Click here if you missed yesterday’s Part I, in which I discuss clear pros and cons of the film, Today we’re exploring pro-cons, important elements of the film that are worth talking about and not altogether good or bad. I’ll also offer some closing comments and look ahead to what we can expect in film two, The Desolation of Smaug. Enjoy, and if you still haven’t read the book, we’ll wait right here. It’s okay.
1. The Necromancer thread
Here I must confess that I misjudged Peter Jackson. I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with Tolkien’s appendices and hence didn’t realize that there is some key behind-the-scenes action involving the Necromancer, the White Council, and Dol Guldur. Clearly I needed to do a little homework. As a matter of fact, according to Tolkien’s own appendix, Quest of Erebor , Gandalf himself views these things as quite closely connected to the dwarves’ quest. Recounting his consultation with Thorin, Gandalf quotes himself thus:
‘Your own ideas are those of a king, Thorin Oakenshield; but your kingdom is gone. If it is to be restored, which I doubt, it must be from small beginnings. Far away here, I wonder if you fully realize the strength of a great Dragon. But that is not all: there is a Shadow growing fast in the world far more terrible. They will help one another.’ And they certainly would have done so, if I had not attacked Dol Guldur at the same time. ‘Open war would be quite useless; and anyway it is impossible for you to arrange it. You will have to try something simpler and yet bolder, indeed something desperate.’
The Battle of Dol Guldur takes place just before the Battle of Five Armies. More details can be found on Tolkien Wiki (aka Geekipedia).
So now that I’ve done my homework, I give Jackson credit for actually digging deep and remaining faithful to Tolkien’s universe in this respect. As I mentioned in part one, I still don’t like how he compressed the Council’s accumulation of knowledge regarding the Necromancer. But those parts of the movie do make more sense now.
On one hand, this is potentially very good cinematic material. It ties in with and builds up to the War of the Ring, so I can see why Jackson jumped at the chance to portray it. At the same time, I wonder whether it will distract from Bilbo’s journey, particularly since they’ve left so much ground of the actual quest to be covered even after this first three-hour installment. (And already in this film it’s provided occasion for some dorkiness, like Galadriel’s telepathic communication with Gandalf during the Council Meeting in Rivendell—puh-LEEZE. And fiddling with his hair… just no.) But I’m hopeful that this will actually turn out to be an interesting addition.
2. The quest
The quest is given weightier significance than it has in the book. The dwarves are driven not merely to reclaim their gold, but to take back Erebor. But as seen in that quoted section from Quest, actually winning back Erebor is regarded as something of a pipe dream by Gandalf and replaced by the more modest goal of stealing some treasure. It’s like what I learned in my health and wellness class about process goals versus outcome goals. Taking back Erebor = outcome goal, stealing some treasure = process goal. This is more logical, considering that the little company has a small chance of actually defeating the dragon (and we know that in fact, he’s killed by a lucky arrow). Thorin has bigger plans at first, being Thorin, but Gandalf calms him down. Makes sense.
On the other hand, bringing in the theme of longing for home makes for some genuinely moving scenes in the film. In an added scene just before the company is captured in the goblin cave, Bilbo decides to go back to Rivendell while they’re all asleep, wounded by Thorin’s pronouncement that he should never have come. Bofur tries to reason with him. “You’re homesick. I understand.” “No,” Bilbo answers with some bitterness, “You don’t understand. You’re dwarves. You’re used to this life… not settling in one place, not belonging anywhere.” He then pauses and apologizes, but Bofur agrees, “No, you’re right. We don’t belong anywhere.”
There’s more dialogue along these lines when Bilbo rejoins them after they’ve all escaped. Admittedly, it’s set up rather awkwardly as compared with the book. (One dwarf sees him slip away, and Thorin thinks he headed back home when it would have been impossible to retrace his steps, and rejoining the company was the only rational thing to do anyway under the circumstances.) But once again, this theme of home is very compelling. Replying to Thorin’s question as to why he came back, Bilbo evocatively describes how much he misses Bag End. “See, that’s where I belong. That’s home.” Then he continues, “And that’s why I came back. Because you don’t have one—a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can.” Great acting from Freeman in this scene (no duh).
Tolkien himself said that he was inspired by the Jews when he created the dwarves—both people without a home. So while the details of the actual goal of the quest may have been changed in the film, that sense of loneliness and wandering ultimately can be traced back to Tolkien’s own vision for this race.
3. Thorin’s relationship with Bilbo
This relationship is important in the original novel, but the tensions don’t really come to the fore until Bilbo finds the Arkenstone. In the movie, these tensions are introduced almost immediately. Also, whereas Bilbo must work to win the love and respect of the entire dwarf company in the book, in the movie he mostly just has to prove himself to Thorin. On one hand I can see why they would want to start this thematic ball rolling since they’ve decided to break the story into three installments. It’s not one of the worst changes to the book, and it does provide some touching moments.
The problem is that both characters have gone through an entire relational arc—from doubt and distrust to reconciliation—by the time the first credits roll. It feels like Jackson hasn’t left dramatic room for the Arkenstone conflict, Bilbo’s banishment from the company, and the book’s heart-wrenching death-bed reconciliation. By giving us this (inferior) mini-arc so early in the story, Jackson’s setting himself up for redundancy later on.
Don’t think for one minute that I don’t want to see it though!
4. Turning Bilbo into a fighter
Let’s be honest, Bilbo is a decent chap and all, but as Gandalf explains in the book, he’s neither a Mighty Warrior nor a Hero. Now I know what you’re thinking: “But Bilbo DOES fight the spiders in Mirkwood!” Yes, he does. But I think you’d agree that orcs and wargs are a different matter, and Sting gets its fill of both in this first installment. Why is this a pro-con for me? Well, on the con side, to say it’s not very realistic would be an understatement. One reviewer compared it to having a pre-schooler tackle a line-backer—and win. I can only imagine how ridiculous this will all seem by the time we reach The Battle of Five Armies (in the book he disappears and sits it out—somehow I don’t think the movie Bilbo will). Plus, it’ll kind of dull the impact of Bilbo’s encounter with the spiders. No longer will it be like “Hey, this is the first time Bilbo’s really started hefting Sting around and killing stuff with it!” Instead it’ll be like “Eh, no big deal, first thing he killed was a warg.”
In Bilbo, Tolkien gave us a particular literary type—the burglar, the plan-hatcher, the clever wit. Like Ulysses in The Odyssey, Bilbo will sooner talk his way out of trouble than hack his way out. Although he can show himself heroic, literarily speaking that is not the same thing as being a Hero. But such fine distinctions tend to be lost on today’s screen-writers, who want to appeal to the more basic demands of today’s moviegoers—visual stimulation versus cerebral stimulation, a simple emotional pull versus literary satisfaction. It’s so natural as to be almost inevitable. At the same time, it’s disappointing.
Still, one can say they’ve succeeded in their goals, as it is difficult to resist the charm of a heroic hobbit. Admittedly, Bilbo attacking orcs and wargs is pretty cool to watch once you suspend disbelief. Plus (SPOILER), it provided the climax of the movie’s Bilbo/Thorin relationship. I won’t deny it warmed my heart to see Bilbo (EVEN MORE SPECIFIC SPOILER) gallantly rushing to his aid during the final stand-off with Azog (even though the whole scene really had no business being in the movie to begin with). And this naturally earns Thorin’s respect to make for a nice emotional cap to the film. But let me put it this way: It’s the sort of extra story-telling I used to make up for myself when I was, oh, nine or so. “Let’s make up an extra battle, and have Bilbo be a hero and save Thorin’s life, and then have Thorin respect him more!” It’s a sweet idea that pays off on a purely emotional level. And Freeman and Armitage sell it well, for sure. But ultimately, it still feels like the sort of thing a 9-year-old would come up with, and for that reason it works less well on a story-telling level.
This film came from the same mind that gave us the Lord of the Rings movies, and for that reason it shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses as those films. However, there is one respect in which it stands superior, and that is in having a lead actor who can carry the film and hold it all together. Frodo may have been the main character in LOTR, but while Elijah Wood played the part fine, his performance ultimately felt like just another solid contribution to the ensemble—not the performance on which the entire saga rested. Then again, perhaps that was as it should be given the scope of the films. Still, Frodo is at the center of the story, and I always found myself wanting more from him. That’s not a problem with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo. Whether it’s his authentic Britishness, his face, or just the fact that he can act with his forehead, he’ll send you away with everything you could possibly want and more. He’s demurred in one interview that he doesn’t carry the film. I beg to differ.
Back to the film as a whole, the makers’ love for this material is still apparent, as is the almost obsessive attention to detail. (Take that contract in the picture at the top, for example. Somebody spent untold hours actually creating a REAL contract that was literally THAT long, even though the audience never sees more than a tiny fraction of the words. Some dedicated fans have used hi-res photos to decipher the whole thing here. It’s true the original was quite brief, but you have to love the unfathomable nerdiness that goes into something like that.) Despite Jackson’s oft-times heavy cinematic license, the story and the characters will still draw you in. Even though it’s not as great a story as the one Tolkien originally told, there’s enough of his vision in here to make it worth seeing. For my money, it could have been a lot worse. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but that really is what I came away thinking. I think I had my expectations lowered by reading the tepid reviews, and that enabled me to be pleasantly surprised. Critics are saying it doesn’t measure up to the first trilogy, but I can honestly say this is the first of Jackson’s Tolkien movies that I’ve felt any great desire to watch more than once.
I’m still unhappy that they chose to stretch the story into three parts, particularly seeing how some of that time has already been wasted. But on the bright side, that means that we have some of the best parts to look forward to—Mirkwood, the barrel-riding, Smaug of course, and don’t forget about Beorn! The only other film version I’ve seen (a surprisingly faithful animated adaptation from 1977) cut Beorn out altogether. So this will be the first time I’ve seen a film-maker bring him to life on the screen, and I can hardly wait because truth be told, he’s probably my favorite character.
I just now found a sweet little video containing interview snippets with various cast members about which scenes are going to be included in the next installment. I’m feeling more hopeful already. Plus, Richard Armitage agrees with me, which is awesome. If you’re wondering what Andy Serkis is doing in this interview, he’s speaking as a director! Serkis directed an entire camera unit for these films. So… yeah. Awesome. Be sure to watch all the way to the end for Martin Freeman’s “selfless” closing remarks. It’s okay Martin, you’ve earned your fair share of dead-pan hilarious, tongue-in-cheek bragging:
Bottom line: Don’t go see An Unexpected Journey expecting to be blown away (except perhaps by Martin Freeman’s performance). Do go expecting to be entertained and to enjoy a nice adventure, and I think that’s exactly what you will get. Time it right, and it won’t even make you late for dinner.