The Sibling and I sat down and re-watched An Unexpected Journey a few days ago, in preparation for seeing the new Peter Jackson film, we hope this week.
I’ve read The Hobbit at least half a dozen times, as has my sister. Tolkien made a practice of creating stories for his young children — and I believe I’m right that he read The Hobbit aloud to them as he was writing it. It often has a quiet parent-to-child voice, the author addressing the reader (listener) directly… as if all concerned are snuggled together on a Chesterfield before the fire of a winter evening, with the kids (us) freshly bathed and already in our pjs.
That’s a tone that couldn’t be transferred to the great big screen, and there’s no indication that any one involved in the movie(s) thought of attempting to try. What does come across is intimate humanity, or hobbitishness (hobbits being stand-ins for just plain people in Middle Earth,) in Bilbo’s relationship with Gandalf and the Dwarves, and it shows more clearly than it did in the “Lord of the Rings” films.
Peter Jackson plays things for comedy (as did JRRT) at the beginning, and later too, but simple, deep things like self-doubt, facing challenges, and being accepted as a member of the group, come up and are portrayed in a natural way that is very affecting.
Sibling said, as we watched, that part of it was the acting chops of Martin Freeman compared to Elijah Wood, with which I agreed. MF is older and more experienced, and his talent may be greater. But she added that EW was cast partly because the player of Frodo had to have something of an “otherhobbit” quality; the cosmic moral scope and weight of LOTR zeroes in on him uniquely. His youth (FOTR had to compress the 20 years or so that pass in the book between Bilbo’s Birthday Party and Frodo’s leaving home) and elvish appearance reflect, symbolize and foretell that.
Bilbo, on the other hand, is Everyhobbit. Tolkien scholars have said that the young Oxford student’s wartime experience showed him that ordinary working-class men had reserves of strength and courage when faced with grave danger and suffering. Bilbo has these, plus moral solidity, kindness, and resourcefulness… the virtues of a good, ordinary human being. The rarefied air of the Chosen One doesn’t shimmer around him in the book or in the movie.
Maybe this was at least partly because The Hobbit was meant for children. After fame and critical attention came Tolkien’s way, he said he detested allegory; and given a late Victorian middle-class childhood with a strong churchly slant, he probably was exposed to a lot of moralistic allegory when young. He definitely wasn’t going to inflict that on his own kids, and in a way that may have freed him to create an earthy, comfort-loving character who slowly manifests heroism simply by being loyal, sympathetic, stubborn, and practical.
One of the neatest bits that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh et al added to the tale is the depiction of Gandalf’s instinct that Bilbo is crucial to the Lonely Mountain quest, an instinct the wizard can’t explain when Galadriel asks him about it. That tethering of the Unexpected Journey to a coming struggle that Gandalf doesn’t yet foresee is the kind of thing that Tolkien would have approved, I’m pretty sure: delicately done, but enough to send a thrill up the spine.