A Change of Hobbit

A bit of background for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is appropriate, since today, January 3rd, marks the 121st anniversary of the birth of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.  He was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his bank teller father had recently moved the family, looking for a chance at advancement.    Tolkien had only a few memories of his time there, but one was an encounter there with a large, hairy spider.  His father passed away when Ronald (as friends called him) was four and his mother Mabel brought the family back to her home area, the Midlands of England, where they lived outside Birmingham.  They were close to the eastern edge of Wales, whose language and town names likely fueled Ronald’s imagination.

In 1900, Mabel, Ronald and his younger brother Hillary converted to Catholicism.  This was important because, when Mabel died from diabetes four years later, their parish priest, Father Francis, became the de facto parent for the boys.  When he was sixteen, Ronald met his life’s love, Edith Bratt, who was 3 years older than him.  Father Francis prohibited him from seeing Edith until he turned 21, but as soon as he reached that milestone he sought Edith out.  They were married in 1916 and remained together until Edith’s death in 1971.

Tolkien demonstrated a facility with languages early in life, having learned Latin and Greek by the time he reached his teens.  Later on he added other languages such as Gothic English and Finnish to his resume. He attended Oxford, though his schooling was interrupted by service in World War I.  He saw action at the Somme, though after four months he was struck by Trench Fever (similar to Typhus) that led to hospitalization back in England.  He’d had a circle of friends at Oxford, but all but one of them died during the war.

His career as a professor of English Language began after the war, first at Leeds and then back at Oxford.  There he formed a literary group called The Inklings with a number of friends, the most notable being C.S. Lewis.  The devout Catholic Tolkien played a major part in Lewis’s return to Christian faith.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien started writing stories he called ”Lost Tales” (which formed the basis for “The Silmarillion”), and he created the language that became Elvish.  During his earlier studies, Tolkien had read a short couplet in an Old English poem that translated to: Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent to men.  Middle Earth was a concept of the world from that time, with the everyday world physically sandwiched between Heaven and Hell.  The couplet became an inspiration for his writing.

Tolkien had written stories for his three sons – John, Michael and Christopher – and daughter Priscilla, who were born between 1917 and 1929.  One day, while grading papers, Tolkien wrote on a blank page in an examination book, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  He expanded that line until he had a rough, typewritten manuscript that he passed around for reading in 1936.  A copy came to Susan Dagnall, who worked at the publishing house of George Allen and Unwin.  She asked Tolkien to finish the manuscript and then gave it to the chairman of the board, Stanley Unwin, who in turn gave it to his 10-year-old son Rayner.  Based on his enthusiastic review, “The Hobbit” was published – as a children’s book.

“The Silmarillion” was written as a follow-up, but it was rejected (tactfully) by the publisher.  (When it was published decades later as a “found” manuscript after Tolkien’s death, it became a bestseller.)  Instead the publisher requested a sequel to “The Hobbit.”  It was 17 years from the earlier book’s appearance to the publishing of “The Lord of the Rings.”

Two major factors played a part in the differences between “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”  One was World War II, with the fundamental evil of Hitler.  When the Hobbit was written, Nazism was only a distant smudge on the horizon.  By the time he finished “The Lord of the Rings” another generation had been decimated by war.  The other factor was religion, with Tolkien wanting to create a mythology that expressed his (small F) fundamental Christian beliefs.  At the same time, CS Lewis was doing the same though through allegory, with his 7 volume “Chronicles of Narnia.”

The by-then adult Rayner Unwin played a large part in the publication of “The Lord of the Rings.”  It was actually the publishers who decided to split Tolkien’s manuscript into three books.  Even so, they expected they’d lose a thousand pounds on the books, believing the books wouldn’t sell well.  They were proven wrong almost from the start.  When “The Fellowship of the Ring” was published in the US, its initial run was 1500 copies.  By the time “The Return of the King” came out a few years later, the initial run was 7000 copies.  With the stupendous success of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, that has surpassed $3 billion in box office worldwide, Tolkien’s mythology has become a part of our culture.

Back in 2007, it was announced that The Hobbit would be filmed.  Originally it was to be two films, directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) with Peter Jackson producing.  Warner Brothers had absorbed LOTR’s original studio, New Line Cinema, and were willing to bankroll the new films at a budget exceeding the $350 million price tag of LOTR.  However, there was a sticking point.  The rights to “The Hobbit” were owned by a different studio, MGM, who became a production partner.  But then MGM got stuck for years in bankruptcy purgatory.  It put a hold on the production, and after two years of work Del Toro had to drop out of the project.  Peter Jackson once again sat down in the director’s chair.  By the time filming finally began, The Hobbit had expanded into three films to be released yearly like LOTR: An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There and Back Again (2014).

It made sense for LOTR to be a trilogy of movies, but how could the single volume of “The Hobbit” be expanded to fill three movies?  The answer was in Tolkien’s exhaustive appendices for his work that filled in the mythology of Middle Earth, including the story of the Dwarves and the rise of the Necromancer who is later revealed to be Sauron.  Tolkien could also put in a few sentences what became massive scenes when filmed.  Thus the new trilogy came into being.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey actually starts a matter of minutes before the first scenes in the Shire of LOTR.  While Frodo (Elijah Wood) goes off to meet Gandalf the Grey, who’s bringing fireworks for the Bilbo’s birthday party, old Bilbo (Ian Holm) is working on his memoirs, There and Back Again.  As he writes, the story slips back 60 years to when a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) meets Gandalf (Ian McKellen) for the first time.  Gandalf wants to recruit Bilbo for an adventure, something the staid Bilbo rejects out of hand.  But Gandalf isn’t the kind to take a brief “no” as an answer – or even a very long and repeated “no.”

Soon Bilbo finds his home invaded by a baker’s dozen of dwarfs under the leadership of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).  Thorin is the grandson of the last king of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor.  The kingdom had been fabulously wealthy with storerooms filled with gold, but that gold attracted the dragon Smaug who laid waste to the kingdom and claimed the gold.  Subsequently, the dwarves were set upon by Orcs under the leadership of Azog the Defiler, though the Orcs were defeated by Thorin’s bravery and Azog was supposedly killed.

Now the dwarves loyal to Thorin believe the time has come to re-take Erebor, even though the group numbers only a handful.  It will be an endeavor that will require stealth, which is why Gandalf wants Bilbo with them.  Hobbits are so quietly unassuming that they can effectively become invisible to others.  Since they don’t have enough dwarves to take Erebor by force, they plan to steal it, with Bilbo as the chief thief.

Overall, the movie does succeed.  It was probably best that Peter Jackson took over the directing duties again, with his depth of knowledge of the LOTR mythology.  The process was physically draining for Jackson, who was hospitalized with a perforated ulcer just before filming began.  Del Toro, though, is also a master of the fantastic and might have brought an interesting interpretation to the story.

The acting is excellent, especially Martin Freeman as Bilbo.  You’ll easily accept him as a younger version of Ian Holm, a mixture of befuddlement and bravery.  Armitage manages to make Thorin an individual and not just a short and squat version of Aragorn.  It was, though, hard to keep track of the other dozen dwarves.

Several characters from LOTR have been grafted into The Hobbit to blend the expansive world of the trilogy into the more focused world of the first book.  It’s a delight to see them, played by the same actors as in LOTR, but I won’t mention them here to maintain the surprise factor.  Of course, one appearance that was shown in the trailers was Andy Serkis as Gollum.  The motion capture technology that first brought Gollum to the screen has continued to be refined and improved.  Serkis has become the foremost performer in the medium, following up LOTR with King Kong, The Adventures of Tin Tin, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (for which he truly deserved a Best Actor nomination).  It’s a bit sleeker and a slightly-less schizophrenic Gollum in An Unexpected Journey, since he is 60 years younger.

If there is a weakness to An Unexpected Journey, it is in the blending of the original source material of the book with the extra material to create this new trilogy.  Scenes such as the dwarves cleaning out Bilbo’s pantry, as well as the cleanup after dinner that becomes an exuberant juggling display, are what you’d expect from a children’s book.  There’s also the comedy-adventure blend when Thorin’s party is captured by three trolls, a favorite and memorable scene from the book.  But the battle scenes with the Orcs are a match for LOTR (at times it even feels like a replay of scenes from LOTR) and it gives the movie a dichotomous feel.  Still, overall it’s a thrilling, involving movie.  Two words can sum up what a mess this could have been: Phantom Menace.  After your spine has stopped shivering, be assured that such a debacle has been completely avoided.

Those who love LOTR will drink down The Hobbit like a glass of cold water given to a man crawling out of the desert.  Those who merely liked LOTR may be a harder sell, although the box office receipts makes it pretty clear the fan base has embraced the new movie.  Now we have to wait a year until The Desolation of Smaug will again transport us into Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  Start the countdown.

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