True confessions: I was in line at 9:15. That’s p.m. For a midnight showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
At least I wasn’t wearing elf ears.
I’ve been a devoted fan of Tolkien’s Middle Earth since my mother read the books aloud to us on long road trips, long before director Peter Jackson got his hands on the story. The three Lord of the Rings movies were released during the three years that I was in grad school, studying screenwriting. I was delighted with the haunting, well-scripted distillation of the three books for the screen — so you can imagine how excited I was for a chance to return to Middle Earth on screen.
I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Martin Freeman is utterly believable as the comfort-loving Bilbo Baggins, ripped from his cozy fireside and launched on *gasp* an adventure. Ian McKellen reprises (pre-prises?) his role as the wizard Gandalf, sage and yet uncertain in the face of a growing evil he doesn’t understand. And Andy Serkis returns as Gollum for a memorable game of riddles with Bilbo, while the hobbit is lost underground and discovers the infamous One Ring. This sequence, near the end of the film, is by far the most gripping moment in the story.
The movie also begins on a strong note when the thirteen dwarves show up unexpectedly (at Gandalf’s behest) to hire Bilbo as their burglar on a quest to recover their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug. Peter Jackson manages to navigate the pitfalls of thirteen dwarves, one hobbit, and one wizard in a small hobbit hole — clearly introducing each character and capturing both the humor and the haunting moments from the book.
That said, the movie is far from perfect. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the stakes are excruciatingly high. Failure in the quest to destroy the Ring will result in the destruction of all Middle Earth. The source material is so lengthy that the screenplays were forced to whittle the story down to the most essential moments, moving at a breathless pace. The Hobbit, written first and with a much lighter tone, simply doesn’t carry the same weight. Jackson attempts to give it a similar epic scope as the original three movies by including material Tolkien added later in the Appendices of Lord of the Rings.
While I appreciate that the additions are true to Tolkien’s world, they don’t merit what will be a trio of three-hour movies based on one, fairly short novel. I believe there’s a brilliant two-hour movie in The Hobbit. At two hours and forty-nine minutes, it meanders on occasion. Jackson takes advantage of his credit with a built-in fan base to extend his CG action sequences for the sake of eye candy, rather than good storytelling. Some of the backstory feels shoe-horned into place as necessary set up for the coming two movies.
For all its flaws, though, the screen adaptation gets one vital thing right. The book only needed one broad character arc for Bilbo Baggins. Three movies require three distinct (though co-joined) character journeys for the hobbit. Jackson chose to create a through-line for Bilbo that, while it doesn’t exist in the book, feels true to Tolkien’s character. As a home-loving hobbit, Bilbo finds himself adrift and off balance as he’s thrust on a journey into the wild. The dwarves, especially their leader and rightful king, Thorin Oakenshield, have been a homeless people for several generations, used to the hard life of wanderers. They don’t take Bilbo seriously, even resenting him, as they expect him to flee back to his comforts at every chance. But by the end of the film, when Bilbo has a chance to give up on the quest, he instead chooses to stay and follow through. He continues not for himself, but because he understands the value of having a place to belong, and wishes to help the dwarves secure their own home.
As screenwriters ourselves, my husband and I can analyze the technicalities of structure and character ad nauseum. But the question that haunted us as we left the theatre at 3 a.m. didn’t have to do with scene breaks or the nuances of dialogue. Instead, I wondered: Where am I being called to leave the safe and cozy nest I’ve created for myself? What adventures am I ignoring that could change me forever … if I dared to say “yes”?