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Critical Distance: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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Critical Distance: <em>The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey</em>

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.


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