Emerging from the Belfast premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on a dark, wet night in December, my verdict on this much hoped for and long awaited film version of J.R.R Tolkien’s beloved prequel to The Lord of the Rings mirrored the typically rainy Belfast weather: familiar but disappointing.
I finally understood why young Frodo in LOTR could never have returned to the home comforts of the Shire following his adventures with a certain ring, a dark lord and something to do with the end of the world. In an instant I knew why Middle-earth, once so warm and inviting, would never be the same again for the troubled young hobbit, landed with a burden he should never have had to bear. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the prequel to LOTR and the film is meant to lay the groundwork for the first of that trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, and follows the adventures of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo.
“Hobbits really are amazing creatures,” muses wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) in The Fellowship, “you can learn all there is to know about their ways in a month yet after hundred years, they can still surprise you.” I now know that the same goes for cinematic wizards like Peter Jackson (who somewhat resembles a hobbit himself). Watching the Kiwi director return to Middle-earth for the first time in nine years was a bit like being at a school reunion, remembering old times through a haze of nostalgia, yet feeling in my bones that it wasn’t quite the same.
I always dismissed any hint of cynicism when it came to adapting The Hobbit, one of my all-time favourite books and a story I used to fall asleep to as a teenager, too lazy to bother with the book but too transfixed by the audio version to actually fall asleep. I vigorously defended Jackson against those who would question his motives in returning to Tolkien territory. Some suggested that the decision to stretch the simple tale into a trilogy was made under studio pressure for a repeat of the hysteria surrounding the earth-shattering phenomenon that was Lord of the Rings. But I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I tend to react unfavourably to film cynics generally, but where LOTR is concerned I get that little bit more protective of the franchise’s artistic integrity, not to mention the fragile artistic integrity of those responsible for its production. That’s why it bothered me when Jackson seemed to lose the plot a bit with The Lovely Bones, a film which took Jackson out of his familiar fantasy/adventure comfort zone in telling the story of a family struggling to understand a senseless tragedy.
Lovely Bones was, to quote one reviewer, “a professionally crafted yet emotionally hollow portrayal of a poignant story, which drowns hopelessly amidst a backdrop of impressive imagery.” It was so disappointing to me because I knew from personal experience that, given the right material, Jackson was better than that. Undoubtedly, LOTR and now The Hobbit, are definitely the right material for Jackson.
He proved he was the man for the job with The Return of the King, sinking — if you’ll forgive the pun — James Cameron’s previously held record (with Titanic) of Oscar gongs for a single film by managing to adapt the book that many said was unadaptable.
Not only did Jackson appease the Tolkien fanboys but against all odds he actually exceeded expectations. He took the world-weary wisdom of Gandalf the Grey (wizard extraordinaire), who comes out with gems like “not even the very wise can see all ends”, and made it accessible for the masses through the eyes of a quartet of pint-sized protagonists who wouldn’t be out of place down your local pub, or in your local grocer’s flogging off cabbages.
If, as I was, you are hoping Jackson’s Hobbit will live up to the high expectations set by its illustrious predecessor, don’t hold your breath. Fans of Tolkien’s novel of the same name need not apply. The story told so succinctly in that slim volume has in Jackson’s big screen adaptation, for obvious reasons, been blown out of proportion and, in places, beyond all recognition.
To borrow a line from our unlikely hero Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit himself, this particular journey to Middle-earth, rather unexpectedly, feels “…thin, like butter scraped across too much bread”. The magic of the more ambitious and altogether more serious Lord of the Rings lingers in odd moments here and there in Hobbit, but what was once “precious” to the critics has undoubtedly lost its lustre. An Unexpected Journey achieved a meagre 65 percent on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.
The film’s one saving grace is simply that it makes the character of Bilbo Baggins accessible to a wider audience. The overarching virtue of Tolkien’s story, in which a simple little hobbit; the rosy-cheeked, hairy footed embodiment of ordinary, has the most extraordinary of adventures.
When Bilbo is thrust most unexpectedly, almost against his will, out of his comfort zone and into the path of 12 treasure-lusting dwarves and one rather grouchy wizard, in search of long lost treasure; the comfort-loving hobbit discovers that, when it comes to adventure, life’s greatest journey lies within. Where treasure is concerned, the most valuable is found when he loses himself in helping those around him.
Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.