Film Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The book that changed my life
The book that changed my life

Warning: Due to the nature of this review, I could not avoid discussing some of the changes made in this adaption. There will be minor spoilers ahead, though I did my best to avoid them.

When I was twelve years old, the boy sitting next to me in math class was drawing knights in his math books. He was quite the artist, and we started talking about knights, dragons, and other things two dreamy teenagers talk about. The next day, he handed me his dad’s old copy of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. In Dutch culture, fantasy isn’t as prominent as it seems to be elsewhere, so I had not grown up with it. Up to that point, I had read books about young boys playing hero in World War II.

It took me a while to get used to the prose of The Hobbit, but when I finally got through the first fifty pages or so, I devoured it. I can honestly say The Hobbit changed my life. That book is what made me a geek, so it is even indirectly responsible for the existence of The Ranting Dragon and the fact that you are reading this review today.

Peter Jackson did great job bringing Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to life—though I have to admit, I’m still a little grumpy about the green undead that seemed to come straight from Mars Attacks. When The Hobbit came out in Dutch theaters a couple of days ahead of most of the world, I had to see Jackson’s adaption of this book that means so much to me. I had huge expectations—but as a fan of The Hobbit, I might be a little hard to please.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Story
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Honestly, after three hours in the theater, I’m not sure what to think. Should I be thrilled? Should I be disappointed? The thing is, Peter Jackson succeeded in creating an amazing movie. It is truly spectacular! Filmed at gorgeous locations, with the best special effects I’ve seen, and 3D that works better than in any film I’d previously seen (except Avatar, perhaps), 3D that enhances instead of distracts. It is the perfect lighthearted tale of wonderful characters on a truly epic journey. In all ways, it is a mighty good film.

As an adaptation, however, it sucks.

Of course, this adaptation of The Hobbit was set to fail from the beginning. While Jackson managed to perfectly condense the Lord of the Rings trilogy—in which each book is denser than The Hobbit—into three films of three hours each, he decided to turn the much shorter story of The Hobbit into two films. I was okay with that; after all, the story of the Necromancer is hinted at on several occasions throughout the book, and developing that would truly enhance the story, turning it into an epic worthy of the franchise Jackson so intelligently built. But then there was the sudden revelation that this—a short children’s novel—would not get two films, but three. Almost nine hours of film for a book consisting of less than one hundred thousand words.

Make up all the things!
Where did Jackson find all the extra content? Well… he made it up. The fan inside me weeps as I write this.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the things he made up were pretty awesome. As expected, the scenes surrounding the Necromancer were amazing, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey does a lot of justice to Radagast the Brown.

Thorin Oakenshield
Thorin Oakenshield

Hello, bad guy
Much more significant, however, were the changes made to Thorin Oakenshield. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is supposed to be about, you know, the hobbit: Bilbo Baggins. Instead, it is about Thorin, the leader of their group. In perfect Jackson fashion, The Hobbit begins with an epic glimpse at history. Thorin’s history. The first part of it was more or less true to the book… And then it went in a completely new direction. While Tolkien’s book explains how Thorin’s grandfather battled Azog, a goblin, in the Mines of Moria, suddenly, it was Thorin who battled the orc Azog.

If only it stopped there. In Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, Azog is a stereotypical villain—a huge orc carved in patterned scars, riding a mighty, white warg. Without any reason except vengeance, he rides across Middle Earth to chase the company of Thorin. It’s cliché at best… For me, it completely ruined this adaption of the book I so love. With the addition of an arch-nemesis for Thorin straight out of a fantasy handbook, Thorin’s character is turned into an emotional wreck. He is grumpy, insults his team at every opportunity—Bilbo Baggins most of all, creating a very painful dynamic between the hobbit and the dwarves—and is apparently quite suicidal when faced with his adversary. It is a sad corruption of Tolkien’s story into something that just doesn’t sit right with me.

The (anti)hero
This may sound like it’s a minor thing. However, it influences the entire film. About half of the plot is focused on this new villain, and this new story thread influences the characters in ways that lead them far from their novel counterparts. Bilbo was always one of my favorite protagonists, mainly because he isn’t cut out to be a hero. He’s awkward, unskilled, and clumsy. With the new dynamic between him and Thorin, however, as well as the fact that half of this film is centered around Thorin instead of Bilbo, Bilbo has a lot more to prove than he did in the book. Thorin is constantly ready to dismiss him, and as a result, the plot makes it necessary for Bilbo to save the day. The Bilbo that emerges at the end is a far cry from the awkward and unskilled hobbit in the book. Gone is the antihero; born is the hero.

Love or hate?
On its own merits, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an amazing film. If it weren’t based on one of fantasy’s greatest stories of all time, I’d give the film five stars without a thought. It is truly an enjoyable tale, filled with epicness that goes beyond the pages of the original while still maintaining the lightheartedness of a children’s novel. As with The Lord of the Rings, Jackson once again proves his unmatched casting talents. The acting is splendid, the makeup amazing, the cinematography mind-blowing, and the soundtrack even better than that of The Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, this movie is based on one of fantasy’s greatest stories of all time. Frankly, I’m torn between absolutely adoring The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and hating it passionately.

At least Smaug looks amazing.

About Stephan van Velzen

Stephan van Velzen
A 31 year-old Communications student, Stephan loves publicity and design, particularly web design. When he’s not designing websites, he can be found in a comfy chair reading a fantasy book. In The Ranting Dragon, he has found a way to combine these passions and discover a new love for writing to boot. Stephan lives in a small town in The Netherlands with his wife Rebecca, an editor for The Ranting Dragon, and their two cats.

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  1. Sounds like they’ve gone all Dark Knight on Thorin. What a pity! Still looking forward to it!

  2. I haven’t seen the film yet, so take this for what it is worth, but I was under the impression that Jackson didn’t so much make stuff up as take it from the appendices to Lord of the Rings. I believe Tolkien dumped a load of info in there about what Gandalf is doing when he is not in the book, and other things that link the Hobbit to LOTR. Or are you referring to something else? I guess there is only so much you can say at this point without spoilers.

    The changes to Thorin’s story will annoy me though.

    • I loved the changes that provide background information. The addition of the Necromancer, it adds a whole new layer of epic that is more or less true to the book.

      Azog, however… He was only ever mentioned as the adversary of Thorin’s grandfather, and he was never in the book, nor was his orc army that chases the dwarves all the way from the Shire to the eagles.

  3. @Chris, there’s very little detail in the Appendices that describes what Jackson wanted to include, so he’s forced to make it up. Ironically, the Battle of Azulnibar *is* described in some detail, but for whatever reasons Jackson has chosen to change those details.

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