An unexpected journey, maybe — Peter Jackson swore after The Lord of the Rings that he was finished with Middle-earth — but not a short one. Despite source material a quarter of the size of Tolkien’s longer work, the decision was made to expand The Hobbitinto another trio of fantasy epic blockbusters.
While the earlier films required Jackson and scriptwriting partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, to condense, trim and (painfully, for some) cut from Tolkien’s novel, this time the opposite is true. With more than two and half hours only taking us up to the end of Tolkien’s chapter six, there’s room for a lot more back-story, action and swordplay than a faithful reading of the book might suggest necessary.
While purists may differ, I didn’t feel the additional material weakened the story — as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) himself tells Bilbo (Martin Freeman): ‘All good stories deserve embellishment’. What that embellishment does in this case, however, is to make for a darker film. Anyone expecting The Hobbit movies to be suited for a younger audience than The Lord of the Rings will be disappointed. The difference in tone between the books has been thoroughly evened out, with the children’s story falling into line with Tolkien’s epic masterpiece.
Light amid the shade
But there is light amid the shade. The impromptu dwarf party at Bag End is a delightful exercise in controlled anarchy, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and his bunny-drawn sleigh is a sight to behold, and the easy camaraderie between the dwarves makes the film seem shorter than its lengthy run-time. All of the book’s showpiece scenes are well handled, with Gollum’s (Andy Serkis) subterranean riddling particularly welcome.
There’s plenty of meat for fruitful post-film conversations as well. Balin (Ken Stott) tells Bilbo of how he realised that in Thorin (Richard Armitage) he had found: ‘One I could follow… one I could call King’. Gandalf asserts that it is, ‘the everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay: simple acts of kindness and love’.
The film also addresses the question of what drives us. Gandalf chides Bilbo for his unadventurous nature, telling him: ‘The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there’. He warns Bilbo that adventure will change him, a warning that is fulfilled by the end of this first instalment. The dwarves’ love for gold turns out to be less important than their need to regain their place in the world.
The search for belonging is at the heart of this film, as is the importance of doing what we are called to do. Which, perhaps, makes Peter Jackson’s change of heart rather appropriate.