Not All Adventures Begin Well: My Review of Peter Jackson’s Adaptation of The Hobbit

THE HOBBIT: UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Not all adventures begin well.

Certainly, as we have it in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a hapless Bilbo Baggins all but stumbles into his first adventure, racing off toward the Lonely Mountain without his handkerchief or his pocketbook. Practically naked without the comforts of home, it isn’t until Mirkwood that Bilbo really begins to find his (hairy) feet. In the end, Thorin’s quest is the remaking of this Hobbiton homebody, and the writing of a story’s end that Bilbo could neither have wished nor even imagined.

Just as Bilbo’s adventure had an awkward start, so did Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fairytale. Though we have the lovely pastoral setting of Bag End, the beginning of An Unexpected Journey is awkward and forced, missing much of the hobbitness I love. Although there were stilted moments at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring—“a wizard is never late” followed by six minutes of laughter, for example—party preparations laced in with Bilbo’s descriptions of hobbits remains one of my favourite scenes of the Trilogy on The Hobbit Dwarfs Filmfilm.

Instead, we are treated to an artificial and unnatural narrative link to The Lord of the Rings, including an ill-used cameo by Elijah Wood. The conversation between Bilbo and Frodo is stilted, and lacks the wink to the LOTR fan that could have been embedded in the prequel. It isn’t until we are taken through Dale and to the Lonely Mountain that the story starts to come together. It is Smaug’s desecration of Erebor and the lovely telling of Dale’s fate that finally draws us into the myth.

As I read through Tolkien’s letters, the publishers indicate that the first readers of The Hobbit clamoured for more hobbits. I feel very much the same. Martin Freeman as Bilbo captures well the fearsome, stolid nature of the Bagginses, but we are missing the hobbitish context in which he lives. As Bilbo discovers the Took inside him, the audience will be tempted to forget how very unhobbit-like this development is. We spend half an hour or so in Bagend HobbitBag End, but only a few seconds in Hobbiton. Why, after all, do we begin with the story of a hobbit? It is the job of an adapter to take what is written as description in The Hobbit and show it to us on film, and I think Jackson falters here.

It is the mythic element, I believe, that we are missing in Jackson’s tale. At the beginning of the LOTR Trilogy we hear Galadriel recounting the fall of Middle Earth, setting up the crisis that faces the generation: a power that hobbits—“the least of these,” so to speak—are uniquely equipped to resist. Tolkien’s work is deeply mythological, layered majestically. If Peter Jackson were filming a fairytale, that mythic framing need not be there. But he is taking a fairytale for children and adapting it as an epic. And although Hugo Weaving Elrondthis is not the ring tale, per se, it is setting us up for that tale. For Jackson to do the job that he intends, we need the epic set up. Fortunately, mythic elements are linked throughout the film, so we are not left without the larger view of Tolkien’s cosmos. At the beginning, however, we experience some genre confusion.

Soon enough, though, the adventure begins in earnest and we are left with what is, overall, an enjoyable film. The colours are crisp, the images sharp, and we get a peak at the dwarvishness that only comes in hints in the LOTR films. The storyline moves forward with the original book, though aspects are rearranged for comedic or pacing purposes–particularly for the purpose of allowing Bilbo’s bravery to peak earlier than in the book. I think this is particularly well done with the trolls, though I wish they had spent more Gollumtime in Rivendale. Much of the film is taken up with shaping the background story of Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, the last King Under the Mountain, and these are some of the best scenes. Gollum’s scene is exceptionally well done, though the finding of the ring matches neither the LOTR films nor Tolkien’s tale. I feel like Thorin’s resistance of Bilbo is overdrawn and is resolved too early. But the background stories of Thorin and the dwarves, from Erebor to the goblin wars, are the highlights for me.

Not all adventures begin well, but it isn’t only the beginning that matters. I went to this film twice—the second time without the distraction of the 3D—and found I was able to enjoy it much more the second time. While I felt the first time like I had to jog along with Jackson to keep up, my second time through was a lot of fun. I know that Tolkien purists and those more literate in the screened arts will make better critics than I. But I am simply a fan of Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey included. No, it isn’t nearly as good as the 1st and 3rd of the Trilogy, but excluding the a few moments at the beginning, An Unexpected Journey approaches the Trilogy in my mind. And, as we await part two, I can only pray with Bilbo that “at least the worst is behind us.”

The Hobbit 13 Dwarves named

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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27 Responses to Not All Adventures Begin Well: My Review of Peter Jackson’s Adaptation of The Hobbit

  1. jubilare says:

    I must mull on your assessment to see how much it agrees with mine, but I can say without reservation that I prefer the 2-D slower frame-rate. I saw that version first, and yet I still had a similar experience to you, with the 3-D and HFR being more of a distraction than anything.

    My biggest problems with the film have to do with pacing, and issues with Bilbo’s character-arc being pushed forward. I think… I may also agree with you on the intro being misplaced, though. Overall, I enjoyed the film, though, and naturally I love seeing the Dwarves get some overdue development. 😀

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  2. I think we are pretty close here. I accepted the Bilbo self-discovery as part of the central plotpoint of this film, so it was okay. And i agree about the dwarves. i look forward to you review!

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    • jubilare says:

      Ah, no review from me, though I’ll happily discuss. I prefer reading reviews to trying to write them.

      I feel that Bilbo had plenty of growth and self-discovery without charging forward alone to attack an orc. If they had softened that part, I don’t think I would have a problem.

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      • Yep, the whole thing was a bit crazy. But by that time I’ve bought into the film and I’m running along. An arrow from Kili (or Fili–I can’t remember) might have done. I don’t think Bilbo’s distraction needed to have been a full tackle, but the inneffectual tossing of a stone that bought a moment.

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  3. Agreed on many points but my main concern with the film and with the character-arc was that Bilbo’s ‘bravery’ is more machismo and less ‘i’m back in a corner and have no other choice’. In the book he is credited for cleverness and resourcefulness for sneaking out of the mountain. In the movie he is only ‘accepted’ when he draws a sword and faces down an orc… which really stretched believability too far.

    Stabbing at spiders when one is invisible is one thing, staring down something created my Melkor with the sole intent of killing things is another entirely.

    But either way… they build him into a warrior… which he never was in the book. Just a plain old hobbit, that, when he really needed to, would do what he had to do.

    To me it changes the core of the book.

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    • I largely agree Dave. I’ve bought in by this point and follow it along. I said elsewhere the tossing of a pebble to buy a few moments would have worked fine, rather than a full tackle of an orc.
      I don’t see him as warrior yet. But I suspect that Jackson misunderstands the “luck” of Bilbo. For Tolkien, there was a symmetry to the luck, a reason for it. Jackson sees it as largely literary. So perhaps a different Bilbo.

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  4. Mary says:

    That Bag End link scene to LOTR was a really uncomfortable bit for me. For one thing, both Ian Holm and Elijah Wood looked noticeably older. Also, I understand that Jackson was trying hard to make that link between LOTR and The Hobbit so when I watched the movie alone, it didn’t bother me that much and I just viewed it as one of those scenes that probably could (should?) have been edited out but wasn’t because this is Jackson and he has free reign pretty much, thanks to the massive success of LOTR. But I recently went and saw it again with my parents and that bit bothered me much more because I realized my mom had no idea what was going on. Not a Tolkien fan, she’s only seen Fellowship of the Ring once (when it first came out!) and none of the rest of the trilogy. So Frodo, old Bilbo, the fast approaching birthday party…while they might be acceptable to us as fans, to others it’s just confusing.

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  5. kathils says:

    You pretty much summed up my thoughts on the movie. I’ve seen it twice, and will likely see it again. The beginning, for me, dragged terribly. I have always been a Tolkien fan and cringed when LOTR was first discussed. But then, I had the old VHS version of an attempt at creating the trilogy — I don’t think they ever completed it — and that is a scary bit of cinema. Needless to say, I was pleasantly relieved when LOTR came out. I think Peter Jackson did a marvelous job. He’s taking The Hobbit down a darker path than I think it was meant to be, but once past the ambling beginning, I lost myself to the film. Could it have been handled better? Differently? Without a doubt. Is Bilbo to heroic, too warrior-like? Yeah. But, Jackson sold it. At least to me. I think you struck on one key we all need to remember: it’s an adaptation. As such, I can overlook the things the purists are picking to pieces. Excellent review!

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  22. wanderwolf says:

    Ah… one of the rare occasions where I disagree with you. I agree that The Hobbit and LotR are different in that LotR is clearly more than a fairy tale, and The Hobbit passes more as a fairy tale, but it also is more than that and given its role in the mediated Tolkien universe, stepping it back down to a fairy tale would have been erroneous, I think. We do expect the high epic now, and I think the development of the dwarves on screen benefited because of this. However, I agree with you and several of the commenters that Bilbo’s growing bravery may have been better portrayed. Facing down an orc, however, unfortunately is how most people have learned to recognize it, though. In the book we are able to get the finer complexities of fear and decision making that are hard to show on screen…so while I don’t like it, I think it worked for the movie. However…I also agree that had Bilbo been better placed among his Hobbit neighbors (other than that one shopping scene), it may not have been necessary to have him face down that orc as it would have been even more clear what being active in the company meant for Bilbo.
    Finally, Bilbo’s luck is something a quite interesting essay could be written about…since it does play an extremely large role worth theoretical inquiry and is linked to your concerns of the myth staging as well. Thanks for this!

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    • Ah, I relish the disagreement! I’m not totally against the 3 Hobbit films though many Tolkien fans are. I think there were good elements but that the totality was a miss on film genre (as you see), but also in the bringing together of the elements. In the end, I love film and thought the world a big, engaging one.
      Clearly both LOTR & Hobbit are fairy tale in that they are there & back again tales where good and evil are delineated and good wins. And both are more psychologically complex and layered in literature than most fairy tales. And both have epic moments. But if you look at the battle chapters of Hobbit, they hardly have the height of LOTR. It isn’t just target age group, but the weight of the whole worlds encompassed in the books.
      That’s my thought. I’ve also learned more about Providence in reading Tolkien’s letters and the other books too.

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