The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

★★★½

(directed by Peter Jackson, 2012)

On a chilly evening last Sunday in Leicester Square, waiting for the doors of the Odeon to open, I found it hard to believe that eleven years have passed since The Fellowship of the Ring came out. A fair amount has happened in those years, but in this moment they ceased to exist: the prospect of spending an evening in Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth made me feel as if I were sixteen years old all over again.

And I am particularly pleased that it is Peter Jackson’s version. I’ve followed the film’s production with great interest and, though I’m sure Guillermo del Toro’s interpretation of The Hobbit would have been stunning (I’m a big fan of Pan’s Labyrinth), the fact that Jackson’s hand is on the reins means that The Hobbit has exactly the same look and feel as The Lord of the Rings. In fact, to all intents and purposes, it’s as if you’ve put the earlier trilogy on pause while you’ve popped out to make a (very time-consuming) cup of tea, and you’ve just got round to pressing the play button again.

Just in case there’s anyone who doesn’t know the story (though I think it’s unlikely), The Hobbit takes place sixty years before The Lord of the Rings and tells how Bilbo Baggins – a hitherto thoroughly respectable hobbit – is rooted out of his comfortable life at Bag End and carried off on an adventure by the wizard Gandalf and twelve dwarves, to seek golden treasure, fight a dragon and reclaim the dwarves’ lost kingdom of Erebor. This first film covers the action of the first six chapters, in which our hero is almost eaten by trolls, escapes from the clutches of the grotesque Great Goblin and his troops in their subterranean kingdom, and engages in a certain game of riddles in the dark. Everything is done with panache and energy, which never overrules the great respect that Jackson has for his source material.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) considers his contract to join the dwarves

The prologue, which Jackson did add on, in order to show us the history of Erebor and the destruction of the town of Dale by the dragon Smaug, has come in for a fair bit of criticism. However, I thought it was a helpful way to avoid a lot of exposition later on, by setting the scene for those who haven’t read the book or (like me) had read it so long ago that they’d forgotten the details. Straight after this, we plunge back into the Shire, where the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) are bustling about on the morning of Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday: this is exactly where The Fellowship of the Ring began. And then the clock turns back sixty years and we find a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) perched on the bench outside his hobbit-hole as he encounters Gandalf for the first time.

The film rests on the success of Freeman’s performance as Bilbo and he really is very good, bringing warmth, humanity and spontaneity to the role. But what else did we expect? He has made a career out of playing cuddly characters who are just a little bit befuddled by their surroundings but who turn out nevertheless to be loyal and trustworthy. He was surrounded by plenty of familiar faces. It was great to see Ian McKellen return as Gandalf and during the course of the film we also come across Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), prompting inward cries of ‘Don’t trust him, Gandalf!’. I think I also spotted the elven extra christened Figwit by Lord of the Rings fangirls (i.e. ‘Frodo Is Great, Who Is That?’), who has obviously returned by popular demand. This all helps to emphasise the continuity between the two stories and to create a strong integrity for the film version of Middle Earth.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)

Then we have the new characters, most notably the company of twelve dwarves. I could never remember all their names even when I was reading the book as a child and I didn’t do much better here. But it was interesting to see how the depiction of the dwarves has changed since The Lord of the Rings: then Gimli was very much a comic character, but for The Hobbit Peter Jackson has given them greater dignity and variety. The slight problem with this is that the dwarves don’t always look like dwarves, especially in cases where they’ve obviously been earmarked as heart-throbs.  In Jackson’s hands, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) becomes the new Aragorn, a brooding, tortured figure with flowing, unkempt hair, leathers and furs. Kili (Aidan Turner) looks more like a Rider of Rohan than a dwarf; and yet I would like to emphasise that I am not complaining about this.

Generally speaking, the film is a great success. Peter Jackson has done a superb job in giving the story – which was, of course, written as a children’s book – the epic scale that allows it to sit comfortably alongside The Lord of the Rings. The special effects are even better than last time, with the computer-generated characters blending seamlessly with the real actors. Indeed, the best scene of the whole film is Bilbo’s meeting with Gollum and their game of riddles. Andy Serkis is absolutely unbeatable as Gollum, and he and Martin Freeman are both so natural in the way they speak their lines that it felt as if half the scene was ad-libbed. Everything is further tied together by the 3D presentation, which means that tumbles down cliffs or swooping shots through caves and tunnels have never felt so exciting and immersive. It was wonderful to have Howard Shore back in the composer’s seat and to hear the familiar Shire and Ring themes, along with the new theme for the dwarves, which is based on the tune of their Misty Mountains song and which is a splendidly stirring piece.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Dori (Mark Hadlow), Nori (Jed Brophy), Ori (Adam Brown) and Bombur (Stephen Hunter) enjoy Bilbo’s hospitality

But there are some less successful aspects. Even as a fan, I don’t think it was necessary to split The Hobbit into three sections. Perhaps I’ll change my mind when I see how it allows Jackson to pull in material from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings and to link the two sections of the Ring’s story together. But here there were some sections, especially at the beginning during the dwarves’ visit to Bilbo, where I felt that the film was a little over-stretched; and the early scenes also veered slightly unevenly between the humour of the book and the dark grandeur of Jackson’s wider vision. However, once Bilbo had made up his mind to have An Adventure and had dashed off to catch up with Gandalf and the dwarves, things rapidly settled down.

On a final technological note, there is the HFR (Higher Frame Rate). This seems to have split opinion down the middle and part of the problem is that it simply doesn’t look like what we’re used to, and so the instinctive reaction of most cinema-goers (including myself) is to resist change. The HFR makes the film smoother and gives it the feeling of video rather than film, which in turn makes it look more ‘real’. Some critics have claimed that the greater smoothness draws attention to the dwarves’ prosthetic noses and Bilbo’s hobbit feet, which look rubbery and unconvincing compared to their appearance on traditional film. Personally I didn’t pick up on this at all. I wasn’t hugely keen on the HFR but that was for other, more aesthetic reasons and even I can see that they aren’t very good reasons.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Gollum (Andy Serkis)

It’s just that I’m used to watching films which have a slightly grainy quality. When I see something with that kind of slight graininess, my brain takes it as a sign that something has been made for cinemas rather than television. In a way, that graininess acts as the boundary beyond which I know to suspend my disbelief: it’s the border of another world. But when I watched The Hobbit in HFR, that boundary wasn’t there. I find it really difficult to explain this, because it isn’t something I’ve ever had to articulate before. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian made a point that goes some way to explaining what I found odd about the smoother, almost made-for-television style of film: ‘I had the weird, residual sense that I was watching an exceptionally expensive, imaginative and starry BBC Television drama production, the sort that goes out on Christmas Day, with 10 pages of coverage in the seasonal Radio Times, and perhaps a break in the middle for the Queen’s Speech.‘ In time we’ll all get used to the HFR, I have no doubt, and then the graininess of film will become a sign that something is old-fashioned, rather like the difference between black-and-white and colour. But for now, it still strikes me as something unusual, which distracts from my ability to lose myself in the film.

Opinion in the press has varied wildly about The Hobbit. I thought it was fun and I think that fundamentally you can predict whether or not you’ll enjoy it. If the prospect of fantasy completely puts you off, you won’t like it. But if you were won over by the gorgeous landscapes and the sumptuous cinematography of The Lord of the Rings, and if you love being able to escape into another world, then it’ll be right up your street. I was always going to love it, of course; and I wasn’t the only one. Spontaneous applause broke out in my cinema as the credits rolled. For those of us who waited with baited breath every year for the next instalment of The Lord of the Rings to be released, The Hobbit feels like slipping on a comfortable, well-loved pair of shoes. I’m already thoroughly looking forward to next Christmas, in order to get my first proper glimpse of Smaug

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Fili (Dean O’Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner)

14 thoughts on “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

  1. Helen says:

    I haven't been to see this yet, but The Hobbit was one of my favourite books as a child so I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the film. It's been such a long time since I last read the book and I've forgotten a lot of the details of the plot but the scene you mentioned with Gollum and the riddles is one that I remember loving. I'm looking forward to watching it and I'll be interested to see what HFR is like.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Helen! I hadn't read the book since I was about ten, so it's quite a long time for me too. Funnily enough there were several things in the film where I thought that Peter Jackson had added something in to take advantage of the special effects, or where I thought he'd fiddled with the script… only to find that it was exactly as it was in the book. So now of course I'm taking the opportunity to bring my old copy of the Hobbit out of retirement for a reread. Happy days.

  3. Sandra Winters says:

    I appreciated Martin Freeman and Elijah Wood's portrayals of Bilbo and Frodo. In characters that could easily have gone “comic” in lesser hands, they brought forth Bilbo and Frodo's dignity and grace, and humanity.

    I also found the HFR a little disconcerting, and now I see why!

    Delightful–like meeting old friends again after a few years apart.

  4. Isi says:

    I'm one of those who who waited with baited breath every year 🙂
    I haven't watched it yet, but I'm looking forward to going to the cinema. This Christmas there are a lot of good films to watch: Les Miserables, The Hobbit…
    I also read the book a lot of years ago and I don't remember every detait, but well, perhaps I still have time to reread.

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    It was lovely, wasn't it? I was amused by the fact that they brought Elijah Wood back for what was effectively a very minor cameo, but it all gives the impression that these characters are all carrying on with their daily lives somewhere and we've just dropped in on them again. 🙂

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    I do hope you enjoy it, Isi! And you're right, even when you've seen The Hobbit there are loads of other things to look forward to. Last night, via the Jezebel blog, I discovered a link to the Spanish channel La Sexta where they have a clip of the entire “One Day More” number from Les Mis – it's certainly enough to whet your appetite, though I'm looking forward to hearing the full orchestral sound in the cinema…

    http://jezebel.com/5969818/watch-the-big-one-day-more-sequence-from-les-mis

  7. Isi says:

    Oh yes, the film must be really fantastic, I'm sure. I hope they don't dub the film (Spanish dub is really good, but I don't think they can dub the songs).
    I forgot saying that I will miss Viggo Mortensen in The Hobbit 😦

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Well, if we're very lucky he might be in one of the later ones. I heard a rumour that they'll include some of the hunt for Gollum in – perhaps – the third film, and I think Aragorn is meant to be returning. So that's something to look forward to. 🙂

    Incidentally, Isi, you're probably a good person to ask: did you ever see Viggo Mortensen in the Captain Alatriste film? I loved the first few Alatriste books but the film never came out in England and I've heard really mixed things about it…

  9. Isi says:

    Yes, I watched the film. In fact, the premiere was set in my hometown!!! 🙂
    Viggo decided that Alatriste must have born in León (somewhere in the province of León), and he wanted the premiere in this city and I went to see him (I queue for hours!). He has a house in my city and it is said he comes from time to time.
    But the film disappointed me a little. I haven't read the whole saga, but the film is about the whole saga in only 1,5 hours, so everything is too fast and well, I think only Alatriste fans will find it interesting.
    I only watch the film once, as you can imagine. Well, only for Viggo is worth seeing, but… the books are better.
    By the way, I'm absolutely amazed that Pérez Reverete has been translated into English. I think he's great. One of my favorite novels by him is actually a short novel title “La sombra del águila” (literally “The shadow of the eagle”) about a group of Spanish soldiers fighting in Napoleon's band. I love his sense of humour! And I have to say they describe us (Spanish) exactly as we are :)))
    My father bought me 2 years ago the complete collection of Pérez Reverte's novels, and I have a lot still in my list.

  10. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I heard that it was a bit confused because they tried to fit in too much. It's such a shame because the books are wonderful – real adventure classics – and when I heard that Viggo Mortensen could speak Spanish and would be playing Alatriste, it sounded like a match made in heaven! So it's a shame that in the end the film didn't live up to the promise of the source material. I have to admit that I haven't read all the books – I adored the first three, but then got distracted halfway through the King's Gold and haven't read any more yet. But I shall have to go back to them. And as for Perez Reverte's other works, I haven't read that many, but I did enjoy The Flanders Panel, which was extremely clever and made me wish I knew more about chess. 🙂 I haven't even heard of The Shadow of the Eagle so perhaps it hasn't been translated yet or perhaps I just haven't been looking in the right places!

    Gosh, if I lived in your city I'd be permanently on the lookout for Viggo Mortensen 🙂 A few years ago a rumour went round my parents' village that Johnny Depp had bought a house nearby and there was such excitement, you can't imagine… but I think it turned out to be false information in the end. You can imagine how many local women were disappointed. 😉

  11. Isi says:

    I can imagine, indeed!
    Viggo is also one of my platonic loves 😉
    When The lord of the ring fimls were released I was soooo much in love with him and I wrote him a letter. And He Wrote Back. A few months later. Actually it was only a “Thanks, Isabel” and his signature, but he wrote back! I still keep it.

    I've checked in wikipedia: there are a few novels by Pérez Reverte that haven't been translated, and that one I told you is one of them. It's a shame, but at least you have the others.

    Ohhh after this conversation I'm looking forward to rereading the Alatriste saga and finishing it! (I don't remember, but I think I only read the two first ones).

  12. The Idle Woman says:

    He wrote back?! Oh wow, lucky you!

    I sometimes think that successful people, especially actors and musicians, don't realise how much a letter from them can mean to a fan. And of course they must get so many letters that it's always delightful to hear of someone taking the trouble to respond.

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