A Prequel, an Adaptation or Both? – ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo Del Toro

Directed by: Peter Jackson

New Zealand, UK, US, 2012


There is an argument to be made that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the best series of films of the naught decade, if not of the new century. And while the massive group of Tolkien scholars and fans can debate the page by page honesty of the series ‘til the cows come home, the consensus is usually that while some small changes were made, Jackson got the spirit of the novels right. Nearly ten years after that series ended, Jackson is back with the far more controversial and divisive Hobbit movies. While there is plenty to debate about the quality of the film as a whole, the more interesting debate is how the spirit of the movie poses a larger problem to its quality than any other individual element.

We are all aware of the story; the wizard Gandalf shows up at Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole one day and inquires if he would like to join an adventure. While declining at first, Bilbo joins the quest of a group of Dwarves to reclaim their lost kingdom and treasure at the Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug who had stolen it years before. If it sounds like a fairy tale that would be because Tolkien wrote it as a fairy tale. This was a story written for children and therefore is filled with the kind of fantastic fairy tale mythos that are characteristic of children’s stories. Encounters with bumbling trolls and riddle contests with deformed cavern dwellers are not wholly serious scenes. They are funny and captivating but still primarily meant for children.

The film, on the other hand, does not always follow this tone. Opening with an extended monologue from Bilbo recounting the story of the dwarves in the Lonely Mountain, Ian Holm’s narration over-top the visuals create a very adult and sometimes scary telling of how Smaug conquered the dwarven kingdom. We are then taken to Gandalf’s invitation and the arrival of the dwarves. This scene is very true to the novel both in execution and tone. It is inviting and childish and funny and it refuses to take itself seriously. Following this though, is the introduction of the orc hunters and their wargs which returns to the adult scary tone from the opening sequence. Even in comparison to similar figures in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, these characters are absolutely hideous and terrifying.

radagastThe critical response to Radagast the Brown is also very telling of this conflict. The critics that viewed it from the novel perspective enjoyed Radagast. He was funny and silly and gave kids a character to get them through some of the scarier scenes. From the adult perspective though, he was clearly a distraction. The epic scale of Jackson’s world should not allow for the contrived silliness of Radagast’s antics.

These all present a major problem for the film’s cohesion. Torn between the kind of gravitas championed in The Lord of the Rings and the childhood fantasy of Tolkien’s novel, the film feels almost schizophrenic in its delivery. Jackson himself seems torn between creating a prequel of the high fantasy of his masterpiece and adapting Tolkien’s fairy tale with a high degree of reliability. By not having a cohesive message and tone the viewer will either see a child’s story delivered by a tactless adult or an adult’s story told by a four year old.

I saw the former; I was engrossed by the humour and joy of the fairy tale I remember my father reading to me as a child and I was distracted by the adult elements that made the kid in me very uncomfortable. I wanted to see a children’s movie and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey did not deliver on that level because of Jackson’s grasping at the past. All of the 3D and frame rate problems don’t compare to the problem of a film that doesn’t understand what it is. And while I wish that the two sequels would meet my desires, I’ll bet that Jackson will make them into the kind of high fantasy that much of the critical response seemed to be craving.

  1. Hugo says

    I agree with you as to the tone of the film. PJ doesn’t seem to know if he wants to make a childish film or a movie for adult viewers. In the end, he makes a redothelordoftherings story, following the same structure as to the fellowship of the rings. But I don’t agree as to Radagast, this character is almost unknown in the books, except for Gandalfs words, and we can not know about his personality. The character in the film doesn’t seem like nothing that Tolkien master would write about, much more like a Disney character or a Phantom Menace’s one, more a way to have some easy laughs than something necessary for the storyline. I must say that, as Tolkien fan, I’m totally dissapointed with this film and I don’t think I will see the next two ones unless they go back to Tolkien’s spirit, thing I really doubt. (Sorry for my bad english).

    1. Jonathan Marsellus says

      Thanks for the comment and I apologize that I wasn’t entirely clear in the paragraph about Radagast. When I said “The Novel Perspective” I was only meaning in tone. I like how you put it that he doesn’t know what kind of film he wants to make. He actually went outside of the original novel and created a character that fit the childish side of the story. But even though that is true, if Jackson had gone with a straight kids movie, the Radagast character we have would have fit the tone perfectly. I actually really enjoyed Radagast, but I was involved in the film with my inner child and I can understand the other side of the critical response to his character.

  2. Dan says

    I largely agree with you. I did enjoy the film and I do trust that Peter Jackson well enough from the Lord of the Rings that I believe the second two films of this trilogy will come together into something compelling. I also noticed, and was a bit disappointed with the disjointed spirit of the movie. There was a substantial difference in tone between scenes, which I believed stemmed from a mistrust in the story.

    I reread the Hobbit before I watched the movie and something that struck me was the level to which, although it was certainly a story which children would appreciate, it was a story that took children seriously. It didn’t underestimate the nobility, I guess, of their ability to apprehend both heroism and fear. As someone who has left childhood behind, that struck me as a legitimate challenge.

    So why sell Radagast as slapstick, when his lunacy could be druidic? Why have floppy goblins, when they could snatch you away some night? And why not remember Gollum with some pathos, Gandalf with his ethereal gravitas, and the dwarves as regular hardworking individuals?

    I just figure that you don’t need to take the fear or seriousness away as long as you can raise, as Tolkien did, the audience’s perceived personal ability to deal with it. Bilbo made it by with a luck, kindness, and innovation (and who else are we supposed to identify with?) and he wins out in the end.

    1. Jon says

      Thanks for your comment Dan! While I agree that you don’t need to completely remove the seriousness from the film, I think that the film feels disjointed because, as you said, he didn’t trust that a straight adaptation of this book would hold the kind of weight that a prequel of The Lord of the Rings films should.

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