I’m a big fan of Tolkien’s books, and fascinated by how his early life in Birmingham inspired him, but I’m equally enamoured with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. So I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Jackson’s latest visit to Middle Earth when it was released in December. Having seen the film twice, I thought it was time for a review.
My first visit was my first experience of 3D, while my second viewing was in 2D. Of the two, I found the 2D much more satisfying. While the 3D was effective in the scenic panning shots, and the eagle flight scene especially, it was less rather than more immersive than 2D in the scenes with characters, especially indoors, as they looked like flat cardboard cut-outs arranged one behind the other. I remain unconvinced that it is anything other than a gimmick and will not be repeating the 3D experiment if I can possibly avoid it. So that’s the technology, what about the film itself?
The first comment to make, regardless of any discussion about its links to or departures from Tolkien’s source material, is that it is visually stunning, exciting and thoroughly entertaining. Many people have said it is too long, particularly the early section prior to the company setting out on their adventure, but I disagree. I thought the pacing was fine, and I actually loved the whole Bag End section as it established characters and themes and had plenty of humour.
One of the big challenges for Jackson in The Hobbit is that there are so many new characters to introduce from the beginning, most notably the 13 dwarves. Perhaps understandably, he shied away from doing this completely (otherwise we’d never have left Bag End), with the result that some were developed more than others. Obviously Thorin Oakenshield is well defined as the leader and the key figure, while Fili and Kili also have quite a lot to do. Meanwhile, some of the others are essentially background, although perhaps they will have their chance in the remaining films of the series. The differing costumes, hair styles and accents are clearly an attempt to establish separate identities, and this works moderately well. I am not sure what Tolkien would have made of Ori asking “Do they have any chips?” at Rivendell however. It’s up there with Orlando Bloom snowboarding on his shield in the list of cringeworthy Middle Earth moments for me.
Counteracting these new characters, and helping to establish a feeling of familiarity for those who might only know Middle Earth from the films, were the reprised roles from Lord of the Rings. Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel were played with customary dignity and charm by Hugo Weaving and the lovely Cate Blanchett respectively, while Christopher Lee again brings his unique brilliance to Saruman, his brooding nature perfectly reflecting the turn to evil that we know is coming. The scenes involving Ian Holm as the older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as Frodo were essentially to fit this story into those already seen in LOTR, which I thought was a clever and relatively quick way of achieving this, and personally I was delighted to see these favourites back on screen again. The main continuity with previous films, of course, is in the person of Gandalf, once again a major character as supporter, protector, advisor and general egger-on of the quest that makes up the story. Although equally adept with a thunderbolt, a staff or a sword in the action sequences, it is Ian McKellen’s ability to deliver a telling line or withering look that make the character. Not McKellen’s fault, as he was suffering from cancer I believe when the film was being made, but he looks very much older, which I found disconcerting in a timeless wizard, especially as these events are meant to be happening several decades before Lord of the Rings.
Personally, I was not a fan of Radegast the Brown. While playing an important role in the story, I felt he got a little too much screen time. Sylvester McCoy certainly brought plenty of craziness and eccentricity to the part, but less of him would have been more effective as I think the pudding was definitely over-egged.
Of the dwarves, it’s too early to say in most cases. Richard Armitage did a great job with Thorin Oakenshield in terms of the character’s development, especially his determination, stubbornness and growing appreciation for Bilbo. However, he did not look dwarf-like enough for me, in fact you had to keep reminding yourself he was a dwarf as he looked essentially like Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean in their roles as men of Gondor. Meanwhile, it looks as though Filli and Killi will be taking on the “younger hero” mantle of Orlando Bloom in this trilogy. I can’t help but feel some of the characters’ integrity has been sacrificed for having – well, not exactly eye candy – but certainly a particular kind of tried and tested Middle Earth action hero look.
Obviously the central character of the film is Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous hobbit. In my view, Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo is probably the biggest triumph of the film. He perfectly captures Bilbo’s idiosyncracies – from his house-proud nature to his loyalty and bravery when called upon. At the same time, the sheer Englishness of his politeness and refusal to show his anger when his house is invaded by dwarves, in fact his reserved approach throughout the film, is superb. Considering that Tolkien based hobbits on the traditionally English village folk he knew in childhood (including himself), I think Freeman’s performance is the truest depiction we have seen on screen of what hobbits should really be like.
Last but not least, Gollum. As always, Andy Serkis’s scenes steal the film. He captures the essence of the character so convincingly and it is a shame that we will probably not get to see him again (unless Jackson can somehow weave him into the plot later on).
So what of the plot and action? The first thing to say is that it is highly inconsistent in terms of its correspondence with the book. Essentially you have three sources – the book of “The Hobbit”, other Tolkien writings that Jackson and his team have mined to add context to events and characters and to establish this story within a wider Middle Earth context (and, a cynic might say, to make a mid-length book into a trilogy of long films!), and additions made for the film itself. Let’s look at those in reverse order.
The major addition was that of a main antagonist orc, Azog, an interesting decision. I guess this character (mentioned briefly in Tolkien but not involved in the action of The Hobbit) added threat and action to the early part of the quest and certainly provided for some great chase and fight sequences, but it meant the film strayed a little too far from the concept of the book for me. It sidelined the true purpose of the quest – the dwarves trying to reclaim their kingdom – and made this film more about him hunting down Thorin. The context material was more successful. This was particularly the scenes in Rivendell, with the White Council talking more widely about events in Middle Earth as a whole, and relating the phenomena being witnessed in this film to those that the later (earlier) films deal with. I look forward to more of these characters bringing to life material from other Tolkien writings, as I believe is due to happen in the remaining two films of this trilogy.
I thought that the sequences lifted directly from Tolkien’s writing were brilliantly done – the troll scene veered between slapstick humour and action perfectly for example. The absolute highlight was the Bilbo and Gollum section, which was pure Tolkien. This is an iconic piece of writing, and essentially one of the most important moments of the entire Hobbit/Lord Of The Rings cycle as it represents the passing of the Ring of Power from Gollum to the hobbits, with all the consequences that has later on. Freeman and Serkis played it superbly, with impeccable delivery and timing, and I cannot imagine it having been done better than it was.
After a rather slow start, the film has its share of action in the later sections, with Jackson and his team once again delivering very believable sequences. Fight and battle scenes are fast-paced and I was surprised how visceral and brutal some of them were, contrasting well with the lighter moments elsewhere. I did think the final battle scene with Azog , his orcs and wargs was a little drawn out, while the escape from the goblin city was very reminiscent of its parallel sequence of the race to the Bridge of Kazam-Dum in Fellowship Of The Ring, but these are minor criticisms.
There are certainly more comic and light moments than in Lord Of The Rings, which is very much in line with the source material. The Hobbit was written as a children’s tale, and does have more of a light and fanciful tone in many sections than Tolkien’s later works. It is pleasing to see that Jackson has stayed true to that distinction, even while attempting to make this story fit more comfortably into an overall context.
As always, Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth was stunning. While I object strenuously to them claiming it as the “home of Middle Earth” (which is undoubtedly the Midlands of England where Tolkien grew up), I cannot deny that New Zealand’s scenery provides an incredible backdrop for the films. As always, the visual effects were superb and the portrayal of imaginary creatures such as orcs, wargs and trolls was totally believable (tribute both to the effects team and the actors who played so convincingly against green screen for these scenes). Special mention must go to the underground goblin city, which was almost exactly as I had imagined it when reading the book. In fact, although this was an exciting and tension-filled section of the film, I was smiling throughout at the way Jackson so accurately created what I had conjured in my own head.
Finally, I have to talk about the portrayal of the dragon Smaug, which was superbly done. During the brilliant scenes of the devastation he wreaks on men and dwarves alike, we catch only glimpses of the beast himself. Then, right at the end of the film, we see his eye open in his lair under the mountain. This is great suspense-building by Jackson, creating great anticipation for when we actually get to see Smaug in the second film.
All in all, I thought that “An Unexpected Journey” was excellent as a film, and good as an adaptation of Tolkien’s book. Visually spectacular, brilliantly acted for the most part, and with some truly memorable set pieces, it stands alongside Jackson’s other Middle Earth epics as a major achievement in bringing that world onto the screen. I hope that the remaining two films make more use of Tolkien’s extensive writing than new material to remain as true as possible to the source, but I am definitely looking forward to how the rest of this wonderful tale will be told in Parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy.
On February 24th, I will be leading the “Tolkien’s Middle Earth Tour”, which is a combined coach and walking tour exploring Tolkien’s links to Birmingham, visiting places associated with his boyhood in and around the city, and discovering how his early experiences shaped his writing. If you’re interested in joining the tour, visit Midlands Discovery Tours.