The Hobbit – A Commentary on the Movie

Introduction

I suppose it was inevitable that I should make some sort of commentary upon “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey”. I don’t know if this is properly a review. I am not enough of a movie aficiando to qualify as a reviewer so I am coming at this task as one with a modicum of knowledge about Tolkien and his works. This post is a departure from the general theme of this blog – Law and IT – so I trust that readers will bear with me for this departure.

So far  I have seen the movie in two if its incarnations – 3D IMAX and 2D. I have not yet seen the 3D HFR version although I understand it takes about 10 minutes to get used to the new format. I have chosen to familiarise myself thoroughly with the opening sequences before allowing myself to become distracted in this way and lose focus upon the “whole picture”. From this it may be concluded that I am prepared to see the movie more than once, and that it justified multiple viewings. That is a correct conclusion. Not only is the movie very good, but it contains layers of detail that require multiple viewings to achieve a full appreciation of the depth of the adaptation – much in the same way that Tolkien’s Middle-earth works have layers and a phenomenal depth.

What’s In A Name

This may seem to be a minor quibble, and one that arises as a result of movie labelling more than anything else. The title of the book is “The Hobbit or There and Back Again”. The movie series, if I can call it that, takes the primary title – “The Hobbit” and then adds on “An Unexpected Journey”. Subsequent sub-titles are “The Desolation of Smaug” and “There and Back Again”. Now this is not so much of a problem if it is used as an alternative to Part 2 or Part 3, although in some ways that would be preferable, but it is when the reviewers and the media get into the act, using the title entire when identifying the movie. I assume that at the Academy Awards or Golden Globes we will have to endure the articulation of the lead title and sub-title whereas the lead title is quite sufficient, at least while only one of the trilogy has been released. After all, you don’t hear or read reviewers of the book indulging themselves with the full title of Tolkien’s work. “The Hobbit” is quite sufficient. It should be so for those who are reviewing or identifying the movie for publicity purposes.

On the other hand, Part 2 and Part 3 sound a little unimaginative – that same level of unimaginativeness that accompanies the title of Lethal Weapon 2 from its predecessor, although having said that there is little to differentiate one of those movies from the other. Perhaps lack of imagination is a characteristic of more than just the title.

The Lord of the Rings movies were named after the titles of the books. Of course whenever there was an announcement or a review it HAD to be “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”. Why not just the subtitle. And for those who would say that Jackson was justified in the main title subtitle approach let me beg to differ for two reasons. The first is that the books were not so titled. The Fellowship of the Ring is so titled with a subtitle – being the first part of “The Lord of the Rings” and so on with the other two volumes. The second reason, perhaps more potent than the first, is that “The Lord of the Rings” was never intended as a trilogy but as a single volume divided into a number of books. The numbering of those books appears faithfully in the three volumes as originally released. The reason that they came out as three volumes arose from post-war shortages of paper and economic imperatives. It was only later that Tolkien’s vision was realised when “The Lord of the Rings” was published in a single volume – and you don’t see the separate volume titles on the spine.

I find reviewers on radio and television a little tedious when they feel that they have to announce in full “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey”. At least when I confront the words in print they register and I skip on, but I wonder WHY there is this insistence of the full verbiage – unless it is just to demonstrate some deep and arcane wisdom that lurks beneath those words. For me it is just a waste of time. I’ll stick with “The Hobbit”.

Telling the Story

Jackson has been very clever in his story telling and he links the opening of “The Hobbit” with “The Lord of the Rings” (hereafter LOTR) by having the initial action start at the time of the “Long Expected Party”. There are references to the event and a nice linking sequence where Frodo takes his books and heads off to the wood where, in LOTR, he meets up with Gandalf. From there the story is told by way of a prolonged flashback, the events of “The Hobbit” taking place some 60 years before Bilbo’s 111th party. From there the main story line sticks closely to the book with the occasional back story excursion. Perhaps the most significant departures from the book, at least in this first of the trilogy, is the presence of LOTR type Orcs and the journey of Radagast from Mirkwood to the lands west of the Misty Mountains to warn Gandalf of the new threat from Dol Guldur. There is an unusual chase sequence that follows involving Radagast and his Rhosgobel Rabbits that culminates in the seeing-off of a band of Orcs by a High Elvish cavalry unit.

The sojourn at Rivendell is punctuated by a meeting of the White Council – hinted at but never seen in the book – which adds a depth to the story. There are layers of Middle-earth history and culture that are only hinted at in the books that are more strongly realised in the movie, along with a somewhat sarcastic and empirically minded Saruman – setting the scene for his fall in LOTR. As an interesting side-line there is a suggestion by Saruman as he dismisses the concerns of Radagast that the brown wizard has something of a penchant for mushrooms. Of course, mushrooms play a part as the hobbits leave the Shire in LOTR in the encounter with Farmer Maggot in a chapter entitled “A Shortcut to Mushrooms”. But there is more of a play on mushrooms when one is aware that Tolkien’s son Christopher lives in an area in the south of France renowned for its mushrooms and to which Christopher is quite partial. That said, it should also be observed that Christopher has been quite dismayed at the treatment of his father’s works by the movie and associated industries.

The entrapment of the dwarves by the goblins is true to text, as is Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum. The script needed little work. The dialogue in “Riddles in the Dark” comes straight from the text. The visual realisation is superb as is Andy Serkis’ revitalisation of  Smeagol/Gollum. The duality of the nature of Gollum comes out with startling clarity. It is clear that Bilbo is dealing with a seriously disturbed character.

So how did Gollum lose the Ring? This is not made clear in the book, nor in the retelling that occurs in several places in Tolkien’s other work. All that we know is that Bilbo found it – he was meant to find it as Gandalf later said. Jackson offers the explanation that Gollum lost the Ring while he struggled with a semi-conscious goblin, and that is not beyond the realms of possibility. Bilbo was unaware of the presence of the Ring until he saw it glimmering and was unaware of Gollum’s loss. So if it was theft, it was theft by finding.

Barry Humphries plays a highly articulate Goblin King and when I saw this I thought he was a bit well spoken for such a grossly obscene character. However, a re-reading of the text makes it clear that the Goblin King was very articulate albeit rather uncultured. Well realised by Humphries, although the Goblin King bears no resemblance to him or any of his alter-egos save perhaps Sir Les Patterson.

The escape from the Goblins and the descent from the Misty Mountains is true to form, although the introduction of the Orcs gives an additional menace to “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire”. The rescue by the Eagles is as dramatic as one could wish, and not without its breathtaking moments. How did they get ther?. Did the little moth to whom Gandalf whispered a message alert Gwaihir and his comrades to the peril of the Dwarves? Or was the message conveyed to Galadriel? The background musical liet-motif would suggest the latter but one needs to reflect upon an earlier summoning of the Eagles portrayed in LOTR. Gandalf has been taken prisoner by Saruman and is at the pinnacle of Orthanc. He whispers a message to a passing moth and in time is rescued by Gwaihir. From this it can be safely concluded that the message went direct to the Eagles without the intervention of Galadriel.

The first part ends with the delivery of the travellers to the eagles’ eyrie and the peak of Erebor far off in the distance. But Smaug is there, disturbed and awakened by the tapping of the thrush at the Back Door.

The Characters

Many of the characters in “The Hobbit” appear in LOTR, so there are a few reprises. Ian McKellen as Gandalf is a little more mysterious in this movie than in the other. He seems to have more secrets and is not entirely forthcoming with all that he knows, even to the White Council. There were times in the book when one could not be sure that he was altogether committed to the quest. That air of mystery percolates through into the movie. Having said that, he certainly does help out when needed, using his powers, albeit sparingly.

Hugo Weaving seems to be a younger Elrond and he is, by 60 years, although whether that would show in a being that had walked the earth for thousands of years is debatable. Christopher Lee does an excellent cameo as Saruman as does Iam Holm as an older Bilbo.

Richard Armitage as Thorin is wonderful. His scepticism for Bilbo is constant and blunt. Thorin may be a Prince but as far as Bilbo is concerned he is no diplomat. When reading the book I always thought Thorin was a bit of a bully towards Bilbo. The movie presents a different side to that dislike. Thorin is concerned with the mission and how it will succeed. He is focussed but at the same time he allows his prejudices and grudges get in the way. His contempt for the Elves goes back to the fall of Eerebor when Thranduil turned away and would offer no aid. Thus, when a rest at Imladris would seem essential for a number of reasons, not the least the interpretation of the Moon Writing, Thorin becomes truculent and it is only by subterfuge that Gandalf gets the Company to the safety of Imladris. Even then, Thorin is a grumpy and graceless guest. It is only when Thorin reconciles with Bilbo at the very end that we see that he will admit mistakes. Which brings us to Bilbo.

I wondered about Martin Freeman. He gave Dr Watson a different take in “Sherlock” and I enjoyed that. He does Bilbo very well and he manifests the “journey” of the character wonderfully. I have always been of the view that Tolkien places his hobbits on a journey of self-discovery and self-realisation (see “The Fanfare for the Common Hobbit” in D.J. Harvey “The Song of Middle-earth: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Themes, Symbols and Myths” (Allen & Unwin, London, 1985)  and this is especially displayed in the movie as Bilbo transitions from a total dislike of adventures to an impulsive particpant in the quest although he is frequently homesick and at times a bit pathetic. Who can blame Thorin. But Bilbo grows. He uses his wits to delay the trolls until the sun rises and we can see when he is at Imladris that he realises that his world-view has been narrowly focussed and that there are greater and deeper things in Middle-earth than just the bounds of the Shire and a pint at the Green Dragon.  It is when Bilbo says that he wishes to help Thorin and the Company regain their home – their turangawaewae – that we realise that Bilbo has passed from reluctant adventurer to active participant. He has grown and I have no doubt that growth will continue.

The Dwarves are excellent and rather more nuanced than the dour Gimli of LOTR. They are at times comedy and at others, deadly serious. At times they resemble caricatures of fantasy dwarves, at others, unique creations. The actors have been specially made up and “digitally managed” to look smaller than “normal sized folk” and their accents suggest that they hail from different parts of Britain – even those played by New Zealand actors, and there are a few of those throughout the film in a number of roles, and, given the controversy that accompanied the various tax breaks given to Warner Brothers to allow the filming to take place in New Zealand, it is proper that there should be roles for locals. Indeed, some of them, Mark Hadlow for example, have more than one role.

One New Zealand actor who features and who is unrecognisable under the make up and prosthetics is Manu Bennett who plays the Pale Orc, Azog. He plays the role with power and with menace, a truly excellent and totally unlikeable villain, and one whom I look forward to seeing again. Interesting that Jackson should cast a New Zealand actor as such a villain. He did the same with the character Lurtz, another totally reprehensible Orc leader who was played by Lawrence Makoare who also took the role of Gothmog in “The Return of the King”.

Visual Realisation

Most of the visualisation is, as was the case in LOTR, remarkable. The special effects are extraordinary and the technology seems to have reached the point where disbelief does not require suspending. In the sense that Tolkien expressed in “On Fairy Stories”, Jackson’s “secondary world” is complete and total from the first scene, although for this commentator, it was as return to a much loved and faithfully realised world.

Jackson has recreated Hobbiton from the green hills of Matamata to present a wonderfully bucolic atmosphere of peace and harmony. It is from this haven in which adventures do NOT happen, that the journeys to adventures commence. But things are different once we move to the wild lands – the atmosphere is far more threatening. The landscape is harsh and at times forbidding. Here trolls do dwell and orcs hunt, riding fearsome wargs. This is a journey that it not without risk, as Gandalf warns at the beginning. The chase in the wild lands, with Radagast providing a diversion – how DID he get across the Misty Mountains – is especially well realised.

But it is in the Misty Mountains, the battle of the Stone Giants and the capture by the goblins, that the true nature of the risks to be faced becomes apparent. Not only are the goblins the sworn enemies of the Dwarves, but Thorin bears the blade Orcrist, forged in Gondolin of old and well known to the goblins – something that additionally seals his fate – until Gandalf stages a release. But the suspense if not over as there is a frantic chase through the goblin tunnels and over wooden bridges that are – well, lets just say fragile is too strong a word.

At the same time as the Dwarves are confronting the Goblin King, Bilbo is trading riddles with Gollum – as I have said, wonderfully realised and perhaps one of the best scenes in the whole film.

The escape from the goblins and the final scenes among the burning forest before the arrival of the Eagles goes from climax to climax until one wonders what Jackson has next – and then there is the confrontation between Thorin and the Pale Orc, Azog

Some Additional Bits – How They Work

One of the questions asked was how it was that Jackson could manage three long movies from a 284 page book. The answer lies in the one word – backstories.

Although Tolkien tells us the backstory of Erebor and the Coming of Smaug, this wonderfully portrayed segment with the views of the magnificence of the Dwarvish realm under the Mountain, with its angles and planes and hard carved artistry (in contrast to the flowing Elvish style) and the magnificence of the dress of the Dwarvish aristocracy and the “steam powered” technology of dwarvish miners and smiths is truly wonderful.

The other main backstory introduces the Pale Orc, Azog whom we meet at the Battle of Azanulbizar when the Dwarves tried to retake Moria. This is not part of the Hobbit, but is derived from the Appendices to LOTR with one big difference, and it is dramatic licence that allows for that to happen. Thorin confronts Azog, defending himself with an oak branch – hence his name Oakenshield – lopping off the arm of the giant Orc. Thorin is convinces that Azog is dead, but he is only maimed, his lost forearm replaced with a rather brutal prosthetic that looks mighty uncomfortable.

The “truth” of the matter is that Azog was slain at Azanulbizar and his head was placed upon a spike. But Azog’s revenge provides a dramatic sub-plot to the movie. The savage Orc rides a giant Warg and is menace and hatred personified. The helpless Thorin is snatched from certain death by the arrival of the Eagles, setting up an opportunity for a future confrontation – the Battle of the Five Armies perhaps?

The third backstory is the realisation of the meeting of the White Council at Imladris. This follows the revelations of Radagast and his explorations of Dol Guldur (which do not appear in the book). I haven’t separated the Radagast scenes as a backstory because it provides the context and reason for the White Council meeting. We know that there was such a meeting to deal with the threat of Dol Guldur. This first meeting is, if I understand it aright, a preliminary meeting. Here we are told of the realm of the Witch-King of Angmar in the North and of the presence of a Morgul blade. The back story of Middle-earth itself begins to be revealed. But no meeting of the White Council is portrayed in The Hobbit. It is hinted at but never realised. It is here that the nature of the Elves and those who bear the Three Elven Rings is revealed in part, and indirectly. We don’t know that Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond wield Nenya, Narya and Vilya but that they are Guardians is made clear. And Galadriel is clearly a High Elf of extraordinary power. We begin to see the depth of Tolkien’s creation and the layers that lie beneath the fairly straight forward primary story line of “The Hobbit”.

Magic Moments

Jackson has given us a number of what I call “magic moments” in LOTR. Gandalf;s confrontation with the Balrog, Helm’s Deep, The Mirror of Galadriel are some although my favourite – where I felt that someone had dreamed my dream – was with the arrival of the Rohirrim at Pelennor Fields. It may be seen here.

There is a similar scene in “The Hobbit” and it is the arrival of the Company at Imladris – I prefer the Elvish name to Rivendell. The visual realisation along with the Elvish liet-motif music is one of the most beautiful parts of the movie. One can only imagine how arriving at such a place, even for a Dwarf, must have been a relief. And the difference in architectural styles could not be more obvious as we see the flowing lines and liquid style of Elvish creations that abound in Imladris.

The other magic moment – or perhaps magic realisation – is Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Galadriel, aided by the use of archetypal lighting and photography. The Blanchett\Jackson collaboration, in “The Hobbit” more so than in LOTR reveals the true ethereal majesty of one of the greatest of the High Elves. These are beings that dwell “between” the physical world and the spiritual realm of Valinor and the Undying Lands and we see hints of this remarkable nature in the portrayal of Galadriel. Much has to do with positioning and stance. At the last meeting of Galadriel and Gandalf, he stance is posed, almost for a pre-Raphaelite painting. The lighting isdramatic, enhancing Galdriel;s majesty. Her voice is quietly regal and she reveals her omnipotence more than once in her brief appearances. For me, the realisation of Galadriel is perhaps the most magical part of the movie.

Conclusion

The filming of Tolkien’s works has always been fraught with risk. The misgivings expressed by Christopher in his Le Monde interview (see above) may well have some justification especially to the literary purist and within the context of Tolkien’s “Mythology for England”. But art involves creation, synthesis, adaptation and development. Perhaps the movies would not have come to pass had the Tolkien Estate retained control of the movie rights, and I think it is safe to assume that we are unlikely to see a movie rendering of any of the tales of “The Silmarillion” or that appear in the “History of Middle-earth” for I do not think those rights passed with those of LOTR or “The Hobbit”. But what must be remembered is that Jackson;s works are “adaptations” of Tolkien’s stories. Tolkien was a writer. Jackson makes movies. The two art forms are different. One derives and adapts from the other. In the case of Tolkien’s work it from the literary to the cinema. Sometimes books will emerge from a movie script.

Is the adaptation faithful to the written creation? Yes it is although I must qualify that by observing the use of backstories to give the story the depth that it really needs. Is it worth seeing – I should say so. The second viewing was a rewarding one, and I look forward to the HFR 3D version.

I don’t think a host of Academy awards will measure the success of “The Hobbit” nor will box office returns. I think both have a certain inevitability. What will measure the success of the movies is the increased readership that will flow to “The Hobbit”, LOTR and “The Silmarillion” and a deeper appreciation of the depth and wonder of Tolkien’s creation.