The cover of my own copy of “The Hobbit”
It’s 4:17am and I should really be in bed. But I wanted to mention a few things about The Hobbit while it is still fresh in my mind.
Unlike a lot of people, The Hobbit as a novel was not part of my childhood as much as it and The Lord of the Rings were part of my teen years. I like to read books before I see their cinematic adaptations, and when Lord of the Rings was released in the early aughts, I read through the books before I watched the films. I’ve written before about my lifelong reading habits, but Tolkien opened up a whole new world with his powerful descriptions, beautiful characters and endless appendices. I devoured them.
Frodo, Aragorn, Sam and the rest of the Fellowship were lampposts for me as I grew out of boyhood and stepped into the shallows of young adulthood. The last days of middle school and most of high school were not a barrel of monkeys for me, but Tolkien’s epic story about characters who repeatedly exemplified principles, courage, brotherly love and self-sacrifice were inspirations and encouragements in my life. Supplementary books like The Silmarillion and philological elements like the Appendices were the icing on the cake that was the exquisitely crafted story. The Hobbit is a very different book in style and tone, but as the direct and much-referenced prequel story to The Lord of the Rings, it is also very special to me.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of Peter Jackson’s new set of three annual cinematic Christmas presents to the world, in my honest and humble opinion, deftly captured the spirit of Tolkien’s original novel, wherein a hobbit is recruited by a band of dwarfs to recapture their mountain kingdom from the dragon who stole it. In the film, the twelve dwarfs are colorfully caricatured (as they should be) and introduce themselves to both Bilbo and the audience with low bow and an “at your service.” The returning cast of Lord of the Rings are, of course, superb as always. Martin Freeman is perfect as a young Bilbo, the hobbit gentleman of leisure who is so unwilling to be bothered with something as inconvenient as an adventure. Dialogue from The Hobbit and even the Appendices from The Lord of the Rings is quoted word-for-word, which I always appreciate.
But you want to know what I like most of all?
They kept the music!
The Dwarfs cheerily sing about “what Bilbo Baggins hates” after their first dinner in Bag End. Thorin leads the company in their song about Erebor. The Goblin King even belts out his own ditty about torture when the dwarfs are captured in the Misty Mountains. No song ever felt forced, and I applaud the cast and crew for capturing Tolkien’s vision of a world of musical and oral traditions.
Also to their credit, although The Hobbit was written for children, but Peter Jackson and Co. tied it into the more grounded world of Lord of the Rings as seamlessly as could ever be done. This initial chapter in The Hobbit is the perfect springboard for Lord of the Rings, with its inclusion of the White Council, Radagast the Brown and various other story elements that were either inferred or directly mentioned in The Lord of the Rings ten years ago. Particularly worth praise is the critical/pivotal/keystone/linchpin Riddle Game, which could not have been more perfect. Andy Serkis (Gollum) said in an interview with Stephen Colbert last week that he and Martin Freeman (Bilbo) performed the entire scene for each take as they would have a theatre piece, and the final product is a standout sequence in an already great film.
Naturally, book purists will have a few items with which to take issue. Each scene from the book is extended with some extra fighting or a chase sequence, but a book is a book and a movie is a movie. The only way to get a perfect “book experience” is to read the book, so I can gladly excuse three or four minutes of Hollywood-style embellishment in a film almost three hours in length.
To close this review, I want to call attention to the character of Bilbo himself. In any story, the lead character needs an arc, some kind of personal growth or change in personality that helps define and endear him to the audience. Bilbo goes through quite an arc in the books, evolving from a prematurely stuffy and armchair-bound hobbit to an adventurer who starts to take risks not because he has to, but because he suddenly wants to. Whether his reach exceeds his grasp is always another matter entirely, but the point remains that he changes for the better.
We already know the onscreen Bilbo from Ian Holm’s performance in The Lord of the Rings, but since The Hobbit takes us back in time sixty years, we have to get reacquainted with him as a younger and much different Hobbit, one who resorts to multiple and curt uses of “good morning” to dismiss the strange wizard who appears at his doorstep. He is much different than the opinionated, devil-may-care old veteran we know from previous films. Hired for an adventure in a place he’s never been, to do a job he doesn’t know how to do, his presence feels superfluous to the rest of the group. Bilbo is naive and prone to complain at even mild deprivations in his creature comforts. He carries an overstuffed rucksack, laments forgetting a handkerchief and fails to bring his own weapon. But, gradually, he changes.
Each of Bilbo’s efforts to avoid discomfort or danger results in danger finding him nonetheless, and his change as a person came to much more vivid life than I expected, because we see him physically reduced in some ways and increased in others.
Remember in the book, when he escapes Gollum and it is briefly mentioned that he loses the brass buttons off his waistcoat when squeezing through a crack? Those buttons are quite symbolic when you see the scene on film.
First, Bilbo gains his sword, then loses his rucksack of clothes and blankets in a tussle with a goblin. He loses the buttons off of his coat while escaping Gollum in the caves, but emerges with the One Ring.
By the end of the film, Bilbo has been stripped down to his essence: he is a barefoot Hobbit, dressed in plain clothing, carrying a sword and a magic ring. As the final scene fades out, we have seen Bilbo refined–simplified–and ready for the next stage of his adventure, the part that will forge him into the hobbit we already know, including the famous naming of his Elvish sword. That’s a great character arc.
Thanks for the Christmas gift, Mr. Jackson. I can’t wait to see what you’ll give us next year.