Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. i)

Review:  The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey


In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–J. R. R. Tolkien


First, I’ll try to do a little of what seems to be customary in reviews:  help the reader decide whether or not to see the movie.  I shall not say much about the acting skills of the stars and so forth, because I have little expertise in such matters; I shall simply offer some observations and advice.  Then, I shall proceed to what I consider much more interesting:  a philosophical discussion of what the story is saying.  Every story reflects the world and changes it at the same time.  If the reflection is accurate, it can help one to see one’s world better; if the reflection is encouraging, it can change it for the better; if it is deceitful or demoralizing it can make the hearer and the world a bit worse.  Attending to the story can help blunt the bad and sharpen the good; simply absorbing thoughtlessly can allow the good to wash over one and away, while the bad sinks in and stains the soul.  But first to the esthetics: and as a final warning, if you didn’t want spoilers of some sort you should just go to the movie and not read reviews like this one.

General review:  Do you want to see this movie?  If you enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, you will probably enjoy The Hobbit:  an unexpected journey as well.  On the other hand, if you enjoyed the original book by Tolkien, you may not enjoy the movie so much.  The reason for both of these is the same:  Jackson has added a great deal of material to his version of the Story of the Hobbit, some gleaned from unpublished Tolkien writings and some original to the movie, that strengthened links between the story of Bilbo Baggins and the tale of world war and cataclysm to follow.  As a reader of Tolkien, I found The Hobbit to be a brighter, lighter tale.  There is more humor, and rarely is Bilbo in as much danger as he is in discomfort.  And the book moves faster; it is a shorter story with less detail.  For example (this is from the book and does not enter the current movie at all), there is the adventure when Bilbo must save the dwarves from giant spiders.  He alone is not caught, and he saves them not by force of arms but by taunting the spiders, throwing rocks and insults.  Tolkien writes:



Practically all the spiders in the place came after him:  some dropped to the ground, others raced along the branches, swung from tree to tree, or cast new ropes across the dark spaces.  They made for his noise far quicker than he had expected.  They were frightfully angry.  Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.[1]



Once the spiders are distracted hunting him, Bilbo sneaks back to the dwarves and frees them from the webs.  These are talking spiders, not merely huge ones, and thus as liable to temper and folly as anyone.  They are not merely animals or monsters chasing a noise, but rather bad-tempered villains whose pride has been wounded.  We can’t really imagine Gandalf distracting the Balrog with choice insults, or Samwise luring Shelob away from her prize with a few rocks and some stamping.  Even in its darkest moments, The Hobbit remains a fairy-tale, while The Lord of the Rings is an apocalyptic epic.  The earlier book is lighter even in its darkest moments, with elements of humor and tales of cleverness defeating brute force and malice.

Elements of this remain in Jackson’s most recent movie, but there have been significant expansions.  The expansions are generally more somber, as they aim to foreshadow the return of Sauron and other fateful events leading to the War of the Rings.  Jackson has also added some violence, with Bilbo actually attacking a goblin and killing him in a scene that originally had Bilbo and his friends hiding trees awaiting a grim fate.  And finally, there is the greater visceral impact of visual over print depictions of violence.  It is one thing to write that Thorin killed a goblin; it is another to show extremely detailed and believable depictions of sword-and-ax fighting, with heads and limbs severed and flying across the screen (I can only imagine what this would look like in 3-D[2]).  True, there is no real blood; but I think that anyone who does not think this is nightmare material for small children has forgotten childhood.  This movie is rated PG-13 with good reason.  It may better suit a young audience than The Lord of the Rings, but not by much.

But as I said, if you enjoyed the earlier trilogy, you will enjoy The Hobbit.  It does have more humor than the Ring films, and thus does have a slightly lighter mood.  It also has a smaller focus; the War of the Ring is an apocalyptic struggle, while this is the story of a rather fussy homebody thrust into the company of thirteen adventurers, now trying to keep up and do what his heart tells him is right.  Gandalf the Grey is a bit less grey, Bilbo is considerably younger than when we last saw him (and played by a different actor), the dwarves generally less gruff than Gimli (Thorin is plenty grim, but as a general statement of all thirteen dwarves I think it is true).  Radagast represents a somewhat darker moment, warning of the coming evil he has seen; but any character who rides a sled pulled by giant rabbits cannot help but cheer you up a little.  And those rabbits, and the goblins, trolls, giants and other creatures and details of the world, all show the marvelous tools modern special effects offer to the imaginative moviemaker.  About the only criticism one could offer in this regard would be to complain that it is too much like the Ring trilogy.  Perhaps, when we see more of Smaug, we will really say, “This is something totally new.”

To be continued…..

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again, revised edition (New York, Ballentine Books, 1978) pp. 157-58.  The original version was written in 1936, three decades before publication of The Fellowship of the Ring.

[2] as I myself have no depth perception, besides which I saw only the 2-D movie.

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3 Responses to “Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. i)”

  1. Nemo Says:

    Why is the subtitle “an unexpected journey”, not “there and back again”?

    I read LOTR after watching the movies, and enjoyed both, but wasn’t as impressed with the Hobbit. I suspect I’d like the movie even less.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      1. The movie is only one-third of the book. It isn’t “back again;” it isn’t even all the way “there.” So they went with a different subtitle to designate that this is only part one of the story.
      2. If you liked the movies and didn’t like reading The Hobbit you might like the film version, for the same reason that some who did like the book didn’t like the movie. The changes Jackson brings in aim to link the two trilogies closer together, and generally to make The Hobbit more like The Lord of the Rings.

      • Nemo Says:

        I forgot that Jackson was going to make a trilogy of The Hobbit. Maybe I’ll wait for the extended version on DVD.

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