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 film.
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 Bag 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 this 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 time 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.”