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