From 2001-2003, silver screens across the globe became lenses into another world: Middle Earth. This wasn’t the first time a speculative film attracted such widespread attention—Star Trek, Star Wars, and Harry Potter are a few others, to name only a few—but it seemed like the first time an epic fantasy had captured such a broad and diverse audience. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy certainly had a strong following long before the films were even conceived, but it was nothing in comparison to the pop-culture explosion that followed Peter Jackson’s mega-hit movie adaptations. The doors were flung open to a genre less ordinary, and the minds of the movie-going public were broadened.
I remember trekking out intrepidly in the depths of a Canadian December in 2003 to watch The Return of the King with my best friend. I entered the theatre sparkling with excitement; I left inspired and amazed, yet tinged with depression. Did that depression stem from any shortcoming on the part of the film? Certainly not. I think eleven Oscars and over a billion dollars’ worth of box office revenue proved that it didn’t have many of those. I was depressed because the film adventures in Middle Earth which had captivated and transfixed my young mind had come to an end.
Or so I thought.
Naturally, when I learned several years later that a film adaptation of the trilogy’s prequel, The Hobbit, was in the works, I was beyond elated. I was a teenaged nerdette positively overloaded with euphoria at the notion of returning to my favourite fantasy world. Over the following years I devoured tidbits of news like Gollum devours raw fish, and was subsequently hurled through a raucous showbiz rollercoaster ride: Peter Jackson and New Line’s divorce, Guillermo del Torro being given the role of director with PJ essentially consulting, MGM’s interminable delays, del Torro dropping out, PJ taking to the helm after all, union trouble with the International Federation of Actors… It seemed more likely that the Toronto Maple Leafs would win the Stanley Cup than The Hobbit would ever be made.
At last, news came that the films (first two, then three) were underway. Throughout 2011 and 2012, I faithfully followed each production video, TV-spot and trailer, I read interviews and articles (and the book, for the hundredth time), and I kicked myself for having just missed Richard Armitage (who portrays Thorin Oakenshield, the moody and broody leader of the dwarf company) at Union Station’s mini-Shire. Finally, on December 14, 2012, I gathered my minions, battling car failure, late buses, and communication mix-ups to reach the theatre (with my tickets booked a month in advance) in time for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
If for some inexplicable reason you have not seen the film, here’s the run-down: Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous hobbit is essentially press-ganged by an enigmatic wizard, Gandalf, into joining a company of thirteen dwarves on a quest. Their goal is to reclaim their once-glorious kingdom, Erebor, tragically lost sixty years earlier to a greedy and profoundly destructive dragon, Smaug. The quest, led by Thorin Oakenshield, takes the rambunctious ragtag company on an epic journey that includes, but is not limited to: troll-tricking, Warg-whipping (with flaming pinecones, no less), goblin-gutting, Gollum-goading, food-fighting, host-hassling, riddle-rhyming, bromance-building, bird-back-bolting, and no small degree of wicked wizard-wisecracking.
After acclimating to the necessary changes in dynamic to the film, I was so delighted with the long-awaited finished product that I even forgave Jackson for the forty-eight-frames-per-second-coupled-with-3D-eye-workout. From a film standpoint, there was much to appreciate: the calibre of the acting (especially from Richard Armitage, Martin Freeman and, of course, Ian McKellen), the quality of the animation, and the excellent soundtrack (once again mastered by Torontonian Howard Shore), to name only my top three.
But, as a Tolkien fan, I was especially eager to see how the screenplay would engage with the book, and was pleased to see that it had been followed pretty faithfully: the first half-hour and the riddle session with Gollum are essentially lifted directly out of the book. Tolkien’s genius lies in his relatable themes and the way his narratives offer hope even while depicting a world in peril. Jackson gets this, and pulls the adaptation off with unparalleled style by capturing and enhancing what is already in the text. He infused the script with rich extra-textual (but still Tolkien) detail which both anticipates and sometimes explains the original film trilogy. Jackson is especially deft at weaving humour into what is, despite its bedtime beginnings, a rather serious story.
The excellence of the filmmaking and the first-class writing result in a film not only worthy of its illustrious precursors, but worth one fan’s long wait.
– Contributed by Emily Willan