At long last, Bilbo Baggins is back. Whether you’re fanatic enough to dress up for the midnight showing, or patiently awaiting a weekend outing, or even content to meander into a theater after the crowds die down, here’s some advice for how to make the most of your experience of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Don’t worry, there’s no spoiler below. My hope in seeing an early screening of the film is to be at your service in preparing you for the viewing, not by letting any cat out of the bag — although if you’ve read the book, you know where this film is going.
It is fitting to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for an experience like this. That’s precisely what the story’s creator — he would prefer “sub-creator” — J. R. R. Tolkien would have you do, and it’s no necessary sign of unhealthy self-occupation to do so. Perhaps as much as any writer, Tolkien carefully crafted his tales for the profound spiritual effect they would have on the reader. He means for you to be deeply affected. He means for his story, set in a “secondary world” called Middle Earth, to give you a certain experience, a kind of deep joy and satisfaction, that draws from the “primary world” in which we live. So, don’t waste your ticket by showing up unprepared.
Adjust Your Expectations
Expectation management is important with a film like this — not because the film isn’t well done, it’s extraordinary — but because any film based on a well known and well loved book faces this challenge. And all the more after the 2001–2003 movie trilogy was such a smashing success.
Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in the 1930s as a children’s book. It was the mid 1950s before he finished publishing The Lord of the Rings. By then, he was a more mature novelist and “sub-creator” and had seen how interested adults could be in his hobbit tale. So his sequel is darker. And it’s the sequel that made Tolkien the author of the century, not The Hobbit — good as The Hobbit is. It’s no accident that director Peter Jackson started with The Lord of the Rings. LOTR is the more compelling story. So at least adjust your expectations on that count. (Jackson has compensated for this by making the Hobbit film to borrow some darkness and gravity from its already produced sequel.)
Also, it’s fair to recognize that Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) is now over a decade older — which seems pronounced in the opening scenes, but fades as the story begins to move. So also with Ian Holm (the older Bilbo) and Christopher Lee (Saruman). However, Hugo Weaving (Elrond) and Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) appear to have barely aged a day — could they actually be elves? But apart from those two, adjust your expectations on the actors. I should note that the two main new faces, Martin Freeman (the young Bilbo) and Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield) do a fantastic job.
One final adjustment to mention: double frames per second (HFR: high frame rate). For decades, the movies have been 24 frames per second. In some 400 theaters nationwide, double that rate is being offered. Another option is 3D. The screening I took in was not only HFR, but also 3D. Add to that the fact that it’s been a decade since I saw Lord of the Rings in a theater, not to mention other technological advances, and it took me awhile to “adjust” to this film. At first, it didn’t “feel” to me like the trilogy. The HFR and 3D (and I don’t typically see 3Ds) seemed to make the film almost too real. Dwarf costumes are difficult enough without doubling the frames per second. The improved realness proved a distraction and slowed my ability to willingly suspend disbelief. If you feel this way early on, don’t get discouraged too quickly. As the story picked up, I lost awareness of the changes and was able to get into it better.
Enjoy the Serkis
I continue to be amazed how well Andy Serkis and movie-making technology are able to pull off the creature Gollum. Bilbo’s “riddles in the dark” scene with Gollum is spectacular. Tolkien would be very pleased, perhaps flattered, to see his complex character come to life so well. This is definitely something to look forward to. The real fanatics may want to re-read chapter 5 in The Hobbit to be ready for the fast-moving dialogue between Bilbo and Gollum that holds very true to Tolkien.
Cut the Writers Some Slack
Some Hobbit fans will be surprised to find two prominent characters in the movie who were not in the book — another wizard, named Radagast the Brown, and a lead villain called Azog, the pale orc. Apparently, these are drawn in from obscure places in Tolkien, like his Silmarillion — I wouldn’t know, haven’t read it — which means another set of Tolkien fans (the Super-Committed) will be thrilled. You try making a 300-page book into three movies. All things considered, Unexpected Journey stays impressively close to Tolkien’s storyline, but introduces some minor twists and turns to fit the medium and keep everyone on their toes. It’s a good blend of fidelity and freshness.
For the ultra-purists, if you just want straight Tolkien, then just read the book. The movie, by necessity, is not, and cannot be, just straight Tolkien. You get Peter Jackson and a lot of others. Which is a good thing. Remind yourself that film is a different medium than book. Try to appreciate both for what they are. Better to prepare yourself now for this than to needlessly bellyache about the movie not being as good as the book.
Listen for the Echoes of the Gospel
At the end of his important essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien explains from where he intends his tales to draw their power — from the emotional reservoir of the Christian gospel. The “primary world” story of the Son of God himself, taking full humanity at Christmas, living flawlessly in our fallen world, sacrificing himself to rescue us on Good Friday from God's just wrath, and rising again victorious on Easter as the living Lord of the Universe — here is the Story for which God made the human heart and the Story from which all good stories derive their power.
For Tolkien, the enchantment of the Christian gospel is deeper than allegory (which he thought crass) or merely having a character who is the Jesus figure. Tolkien believed that God made humanity for the Great Joy purchased by and provided in the Good News of Jesus, and that the joy we experience from good fantasy tales streams its power from the real world, the Primary Reality, created by God and culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. In this way, Tolkien thought that all good stories meet with God’s gospel-shaped imprint on his creatures.
Finding Jesus in The Hobbit doesn’t mean shoe-horning Gandalf or Bilbo or any other character into some Christ mold, but following the story, truly tracking its twists, feeling its angst, and knowing that the “turn” — the Great Unexpected Rescue just in the nick of time, the place where our souls are most stirred, relieved, and satisfied — is tapping into something deep in us, some way in which God spring-loaded us for the Great Story and the extent to which he went to reclaim us.