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Critical Distance: Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There’s more to An Unexpected Journey than self-conscious nostalgia and fan pandering.

Critical Distance: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Photo: Warner Bros.

The critical response to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part in Peter Jackson’s new film trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, suggests that it’s bloated and deficient of the propulsive energy that typified the Lord of the Rings films. The likely cause of dissatisfaction stems from Jackson’s approach toward adapting the book. Whereas Jackson and his writing team condensed each volume of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy into its own film, with The Hobbit they’ve opted to adapt a considerably more straightforward narrative into three films. Thus, An Unexpected Journey only represents a small portion of the book. Critics have seized on this and critiqued the nearly three-hour film for being padded and flabby. While not necessarily untrue, these charges have fueled an abundance of banal commentaries bereft of any real insight into or about the movie. What’s most discouraging about this is that An Unexpected Journey, though certainly vulnerable to criticism, is a more layered film than we’ve been led to believe.

Putting aside the question of whether claims of boredom constitute valid criticism, the differences in respective source material for both An Unexpected Journey and Jackson’s massively successful Lord of the Rings opus bear important consideration. So before getting to the movie, some context on The Hobbit is helpful. The novel represents Tolkien’s first foray into the world of Middle-earth. It’s been called a children’s story, but The Hobbit is foremost an episodic but deliriously brisk adventure set in a land of trolls, elves, and dwarves. That its own narrator is uninterested in and glosses over major chunks of the story quite frankly lends to the book’s charm. Ironically, Tolkien would go on to expound the history and various cultures of Middle-earth in laborious detail over countless other written works, but The Hobbit remains a pure adventure, always modest in telling even as it slowly expands in scope.

For Jackson, one of the challenges of adapting The Hobbit was to stay true to the spirit of the text while also remaining consistent with themes and atmospheres of The Lord of the Rings movies. Those films’ streamlined interpretations of Tolkien’s markedly dense books arrived partially out of necessity, but also in the interest of accessibility to mainstream audiences. Whereas Jackson’s assignment with the The Lord of the Ring trilogy was to mold crowd-pleasing spectacle, it’s evident immediately at the outset of An Unexpected Journey that his task now is to satisfy the massive fan base he’s cultivated since. The film opens with an epic prologue detailing the history of the dwarves and their quest for gold. While it offers up the necessary exposition, more than anything this prelude reveals a deep tension that will likely define this new trilogy. Nothing more clearly expresses this than how Jackson attempts switch gears and pick up the modest beginnings of The Hobbit—and Tolkien’s lighter tone along with it.

Just like in the Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) leads an uneventful life in the Shire. That is, until Gandalf (Ian McKellen) arrives at his doorstep seeking a companion for adventure. But by this time, it’s already quite apparent that Jackson is only partially interested in recalling the mood of The Hobbit. In fact, Jackson is so beholden to The Lord of the Rings films that he squanders most attempts at evoking Tolkien’s wistful sense of adventure. Instead of concentrating on the reluctant protagonist and the beginnings of his journey with a clan of dwarves, An Unexpected Journey, in true prequel fashion, also initiates the roots for how The Lord of the Rings will evolve, most notably in a secondary plot featuring a new and eccentric wizard played by Sylvester McCoy. It remains to be seen what will come of this thinly drawn subplot in subsequent films, but in this film it doesn’t quite gel with the stories of Bilbo and the dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) that Jackson works to establish.

Beyond filling in the story gaps that Tolkien left in the story, Jackson goes even further to connect An Unexpected Journey to the Oscar-winning trilogy. In fact, one could say he thoroughly Lord of the Rings-izes this film. Not only does he insert familiar faces (Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee, namely) seemingly at every turn, he also supplies more of those trademark but increasingly stale slow-motion close-ups and panoramic “trekking” shots. Even Howard Shore’s score revisits many familiar musical cues.

All of these narrative and stylistic choices indicate that Jackson seems uncertain of what story he really wants to tell. Accordingly, An Unexpected Journey is stuck between expressing the minutia of detail in Tolkien’s texts and conjuring nostalgia for the Lord of the Rings films. Moreover, while Jackson’s drawn-out methods of spectacle suits comfortably with the stakes and urgency intrinsic to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, it’s not so smooth a fit with airier tones of The Hobbit. Thus, it’s fair to say the film is both unclear and disjointed and therefore deserving much of the criticism it has received.

But there’s more to An Unexpected Journey than self-conscious nostalgia and fan pandering. As we’ve come to expect with Jackson, when the director isn’t trying too strenuously to underline a point and allows the material to develop more naturally in his grand concert of effects and production design, his films pulsate with life. For instance, the early stretches of the film (once it finally settles down after the laborious prologues) have a worn charm about them that hews close to the ethos of Tolkien’s book, for which Freeman deserves as much credit as Jackson. His spot-on portrayal of Bilbo is in the same territory as McKellen’s turn as Gandalf. Freeman embodies the character with similar kind of command. He hints at a conflict within Bilbo that echoes the broader struggle between exploration and familiarity and which resounds through all of Tolkien’s work. As Ali Arikan has poined out, Tolkien conveyed quite clearly that he favored the quieter life. Jackson’s film is conflicted, not unlike its own central character. Indeed, An Unexpected Journey is contradictory and directionless about its own themes, as Ali eloquently argued, but I would propose that Jackson’s subtler talents emerge out of those very confused sensibilities. Whether he intends it or not, Jackson poignantly articulates the universal fear that the world might swallow you, thanks mostly to Freeman, who makes Bilbo’s longing to be home palpable and relatable. But he goes deeper than a conventional fish-out-of-water approach, even maybe hinting at a self-loathing desire within Bilbo to prove to his companions and to himself that he can to be something more than a homesick hobbit.

Freeman intimates this as early as the unexpected party scene. In one particularly brilliant moment, when Gandalf is prodding Bilbo about leaving the Shire, Freeman manages to turn the simple act of sitting in a chair into a resolute act of defiance. Moments later, in a scene infused with an ethereal sense of foreboding that’s also one of Jackson’s most quietly lyrical moments as a filmmaker, Bilbo puzzlingly gazes on as the dwarves gather around the fire and sing of dungeons and gold. Adventure beckons, and it’s almost too irresistible. That may be why something gnaws at Bilbo’s relief the next morning when he peeks around his empty abode before deciding to join the company. In Bilbo’s pause before a mad dash through the Shire, Freeman plays the moment as if the hobbit is surprised and disappointed in himself for not feeling more content that the dwarves have left.

In Tolkien’s brisk passages, we don’t ever get a sense of an emotional angle to the story and characters, but Bilbo’s uncertainty about stepping out and exploring the unknown imbues An Unexpected Journey with understated and surprisingly deft emotional flavor. And though Jackson is intent on clarifying these overtones, Freeman assuredly steers the film in a direction where it gradually realizes its nuances. Not surprisingly, the film strays whenever it loses sight of Bilbo, which unfortunately it does more often than it ought to. Jackson’s attempt to establish Thorin, for example, isn’t nearly as compelling as the director would have us believe. The material involving the world-weary dwarves, in fact, is most effective when pitted as a counter to Bilbo. The dwarves, though not particularly well developed (and nor were they by Tolkien), regard Bilbo with certain disdain. They treat him like an immature child who isn’t ready for the hardships the world has in store for those brave enough to be part of it. While Bilbo eventually earns the dwarves’ trust by the end of the film, more interesting is that he hasn’t yet convinced himself that he has a place outside his own small existence in the Shire.

Another compelling disparity arises out of An Unexpected Journey’s thematic link to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Whereas the trilogy more plainly dealt with concepts of fate, sacrifice, and simply mattering, Jackson’s often-disjointed approach to The Hobbit amplifies a vastly different rendering of heroism and identity. Even more so than Tolkien’s novel, An Unexpected Journey is about chance, as well as the impact of seemingly insignificant choices, not only on one’s own life, but also on the environment around them. This beams through Freeman’s performance, but also in the episodic and sometimes random nature of the story itself. The plight of a hobbit and some dwarves are of minor concern when played against the dangers of the wild, which Bilbo himself learns in an encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis) under the mountain. Though Jackson frames the Ring of Power’s exchange over to Bilbo’s possession as a major dramatic beat, this moment expresses an unsettling truth regarding Jackson’s still-forming Middle-earth mosaic. Bilbo is completely unaware (and remains ignorant even through The Lord of the Rings) of how his decision to spare Gollum sets events in motion that will prove both devastating and eventually redeeming for Middle-earth. Moreover, these events come not out of dramatic acts of heroism or a singularly defining moment of character, but instead from a simple act of pity.

An Unexpected Journey is inarguably a problematic and incomplete film. Nonetheless, Jackson’s own wariness to settle on a conclusive interpretation of Tolkien’s text yields instances of unexpected depth the likes of which most often escape a more focused and polished affair like Lord of the Rings. I’m not suggesting that An Unexpected Journey is as conventionally satisfying as Jackson’s momentous Lord of the Rings trilogy or as crisp and lively as Tolkien’s novel. Nor can I fault anyone for finding it off-putting. Even still, however dubious was Jackson’s decision to split the book into three movies, An Unexpected Journey cannot be characterized as a cynical cash grab or simple exercise in excess. Its relationship to previous texts—from past movies to the source novel—is unmistakably rich, if not fluid. It’s fiercely loyal to the themes, images, and DNA of the Lord of the Rings films, even though it ostensibly twists their notions of fate and redemption. It also magnifies the underlying sensibilities of Tolkien’s novel by accentuating the conflict between choosing a life of adventure versus one of quiet comfort. The result is a fascinating experiment in formal as well as existential tension.

But An Unexpected Journey’s most significant accomplishment derives from Freeman’s lead performance, which anchors the orgy of slick effects, slapstick humor, and overblown dramatic schemes, crystallizing Jackson’s muddled storytelling into something idiosyncratic and almost subtle. By centering on the simmering anxiety underscoring Bilbo’s first steps into a larger world, An Unexpected Journey is ultimately a worthwhile adventure, even if its own hero remains uncertain on that point.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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