*very minor spoilers ahead, but only for those who haven’t read the book*
The story, i suppose, is known to all:
Hobbit leaves home to go on a quest with a company of beardy and grumpy men to find a mountain in hostile territory. (Sounds familiar? Why, yes!)
But while Lord of the Rings (LOTR hereafter) consists of three books, each a JK Rowling-sized volume of a few hundred pages, the Hobbit is a single book of 250 pages. The critics, without even having seen the film, were furious: “surely, they said, “it is merely a commercial move to make three films out of such a short book”.
And that is where they were wrong. Yes, the first film, “An Unexpected Journey”; does indeed consist of a third of the book. And yes, it’s 2 hours and 50 minutes long. But there is no discrepancy between these two facts. The Hobbit, as a book, did not have to deal with the burden of explaining a great number of things. Why, exactly, does Gandalf disappear so often? Who is this Necromancer? All those questions are left unaddressed in the book because, at that time, even Tolkien himself did not know why. While writing the extended mythology of Middle Earth many years later, he filled the gaps in the appendices to LOTR, weaving the story of the Hobbit into a larger context: the return of evil Benedict Cumberbatch..er..Sauron.. to the scene. In fact, he planned to rewrite the Hobbit entirely, with the new bit and pieces included in the framework, but he failed to do so before he died.
The burden on Peter Jackson’s shoulders is far greater. He has already made LOTR, and therefore has to construct the Hobbit as a prequel. Which means filming the Hobbit as a standalone with all the gaps left in, would be very odd indeed. He wants the six films to fit into one story. And that means giving context, and adding a film within a film. Yes, there are flashbacks, there’s the obligatory prologue, and there are a lot of things where a sentence of text from the Appendices is stretched to an entire scene. But every bit of it is essential in providing context and in building towards the connection with LOTR at the end of the three films. From the introduction of a guano-covered wizard (with pet hedgehogs) to a brief meeting with Cate Blanchett.
Another criticism often heard is the addition of an ugly orc with a grudge against Richard Armitage. In the book this side plot is completely absent, and many will cringe at the “heresy” of including it in the film. But that would be missing the point. A book needs a story arc spanning the length of the entire book. A trilogy of films (or indeed, two films) needs a story arc in each film. An Unexpected Journey has two. Not only is it a film about leaving home, leaving a safe life to take risks, it is also about trust. And that means introducing plot devices that are absent in the book to enable the characters to come full circle in some way at the end of the film.
These additional scenes serve another purpose as well: introducing suspense in a story that has very little. The Hobbit is an excellent book. But unlike LOTR it is a children’s book, avoiding a lot of the violence present in its sequel. The action-heavy scenes in the book are, again, at the very end (story arc and all that).
Nevertheless, the Hobbit has a lighter tone than the three LOTR movies. There is humour there’s singing (but it never feels out of place) and there are a few visual gags that work extremely well.
The reason it all holds together so very well is not only the merit of Peter Jackson’s storytelling, but also of the cast. There are a lot of ways in which you can make a company of dwarves, hobbits and wizards look ridiculous on film. But there’s chemistry here you won’t find in other films in the same genre. At the end of the film you will believe that the quest for the dwarves’ homeland matters. That Martin Freeman really wants to help them.
I sincerely hope George Lucas will be watching this film in envy.