In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
The film’s narrative opens early with these first lines from JRR Tolkien’s beloved fantasy book The Hobbit. The cameras pan across Bilbo Baggins’ cosy wood-panelled home in Bag-End as the narration begins, and as I pick out the details of the carved wooden furniture and the blazing hearth, I know without a doubt, that director Peter Jackson is going to serve up a film multitudes of Tolkien fans would admire and adore.
Responses to the first hour of the film from friends who had not read the book were less warm. The consensus was that it was too slow. But foreknowledge of Bilbo’s tea-time visitors is everything. The unexpected party of 13 visitors to Bilbo’s little round green door feels like the introduction you’ve waited for all your life; to characters from a legendary novel fleshed out and perfectly costumed; you feel you are meeting celebrity—people you dreamed of meeting and finally do for the very first time.
Knowing that other Tolkien fans would want to see such details onscreen, Peter Jackson takes his time to sketch, as if with visual pen-and-ink, the profiles of Thorin the dwarf king and his company —some fine ensemble acting here–who turn Bilbo’s neat home and well-stocked pantry upside down. These thumbnails are needful for there is little time when the Adventure begins.
And what a ride it is. Anticipating key scenes (when the party enter the elvish kingdom of Rivendell for example, or the fight in the goblin cavern, or the rescue from the Wargs by the Lord of the Eagles) and watching them unfold onscreen, together with the orchestral soundtrack, the CGI effects, the sets, all make for a satisfying and adventuresome ride.
It’s a lot like being familiar with a symphony, written for the ear, and then having a master story-teller of a different genre tell the story of the symphony in sound and visuals, and it all turns out to be the way you imagined when you first heard the symphony and have caught the nuances and anticipate the next interesting bit and so on.
Thus with The Hobbit.
Purists will pick out scenes put in that were not in the book, but as with any story that is translated into a different genre and for a very wide audience who might be unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work, creative license is necessary. Take for instance the different versions of how Bilbo finds The Ring.
In the book, Tolkien uses great restraint as he describes how Bilbo is lost in the labyrinth of goblin tunnels. “He crawled along for a good way, til suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment.”
In the film, Bilbo chances upon Gollum killing a goblin and the ring flies out of Gollum’s pocket as he strikes the poor sod to death. Just in case you miss its significance, the ring sails in extravagant slow-motion through the air, in extreme close-up and full of portent as the gold glints in the artfully-lit cave and clatters to the ground.
This is what any good story-teller does, and that is to never to leave anyone in the dark.
A good story teller also needs good actors to carry his vision. Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, Sir Ian McKellen can only be Gandalf, and Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, inhabits the role as the dwarf king like he was born for it. The beautiful names, like Gondolin and Erebor, which Tolkien thought up as he created cities and kingdoms for his beloved Middle Earth have a resonance when delivered by such fine actors.
Take Elrond the elf king’s lines, which are straight out of the book, as he looked at the swords the dwarves had brought back from the trolls’ lair. “They are old swords, very old swords of the High Elves of the West. They were made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars. They must have come from a dragon’s hoard or goblin plunder, for dragons and goblins destroyed that city many ages ago. This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongue of Gondolin; it is a famous blade. This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Gondolin once wore.”
And so it goes. The majestic scenes, the wild Indiana-Jones chases across rope bridges in the cavern of the goblins, the masterful acting, the authentic costuming and props carefully curated, all make for a beloved film made by an obviously ardent fan of the world of Middle Earth.
It’s like watching a dream come true.
I don’t usually talk about films here, even though film is one of my early loves; there’s always a first time. And after the movie, it was such fun to talk to a friend who had read the book and how we liked the extra scenes or didn’t, and how much we admired Bilbo’s beautifully-stocked pantry, and his red velvet coat. And the song of the dwarves, given an evocative and certainly dwarvish melody from Tolkien’s beautifully-written ballads in the book. It’s not too late. Pick up the book and have a good read. It’s the power of words, all over again. Comments, please.