There and Back Yet Again

I have now seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey an unexpected three times. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have gone a third time quite so soon, but I was tagging along with others on Christmas Day and that’s where everybody wanted to go.

The movie certainly holds up. It continues to seem to me to be a tightly constructed movie with very little that could be called padding.


Don’t read further if you don’t want to hear anything specific about the movie yet. I will try not to give away anything major, but I have a lot of random observations that may give away a small surprise here and there.

I didn’t realize the first time that the Goblin King is played by Barry Humphries, until we got to the credits at the end. Now that I know, though, I can see Humphries’s manner and hear his inflections in the portrayal, and I can hardly stop chuckling throughout his scene from imagining the Goblin King with rhinestone horn-rimmed glasses.

What some critics and moviegoers are pointing to as being padding — for example, Radagast and Azog and the prologue about Dale and Smaug’s coming — doesn’t seem like padding to me at all. I think they’re necessary additions once you make the decision that you’re going to try to make The Hobbit feel like a companion piece to the movie of LOTR.

I reread the novel after seeing the movie the first time, and it just reinforced my preference for the filmmakers’ choice to take the movie in that direction. The novel has its charms, but it’s very straightforward and uncomplicated, the characterizations are thin, and the story is a very simple quest, with nothing like the complexities and depths of LOTR. I mean, sure, making a more faithful adaptation would have been a different but also entirely valid choice, but I think it would have made for a movie that felt very small and slight next to LOTR.

The ways in which the story has been fleshed out seem like fine choices to me. Radagast has a vital role to play in Gandalf’s learning that evil is rising in the east and the south. This is indeed what’s happening in the novel of The Hobbit, but little is actually said about it in the novel, and it’s mostly happening offstage; you have to know both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings very well, or else have read the appendices and other material, to understand it. I think it’s an entirely valid choice to bring this out more prominently in the movie of The Hobbit and tie it more strongly to the movie of LOTR. And once you’re going to do that, well, if it’s not Radagast who serves this function, then somebody will have to. And it makes perfectly fine sense for it to be Radagast.

Azog adds a complication to Thorin’s motivations, just as Aragorn’s motivations in the movie of LOTR were made more complex than in the novel. The straightforward and unvaryingly valiant warrior-hero works better as a believable character on the page than he does on the stage or screen — when you’re actually watching an actor inhabit the role from moment to moment, watching him perform all his everyday, routine actions as well as the nobler ones, then he needs more dimensions than he does if you’re reading only about how he behaves during the high points of the story. If Thorin were portrayed in the movie exactly as he is in the novel, he’d seem like a shallow stick figure by the end.

The history of Dale has to appear in the first movie if the filmmakers want the audience to really understand that the dwarves and Bilbo are motivated by something stronger and more emotional than just wanting to get all that gold. The choice is only whether to do it as a prologue or later in the movie as a flashback. Hold off altogether until a later movie and you are holding off on giving all your main characters their strongest motivations until after the entire first movie.

There are also some subtle connections that I didn’t catch the first time but that became clearer on seeing the movie again. One example (Dave caught this first and pointed it out to me): The scene at the beginning with the dwarves wildly juggling Bilbo’s dishes establishes that these guys are extremely deft with their hands, have impeccable timing, and work together well as a team. These attributes are what get them out of the goblin tunnels — over and over again they manage to escape danger by a hairsbreadth, by cutting a rope at precisely the right split second or through their dexterity and teamwork by turning anything at hand into a weapon and everybody knowing, without a word of discussion, exactly how to work together with it. The whole escape from the goblins is like a visual set of variations on that theme.

Another example: Gandalf and Thorin quarrel from the beginning about whether to stop in Rivendell (another thread of the story that the writers invented). The first time I saw the movie, it seemed as though the company stumbled into Rivendell pretty much by chance. Then in a later scene, Elrond mentions “the Hidden Pass” to Gandalf, just as a passing comment, and it’s clear both that this is the name of the trail that the company followed to get to Rivendell, and that this is a geographical reference that Elrond and Gandalf are both quite familiar with.

But then the second time you see the sequence, knowing now that Gandalf knows about the Hidden Pass, Gandalf’s behavior on the plains is understandable in a whole new way. All the time they’re on the plains, you realize that Gandalf is looking around for something, leading the party from outcropping to outcropping, and you realize he is trying to find the particular outcropping that contains the entrance to the Hidden Pass — and he’s not telling Thorin or anyone else that he is doing so. The way events play out, the company has little choice but to hide in the entrance and then follow the hidden trail, but the second time around you realize from Gandalf’s behavior and the looks on his face that he has known perfectly well all along that this trail leads to Rivendell and has deliberately led the company this way.

Okay, here’s a funny thing that Dave noticed: At one point, Gandalf is asked if there are other wizards, and he says there are five: himself, Saruman, Radagast, and two whose names he says he can’t remember. Say what??? Well, the reason he can’t remember them is that they are not named anywhere in the books of The Hobbit and LOTR, and those are the only books that Jackson and company have the rights to adapt from. The two other sorcerers are named in The Silmarillion and other materials, but Christopher Tolkien is opposed to the making of these movies, and, while the movie rights to Hobbit and LOTR were sold off long ago and he can’t do anything about that, he has refused to grant the rights to use any material from anything else.

Gandalf could easily have been given a less specific line that didn’t enumerate the wizards and didn’t call attention to his bizarre lapse of memory — “Oh, there are several of us. Saruman is the leader of our order. And then there’s Radagast, who lives not far from where we are now …” So it looks like Jackson was deliberately but obliquely twitting Christopher Tolkien by calling attention to the fact that the two names are missing.

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