Upon my initial viewing of The Hobbit, recently returned from Israel and jet-lagged beyond belief, I thought I knew what Peter Jackson was trying to do in An Unexpected Journey. He was trying to put Bilbo's journey in a bigger context, to make it not just the story of one hobbit, but a whole story of Middle Earth. Right?
Turns out, I was wrong. That is, I didn't quite get the whole thing. An Unexpected Journey is not really a tale of Middle Earth. At heart, it still is the story of Bilbo Baggins. But it manages to expand, and get out of Bilbo's head a bit, and so it also becomes a story of the dwarves. And here is where it succeeds.
If you've read the book lately, or remember it well enough from your childhood, you might remember that in this fairytale-of-a-story, the dwarves aren't really people. And by that, I don't mean that they are a race of dwarves who are not men -- I mean that they are not good characters. They don't really have personalities, extensive backstories, or lives before and beyond the quest. A few of them have characteristics -- Thorin is authoritative, Fili and Kili are young, Bombur is fat -- but not enough to make a personality, or a character. On the whole, it's hard to tell one dwarf from another.
Not so in the movie. We knew from one of the first behind-the-scenes videos that Peter Jackson was making an effort to differentiate the dwarves. Visually, that was immediately clear. Fili looks nothing like Ori who looks nothing like Balin who looks nothing like Dwalin who looks nothing like Thorin. And though we don't (and can't) get to know every dwarf, the film does feature a few who we do get to know. Ori is the not-so-bright goofball of the bunch. Kili loves pulling Bilbo's leg. Bofur, despite his ridiculous, Jayne-like hat, is a whole lot sweeter than you might have expected from him. And Balin is Thorin's wise old hand, who's been through all the hard years of wandering with him, and recognizes the natural leader in the younger dwarf, and supports him.
And while we're talking about Thorin Oakenshield, it is his character that the movie really does justice to. The first time I saw the movie, I thought the prologue seemed unnecessary, a trick of storytelling left over from the trilogy that PJ just couldn't let go of, a trick that allowed him to put in more disaster and battle scenes. I thought that no prologue was needed -- the story of the Lonely Mountain and Smaug isn't a complex one, someone could just tell it at the dinner table in Bag End, just like Tolkien did in the book, and we'd be on with our way, right? But showing Erebor in its former splendor, the town of Dale when it was prosperous, and its destruction at the hands of Smaug--without revealing to the viewer the dragon himself!--merely follows a line of good storytelling ("show, don't tell"). And showing us Thorin wandering and taking odd jobs to survive, is essential to his character. Though the writers stretched the story a bit regarding the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs (for more details, look at Appendix A, section 4, Durin's Folk), the fact is that war was an important part of Thorin's life, and his identity. They might have won the war, but it was at an enormous cost. He is lonely, and longing for what he believes has been taken from him, a longing that manifests itself in bitterness, stubbornness, and a need for revenge.
When Thorin, finally having regained the Lonely Mountain, stands at its barricaded gates and refuses to recognize the men of Dale and the elves of Mirkwood, he comes off as haughty, arrogant, a fool. But by the time we see him at that moment, I suspect in the third film, There and Back Again, I think we'll feel differently, thanks to Peter Jackson and his team. Ever since the dwarves awakened a Balrog in Moria in the middle of the Third Age, they've been a wandering, homeless people. They made a kingdom in Erebor, then abandoned it for the Grey Mountains, then fled to the Iron Hills, then moved back to Erebor, then ended up in the Blue Mountains near the sea after years of wandering the desolation of Smaug. Really, Bilbo hits it right on the head when he says:
"You haven't got a home, none of you do!"
"It's all right… you're right. We don't belong anywhere."
And Bofur, in his gracious act of kindness, stops up his self-pity and wishes Bilbo well, wherever he goes. He and his fellow dwarves may not have a home, but he is unwilling to deny Bilbo his own sense of place as a sacrifice. It's a gesture that, in combination with his encounter with Gollum shortly afterwards, is a huge turning point in Bilbo's character. Before this, he was along for the ride, along for the adventure, for the fun. But he knows, now, that it's not like that. And yet, he stays. Why? Well, it brings me back to my favorite part of The Two Towers, as stated by Samwise Gamgee:
"Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something."
"What are we holding onto, Sam?"
"There's good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it's worth fighting for."
And what is Bilbo holding onto? The one thing that he's known, that he is sure of.
"I know you doubt me. I know you always have. I often think of Bag End… That's where I belong. That's home. You don't have one. It was taken from you, but I will help you get it back if I can."
Our hobbit has changed. And as Gandalf said, he will not come back the same. For Tolkien's Bilbo, as much as I love him, was kind of an annoying, complacent busybody who all of a sudden transformed into this semi-heroic figure. Thanks to Martin Freeman, we are seeing the how and why Bilbo changed. Partially it was through the empowering experiences he went through, but it was also out of sheer kindness--the kindness shown towards him by some of the other dwarves, the kindness of his own heart, and the kindness that he sees that Thorin has, but doesn't know how to express.
The additions that the script makes to Bilbo's character are wonderful, but it is Martin Freeman himself that makes the difference. From the moment his casting was announced, I was excited about it. I was convinced that the actor who played the awkward everyman so well in such different situations (compare John Watson in Sherlock and his role as the naked stand-in in Love Actually) would make him the perfect Bilbo. And I do believe I was right. He portrays the perfect complacent hobbit I always imagined, shoved out the door and yanked on an adventure he never imagined he'd be a part of. He has the right combination of adorable ignorance and touching humanity, and shows it so wonderfully well. I don't think there could have been a better Bilbo. He was particularly brilliant in the Gollum scene, and I so wish that Andy Serkis had more screen time in this story, but alas. I'll just have to watch The Two Towers again.
And as for the larger story? It was for the most part, very well done. The White Council was exactly how I'd imagined it when I read Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth. Hugo Weaving's Elrond was actually the wise, kind elf-lord he's supposed to be, rather than the grumpy-pants who merely points out all the flaw's in Gandalf's plan when Frodo arrives in Rivendell. And of course, it was lovely to return to that gorgeous place, and I was thrilled that we got to see more of it. I am so glad that Christopher Lee was well enough to film his parts, because his Saruman was a welcome return as well. And I loved the relationship between Gandalf and Galadriel -- the humorous mind-speech, as well as the intimate connection they have.
But, like many others, I had problems with this movie as well. It's been said many a time by many a reviewer, so I won't press the point, but here it is: this movie was too long. Not only was there no sense of urgency to the story, there was not a lot of movement to it, either. It's been widely acknowledge that Peter Jackson went overboard. He needs to write a cleaner script, and he needs to learn to cut. He also needs to learn how to film battle scenes that don't look like they're in a video game, because that just makes the audience feel cheated, not to mention jerked out of the story.
As for the technological issue: I've done it both ways. I saw it the first time in ordinary mode -- that is, 2-D, and regular frame rate -- and liked it then. For comparison's sake, I saw it in 3-D at 48 frames per second. And yes, the high frame rate was sort of jarring at first. But after awhile, I got used to it. And minus the battle scenes (which were just bad on their own), I actually appreciated it. He's taking a big step, and I don't know if the film industry will follow. But I don't think it's a wrong step.
Here's the truth: I had faith in Peter Jackson. I had faith he would make the perfect movie. And yea, it's a bit disappointing to be let down. I know he can do amazing work -- we saw it throughout the trilogy, particularly in Return of the King. But I had pretty high expectations. And in spite of the fact that it wasn't well-crafted as a movie in general, as a whole story, I loved it. I really did love it. I had a fantastic time watching it, both times. I laughed, I cried (yea, I'm a sucker). It wasn't all that I hoped for, but as a fan, it came pretty damn close. Sometimes you just have to go with what you've got. Sometimes you can't ask for everything, and certainly not for perfect. But if these aren't the movies we were hoping for, I still think that Peter Jackson made them for us, the fans. And that makes me happy.
I've been through lots of book-to-movie adaptations, and at the end of the day, I try to keep a pledge. I pledge to remain happy if they captured the spirit of the book. And as different as this movie was, I believe that it did capture that spirit. Tolkien was undoubtedly and unquestionably present in this movie. For me, it was most apparent in the question Galadriel asks Gandalf, a question that is really never satisfactorily answered by Tolkien: why, of all the people in the world, of all the Hobbits in the Shire, did he pick Bilbo Baggins to round out Thorin's company?
"Why the Hafling?"
"Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay... small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid and he gives me courage."
If that is not beautiful, I don't know what is. And I enjoyed that moment, with all my heart and courage.
What did you think of The Hobbit? Did the film capture the spirit, or not? What did you love, and what needs work? Share your thoughts in the comments below!