“Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner.”
That’s how hobbit Bilbo Baggins responds when a certain gray-garbed wizard by the name of Gandalf shows up to “invite” Bilbo on an adventure. The hobbit has the temerity to think he can say no.
Then the dwarves show up.
First there’s Dwalin, a mighty warrior nearly as wide as he is tall. Then there’s the aging Balin, as old and frail as Dwalin is stout. And as those two begin rummaging through Bilbo’s well-stocked pantry, 11 more of their bearded kin tumble through his round front door, with Gandalf in tow: Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Nori, Dori and Ori. The last dwarf to arrive is the proud, would-be dwarf king Thorin.
Their purpose? Nothing less than launching a brazen assault on the dragon Smaug, who slumbers within a mountain the dwarven people once called home. Sixty years before, Smaug drove the dwarves from Erebor—now called Lonely Mountain—taking up residence and scattering the dwarves into exile throughout Middle-earth.
Now the dwarves believe the time has come to right that ignominious wrong.
There’s just one thing: They need a … burglar. Someone slight and quiet, someone capable of creeping into Smaug’s lair without the ol’ worm noticing. Someone, Gandalf has suggested, like Bilbo Baggins.
Hobbits, however, are hardly natural-born adventurers. They’re more like natural-born gardeners. Thus, Bilbo tries to say no. After all, there’s no guarantee he’d make it back alive. But the dwarves have barely taken their leave of homebody halfling when Bilbo has second thoughts … and races to join them.
It’s an epic, perilous quest, one that leads Bilbo and the dwarves from his cozy hobbit hole into lands that are anything but warm and inviting. Goblins, trolls, giants, orcs, wargs and all manner of other nasties await the short-and-stout company.
As does a certain precious ring … and the guardian who’s loathe to lose it to the reluctant hobbit who wasn’t sure he really wanted to go on this unexpected adventure in the first place.
As was true in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, heroism, loyalty and sacrifice permeate The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three films from Rings director Peter Jackson bringing British author J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved tale to life on the big screen.
Early on, a flashback depicts Smaug decimating Erebor and the city of Dale near the mountain. The dwarves are powerless to stop him, and many die trying to resist. This leads to their dispersion, a humiliating end for a proud race.
Thus Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s tale pushes the story to more epic proportions. It’s not just about marching off to reclaim loot from an interloping dragon; it’s about the dwarves reclaiming a kingdom and a sense of dignity and destiny. In this sense, there are parallels between Thorin, the rightful heir to the throne, and Aragorn, who stages a similar struggle in The Lord of the Rings.
More personally, the dwarves repeatedly rescue Bilbo from various dangers. The group eventually ends up at Rivendell, home of Elrond’s elves. And despite Thorin’s hatred from them (they did nothing to help his people battle Smaug when they could have), the elves treat the dwarves kindly, initiating a reconciliation of sorts.
Thorin initially doesn’t think much of Bilbo, either, repeatedly criticizing the hobbit. But when Bilbo risks his life to protect Thorin, the hobbit earns the dwarf leader’s respect.
Talking about his rationale for choosing Bilbo, Gandalf tells the elf queen Galadriel, “Saruman [another wizard] believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. That is not what I’ve found. I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid, and he gives me courage.”
Thorin says of his compatriots, “I would take each and every one of these dwarves over the mightiest army. Loyalty. Honor. A willing heart. I can ask no more than that.”
The milieu of The Hobbit is a magical, fantastical one. Gandalf employs wizardly abilities in splitting a huge rock, speaking to a moth, turning pinecones into improvised incendiary devices and using his staff to battle orcs and goblins, among other things. Another wizard, Radagast, communes amongst animals and seems to speak to them. When a plague begins wiping out wildlife in Radagast’s forest, he restores a dead hedgehog to life and seems to (at least temporarily) keep the evil magic that is encroaching at bay.
Radagast is alarmed by the animals’ deaths, which leads him to investigate an abandoned castle where he encounters a malevolent force called the Necromancer. The Necromancer is, in fact, Sauron, and he’s begun to reassert his evil powers in Middle-earth. Radagast discovers that Sauron has begun reanimating (if not quite resurrecting) the deceased spirits of wicked kings (who will later become the Nazgûl). Saruman doesn’t believe such a thing is possible, but Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel are deeply troubled by Radagast’s report nonetheless.
Throughout the film, we hear references to chance and fate guiding the outcome of events. We also hear about the portents (such as birds returning to Lonely Mountain) that indicate the time has come for the dwarves to retake their home.
After Bilbo is given a short sword, Gandalf tells him, “True courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” It’s awesome advice. And Bilbo takes it when he has the chance to kill the wretched keeper of the One Ring of Power, that subterranean interloper known as Gollum.
But Bilbo’s grasp of the concept doesn’t do much to curtail the overall bloodshed shown here.
Those who’ve read The Hobbit might be surprised at the amount of violence presented. That’s due in part to the fact that Peter Jackson has included two major battle sequences not described in Tolkien’s original. As the film opens, we watch the devastation that Smaug wreaks on Dale. Explosions topple towers, unfortunate victims get hurled to and fro. Indeed, Smaug’s attack is akin to a World War II bombing raid in its destructive effect.
The second such scene is a massive battle—similar in scale to the final battle in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—between armies of orcs and dwarves. The combat is mostly bloodless, but it’s fierce and intense as the age-old foes engage violently, dealing limb- and head-removing blows with various medieval weapons. A culminating beheading is followed by the assailant holding his victim’s bodiless head high, then mockingly bowling it down a slope. Avenging that death, Thorin cuts off the attacker’s hand.
Afterward, the camera pans over a vast battlefield filled with the dead.
A cacophonous clash between two stone giants generates flying boulders. A ferocious melee between Thorin and an orc king ends with the dwarf unconscious and carried in a wolf-like warg’s mouth. Three trolls capture Bilbo and his friends and are on the verge of eating them (we see several dwarves beginning to roast on a spit) when the rising sun turns the trolls to stone. Fissures in a mountain cave send Bilbo and Co. tumbling down a chute into the clutches of a goblin horde. Gandalf’s arrival yields a battle royal as the fleeing dwarves traverse narrow passes and rope bridges. Arrows and swords fly and flash, resulting in the deaths of many goblins, several of which are decapitated. Gandalf slashes the stomach of the enormous Great Goblin, then slashes again across his throat, killing him. Elsewhere, a goblin victim makes a peculiar face before his head rolls bloodlessly off his shoulders.
Gollum brutally beats and kills a goblin that’s fallen into his clutches, and is glad for the food the dead creature provides. He also thinks Bilbo will prove to be a savory morsel, and threatens to eat the hobbit if he loses a game of riddles.
Discussing the game of croquet, one dwarf says, “Wonderful game if you’ve got the balls for it.” Elsewhere, another dwarf says he looks forward to delivering some “dwarvish iron right up [Smaug’s] jacksy” (British slang for backside).
That the dwarves are quite fond of ale is an understatement. One scene pictures them imbibing greedily, with the liquid running down their beards as they guzzle. Gandalf drinks a cup of red wine.
Gandalf, Bilbo and Radagast smoke their pipes and blow smoke rings. The latter takes a drag on Gandalf’s pipe at one point, crosses his eyes and blows smoke out his ears in a way that humorously hints at the smoke’s effect.
Saruman disdainfully says that Radagast’s affinity for mushrooms has made him crazy.
We hear a belching contest among the dwarves. Radadast’s hair is filled with bird droppings because he has a nest tucked under his hat. While pondering how best to cook the captured dwarves, a troll quips about their “stinky parts.”
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is often viewed as a children’s story in comparison to the more serious Lord of the Rings saga. Indeed, Tolkien imbued his characters in The Hobbit with a dose of whimsy that’s largely absent from the grimmer, gravitas-filled trilogy that follows it.
Peter Jackson didn’t get that memo.
Jackson, who helmed the cinematic versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy from 2001 to 2003, has crafted a prequel that arguably feels closer in spirit to that story than the book itself does. That’s partly because The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey strives to connect all the narrative dots between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The first result is a tale I suspect many Tolkien fans will approve of (though purists may take issue with the ways Jackson has tinkered). The second result is a movie that is squarely in PG-13 territory in terms of its violence, some of which is magically generated. Decapitations, severed limbs, intense battle sequences and a high body count are just as pulse-quickeningly frenetic as anything in the Rings trilogy. The third result, of course, is a story crammed with bravery and heroism. A fable that inspires as it teaches. A Middle-earth parable that profoundly speaks to all of us who deal with the dilemmas of good and evil in the real world.
Still, my last thought on this first chapter remains: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not The Hobbit you might remember reading years ago.
A postscript: Much has been made of Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot The Hobbit films at 48 frames per second, twice the 24 frames-per-second rate at which movies are typically filmed. More than a few critics have said the preternaturally high-definition realism of the resulting images has undermined the story. And, personally, I did find it a bit off-putting. A colleague, though, couldn’t even tell the difference. And the story itself is so immersive that whether you think the new technology awesome or annoying, you’ll probably forgot all about it by the time Bilbo and the dwarves begin their adventure in earnest.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.