Page to Screen: The Hobbit — An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
based on
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

hobbitunexpectedjourney2012

Oh, come on, have you met me?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finds Bilbo Baggins—as proper and domestic a hobbit as you could ever dream of—drafted into, of all things, an adventure. Chiefly, the quest of thirteen survivors of Erebor, a dwarven kingdom decimated by the horrific dragon Smaug, to retake their homeland, led by Thorin Oakenshield, their prince, and advised by Gandalf the Grey, the wandering wizard. But even as the Company marches eastward, facing obstacle after obstacle, a darker power is growing in Middle-Earth…

I recently saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the first time, at a cult-themed holiday party, where my fellow Valkyries and I subjected it to well-deserved derision. But there was one cinematic sticking point that we ended up dissecting more seriously: the film’s tone, which tried (and failed) to marry together light-hearted, family-friendly adventure and dark, gruesome violence. An Unexpected Journey suffers from the same thing. While I’ve heard plenty of concern over what Jackson and company were going to do to The Hobbit tonally, I was already quite prepared for it to be darker, since this is a The Hobbit film series coming after Jackson’s historically minded The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But the disconnect between a scene such as the troll scene (which revels, disappointingly, in gross-out humor) and a flashback where Thorin watches the decapitated head of his grandfather roll towards him and bravely, desperately, and foolishly attacks the orc responsible can be difficult to reconcile.

Furthermore, there’s structural issues. (I initially reacted poorly to the second flashback, but it’s settling on me.) As TORn’s Quickbeam points out, Jackson and company had to whittle The Lord of the Rings down—here, they’re expanding The Hobbit (with considerable help from the Appendices). Adding Thorin’s narrative to Bilbo’s narrative is a fine and logical way to add depth to the story, especially since this film posits itself to be the “real” story of The Hobbit (versus Bilbo’s retelling that is the novel itself), as is including Gandalf dealing with the Necromancer. Managing three story lines (Thorin’s past, Bilbo’s present, Gandalf’s present) is something Jackson and company have proven themselves quite able to do—but it just feels all over the place here. Walsh and Boyens have mentioned in interviews that they do tend to overwrite, but that Jackson helps them revise. Given my fondness for Boyens, I’m tempted to lay this at Jackson’s feet (there are definitely shades of King Kong here) and the feet of Jabez Olssen, the editor for whom this is the only the second crack at principal editor (the first being The Lovely Bones). However it happened, it means that the middle part of the film, despite being action-packed, drags; there aren’t enough moments where the film is allowed to breathe. There are other off-notes—most of the nods to The Lord of the Rings films feel too indulgent, Azog’s expanded role as chief antagonist, and the heavy use of CGI over prosthetics rob Jackson’s Middle-Earth of the heart-stopping tactility we saw in The Lord of the Rings, a particular loss for me. (I consoled myself by clutching my fur collar.)

All that being said, when An Unexpected Journey works, it works. The light tone of the novel is deepened into a mix of awe, bright-eyed impishness (Tookishness, I suppose we ought to say), and earthy decency, a world where Thorin’s stubborn, noble quest can exist side by side with a delightfully sassy Goblin King. The stone giant incident is a particular favorite of mine, taking the scene in a direction I never would have guessed that still underscores how small the Company truly is in the world—and how that will never stop them. It’s a theme repeated in the character of Radagast the Brown (whom Sylvester McCoy plays to the hilt): a dotty, domestic, and quirky wizard who nevertheless proves his mettle when push comes to shove. And Riddles in the Dark is flawless. Jackson and company approached it like a stage play and let Serkis and Freeman run the scene in its entirety, and it is brilliant. And for all the murkiness of the middle of the film and how much I really don’t like Azog as an antagonist, the ending is stick-to-your-ribs lovely.

The casting is, in a word, impeccable; Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, and Richard Armitage gives Thorin a quiet anger that burns. The cast is too large to play favorites (or for everybody to get lines), but I do want to single out the sparkling James Nesbitt as Bofur and the amazing Ken Stotts as Balin. As a group, the dwarves are delightful, especially when interacting with each other and with Bilbo, as they grow to accept him in their company (some sooner than others). Ever sensitive to sisters’ children in Tolkien, I really enjoyed seeing Thorin, Kili, and Fili interact—while the film never mentions their relationship, the way Thorin chides them for making light of violence and the way they don’t want to disappoint him speaks volumes, and all three actors have fantastic filial chemistry. (Especially considering that O’Gorman is a replacement!) The returning cast is just as sparkling this time as last time (we’re all on the same page concerning how Andy Serkis can communicate his soul through mo-cap, right? Good), but I did want to particularly note Hugo Weaving as Elrond—he nails the tone of the film as soon as he rides into Rivendell, almost smirking. Everyone is giving their all, and it’s fantastic work. I just wish it had been center stage and not competing with the CGI.

Bottom line: Ultimately, there is a great film in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey—it’s just buried under a sprawling script, tone issues, and too much CGI. But when it works, it works—Riddles in the Dark is almost worth the price of admission alone.

I saw this film in theaters.

19 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Hobbit — An Unexpected Journey (2012)

  1. I saw this less critically but find myself agreeing with your analysis. The most disappointing things for me were that when the opening lines of the book were read, the movie writers had to change them (…”it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort”) and Radagast’s hedgehog was named Sebastian, which is too cute and too post-Norman-French. The most satisfying part was when Bilbo first saw Rivendell, the place he’d only read about. I wanted to be there too, for haven’t I read about it and longed for it all my life, also?

    • No, you didn’t—you didn’t see it with less critical facilities than me, you just had a different and wholly valid response to it.😉 I’ll stop before I start swaying and braiding hair.

      As a Norman Warrior Princess, I heartily approve of Sebastian, but I didn’t realize he was named until… now, really. But I totally understand the objection.

      I wish we’d spent more time in Rivendell, for both pacing purposes and characterization purposes.

  2. Riddles in the Dark is perfect, as is Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf, and all the other actors. The Battle of Erebor is beautifully shot and exciting. . .I just wish it was easier to appreciate them under this conflictless, overly padded mess of a script. I was okay with a two-parter, but I’m hard-pressed to find myself excited about another two almost-three-hour films

  3. Clare, I think your end summation is perfect. There is a great movie there, but there’s too much for it to sludge through, between having the ability to breathe and the over-use of CGI alone. In Lord of the Rings, orcs were people in makeup; in the Hobbit, orcs are computer programs. That disappointed me.

    I loved the way the dwarves were filled with heart and spirit in the movie, especially Bofur and Balin. I wish they’d have cut down on Galadriel and gotten more use out of the core cast of characters.

  4. Frankly, I felt the film was just as good – and bad – as the LotR film trilogy. Most of the things you criticize I found myself in those films: needless expansion, tone issues, too much CGI least of them. Then again, you are a fan of Boyens: I blame much of my biggest problems of the trilogy squarely on her (that garbage about Faramir needing to “go on a journey” and so forth).

    I recently saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the first time, at a cult-themed holiday party, where my fellow Valkyries and I subjected it to well-deserved derision.

    I glare disapprovingly: Temple of Doom had its issues, true, but it had its moments too.

    But there was one cinematic sticking point that we ended up dissecting more seriously: the film’s tone, which tried (and failed) to marry together light-hearted, family-friendly adventure and dark, gruesome violence. An Unexpected Journey suffers from the same thing. While I’ve heard plenty of concern over what Jackson and company were going to do to The Hobbit tonally, I was already quite prepared for it to be darker, since this is a The Hobbit film series coming after Jackson’s historically minded The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But the disconnect between a scene such as the troll scene (which revels, disappointingly, in gross-out humor) and a flashback where Thorin watches the decapitated head of his grandfather roll towards him and bravely, desperately, and foolishly attacks the orc responsible can be difficult to reconcile.

    Here I entirely disagree: many fairy tales are marked by their marriage of light-hearted adventure and dark, gruesome violence, from Grimm to Dahl. The tone issue that bothered me more was the expansion of a (comparably) intimate adventure of a company of dwarves, a wizard and hobbit going off to get some treasure, into a sombre epic that involved The Fate Of The World.

    Ah well, glad you enjoyed it, at least.

    • I’d be very interested to see a post on your thoughts about The Lord of the Rings, especially since I didn’t come to them as works of adaptation. As for Faramir’s journey, I’m sure we will just have to disagree, but that’s about giving Sam and Frodo something to do in The Two Towers so Plot 1 (Frodo and Sam) isn’t idle while Plot 2 (everybody else) is progressing, rather than any perceived faults with book!Faramir. He was just handy, and there’s good meat on them daddy issues bones. Boyens was, perhaps, trying to put it in the best light, but it was quite a mercenary move, and one I approve of.

      Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom does not play well to a crowd of rowdy feminist nerds, I’ll leave it at that.

      That balance of tone can be done, although there’s usually an edge to the light-heartedness. What I’m objecting to is “hee hee he thinks he sneezed out Bilbo and he’s covered in snot!”. One of my few problem spots with The Lord of the Rings are some weird attempts for humor with Gimli, and that’s what that felt like.

  5. It certainly sounds like some of the problems that I feared would come with turning this into a trilogy did become problems. I had problems with the LOTR movies, too, but also found much pleasure in them. It’s wonderful to see the places and people come to such vivid life!

    • I think the problems a lot of people have with The Lord of the Rings are less about them inherently as films, and more as works as adaptation. Wholly valid, of course, but they were my crash course into “LOOK! I CAN PUNCH YOU IN THE SOUL WITH THE MEDIUM OF FILM! MAGICAL!”, so I tend to think of them much more as films than adaptations.

  6. Oh wow! I didn’t even realize that was James Nesbitt under all that dwarf stuff! I feel ridiculous. I also didn’t recognize Sylvester McCoy, which was even more embarrassing.

    My main takeaway from this movie was that it would be awesome to buy a brown rabbit for a pet and call it Rabbitgast the Brown.

  7. You see it in 24 frames per second or 28? 3D or 2D? I was able to catch it in 3D and 48 fps and found that while the 3D added little the 48 fps was intriguing.

    • 24 frames—my roommate’s head explodes when exposed to 3D, so we wanted to experience it in regular 24 fps and 2D. I’m quite keen on seeing it in 48 fps, but I have to drive an hour away to do so at the moment, so it’ll have to wait until I return, triumphant, to Atlanta.

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