The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Makes Some Puzzling Detours in Its Quest For More Box Office Gold

Before we begin looking at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its two sequels, let us pour one out for the Hobbit film series that could have been. After the phenomenal success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was inevitable that a live-action Hobbit movie (or movies) would follow. The studios had to delicately untangle the various film rights for Tolkien’s children’s book, but they must have known it would be worth the effort: a Hobbit movie would almost certainly rake in hundreds of millions, if not billions, at the box office.

When the Hobbit movie was finally announced, it was to be a duology, with Guillermo del Toro as director and Peter Jackson in a producing role. I was excited. I’m not a huge del Toro fan, but he seemed like a good choice for the material, and would allow for the Hobbit movies to both fit the world of Jackson’s Rings movies, and be their own thing. That latter point is key: The Hobbit is a very different book than The Lord of the Rings, in genre, tone, and style, and a director like del Toro would help ensure the movie versions kept that distinction.

Two movies also seemed like a good choice. The Hobbit is slim enough to be easily told in one movie (as Rankin-Bass did), but two would allow the scenes to breathe and add more detail and backstory. The choice of subtitles boded well, too: An Unexpected Journey comes from the title of the book’s first chapter along with one of Bilbo’s own scratched-out titles for his “memoir” (“My Unexpected Journey”), and There and Back Again is the book’s actual subtitle. The subtitles suggested two films that would neatly divide the book into the story of Bilbo’s journey to the environs of Erebor (likely ending with the Dwarves imprisoned by the Elvenking), and then picking up with what happened There—the confrontation with Smaug and the Battle of the Five Armies.

Then, for whatever reason, del Toro left the production and Jackson stepped back in as director. I was disappointed that we wouldn’t see del Toro’s vision, but I was happy to see Jackson’s take on the book. After all, his Rings movies are extraordinary. Who didn’t want to see Jackson tackle Tolkien’s other hobbit book?

Unfortunately, the Hobbit films came traipsing along into a cinematic landscape vastly different than their animated precursor. The Rings movies had earned a dragon’s hoard worth of gold, both in money and in Oscars. New Line had taken a big risk with the Rings trilogy, but now they knew any foray into Middle-earth would prove immensely profitable. So it was announced that The Hobbit, despite being shorter than any single volume of its sequel, would also be a film trilogy. The perfect subtitle There and Back Again was dropped in favor of the heavy The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies. Now things did not seem so well, at least to me. Many people seemed happy to hear there would be three movies, since that meant spending more time in Middle-earth, but The Hobbit’s narrative scaffolding simply couldn’t support the weight of that much movie. These films needed to be blockbusters, after all, and blockbusters can’t dawdle and take in the scenery like a hobbit on a hike.

So instead of two movies that could breathe, we got three, purely to make more money, and one of the great classics of children’s literature ended up, like its eponymous hero decades later, feeling, “stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” That the movies deal with the theme of the destructive power of greed is either an incredible irony, or Jackson’s own self-critique of the entire enterprise.

An Unexpected Journey was at least able to keep its suitable subtitle, and it’s the best of the movies, because it’s the one that most closely resembles the book. We even get songs! We only get a brief snippet of “Down, Down to Goblin Town” and nothing of “Tra-La-La Lally” (which is probably for the best), but we get a lively rendition of “That’s What Bilbo Baggins Hates!” and a beautiful, dirge-like “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold” courtesy of Richard Armitage’s Thorin and the Dwarves.

The Shire scenes are the movies’ best, since they capture the book’s wry humor and delightful premise of a fussy, middle-aged fellow suddenly roped into a fantasy quest (I particularly like the horizontal fold-out section of the contract detailing all the ways Bilbo may die horribly). Martin Freeman is perfect as the young(er) Bilbo, his interactions with Gandalf and the Dwarves a roiling mix of annoyance, fear, and growing intrigue. The silent shot of Bilbo, the morning after the “unexpected party,” realizing the Dwarves have left without him, is masterful, as Freeman’s face registers his simultaneous relief and surprised disappointment. Ian McKellen nicely tweaks his Gandalf to be more mysterious and mischievous, as he initially is in the book, compared to the wiser, more careworn Mithrandir we meet in The Lord of the Rings. This Gandalf has very much earned his reputation as a troublemaker. And god, is it good to see the Shire and Bag-End again.

Also returning from the Rings trilogy is Ian Holm as the older Bilbo, and (briefly) Elijah Wood as Frodo. The frame story puts us right before Fellowship begins, with Frodo heading off to meet Gandalf and Bilbo hiding from his well-wishers and relatives. It’s a nice tie-in with the larger story to come, and it is, frankly, the only one in the entire trilogy that works. It makes sense, too, that Bilbo would want to put down his memoirs in the Red Book before his long-planned departure from the Shire.

What makes far less sense is that it takes a good ten minutes just to get to the book’s famous opening line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Instead, we get a lengthy prologue like we got in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s the first sign that these films are going to be stretched to the breaking point to adapt a children’s adventure into nine hours of epic cinema.

The prologue in Fellowship was necessary, especially since this movie hadn’t been made yet. It was also effective, giving audiences a crash course in Middle-earth history and the story of the One Ring. But part of the joy of The Hobbit is for the reader (or viewer) to discover the story and locales along with Bilbo. We don’t need a lengthy preamble where we meet Thorin, Balin, Thranduil, discover the Arkenstone, and witness Smaug’s attacks on Dale and Erebor. The whole trilogy is already weighted down from the get-go with needless flashbacks and exposition.

Later, we get another lengthy flashback to the Battle of Moria where the Dwarves fought Orcs led by Azog the Defiler (the “Pale Orc”) and Thorin earned his sobriquet Oakenshield. Like the prologue, it’s overlong and ultimately pointless. We get nothing like the liquid cool of the Elves in the Battle of Mount Doom in Fellowship, or the raw power of Sauron as flings aside entire lines of soldiers with a swing of his mace. It’s just tedious, brown-tinted, green screen brawling. And unlike in the book, Azog doesn’t even die. We meet him soon thereafter in the ruins of Weathertop (sigh) with his big white Warg (the Wargs in this trilogy are far more lupine than the ones in the Rings movies. I do like the distinction, as it gives a little more depth to the fauna of Middle-earth and the Orc cultures. Northern Orcs ride wolves; Southern Orcs ride hyenas; both are called Wargs).

Jackson also throws in a flash-sideways, as we meet the wizard Radagast the Brown, who is portrayed by Sylvester McCoy as a flighty hippie who, for inexplicable reasons, appears to have birdshit smeared in his hair. Radagast heals a hedgehog, his house is attacked by giant spiders, and later, he recounts getting ambushed by the ghost of the Witch-king in Dol Guldur. Radagast is only briefly mentioned in the book, and now I understand why. He’s annoying.

Radagast meets up with Gandalf and Company right after their run-in with the trolls (whose stone forms we glimpsed in Fellowship). The troll scene is appropriately tense and gross, though Jackson cuts out the more fairy tale-ish elements like the talking wallet. Azog then makes his move against the Dwarves, and we get a Warg-chase scene that makes the limp Warg scene in Two Towers look grand by comparison. Radagast races around on his bunny sled and the Wargs give chase and none of it makes any visual sense, nor does Gandalf’s discovery of a stone slide that leads to Rivendell. The movie feels as if it has run out of ideas and gas, and we’re only at hour one of ten.

Gandalf brings Bilbo and the Dwarves to Rivendell. They have salad for dinner (despite Tolkien’s Elves being notable hunters in the books) and then Elrond reads Thorin’s map in the moonlight. Despite revealing the location and time window of the Lonely Mountain’s secret door, Elrond deems it “unwise” to enter Erebor. Elrond’s skepticism is the first of a running plotline where people second guess the wisdom of Thorin’s quest, despite the fact that this scheme has been co-authored and endorsed by Gandalf, aka Olórin, wisest of the Maiar (this becomes especially dire in the second movie).

Also in Rivendell at this exact moment, somehow, are Galadriel and Saruman. The gang’s all here to have a meeting about the Morgul knife that Radagast found, despite the fact that Gandalf just met Radagast, so none of the other attendees could have known they’d have a pressing matter to discuss, and Gandalf also seems surprised to find the Lady of the Wood and the White Wizard present (also why isn’t Radagast, who fought the Witch-king and was just nearby, not psychically called to the meeting?). Perhaps we are supposed to surmise that two weeks or so have passed (as it does in the book), but the movie certainly makes it seem like this is all happening in the space of an hour or so.

Worse is Jackson’s strange desire to take Sauron’s title “Necromancer” literally, and connect it to the Ringwraiths, who in the world of the movies were somehow defeated and buried in mountside tombs. Nothing in Tolkien’s legendarium suggests how exactly that would work, but whatever. Perhaps some ancient lady of Arnor punched the Witch-king and knocked him out for a few solid centuries. “No living man may kill me” apparently had even more loopholes than we expected.

The White Council scene draws heavily on sketches made by Tolkien that appear in the Unfinished Tales. But whereas Tolkien’s council is a chance to see Gandalf’s wit and wisdom up against Saruman’s arrogance, Jackson simply has Saruman ramble while Galadriel realizes the Dwarves have left. Were they imprisoned? Why do they leave secretly and make it seem like Gandalf is covering for them? What is going on?

Either way, the Dwarves and Bilbo encounter stone giants having a fight (like every scene in these movies, it’s one that’s both brilliantly realized by the Weta design team, and runs for at least a minute too long) and are then captured by goblins right as Bilbo was about to desert the Dwarves and head home (I’m not sure why Bilbo would choose to leave in the middle of the night atop a giant-infested mountain when the Dwarves don’t seem to want him around anyway. Surely he could wait till morning when he’d have less chance of falling into a crevice).

Bilbo’s separated from the Dwarves and winds up in Gollum’s cave, where he discovers the One Ring. The Gollum scene is great, and Andy Serkis reminds us why Gollum was the breakout character of the Rings trilogy, with his beguiling mixture of twisted innocence and lethal danger. The Dwarves, meanwhile, are brought before the scrotal-chinned Great Goblin, who decides to sell them to Azog.

I love the grotesque design of the Great Goblin. He’s appropriately gross and intimidating, distinct from all the other Orcs we’ve encountered, and absolutely looks like someone who’s spent a few decades or centuries mouldering in a mountain hole. The rickety bridges and walkways of Goblin-town are also well done, though it’s not long before they’re swaying and flying like they have the gonzo physics of a rocky outcrop in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

Then it’s out of the frying-pan and into the fire, as Tolkien titled it, only instead of fleeing from a council of Wargs, Thorin and crew are attacked by Azog and his Warg-riders. Bilbo gets his big heroic moment as he saves Thorin from being wolf-chow, and then the Eagles arrive and whisk the good guys away to the Carrock, while leaving Azog conveniently alive for the next two movies.

Atop the bear-shaped Carrock, Thorin embraces Bilbo, and then Bilbo glimpses Erebor and decides the hard part’s over, though of course the shot of a dragon eye emerging from a pile of gold tells us he’s being a little overly optimistic (frankly, the view of the vast, dark forest called “Mirkwood” ought to have clued him in, as well).

While we still have two movies to go, Bilbo’s story arc has more or less been completed, as he’s proven himself to both the Dwarves and himself as a capable and brave companion. Fortunately he has the Ring now, which gives him an excuse for how much he’ll disappear from the action, and narrative focus, of the next two movies.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not without its pleasures, and has enough of the book’s whimsical tone and character work here and there to make it a worthwhile watch, but it’s too bogged down by its need to be a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Who knows what we might have seen from del Toro? Or even Jackson at the helm of a duology? I suppose it doesn’t help to dwell on the might-have-beens. All we have to decide is what to do with the Hobbit movies that have been given to us.

Austin Gilkeson has written for Tin House, McSweeney’s, Vulture, Foreign Policy, The Toast, and other publications. He lives just outside Chicago with his wife and son.

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