You expect a film called The Hobbit to at least keep the character in question front and center. Peter Jackson’s newest foray into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, however, spends too much time on things that really don’t concern the furry-footed protagonist.
Bilbo Baggins lives a quiet life in the Shire, a walking testament to the hobbit society as a whole. They’re a self-sufficient, very insular people, happy to go about their business with no concern about the goings-on in the wider world around them. Before the wizard Gandalf came to visit, Bilbo was just another hobbit. But the old wizard sees something in Bilbo that Bilbo himself has ignored for so that long he’s forgotten it. Hobbits do not like adventure—not all of them, anyway. There was one, the old Took, who thrived on adventure, and Bilbo belongs to the old Took’s family line. Once a company of dwarves invades Bilbo’s quiet life of solemn serenity, he’s at first put out, but after a few lines of an ancient dwarvish song—a haunting tune of longing for a home ripped away, waiting to be reclaimed—something “Tookish” awakens.
That’s what Tolkien’s book tells us; I’m not sure the film makes that very clear. It’s a small diversion that grows into a bloated, over-extended exercise of excess.
I don’t want to spend too much time retreading the common points of interest here. I saw the film on DVD, so I have no comment about the controversial frame-rate. Steven Greydanus does a great job covering the highs (more than a few) and lows (far more than there should’ve been) of Jackson’s adaptation. What I want to do is talk about Bilbo, specifically his “Tookish” side and the film’s lack of any real examination of the change that occurs.
The Hobbit tells a very different story than The Lord of the Rings. It’s a much simpler tale, less sophisticated, but no less layered or intriguing. Bilbo undertakes the hero’s journey in fits and starts, always pulled back and forth between his Baggins nature, which desires comfort, and his Tookish nature, which craves adventure. The film acknowledges the tension, but only in small ways, and never with enough development to really make the point.
When Gandalf hands Bilbo the sword he’ll come to call Sting, Bilbo confesses he’s never used a sword. Yet when he has to use it the first time, he proves adept enough to fend off an angry orc, and this without any training. The hobbits Merry and Pippin received at least a small lesson from Boromir before charging into battle in LOTR. I don’t recall if the book explains that Bilbo’s elven blade endows him with sudden sword prowess, but if it does, the film doesn’t acknowledge it. The film does spend a little time on the sword’s origins; maybe elven blades carry their own prior experience into battle. But whatever the issue, the rise of Bilbo’s Tookish side isn’t the primary focus in a story that’s supposed to be about him. All we get here is a long shot of Bilbo slowly pulling the blade from its sheath—a pregnant moment that doesn’t fully deliver.
Then there’s Rivendell. Rivendell sits at the edge of the wild. In the book, Tolkien gives us a moment when Bilbo sees his first mountain and thinks they must be near the end of their quest. His heart sinks when he learns they’re not even halfway there. His Baggins side longs for hearth and home, but Rivendell lets his Tookish nature out for a while in very peculiar way.
Jackson spends a great deal of time setting up and developing the deep rooted disparity and conflict between dwarves and elves. In the book, the elves sing and laugh constantly, tease Bilbo and the dwarves, even invite them in for food and song. It’s a far departure from the rigid personalities that Jackson imparts to his elves. Tolkien compares Elrond to the greatest examples of strength, beauty, honor and kindness. The film’s Elrond may possess the same qualities—there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t—but the film sets so much animosity in the hearts of the dwarves that these qualities fail to register, and their impact on Bilbo receives no attention at all.
Dr. Corey Olsen, who teaches The Hobbit at Seattle Pacific University, explains that Rivendell reconciles Bilbo’s Took and Baggins sides. It’s a place of comfort, full of song and story, but stories that recall courage and adventure, a spirit that still lingers inside its ornate halls. Tolkien even writes that Bilbo would gladly have stopped there forever, even if a wish could whisk him back to his hobbit hole. Rivendell deeply affects him. Both Tolkien and Jackson reinforce its significance in Bilbo’s future decision to retire there.
In the film, Bilbo goes largely ignored the longer it stays in Rivendell. We’re instead treated to meeting of the White Council, a peripheral element meant only to foreshadow LOTR. It’s a nice call back to familiar faces, but only a distraction. When it comes time to leave Rivendell, the film returns to Bilbo for one last longing look over the realm, another potent moment robbed of its consequence because the film refuses earn it.
The LOTR films, especially given their scope and the massive size of their source, achieved a strong sense of purpose and focus. Every frame (well, nearly) drives the plot forward. Too much of The Hobbit only works to set up LOTR. The awakening of Bilbo’s Tookish side receives only lip service. The ending, while brimming with promise, left me feeling exhausted. Unlike its cinematic predecessors, it feels like it runs for far too long.
And there are still two more films to go.
Despite its shortcomings, the film builds an impressive imaginary playground and still manages to entertain on some level. But I remember when I couldn’t wait for Christmas to see Frodo and the fellowship again. Not only can I wait for Jackson’s next visit to Middle-earth, I can wait for it to come to Redbox. And you have no idea how much it hurts to write that down.
Written for the screen by
Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Peter Jackson