Movie notes: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Frame narratives

One of the ways in which Jackson tries to place this movie in continuity with his Lord of the Rings trilogy is to place the whole of this story within a frame narrative, in which Bilbo is apparently writing his memoirs on the day of his party (which seems overly ambitious? surely he could have started a few months in advance, at least?) so that Frodo will know everything when Bilbo leaves the Shire later that day. As a result, the book is ‘addressed’ to Frodo. Which makes the decision to use Tolkien’s exact words a little odd; “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” is an iconic first line so fair enough, but we go on to see Bilbo describing to Frodo what a hobbit hole is, and how it is very comfortable — when Frodo himself has been living in the hobbit hole in question for many years now.

 

The Fall of Erebor

The Hobbit gives us a pretty basic cause-and-effect relationship for the coming of Smaug:

Dwarves are good at mining and making things → dwarves have lots of gold.

Dragons like gold →Smaug goes to where gold is.

Gold is a big part of the reason for the quest in the first place. Tolkien’s dwarves show something of an obsession with their gold (Terry Pratchett later parodies this rather wonderfully); the song they sing at the beginning of the book has them vowing to “seek the pale enchanted gold”, “claim our long forgotten gold”, “win our harps and gold from him”. At least three verses of this song consist of descriptions of the amazing treasures that lie in the mountain. It’s Thorin’s refusal to share out the treasure that will lead to even more disaster later in the book.

Jackson’s dwarves are presumably still broadly pro-gold, but I suspect gold is insufficiently noble a reason for the sort of epic quest narrative that this movie wants The Hobbit to be. Instead we get a great deal of emphasis on Thror’s growing lust for wealth, and his conviction that the finding of the Arkenstone legitimates his divine right to rule (interesting, since The Lord of the Rings would appear to legitimate Aragorn’s divine right to rule and that isn’t coded as ominous at all). A “darkness” falls over the kingdom and it is this, not the mere fact of riches, that draws Smaug. For me this is a bigger change than it might first appear to be because it shifts this world from one in which Bad Things (like dragons) just happen occasionally to one in which Bad Things may be a sort of judgement upon a kingdom or its ruler.

This entire section is told through a historical flashback and it’s not badly done, if rather insistent that you look upon this flaming dragon kite and this burnt doll because Symbols. But as the crowd flees the mountain there seem to be visible female dwarves, which pleased me greatly.

 

Homelands

Deprived of the gold as an excuse Jackson (along with whoever wrote the script) plumps for the tragedy of a lost homeland and exiled people. The trauma of the dwarves’ displacement becomes Bilbo’s reason for joining them–because he, loving his home, is horrified that the dwarves don’t have one. This is one of the places where the movie is only saved by the fact of its being The Hobbit– in The Lord of the Rings this would sound unbearably trite.

Unfortunately, it raises another problem. The dwarves of the book seem to have accepted that a dozen of them aren’t going to take down a dragon; this is why they hire a burglar instead of a really good archer. It’s just possible (and let’s be clear, this was never a stellar plan) that a burglar could sneak into the dragon’s lair and steal a good bit of gold before the dragon notices and fries him; but at this point actually killing the dragon seems unlikely. Which means that a plan involving Bilbo is not consistent with a plan to win back the lost homeland; homelands are not easily-transported and Bilbo is quite a small hobbit.

 

Cunning plans

So what exactly is Thorin’s plan? We don’t know, because he is too grumpy to talk and communicates through smouldering sexily at things. He smoulders at the elves because some completely different elves wouldn’t fight a dragon for him. He smoulders at wargs who are trying to attack him. He smoulders at the orc he thought was dead. At Bilbo because Bilbo doesn’t look sufficiently like a burglar; perhaps he was expecting a stripey shirt?

Martin Freeman as John Watson in the BBC "Sherlock"

(Could not resist, sorry)

So Thorin spends most of the movie being angry with various people for not helping him to …do what? What is his battle plan? Why, based on what little we see of his battle tactics  in flashback (rallying his losing side for one final attack, so that more of them die and the dwarves still fail to win back Moria) are these people following him?

 

Azog the Defiler

Or “the pale orc”, apparently. A lot more defiling seems to be going on that Tolkien might have intended- at one point Thorin is growling about the violation of “our sacred holes”. Why is Azog so set on eliminating the line of Durin? Are we going to get backstory, or is this some randomly evil thing he has decided to do in order to give this movie an antagonist?

 

Animal creatures

I will admit to being a little melty at Bilbo sneaking apples to Myrtle the pony, and I suppose this ties in nicely to Sam and Bill in The Lord of the Rings (are hobbits genetically predisposed to be nice to horses?). I’m also a huge fan of Sebastian the hedgehog, who appears to live (along with his family) with Radagast the Brown. Radagast also has a sleigh pulled by bunnies.

I said on twitter that the whole Radagast sequence reminded me of a live action Once and Future King- a book that does manage to switch registers from silly to epic without feeling awkward in a way that this one entirely fails to do. Perhaps Jackson should have taken White as his model for this.

 

While on the subject of wizards

A couple of things. Did the Serious Councils of the Lord of the Rings movies appear as stiff as the one at Rivendell, or is it the contrast with the less serious parts of the plot that make them so?

Gandalf does not remember the names of the Blue Wizards. I haven’t read the appendices since school, but I do; they are Alatar and Pallando. What I’m wondering now though, is whether the film’s drawing attention to this is a sort of meta-commentary on their erasure? I’m not sure.

 

I will probably add to this post later; for now, let it stand.

7 Comments to “Movie notes: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

  1. The names of the Blue Wizards are mentioned only in Unfinished Tales, which PJ et al do not have the movie rights to. So in a way it is in fact metacommentary, just of a different flavor.

    • This is a far less wonderful explanation of that scene. :(

      • Another nerdy note – the Blue Wizards also have the Quenya names Morinehtar and Rómestámo, but it was never made clear which of these corresponded to Alatar and which to Pallando! When I saw the film I wondered if that might also have had some effect on PJ’s reluctance to name them; but of course, yes, it’s because UT and the Histories aren’t under the movie rights. Which is a little less magical…

  2. I was quite disturbed in the first few minutes of the film by the phrase “divine right to rule” with reference to Thror. The phrase is intensely un-Tolkienlike. First of all, Tolkien never uses the word “divine”. There is virtually no religion as such in Middle-Earth; while it might be reasonable for us to describe the Valar as “gods”, they are 1) Not mentioned in The Hobbit and barely touched upon obliquely in LOTR, and 2) in the context of the Silmarillion, Valar and Maiar are real beings, as real as Elves & Dwarves & Hobbits & Men, so “divine” is inappropriate. Secondly, the phrase “to rule” makes me feel that Thror was an evil power-monger. Dwarves such as Thror, Thrain & Thorin were greedy, sometimes petty, and possessive of their gold, but there is no evidence of power-lust, i.e. the desire to dominate and control others. It’s a huge moral difference.

  3. I want to clarify that yes, I understand that Thror’s supposed belief in his “divine right to rule” is given as evidence of his excessive hubris. But I think the concept itself is alien to Tolkien, or at least presupposes that Thror was far more evil than he actually was. On the other hand, Aragorn’s rightful claim to the throne in LOTR is more an obligation for him; Aragorn doesn’t want power (which is what makes him a good guy and the ideal king). It’s never about “rule” (or even self-aggrandisement) for Aragorn.

  4. I enjoyed reading these notes, they’re really insightful! A lot of what you pick up on is stuff I hadn’t noticed but now agree with – particularly the points about the homeland vs gold motivations and how that kind of ripples out to change the nature of what Middle Earth is like. I now can’t wait to re-watch with these points in mind.
    I also spotted and agree with you about the weirdness of the frame narrative, especially since on some levels it’s congruent with what we see in FOTR (the costumes, the ‘party business’ sign) and on some levels it really isn’t (the timing of events, the depiction of Bilbo finding the ring in flashback in FOTR – which, okay, isn’t part of the Hobbit’s frame, but is part of FOTR’s).

    • It’s been ages since I watched FOTR, so I hadn’t realised that this frame narrative and that one weren’t entirely congruent. That’s so strange- particularly since it ought to have been quite easy to fix.

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