The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Review by Dr. Bob Hieronimus

Host of 21st Century Radio on WCBM, 680 AM Baltimore

Speaking as a decades-long Tolkien junkie, my review of any dramatization of his works is going to be biased. Nor can I come to this review of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” as a film critic who would try to evaluate a film adaptation purely on its cinematic qualities. Because of the dozens of times I have read these tomes, I will constantly analyze any Tolkien dramatization for every detail of how it differs from the original.

But what I’ve come to expect from Peter Jackson is that he never disappoints me. I’ll admit, I was a bit puzzled over how he was going to stretch a single novel (which is essentially a children’s story based on the bedtime stories Tolkien told to his children), into three long films. As I watched the opening scenes, however, it took about a minute for this concern to evaporate completely. I remember now that every time I watch a Peter Jackson Tolkien production all I ever say is “I want more!!!”

My favorite intricacies in his version of “The Hobbit” part 1 include the scenes with the lesser-known wizard Radagast the Brown, whose rabbit-pulled sleigh outruns and outsmarts an army of orcs and wargs. I also loved how Jackson worked in a secret council between Galadriel, Saruman, Elrond and Gandalf, which reveals much about the inner workings and hidden motives of all these complex characters. But the best scene I thought was how he depicted Gollum losing the ring. I loved the sensitive and touching scenes between Bilbo and Gollum, and once again praise the characterizations of the talented Andy Serkis for bringing such pathos to a distasteful character. Read the transcript of Andy Serkis’ interview on 21st Century Radio online. The riddle contest in Jackson’s interpretation was particularly enjoyable.

It requires a lot of commitment, but I highly recommend everyone get as thoroughly entrenched in Tolkien as I do before you watch this film. My favorite is the Recorded Books production unabridged reading of all four books read by Rob Inglis, but I also enjoy regular listenings to the BBC radio play dramatization. I listen to these at least once a year, both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and even before these audio productions were released in the 1990s, my family and I would read the books aloud to each other on long car trips starting in the 1970s. During these “Before Jackson” years, I remember dreaming of the day when a film could be made, and we could revel in the visual enjoyment of these vivid and compelling stories.

I was thrilled with the Bankin/Rass animated features of 1977 even though they leave a lot to be desired. They were a valiant and honorable attempt for the technologies available at the time. We had to wait for Peter Jackson and WETA Workshop to develop the technology in CGI to appreciate a truly visual experience that allows us to completely suspend our disbelief. And somehow they have outdone themselves completely with “The Hobbit”, with even more convincing graphics and effects than the 17-Oscar winning “Lord of the Rings” trilogy of almost 10 years ago.

As I said to Richard Taylor, head of WETA Workshop on 21st Century Radio a few weeks ago they had a lot to live up to, because in my estimation, they had set the bar so high with perfection in the first trilogy! He promised us that somehow, they had managed to surpass their previous efforts, and told us to watch particularly for the makeup and prosthetics they invented for the 13 Dwarves in “The Hobbit”. Even in the long shots from a helicopter you can tell one dwarf from the other. Each one has a distinct personality and look. Way to go Richard! ( Thanks to you and Peter Jackson and your teams, we can revel in the visual thrills of Tolkien’s mythology again and again.

If you were concerned like me with the possibility that “The Hobbit” would feel overly long, or stretched into three movies when it should have been one, never fear! What you’ll find is that Peter Jackson has made an action-packed adult film for the new millennium that will appeal to all movie-goers, regardless of their appreciation of Tolkien. At the same time, his attention to detail will supremely satisfy the Tolkien junkies like me. He maintains the whimsy of the characters and the humor of Tolkien’s dialogue while expanding the story gleaned from details in the appendices to the Lord of the Rings. As Jackson said: “We’ve got the rights to adapt what would be the appendices from the Return of the King, about 125 pages of material [where] Tolkien was writing about what was happening outside the pages of the Hobbit in Middle Earth at the exact same time. So we are doing sort of the Hobbit-supersized with all this extra material.”

You’ll find this and more great quotes from behind the scenes plus fantastic photos in Rolling Stone’s Collectors Edition of The Hobbit, the Ultimate Guide. This guide includes a poster of the dwarves as you’ve never seen them, a map of Middle Earth, and a series of entertaining interviews. I found it most revealing to read Peter Jackson say: “We’re humans and we’re always going to want stories. We’re always going to want things that affect our emotions.”

Well, this film affects the emotions all right, as well as the heart and mind. When you leave the theater you will find yourself more inspired than if you’d just finished reading the book version. I like to see the deeper meanings and symbolic importance of any story, and with “The Hobbit”, I see the personal transformation of an English country gentleman and total loafer into a hero – a transformation that affects his entire world, the entire Middle Earth. All our actions and decisions impact our entire universe as well. It’s just sometimes it’s more noticeable than others.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” deserves a bushelful of awards from around the world. My family and I plan to see it repeatedly this season, and will buy the DVD as soon as it’s released and will add its viewing to our holiday annual traditions. Plus we have something to look forward to in 2013 and 2014 when parts 2 and 3 are released!