The full name of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel is “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.”
The full name of Peter Jackson’s film is “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
Those titles reveal the vast difference between the two.
Tolkien conceived his self-contained tale, which was published in 1937 as juvenile fiction, as the adventure of a stay-at-home who finds unexpected depths in himself after helping dwarves reclaim their homeland from a dragon.
Director Jackson, who’s spreading his “Hobbit” over eight hours of screen time, treats it as a prologue to “The Lord of the Rings,” the sprawling and sophisticated trilogy Tolkien created over the next 16 years. (The author slightly retrofitted “The Hobbit” in subsequent editions to link these two narratives.)
Jackson wants to replicate his masterful film trilogy of “Rings.” So adventure turns to spectacle; simple encounters become symbolic; Bilbo’s modest acts foreshadow the earth-changing quest nephew Frodo will undertake decades later. Jackson imposes a sense of grandeur but mostly loses Tolkien’s sense of fun.
The journey barely moves forward here. We see how the dwarves lost their home to Smaug, who occupies their mountain and rests atop their treasure. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) introduces 13 dwarves to the hobbit “burglar” who can help them reclaim their heritage. Bilbo (Martin Freeman, who’s just right) demurs at first but sets out with Thorin (charismatic Richard Armitage) and his plucky band.
They fight orcs. They fight trolls. They fight goblins. They fight more orcs. Elrond the elf (Hugo Weaving) helps them read a map. After two and three-quarter hours, they barely see their mountainous destination in the distance.
Occasionally, Jackson and his “Lord of the Rings” writing team (plus Guillermo del Toro) stay faithful to their source. Gandalf’s whimsical recruitment of Bilbo and the dwarves’ half-boisterous, half-serious invasion of Bilbo’s home immediately summon the atmosphere of the book. The meeting between Bilbo and Gollum inspires admiration for the former, pity for the latter and the right sense of unease overall.
Yet even that scene shows the difference between book and movie. Tolkien had Bilbo slip the ring that made him invisible onto his finger accidentally. Jackson has the ring fly up into the air in slow-motion, so we can watch it gleam ominously in semi-darkness before it descends onto Bilbo’s hand. Even here, we must be reminded that the fate of Middle Earth will be bound up with this accursed circlet.
Thus Jackson and his team introduce Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) to the story to promise Gandalf her aid at some unspecified time. They invent a gigantic orc whose arm Thorin cut off, and who leads his horde against the dwarves atop the Wargs. (Apparently Tolkien’s Wargs, monstrous wolves killing anything that moves, weren’t scary enough by themselves.)
Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) show up to discuss a shadowy presence that’s killing off elements of nature. (Ooh! Could it be…Sauron?) Nobody likes Christopher Lee more than I do, and I had a good laugh when Radagast hitched his sleigh to giant rabbits. But these wizards don’t appear in the novel any more than orcs do, and the story didn’t need them or some of the extended, inserted fight scenes.
I saw the film in 3-D, which you’d be wise to do if it interests you: The visual effects exploit the medium beautifully, and “Rings” cinematographer Andrew Lesnie knows how to achieve Jackson’s opulent vision. “Hobbit” composer Howard Shore, editor Jabez Olssen and production designer Dan Hennah all worked on “Rings” as well.
You may wonder what Del Toro would’ve done with the film, which he once meant to direct. He might’ve kept more of Tolkien’s humor, which Jackson mainly jettisons.
The (inadvertently) funniest moment comes when a dwarf hears a warbling thrush and says, “A raven! The birds are returning to the mountains!” When a director decides to depict The Future Of The Entire Planet, I suppose it’s easy to overlook one bird.