The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Released: December 14, 2012
Director: Peter Jackson
Production Companies: New Line Cinema, MGM, WingNut Films, 3Foot7
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
I can still vividly recall the first time I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in theatres. I had seen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in theatres only a few days before and enjoyed it. Although I had read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings books were unfamiliar to me. Still, based on the previews and pre-release hype, I expected a great movie. My exact thoughts upon the conclusion of The Fellowship of the Ring: Harry Potter has got nothing on this. I'd like to amend those thoughts now. Not only does the Harry Potter film series pale in comparison to Jackson's interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, but I firmly believe that all fantasy films will always pale in comparison to all of Jackson's films that take place in the world of Middle-earth.*
Seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was like returning home. The Lord of the Rings films profoundly affected me back when they were released, and now I believe the same should be said over the next few years with The Hobbit films. Not only am I a Tolkien fan for life, but I have also become a lifelong fan of Jackson's filmic interpretations of Tolkien's works.
The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, and the wizard Gandalf, who accompany a company of dwarves that seeks to regain their homeland from the dragon Smaug. The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, covers only a portion of their journey.
Due to a combination of factors, including the fact that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit before fully realizing the storyline that would become The Lord of the Rings and that Jackson chose to first portray The Lord of the Rings on the big screen, some adjustments had to be made to the film adaptations of The Hobbit. Tolkien himself recognized many of the inconsistencies between his two main works and actually went back to edit certain parts of The Hobbit. If An Unexpected Journey is any indication, Jackson has taken Tolkien's initial edits to an even more extreme degree. The Middle-earth depicted here is not quite the lighthearted one from the book. Hints of darkness creep up on the characters, from the spiders invading Mirkwood Forest to the orcs that are willing to hunt closer and closer to Rivendell's borders to the mentions of a necromancer. The Middle-earth of An Unexpected Journey teeters precariously between the hundreds of peaceful years preceding it and the impending War of the Ring that the viewers know is coming.
Yet An Unexpected Journey is hardly full of the doom and gloom that pervades The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Indeed, the dwarves sing merrily about Bilbo's expectations for house guests near the beginning of the film. The Shire is never touched by the darkness (at least if we focus on the film versions). Even as they're rolling dwarves on a spit, the trolls are portrayed as more farcical than dangerous.
It is in this juxtaposition between the lighthearted nature of the book and the more sweepingly epic and darker tone of the film where An Unexpected Journey hits a few snags. By expanding the story into three parts, Smaug is no longer sufficient as the sole villain. Thus Jackson took the orc Azog, briefly mentioned in The Hobbit as the slayer of Thorin's father Thrain, and morphs him into a vindictive foe seeking revenge for Thorin's mutilation of his arm. Azog as an antagonist harkens back to the violent and easy-to-hate enemies that The Lord of the Rings has in abundance. From the perspective of An Unexpected Journey in a film in and of itself, however, Azog almost trivializes the true mission. Shouldn't the audience be more focused on the dwarves' mission and the threat Smaug poses than having to worry about another enemy? The same goes for the fight between stone/cliff monsters on the mountain pass (and perhaps even more so). While Jackson opens up the world of The Hobbit to conflicts that are much vaster than the book itself imagines, those additions have the possibility of lessening or overriding what should be the main conflicts: confrontation with Smaug and a journey to recover the dwarven lands of Erebor.
With that being said, one of the better changes An Unexpected Journey makes to The Hobbit is in its portrayal of the dwarves' quest. While both the book and the film explains how the dwarves journey to the Lonely Mountain to recover the gold of their people, the film expands on this mission. It is not simply the gold that the dwarves want, but a place that they can regard as their home. From the opening sequences, it is clear that the dwarves of An Unexpected Journey have been able to get by without their ancient gold. Rather, Erebor acts as a lodestone, a lost kingdom with the potential to unite the dwarves together again. Thorin's ultimate conflict becomes his burden of responsibility to his people. If he cannot unite his people and reclaim their kingdom, then who can?
While Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a story for his children, Jackson's vision is much more epic. That's not to say that one is better than the other; one must simply keep in mind that they were created for different purposes. Ultimately, Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a film about belonging. His directorial choices, from the flashback of Smaug's takeover of Erebor to the dwarves' battle in Moria to Bilbo's own admittance that while he does miss his home, he wants to help the dwarves reclaim their own home, all speak to the human condition. In the midst of this fantastical world, all the dwarves want to do is reclaim the place that they believe is their home.
In select scenes it is clear that An Unexpected Journey is paying homage to The Lord of the Rings, from the frame narrative of Bilbo writing the story for Frodo to how the Ring simply falls on Bilbo's finger the way it does sixty years later with Frodo. Jackson seems to be well aware that the vast majority of his audience is familiar with his The Lord of the Rings films and banks on establishing some connections between the two stories.
As with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, An Unexpected Journey appears to be a labor of love. Could any director put as much effort and devotion into the film adaptations of one author's work? Even where Jackson does stray from the book itself, for the most part viewers can confidently assume that the inspiration for added scenes came from Tolkien's subsidiary works (like the appendices for The Lord of the Rings). Despite a few issues that most film adaptations undergo, An Unexpected Journey has breathed new life and interest in J.R.R. Tolkien's work. The cinematography alone should draw in viewers, and the intense focus on the human condition should keep them seated for the duration of the film.
*Obviously this is not an unbiased review. All reviews must include some sort of bias, but I can easily admit that my bias towards Tolkien's books and Jackson's films runs deeper than most.