The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Article by   December 2012
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Some may say producer/director Peter Jackson's latest J. R. R. Tolkien adaption is an unexpected disappointment of phantom menace proportions because Jackson himself has been corrupted by the power of the One Ring. Others may say this movie was a long awaited pleasant return to Middle Earth. A great many have commented at being duly dazzled and disoriented by the look and feel of watching super HD 48fps 3D on the big screen - especially when trying to sleuth the scatological origin of Radagast's hair. But let me not get ahead of myself. A review should have a proper beginning.

In a hole in New Zealand there lived a hobbit. Not a dirty wet hole filled with the Enns of worms and an oozy smell of the ancient near east. Nor yet a purpose driven dry bare sandy hole.  It was a hobbit hole and that should have meant comfort, not an over realized eschatological vision of Peter Jackson employing a "Bilbo-telic" hermeneutic of Middle Earth in the middle of Skull Island.

Thirty-four years after being violated by Ralph Bakshi's cinematic cartoon "The Lord of the Rings" (LOTR) effort I sat down again in the arrogantly shabby Camelot Theater off Greenville, South Carolina's Pleasantburg Drive to see the latest effort at making a Tolkien book into movie. Within seconds of hearing Howard Shore's wonderful soundtrack come alive I was transported back into Jackson's Middle Earth. It was a very comforting feeling. The sights, the sounds, and the feel of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was spot on. Deep down in my bones I trust Peter with the text and where he stuck to it he did an exemplary job. 

There is so much that Peter Jackson got right in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Overall, considering the challenge of adapting a children's story based heavily on the legends of Northern Europe, the movie was remarkably well done. As in her previous movies the screen writer Philippa Boyens deserves her share of the troll-hoard of profits for turning in a good screen play.

If you go into this movie knowing it's not really a children's movie (terribly violent at times) and that it is really a "prequel" to Jackson's LOTR trilogy you'll enjoy it even more. Unless you are a film aficionado I would recommend seeing it in the lower rez (24fps) non-HD format. It's much less distracting. The "3D experience" does nothing for me, as I have enough tension in life.

The movie is slow, the pace is meandering, and yet if you read the book you would say the same. If you enjoyed LOTR, you'll very much enjoy the amount of time Jackson spent in showing you the story. Like LOTR, The Hobbit was filmed in New Zealand which, at this point, might as well change its name to Middle Earth.

"The Hobbit" is of course Mr. Bilbo Baggins, a respectable proto-Welshman of Tookish descent. Bilbo was greatly offended when a (Carl) Truemanesque wizard showed up one day and asked him to jettison his comfortable middle class life in the bucolic Shire and get down with the struggle to fight evil in Middle Earth. There was a dragon, you see, and it was causing problems with Dwarves of Durin's tribe. Some thought the Dwarves deserved what they got. Their greed caused old Smaug the dragon to come and sack them. Thus, they should be left to their self-inflicted diaspora. 

But Gandalf knew otherwise. As an aside, Gandalf is, in many ways, the most remarkable wizard. For me, he is the wizard of literature (since Merlin, of course) and Sir Ian McKellen will forever be to wizarding what Sean Connery is to James Bond. The gold standard. Returning to the story, Gandalf saw the big picture and knew that Smaug the Dragon linking up with a mysterious Necromancer in Mirkwood could be trouble. So he encouraged the dwarves in their quest to regain their Kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, trying to help them forge an alliance with others who would come to the dwarves' aid, all the while having the insight to include a hobbit, our hobbit, the hobbit of the unexpected journey. 

The transformation of Bilbo Baggins (ably portrayed by Martin Freeman) is the story of everyone who finds adventure unexpectedly and discovers meaning in fighting battles you never knew you had been equipped to wage. Bilbo is one of the key figures connecting all of Tolkien's stories together. In this movie Bilbo's character was well done, and the flashbacks and flash forwards between the Bilbo of the Hobbit and the Bilbo of LOTR were masterful. When these Hobbit movies are over, we will have roughly a day's worth of Middle Earth cinema sequenced for our enjoyment. 

In addition to Freeman's Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is very well cast, as is Thorin's kinsman Balin (Scottish actor Ken Stott). Indeed, Balin's helpfulness in explaining the mission of Thorin's Company of Dwarves to a confused Bilbo Baggins ought to be a role model for how Ruling Elders supplement the ministry of Teaching Elders in every local church.

Thorin & Company portrayed by a variety of British and Irish actors were amazing. In some ways Peter Jackson exceeded expectations by pulling this off. Thirteen dwarves and a hobbit are hardly the ideal number of characters in a Hollywood movie but they are the stuff of legends. Jackson clearly understands legend.

Galadriel (the glorious Cate Blanchett) is back in all her Noldorin beauty. We are thankful that her husband Celeborn was absent. To quote Ligon Duncan, "Celeborn, like the pope, wears magnificent outfits and everything he says is wrong." Saruman (Sir Christopher Lee) steals his one scene in the movie. The White Wizard is a grand hypocrite already under the spell of evil while ostensibly leading the cause of good. In this respect, Saurman sadly brings to mind too many leaders we know.

The character Radagast was genuinely bizarre, but works, more or less. I didn't understand the bunny rabbit reindeer sled. I enjoyed the way that Radagast discovered the Nazgul in Dol Guldor. He brings back the Witch King's Morgul blade, the blade, I suspect, that Frodo will later be stabbed with in Fellowship of the Ring.

The insertion of Azog, the albino "Moby Orc" was odd. It was reminiscent of the Uruks of Saruman pursuing the Fellowship in LOTR, but wholly invented for the movie. A device to create tension for the plot. The Great Goblin could have been a double for (Dune's) Baron Harkonnen. Altogether ghastly.

The stone Giants were a delightful surprise as was Gollum's Cave and the Riddle Game which just might be the best scene in the movie. Andy Serkis stars again in his portrayal of Gollum by use of motion capture and computer generated imaging. Serkis also was a second unit director on the film. He was quite simply magnificent.  

The big question: WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

It's a movie about a science fiction book right? No! Though to be fair, for some of you the answer is yes. (Please stop reading if you are one of these people). 

For the rest of us, it's a modern tale of ancient stories written by a scholar with a fixed world-view that is largely Augustianian in its scope. Bilbo is everyman. Middle Earth is just as complex and troubled a place as our own. Gandalf is a prophet and helper to the oppressed, the Shire is Utopia, and it's so wonderful that most of its citizenry never leave and those who do hurry home as soon as they can. Good is still good and evil is all too present in the stories of Middle Earth. This, too, is why we love these stories. They resemble the heroes, villains, noble struggles of our time. There is a battle waging out there. You either chose to fight or not.

By all means go see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, then go see it again. You will recognize the story as vaguely Christian. But better yet read The Hobbit, especially to your children, as my brothers did to me growing up and as I have had the privilege to do to my own children. Listen now to how the story ends:
 "Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!" said Bilbo.
"Of course!" said Gandalf. "And why should they not prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!"
"Thank goodness!" said Bilbo laughing...

And thank goodness for Peter Jackson.

Appendix A: Abridged Guide to Evangelicalism as Middle Earth

No Tolkien work ever gets published without a fascinating appendix. So why shouldn't a review of a Tolkien film? For those of you who have been struggling with this review (and who could blame you, really?) here is some help. Please take no offense at this - we're just having some fun. 

PEOPLE & PLACES IN THE HOBBIT 

The Great East Road (Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention)

Thorin Oakenshield & Company (Mark Driscoll & the Young, Restless and Reformed) 

The Trolls (Charles Finney, Hal Lindsey, Tim Lahaye)

White Council (The Gospel Coalition)

Stone Giants (Clark-Van Til Debate)

Great Goblin (Ergun Caner)

FURTHER STUDY

High Elves (Puritans)

Numenor/High Peoples (Scotland/Presbyterians)

Middle Peoples (Baptists)

The Gray Havens (The Banner of Truth)

The Elves of Rivendell (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals)

The Elves of Mirkwood (Sovereign Grace Ministries)

Lothlorien (Desiring God Ministries)

Rohan (Southern Baptist Convention)

Meduseld (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

Beornings (Founders Movement)

Barrow Downs (Catacombs of Rome)

The Green Dragon (challies.com)

Forest of Fangorn (reformation21)

Quickbeam (Justin Taylor)

Findegil (monergism.com)

Tom Bombadil (RC Sproul)

Farmer Maggot (Phil Johnson/Team Pyro guys)

Glorfindel (Derek Thomas)

Weathertop (Harvard)

Village of Bree (Redeemer Church Planting Network)

City of Dale (Grace Community Church)

Rhovanion (Nine Marks Ministries)

Arnor (New England Congregationalism)

Blue Mountains (Dutch Calvinism)

Gondor (Presbyterianism)

Osgiliath (Princeton)

Minas Tirith (Old School Presbyterianism)

Minas Morgul(New School Presbyterianism)

Ilithien (Northern Presbyterianism)

Henneth Annun (Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia)

Dol Amroth (Southern Presbyterianism)

Tirith Aear (First Presbyterian Church of Jackson)

The Dunedain (Twin Lakes Fellowship)

Lossarnach (Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville)

Anduin (Calvinism)

The Argonath (Westminster Standards)

Húrin (Machen)

Red Book of Westmarch (Textus Receptus)

Daeron (Erasmus)

PUZZLING

The Blue Wizards (National Associations of Evangelicals)

Mines of Moria (Carl McIntire)

Ted Sandyman (Rousas John Rushdooney)

EVENTS

Entmoot (Philadelphia Council on Reformed Theology)

Council of Elrond (Together for the Gospel)

Helm's Deep (Battle for Inerrancy)

Pelennor Fields (Battle for Imputation)

Defense of Cair Andros (Battle for Complementarianism)

Battle of Bywater (Worship Wars)

UNHELPFUL

The Nazgul (National Council of Churches)

The Mouth of Sauron (Pope Benedict XVI)

Shelob (Joyce Meyer)

Lobelia Sackville-Baggins (Dr. Sam Gipp)

Saruman (Karl Barth)

Isengard (Higher Criticism in general)

Corsairs of Umbar (Trinity Broadcasting Network)

Southrons (Lakewood Church)

The Mumakil (Joel Osteen)

Haradrim (Eastern Orthodoxy)

Melton L. Duncan is a Ruling Elder and Administrator at the Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC. He and his wife Lynda are raising three Southern Presbyterians near the house of Tom Bombadil in the South Carolina Upcountry. He blogs occasionally (riverandrhett.com).
 
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