Unlike a lot of my geek colleagues, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien do not loom large in my mind. I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until some time in my mid-20s, and then just the one time. I was somewhat interested in the animated Bakshi film, but mostly because it was so odd to me, and apparently not enough to actually read the books at the time. These days I appreciate the Peter Jackson films and don’t mind watching even the extended versions from time to time, but I don’t see myself re-reading the books or anything. (There are a lot of boardgames based on Tolkien and that is actually almost a turn-off for me, because they usually involve the part of Tolkien I’m least interested in: gigantic battles and microbial trivia.)
The Hobbit, on the other hand, was a little different for me. I did read that book, a couple of times. I didn’t obsess over it, and again, it didn’t motivate me to read the follow-ups, but it was something I was familiar with. I was especially familiar with the 1977 Rankin-Bass animated version, because I had this:
That was a story-on-record of the animated version, and I listened to it often. (What’s telling is that I have vivid memories of everything up until the wrath of Smaug, and not much after that. Even then, when Tolkien wheels out the armies for a big fight, I couldn’t care less.) The Rankin-Bass kind-of-dog-faced Smaug is the Smaug for me, and I prefer it to anything any Hildebrandt brother ever did. As much as I like Andy Serkis’ Gollum, it’s Brother Theodore all the way as far as I’m concerned.
Until the armies show up, this is a straight-up adventure story. A bunch of dwarves, still angry about the dragon that took over their home, look to go back and kick it out. Along the way they encounter all kinds of crazy, dangerous stuff. There are trolls, goblins, a wizard, giant spiders. It’s basic Fantasy 101 stuff, and it’s charming and fun as hell.
Naturally, that had to be addressed. The Hobbit is very much a kids’ story, but The Lord of the Rings is for Very Serious Adults. So, for example, we had to change the names of the trolls from “Tom”, “Burt”, and I don’t know what the third one was, “Greg” or something, to something less silly and more Middle-Earthian, with plenty of accent marks to show how real and grown up it was. Goblins became orcs because goblins are fairy tale enemies, not ever so serious menaces. And of course a ring that turned its wearer invisible — a fantastic item for children — became a Ring of Power that could lay waste to and control the whole world — also a fantastic item for children, as well as adults who think like them. This transition largely works because most Tolkien fans, from what I’ve gathered, stick to “The Trilogy” and keep The Hobbit around largely for the task of trying to get their kids into the same stuff the fan himself was into as a kid. It seems as though The Hobbit is largely bait to get the reader to move on to the “real” story and then is left behind.
So when it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to do The Hobbit, I was curious as to how he’d approach it. His vision of Middle-Earth in his Lord of the Rings trilogy was stunning and effective. It was a land mostly bled of its future, on the brink of losing everything, but with pockets of hope remaining. That’s not the tone of The Hobbit, which presents a dazzling and fantastic world if you can just get beyond the comforts you already know. How would he reconcile the two different views? When it was announced that The Hobbit would be three movies, clocking in at over seven hours, it seemed like we might have our answer.
And that answer is: awkwardly. A good chunk of An Unexpected Journey is very much the fun, exciting, light tone of the book, with dwarves being rowdy and raucous, goblins being goofy, trolls arguing about cooking, and so forth. Martin Freeman is an appropriately lighter version of Bilbo than Ian Holm was. But then we drag in the stuff to please the Lord of the Rings crowd and everything slows down and gets dour and ponderous. We all put on our grim faces and we thicken our voices to pronounce those very serious accent marks and talk about the growing darkness and the Necromancer and so forth.
Stop that, Bilbo, this is serious business.
In the goblin home, things get downright cartoonish (you don’t get slide whistles, but you get the Wilhelm Scream, which is the next best thing) and honestly, that’s what I liked. That’s what I wanted to see: a lighter, more fun alternative to the appropriate grimness of The Lord of the Rings. There’s even a frame for the story right in the movie: this should be Bilbo telling the story, and making it more fanciful and exciting than maybe it was. Bilbo would tell a story of elves and dragons and giant spiders and magic swords and wouldn’t care about Thrâgnók of Glòphrágùn. (Even the part with Radagast, whose name I like and who was played by a previous Doctor Who, and which featured a sled pulled by rabbits, outstayed its welcome before too long.)
I’ve seen people who say they don’t mind the length, as more time spent in Middle-Earth is a good thing, and that’s good, they’re the ones Jackson was aiming for. I think if you have a deep love for Tolkien qua Tolkien, you’ll enjoy this (and have already seen it), and you’ll dislike the parts I liked because they’re too goofy. For me, though, the story should have zipped along from peril to peril and stayed light as a feather, true to its kids adventure story roots and been possibly even more goofy. Rankin-Bass told this story in 77 minutes in 1977, and even had songs! There’s no reason this thing has to clock in at over seven hours, and while I’ll probably see the other two movies, I think I’d much rather wait for the special truncated versions of the DVDs that leave out all the very serious stuff.