The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again
Peter Jackson scored an unprecedented creative and commercial triumph with his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. So why not come back and try the whole thing again? Hence The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three films based on Tolkien's original novel.
"Three films?" you say. "Wasn't there just one book?" Yep. But the Hollywood types want another trilogy (sorry, there's profit to be had), so the novel has been stretched to fill multiple flicks. That means some big-time changes to the original storyline that may or may not get your J.R.R. goat. (Fair warning: thar be spoilers ahead.)
What's the Same
Since Jackson has to mine eight or so hours of material out of the book, he can't afford to drop much. So most of the events of the book take place exactly as they're written onscreen: Bilbo (Martin Freeman) running into Gandalf (Ian McKellan) on his front porch, the uninvited dwarves ravaging his larder, his hasty departure the next morning (though they skip the Green Dragon Inn and go right to the road), the trolls, the goblins in the mountains, the stop at Rivendell, and a very tense riddle contest with the stanktastic Gollum (played by the ever-awesome Andy Serkis).
He even gets in little details like the swords they find in the trolls' cave, or the stone giants playing catch in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. Dialogue, too, stays fairly close to the book, from Gandalf's musing on what, exactly "good morning" means and Bilbo's various riddles with Gollum (sadly, they don't use every riddle). It even includes many of Tolkien's songs, specifically the two the dwarves sing in Bilbo's house in the very beginning.
For starters, An Unexpected Journey only gets the first six of the book's nineteen chapters on film, which means it ends right when the eagles rescue everyone from the burning trees. (What is it with those eagles anyhow? They seem to show up anytime Tolkien paints himself into a corner.) The rest of the book gets to wait for the next two films (ah, the profit motive). That doesn't mean we don't get a lot of good material, though. Jackson adds a great deal that wasn't strictly in the book, but which Tolkien hinted at in his notes and other writings. Mostly, it means filling in the blanks on stuff that we get in bits and pieces from the book. In the movie, we get the whole picture, and then some.
There's the Necromancer, a.k.a. Sauron 1.0. Before he showed up as a giant flaming eye in The Lord of the Rings, he appears in Mirkwood with various flavors of Up to No Good in tow. In the book, Gandalf takes off midway through to deal with him, which means Bilbo and the dwarves have to fend for themselves. But Tolkien never gets into the specifics of what exactly Gandalf was up to, choosing instead to focus completely on Bilbo.
The movies, on the other hand, flesh all that good stuff out. Gandalf's fellow wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) crosses their paths to warn them all about the Necromancer. We also get cameos from elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and future-bad-guy-but-just-kind-of-a-grump-for-now wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who meet with Gandalf and discuss what's to be done.
The movie also gives Grand Poo-Bah dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) some backstory. Not only does it open with the story of how Smaug the dragon took over his home (postponing the book's famous opening line—"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit"—for a good fifteen minutes), but it gives us a whole backstory about why they called him "Oakenshield" in the first place. As it turns out, he used an oak log to defend himself in a huge battle with a nasty orc named Azog (Manu Bennett), and the name stuck. He even cut off Azog's hand in the process, and now the orc wants to return the favor. He pops up multiple times in the course of the movie, giving us a villain to menace our heroes while the dragon waits for a later installment.
What Does it Add?
All of the new material is inferred or hinted at by Tolkien, and some is discussed in his appendices to The Lord of the Rings. It's just not directly mentioned in the text of The Hobbit itself. So while Jackson and his team make some big additions to the novel, it's not like they're making this stuff up out of thin air. All this material is stamped with the seal of approval of J.R.R. from beyond the grave. After all, he's the one who dreamed it all up in the first place.
That may end up causing them problems as the series continues. The new material brings new subplots and additional characters into the mix, which may blunt some of Tolkien's purpose. The Hobbit was written almost entirely from Bilbo's point of view. That kept the text very straightforward and the plot pointed in a straight line to the dragon. It was a book for kiddos, don't forget. By adding these subplots, Jackson changes that straight line into a wandering set of paths, both increasing the running time, and making for some plot twists that might be a bit tougher for the young'uns to follow.
The new material also postpones the bulk of the book's content for The Hobbits 2 and 3, which causes a few other difficulties. We're not looking at three movies for The Hobbit; we're looking at one movie cut into three parts. We won't know how that movie looks until the other two come out, but the lengthy running time of this first section makes us wonder if that's really for the best… and why the additional material was needed at all. (Besides, you know, the ability to charge us three times.)
But Peter Jackson's the master, let's not forget. He is an Oscar winner. We're hoping for the best, or at the very least, an excuse to eat a whole lot of popcorn for three hours while we escape to the gorgeous visuals of Jackson's Middle-earth.
So what do you think, Shmoopers—will the movies hold up to the book? Shmoop amongst yourselves.