Elven Interventions: A Fan's Review of The Hobbit (Part I)

On a Monday a week and a half ago, my girlfriend, her father and I went to the theater to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The movie was satisfying and entertaining, and a lot of people will enjoy it, ranging from those only a little familiar with Tolkien to those like me who have read several of his books. However, I think there will be audiences with mixed responses to the film: at one end, those who have no familiarity at all with Tolkien's epic lengendarium, and at the other, die-hard fans who are extremely well-versed in it.

There are spoilers that follow, I suppose, but not any that would ruin the film.

Image: My girlfriend and I with Gandalf at the movie theater.

P. Jackson (source)
When I first heard that Peter Jackson would be making a film version of The Hobbit, I was cautiously optimistic. Like most people I know, I really enjoyed Jackson's interpretation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but The Hobbit is a book of a different nature—intended to be a children's book, really—and I wasn't sure whether Jackson's team could handle it as successfully. Several months ago I heard that The Hobbit would be filmed at 48 frames per second—double the industry standard of 24—and although I read about it a little, I wasn't that interested by the news. Then, just a few months ago, I learned that The Hobbit would would be produced as three separate films. This astounded me. When I heard that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would be produced as two films, that seemed crazy enough. That's a hefty book, however, while The Hobbit is shorter than any of the three books making up The Lord of the Rings, each of which was made into one film only.

My first thought in response to this news was that Peter Jackson et al. were doing it for the money (also my thought regarding the final Harry Potter movies). Three films would make hundreds of millions of dollars more than one would. I then heard the films would incorporate material from outside The Hobbit itself, coming from Tolkien's other writing about the history of Middle Earth, like in the LotR appendices. I remained suspicious. Sure there was other history there to explore, but three films? It still seemed crazy. Fortunately, seeing the first film allayed my fears, and it made me realize these three Hobbit films have a vision behind them and won't just be about making money.

the cover for my
copy of The Hobbit
The first Hobbit film (An Unexpected Journey) maintains much of the heart and spirit of the original work while also creating a more serious storyline that incorporates plot points only hinted at in the book. For example, An Unexpected Journey has a strong playfulness and humor to it that LotR never did (though Jackson's LotR films still have ample humor). On the other hand, its involvement of the Necromancer in the story and creation of a "chase" plot line with Azog the Defiler (an Appendix character) makes the film much more "adult" and multifaceted than the original book.

Without a doubt, Jackson is making The Hobbit more of a prequel to the Lord of the Rings than Tolkien did, and I agree with this review that had Tolkien written The Hobbit after LotR, rather than before, he would have made many more connections as well. That's certainly what he did in his other undervalued or unpublished writings, like the LotR Appendices and the works later posthumously published as The Simarillion. Tolkien was constantly constructing a lengendarium—a detailed universe of stories and myths with thousands of years of history and multiple languages he invented himself. This dynamic is what makes An Unexpected Journey a film that will, I think, elicit mixed reviews from people who never watched the LotR movies or never read Tolkien, even in spite of Jackson's attempts to make the film's adventure appeal to all. I would recommend to anyone wanting to see The Hobbit that they should at least watch The Fellowship of the Ring. (No reading required!)

Elrond, from An Unexpected Journey
In spite of his ambitious vision to link the Hobbit film trilogy with the rest of Middle Earth's history and The Lord of the Rings, Jackson still takes significant liberties with Tolkien's stories. Azog the Defiler, for example, is an orc leader mentioned in Tolkien's appendices, but he was killed in battle 150 years before the events of The Hobbit, while Jackson changes the events of the battle and has Azog live on with a prosthetic arm, bent on killing Thorin, leader of the dwarven band. Thus, the films are provided with another villain, another way to develop Thorin as a hero, and a chase dynamic (which so many movies thrive on) that the book did not possess. The reason I titled this post "Elven Interventions"  is that there was one scene that particularly stuck out for me as a change from Tolkien's story: In the film, Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves are being chased by orcs riding wargs (giant wolves) and then barely escape down a crevice. At the same moment, Elves on horseback ride in, slaughtering the orcs and wargs. I haven't read The Hobbit in many years, but I can assure you this doesn't happen in the book.

An elven intervention also occurred in Jackson's The Two Towers, when elves from Lothlorien arrived to aid in the defense of Helm's Deep. That never happened! Nevertheless, these liberties taken with the original writings are not too unbelievable to accept for enthusiastic fans like me. The only people who might get really hung up on these changes are radical, die-hard fans of the books. They might be disappointed with where the Hobbit films are going, but then again, after the Lord of the Rings films they shouldn't be surprised. Ultimately, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be great entertainment for most anyone who watched LotR or read Tolkien's books. It seems Peter Jackson and company have an ambitious vision for their new trilogy of films, and after seeing the first installment, I believe they are achieving that vision in a pretty entertaining, successful, and respectful way.