“…one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast…Gandalf came by.” And the rest, as they say, is history, or fantasy, or folly, depending on who you ask.
From high frame-rates to 3-D technology to the uber-padding required to stretch one nineteen-chapter children’s novel into three feature films and roughly nine hours of screen time, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (MGM and New Line Cinema, December 2012; PG-13) — director Peter Jackson’s first installment of the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s maiden foray into Middle Earth — has garnered exorbitant amounts of feedback from rabid fans, reviewers, internet trolls, and your average movie-goers. Cries of “too slow,” “too fast,” “too childish,” “too long,” “too bright,” and “too crisp,” rise out of the din; I’m left wondering if we’ve lost sight of what truly makes this powerhouse of a franchise so wonderfully successful: first, the nostalgia of a generation reentering a world where they spent hours of their adolescence watching and rewatching the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and second (perhaps most importantly), the nostalgia of anyone who read and connected to Tolkien’s magical world between now and 1937 when The Hobbit was published.
Was the movie padded? Of course. It was thoughtfully insulated with layers of visually stunning, fascinating material, pulled from throwaway lines in the original text or from the appendices of the Lord of the Rings. And for the most part, that padding worked to alleviate some of the discomfort that inevitably accompanies the transition from text to a visual medium. Without the expanded story of Azog the Defiler acting as Thorin’s nemesis to push the narrative, there would be no immediate antagonistic force in the first film — just a bunch of dwarves walking to and fro with only the distant threat of Smaug, lying dormant somewhere in the Lonely Mountain under heaps of gold. The same could be said for the Necromancer, whose expanded story in the film fills in the gaps of The Hobbit text where Gandalf disappears for entire chapters at a time.
Perhaps the film’s most effective padding (and deviation from Tolkien’s original text) was furnishing Bilbo with enough agency to fully realize his heroic potential. In the book, Bilbo is basically ordered by Gandalf to join the dwarfish motley crew. In the film, he chooses to sign a contract. In the book, Gandalf stalls the trolls until the sun rises, but in the film, it is Bilbo’s cunning that ultimately saves the group. It’s true: at times, the expanded scenes feel episodic, disjointed, and at their worst, indulgent (as in the scene of stone giants hurling boulders at each other). But part of the magic of nostalgia is this indulgence.
Speaking of magic, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to discuss the sheer brilliance of the “Riddles in the Dark” scene, in which Bilbo bests the tortured soul Gollum (played by his excellency, Andy Serkis) in a battle of wits deep within the belly of a goblin cave. The dramatic tension captured in these brief ten minutes far surpasses the cumulative tension of the surrounding hundred and sixty.