The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

21 September

Publication of The Hobbit, 1937

On this day in 1937, George Allen & Unwin first published a children’s story by John Ronald Ruel Tolkien, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. It was called The Hobbit: or There and Back Again, and had grown out of pipesmoke gatherings of an informal literary group of Oxford academics called the Inklings, who met at a pub on Tuesday mornings. Perhaps as a reaction against the modernist experimentation of writers such as James Joyce, the Inklings favoured strong narratives and fantasy, both of which are present by the imperial ton in Tolkien’s story of a hobbit who sets off on a great quest with a wizard. The wizard is of course Tolkien himself, or more generally, Oxford dons. Hobbits are the students, small in stature compared to the great men. Women? As in the Oxford of the time, they barely featured and were drawn as creatures of great scarcity and wonderment. The cosy atmosphere of Hobbiton is the snug, toasting-fork world of the Oxford don. Meanwhile, outside the Shire in the industrial Midlands, in which Oxfordshire sat, lay the fire-breathing regions of industrial production, such as Birmingham. The Black Country more generally might be thought of as the model for Mordor. Though it’s also worth remembering that Tolkien served in the First World War, where he fought on the Somme, so scenes of tumultuous battle and great bloodshed were not unfamiliar. The Hobbit, grounded in the personal but flying into the fantastical, was an immediate success, and the publishers asked for more. As for Tolkien’s fellow Inkling, CS Lewis, he said, “Prediction is dangerous, but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, dir: Peter Jackson)

Agreed, there was very little reason to turn a short book into three long films, apart from the obvious financial one. But director Peter Jackson does manage to do some wonderful things with the original source material. The casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins is a masterstroke, Freeman coming across as a gentle, funny and homely kind of soul who would not be tempted easily out of the Shire onto a wild chase towards danger. Jackson has also picked up a few tricks from the Harry Potter series, and spends time working on the more human touches, building character, establishing milieu. And there are a few tips of the hat to Pirates of the Caribbean too, the quips, the backchat. Which really helps the extended opening sequence – the arrival of Gandalf and the huge dwarf party held at Baggins’s home. After that we’re all off on the adventure to banish the dragon Smaug and recover the kingdom of Erebor. And though there is a touch of the same problem that bedevilled Lord of the Rings – if you can magic someone back to life every time they die, where exactly is the jeopardy? – Jackson really comes into his own with the extended first meeting with Gollum, the hobbit originally called Smeagol until prolonged exposure to the Ring turned him into the hideous subterranean creature. It is the highlight of the book, in fact it’s one of the great passages in children’s literature. And Freeman and Andy Serkis (back in mo-cap as Gollum) make the most of it. The film is much flabbier than the book, admittedly, but Jackson’s achievment is to make his first part of the Hobbit trilogy immersive. And as the CGI starts to overwhelm the human actors, it’s easy to either lose interest and start complaining that it’s all a bit too much like a video game. Or to disappear almost entirely into Middle Earth with the characters on screen.

Why Watch?

  • The 48 frames per second technical innovation
  • Play “spot the face” with the dwarfs as familiar actors are rendered down to pint size
  • A fabulous eccentric turn by Sylvester McCoy as crackpot wizard Radagast the Brown
  • It is probably going to be better than part 2

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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