I can’t write about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a film critic. I recognize its flaws. The opening minutes are unnecessary to the core plot, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is never given a fully believable motivation and there are elements that cater to fans (of both The Hobbit book and The Lord of the Rings films and books) at the risk of alienating new viewers, even though this story happens first chronologically. But I don’t care, because I’m that much of a fan of Middle Earth, both in the written form and on film. An Unexpected Journey is a film I’m compelled to love.
When Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comments that he forgot the name of the two blue wizards or when the film grinds to a halt to allow for a game of riddles between Gollum (Andy Serkis) and Bilbo, I recognize that this is the kind of flagrant fan-service I’d be criticizing in another series. But I can’t help myself, I love this world so much and it’s clear that when Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh went to pen and revise the script, it was after hours digging into the deep lore of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
More than anything else, I believe An Unexpected Journey serves as a magnificent interpretation of the world. Unlike The Lord of the Rings films where everything was built about a central conflict, The Hobbit is filled full of tangents and asides that make the particular quest of the film feel like only a tiny part of this world. Here there is much more ambiguity about the validity of the central quest, one in which many of the powers find unwise.
And yes, this makes for a film where there’s a lot of time spent talking and the exposition isn’t always as tight as elegant as it was The Fellowship of the Ring. Some of it is going to seem unnecessary and a waste of time. I’d agree with any non-fan who says the film is bloated, because from their perspective it is. Some of this will pay off in later films, but I could certainly see people not enjoying it in this moment.
As a fan, it’s a lot better than The Two Towers, which didn’t betray the characters in order to follow thematic threads and create moral juxtapositions that aren’t nearly as cut and dry in the book. An Unexpected Journey isn’t afraid to embrace ambiguities. Thorin (Richard Armitage) from the front end is portrayed as a character with a much darker edge, blinded by his devotion to an idea of how he can restore his people and his narrow ambition is his own worst enemy.
Since this has become more of my ravings as a fan, I should speak to the changes from the book. The two main additions are the Necromancer subplot involving Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Azog the pale orc (Manu Benett). The Necromancer plot does occur in Tolkien’s writings, more in smatterings of the written history Tolkien gave without turning into their own fully written stories. The Azog plot is, in part, true, Azog did battle Thorin’s ancestors and kill Thrór (Jeffrey Thomas) in the battle over Moria but he later died before the events of The Hobbit, unlike in the film where he comes back to hunt Thorin and his party. I think it works as an effective means to both set up events to come as well as enhance the tragedy of the past which still haunts Thorin.
There are other minor changes from the book that work better for film. It’s obviously a lot more action packed than the film, with big battles and the film also features Bilbo a bit more into events in the book. He makes the transition from observer to participant a lot faster in the film. I’ve always felt The Hobbit was one of Tolkien’s weaker works in the Middle Earth universe and I think the changes make the story work better, especially for the big screen.
I could go on about my adoration of the del Toro influences of the Goblin sequence or the magnificent visualization of Riddles in the Dark, but I’ll refrain from displaying the long and self-indulgent pacing of the film. An Unexpected Journey is a film for the fans, and for fans the experience is majestic. For those outside, the film will likely be a drudgery to watch.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing