Out of all the fandoms I belong to, I think I’m probably most geeky about Tolkien. At least I was back in my even more awkward than now teenage years. I could answer every question in my official Tolkien Quiz Book, and I wrote a grammar book for Elvish I would study in my spare moments.
I am therefore always excited when a new Tolkien film comes out. This time, however, I was much more weary than with the previous trilogy.
The Hobbit, the book, was never my favourite. I preferred The Silmarillion for its epic language and beautiful, sad stories, where elves always seemed like higher beings despite their clear flaws. Let’s face it, in The Hobbit, the elves of Rivendell are all a bit silly.
The film, An Unexpected Journey, fixes just about every thing I didn’t like about The Hobbit, while keeping in all the stuff I loved. It kept the quirky humour – at the right moments – like how the game of golf was invented, and also added several layers of personality to all the dwarfs. The relationship between the elves and dwarfs is also a lot more complex. In the book the party stays at Rivendell for at least a week (I forget the exact timespan), and have a very good time all around. In the film, not only could I understand Thorin’s distrust for all elves due to the actions of King Thranduil, but it felt like you could sense the history of strained relations all the way back to the fall of Doriath.
I think a lot of people like this change. It feels like I’m watching the legend the fairytale is based on. I don’t even mind the change in what is known about the Necromancer or the role of Azog. From a cinematic point of view, I can’t imagine the film without another antagonist at this point in the story.
One thing slightly more controversial is the fact that I think I liked The Hobbit better than The Fellowship of the Ring. Let me explain.
In both films we have a group of people that set out on a quest. This is storytelling 101, basically, but there are key differences (in the movies) that caught me by surprise while watching The Hobbit.
First of all, the quest is much more personal to our main characters. Certainly, in Fellowship Boromir wants to save his country, the hobbits want to protect Frodo and have an adventure, and Aragorn without a doubt feels a personal duty. But none of these reasonings compare to the reclaiming of the dwarfs’ home. Thorin’s personal story hit me right where it hurts – not only his desire for home, but for vengeance for his father’s death. It was doubly easy to sympathise with the stubborn dwarf thanks to Richard Armitage’s epic acting.
Then we have the main hobbit’s motive for going. Bilbo is a perfect reluctant hero in my book. Yes, he joins up willingly for the chance at an adventure, but very quickly he goes above and beyond anything he imagined, and at the very end we see him accept his role in the party despite having the opportunity to turn back. His added role in, for example, the tricking of the trolls, is perfect from a cinematic point because we see he is valuable to the group in ways they never considered.
With Frodo, we missed that moment when he could have turned back but didn’t. What I mean is, the audience only sees the ring doing some mind-melding stuff, and then Frodo is saying he will do it. Frodo also doesn’t seem at all reluctant to go on the adventure in the beginning. He’s happy as can be wandering off with Sam into the wild.
The third reason for my enjoyment is the dynamics within the group. The Fellowship has conflict, but most of it was due to Boromir and the ring. Before it got a hold over him, he was happy to play around with the hobbits. He and Aragorn get off to a rough start, but there really wasn’t much time to show any real antagonism between the two.
In The Hobbit, we have several very clear lines of contention. Bilbo vs. Thorin, Thorin vs. Gandalf, and even outside the party we have Thorin vs. elvenkind and Gandalf vs Saruman. These are all different as well. Gandalf is clearly someone Thorin trusts up to a point, but his pride and stubbornness gets in the way. His distrust for Elrond comes from prejudices against all elves. These relationships all feel so real and complex. Thorin is a great leader, an honourable dwarf and a good friend, but he also has huge flaws all his own (no ring to enhance them). It simply is more engaging watching these arguments unfold.
A fourth reason is Azog. At first, I was very skeptical about his role, but the amazing CGI and his facial expressions make him a much more fierce enemy than the ghostly Nazgul. He is also there throughout the film instead of being washed away. Other, “smaller” problems pop up along the way (the stone giants were jaw-droppingly epic), but we don’t feel like the main villain is still waiting for us (though of course he actually is). I was convinced the film would feel incomplete and just plain weird considering how far in the book they were going. But instead, it felt like a whole story on its own.
This is not to say that I don’t absolutely adore The Fellowship of the Ring as well. Both films, I think, should satisfy Tolkien fans on some level, even if it’s only to see Rivendell in all her glory come to life.
But when in ten-twenty years time when we gather for our annual marathon in December (now including all six films of course), I think I will look forward to the first Hobbit more than the first Lord of the Rings film.
It remains to be seen how the other two will hold up, but I for one am much more optimistic than I was.