New Zealand screenwriter and director Peter Jackson brought The Lord of The Rings to the screen ten years ago. He is back with a trilogy of film adaptations of The Hobbit. An Unexpected Adventure is the first film in the series. Laura Fraine went to the cinema to watch it for Books for Keeps.
The Lord of the Rings’ terrifically detailed tapestry of mapped worlds, mythical creatures and multi-layered symbolism delights its legion of fans. Never argue with a Tolkien fan: it can only end badly. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit is written for children and traverses these same themes, but in a simpler way. This is the tale for the rest of us. The film places itself at the front of what aims to become a six-part series with The Lord of the Rings. Both a family and an adult audience will enjoy An Unexpected Adventure, although there are some frightening scenes which make it unsuitable for younger viewers. Whether you watch in 3D or not, the film benefits hugely from the big screen treatment.
Despite it being a lighter tale, the picture lasts almost three hours. For just one third of a trilogy, although more than a third of the book, this seems indulgently long and an irritating prospect. Whatever happened to 90 minutes? I half expect to be doodling my Christmas shopping list before the final credits.
We are 20 minutes in before the titles roll and before the book’s opening line, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ In this time we are given the back story of the fall of Erebor, the dwarves’ homeland which they hope to reclaim and which is only paid lip service in the book. It is a magnificent opening which states the film’s intentions to delight the senses and stir the soul.
One morning Gandalf, the wizard, arrives at Bilbo Baggins’ wonderfully comfortable home and upsets his world by inviting him to come on an adventure. And so the epic begins. There is some comedy, although I think the book undercuts with humour far better than the film. There is edge-of-your seat action. At one point, I find my hand clasped over my mouth in expectant horror. To my surprise, I find that, over the next three hours, there is nowhere I’d rather be.
Tolkien is a master of description and it is a joy to sit back and watch that same attention to detail unfurl through lush landscapes and stunning battle scenes. A film cannot do what a book can – it will never etch those words into your head/ heart in the way that the best books do. But this film’s triumph is in parallel to the book and an homage to those same flights of the imagination.
There are certain things the film does better than the book. The cinematography captures a more vividly beautiful and terrifying world than the one in my mind. There are songs written in the book which are much improved in the singing of them, in folksy harmonies by the band of dwarves. The dwarves, whose names are very similar, are difficult to keep track of in the book, but the film allows each one a unique character. Where The Hobbit is decidedly Bilbo Baggins’ story, An Unexpected Adventure takes three men: Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and brings them together and draws them apart and explores that relationship in between.
Indeed, it is in the interplay of these relationships that the film really tugs at the heart-strings, although I’m not entirely sure Tolkien would approve. Richard Armitage is darkly brooding as Thorin, the rightful king whose misfortune has left him with a fearsome grudge against elf, orc and just about everyone else. Martin Freeman offers light to Thorin’s shade. A well-to-do, bookish hobbit, in his most frightened moments he longs to be in his hobbit hole surrounded by home comforts, yet there is an untapped free spirit in him just waiting to surface. Bilbo is our everyman character, bumbling into situations he doesn’t understand and finding reserves of bravery and heroism he never thought possible. He may be a decade or two younger than Tolkien’s Bilbo, but Freeman is perfectly cast in this role. Within a fantastical setting of monstrous goblins and mountains that come to life in battle, he makes ordinariness seem effortless and acts on behalf of the inner ‘Took’ in all of us.
Then there is Ian McKellen as Gandalf, reprising his role as the wizard from The Lord of the Rings. Falling somewhere between elder statesman and God-like figure, whom the dwarves accuse of abandonment just when he is supporting them most, Gandalf also shows himself to be vulnerable and fallible. ‘I’ve found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid and he gives me courage,’ says Gandalf. He is a character whose complexity and wisdom is almost unique in modern cinema and whom Ian McKellen bestows with both enormous presence and quiet understatement. It is great to have him back on screen.