delightful and comic chapter of the book) but to layer on a prologue about Smaug, followed by a retread with Frodo from LOTR. By the time we get to Bilbo's first meeting with Gandalf--also, well done--Bilbo is no longer the main character.

Methinks I'm going to reread the book and skip the movie. Thanks for an excellent review that answers all the questions and reservations I hadn't got around to having yet.

Hadley, Peter Jackson was clearly speaking to you and Middle Earth fans like you, and I'm glad his take on The Hobbit has sparked somebody. I'm always happy when readers and viewers sink into fictional worlds, even if this version of a fictional world doesn't work for me.

I'm a Tolkien fan who cares far less about the world building and appendices than I do the main stories being told. Maybe the necromancer subplot will make sense or get my heart pumping in the next installment; but right now, it just feels like a distraction. And I miss the original (albeit vague) Tolkien version of Radagast. The only thing that worked about his appearance in the movie was his hilarious sleigh driven my hotfooting bunnies.

I read LOTR and The Hobbit for plot and mythic themes and a dramatic arc--and I need that kind of story structure to make me suspend disbelief. I don't really care about a literal adaptation of The Hobbit, nor did I expect one. But you're right, I did want a faithful one--one that was faithful to the feel and pace of Tolkien's original. Jackson achieved that beautifully with the LOTR movies, but for me, he is very wide of the mark with The Hobbit--and I fear it's for reasons of grandiosity and the desire to milk this particular franchise dry.

While I am in agreement that Bilbo's craftiness is being too overshadowed in an attempt to try to give the entire company of fourteen - fifteen if you include Gandalf - a bit more character development and action, I am otherwise completely in love with this adaption. I adore that they are bringing parts of "The Silmarillion" into the film - even if Radagast is not the ent like wood shaman I have always imagined him to be - and one of the highlights of the entire film for me was getting to see Dale before it was ruined and to get to see how the dwarf kingdom used to look because they were so much how I imagine them. But then, I have always been into Tolkien for the history. I greedly gobble the History of Middle Earth series for that very reason. I love the necromancer story line. Always have. It further ties The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. Not many have bothered to read the appendix at the end of Lord of the Rings let alone The Silmarillion or any of Tolkiens notes. I love that they are furthering Gandalfs story, that he won't just vanish and pop back up. I am so excited for the next film I might burst because we are being allowed to see so much more of the world. So much more of the history. No, it's not a faithful adaption of the book... But I am not in it for the story, I'm in it for Middle Earth and, once again, I am allowed to dwell there for a bit.

Though I find your whole review engaging, I am especially drawn to your point that Bilbo has been "shoved into the background." In that context, you cite a passage from the book talking about Bilbo's reaction to catching glimpses of elves among the trees in Rivendell, and then assert, "Nothing in the movie conveys Bilbo’s point of view in this way."
Point of view is a special interest of mine, and in a review of The Hobbit, I make the point that Jackson does have some problems with his point-of-view crafting in certain parts of the film. However, I would say that in the early going, he does a good job of conveying Bilbo's point of view, even to the degree reflected in the "elves" passages in the book.
Consider the sequence covering his encounter with the dwarves at his house. As they arrive two by two, Bilbo has no idea who they are nor why they are there, and because Jackson has withheld this information from the viewers to this point, neither do they. In other words, the viewers are led to experience this encounter as Bilbo experiences it, that is, through his point of view. Also, the dwarves cause a chaotic state for Bilbo through the unique way they “do the dishes,” and the filming of this scene succeeds in having the viewers experience the chaos right along with Bilbo. Finally, it is only when Bilbo is told the reason for the dwarves coming to him that the viewers are informed of that reason; again, the minds of Bilbo and the viewers are kept in synch, contributing further toward the viewers seeing the story through Bilbo’s point of view.
It is lamentable Bilbo’s point of view eventually fades away, for if Jackson had been able to sustain this type of point-of-view crafting for the whole movie, Bilbo definitely would not have been “shoved into the background.”

This is so disappointing. When I saw the very mixed reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, I was shocked. I guess I just assumed The Hobbit in Peter Jackson's hands would be fabulous.

But--three movies? That just seems wrong. Life seems 'way too short for a nearly three-hour film that's only a third of the story.

Thanks for the thoughtful, in-depth review, Martha.

Add new comment

More Like This

Sep 28, 2012 | Screen Time
Nov 14, 2012 | Adaptations, Book Reviews, Screen Time
Nov 5, 2012 | Adaptations, Book Reviews, Screen Time