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“The Hobbit”: Bilbo Goes in Search of the Promised Land

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“Well, I’m back,” Samwise Gamgee says to his wife at the end of Peter Jackson’s celebrated 2001-03 blockbuster adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythopeic triptych “The Lord of the Rings.” Now some of Sam’s friends and enemies (but not Sam himself) are back in “An Unexpected Journey,” the first of the three installments of Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 “The Hobbit.” Published 17 years before the more complexly adult “L.O.T.R..” the 317-page children’s novel, written in a playfully avuncular tone by the Oxford professor, sends reluctant burglar Bilbo Baggins off to the eastern mountain Erebor in the company of 13 Dwarfs intent on retrieving their home and treasure, long-guarded by the rapacious dragon Smaug.

As well as Bilbo (played briefly again by Ian Holm, mostly as a young Hobbit by Martin Freeman), there are return appearances by his Ringbearing nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), his corruptible fellow wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), the Elf lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the Elf lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and the wretched ex-Hobbit Gollum (Andy Serkis). Inevitably, the CG Sauron shows up, too, remanifested as “the Necromancer” — following his physical slaying and a thousand years of dormancy — in his Dol Guldur stronghold prior to amassing the full extent of his evil might in Mordor on Middle-earth’s Lower East Side.

New readers will look in vain for Frodo, Galadriel, and Saruman in “The Hobbit” novel, while the Necromancer appears only in name. Like Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom), who will appear in “There and Back Again,” 2014’s concluding episode, they have been shoehorned into the new triptych to provide blatantly obvious continuity with the first one, auguring the day when diehards sit down to watch, in chronological order, all six films in one sitting.

After a prologue that tells of Smaug’s capturing of Erebor, Jackson presents a framing device, set in Bilbo’s elegantly wainscotted hole that reasonably enough reacquaints us with Frodo. In contrast, Galadriel and Saruman’s participation in an emergency conference with Elrond and Gandalf at Rivendell feels overdetermined.

Their appearances will delight some fans, but hardcore Tolkienists will balk at their involvement, as they will at the explicit suggestion in the film that Bilbo’s adventure triggers the cataclysmic events that occur 60 years later. Although his theft of Sauron’s omnipotent One Ring from Gollum in the labyrinth under the Misty Mountains sets up Frodo’s quest to destroy it in “L.O.T.R,” his journey to Erebor is not, as the movie suggests, the direct cause of Sauron’s Third Reich-ian attempt to enslave the free people of Middle-earth, which has already begun.

Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro (who was originally assigned to direct the movie) take other liberties. For example, they have created a nemesis for Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the arrogant leader of the Dwarfs, in the so-called Pale Orc, Yazneg, who fulfills a similar function — disposable ferocious enemy lieutenant — to that that of Saruman’s Uruk-Hai captain, Lurtz, who, resembling a molten Gene Simmons of Kiss, was invented for “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Although he’s fleetingly mentioned by Tolkien in “The Hobbit,” the eco-friendly wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) is the full-blown character in the film who discovers the Necromancer’s temporary lair in the forest of Mirkwood. Driving a sled pulled by speeding rabbits, the whimsical Radagast introduces an unmistakably Disneyish element. Unlike the book, the movie also depicts how Gollum lost the ring and how Bilbo stole it.

A no less spectacular blend of CGI and live action than its predecessors, “The Hobbit” was filmed by Jackson’s regular cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie, in 3-D at 48 frames per second instead of the customary 24. The result is a stunningly sharp, detailed image that highlights the film’s storybook origin but denies it the mysteriousness, gravitas, and ominousness that made “L.O.T.R.” such a success; not inappropriately given its source, this is more a children’s film than was its predecessors. (The 3-D makes it look like an HD version of a Victorian toy theatre.) But it’s more for boys that girls: not only do the Dwarf-Orc battles come thick and fast, but in keeping with the book, the story is “emasculate,” in Robert Louis Stevenson’s sense of being unshaded by sexuality. Aside from Galadriel, who’s onscreen for a couple of minutes, it is empty of females, whereas “L.O.T.R.” had Arwen and Eowyn’s girl power (not to mention Shelob’s).

The tale’s realpolitik should kick in when Dwarfs, Elves, and Men fall out in “There and Back Again.” “An Unexpected Journey” is not without historical resonances, however. Following Tolkien, it invokes the bearded, industrious Dwarfs as the Jews of Middle-earth who, cast out of Erebor, become a wandering folk desperate to return to the Promised Land. “I do think of the Dwarfs’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue,” Tolkien wrote; he also modeled the Dwarven calendar on the Jewish calendar, as John Rateliff has noted in “The History of the Hobbit.” Tolkien was not anti-Semitic, but a supporter of Jews, as some of his letters attest. Writing to his publisher about whether or not he was Jewish, he noted, “I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honorable . . . and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.”

Notwithstanding Thorin’s contempt for Bilbo, the film is generally sympathetic to the Dwarfs, and Bilbo (played with an appealingly hesitant Middle Englishness by Freeman) avows that he’s staying onto help them in their quest because he has a home that he loves and they don’t. More problematically, the Dwarfs are shown to be covetous. The prologue depicts how Thrór, Thorin’s grandfather, was corrupted by their phenomenal wealth and lost it and his under-the-mountain realm when Smaug vanquished them. The shot of Thrór dropping his talismanic jewel, the Arkenstone, in the chaos of the Dwarfs’ defeat is strongly reminiscent of Ron Moody’s Fagin, a character much associated with anti-Semitism, losing his jewels in the mud at the end of Carol Reed’s 1968 “Oliver!”

At the end of “The Unexpected Journey,” the Dwarfs’ Israel is in sight. Bilbo and his companions are left gazing across Mirkwood to the distant Erebor, having escaped cannibal Trolls, relentless Orc attacks, and a clash between anthropomorphized mountains. The passage through the tainted forest elicited Tolkien’s eeriest writing in “The Hobbit,” and it’s unthinkable that Jackson won’t rise to the challenge, merging the exquisite with the hyperbolic as the road goes ever on…and on.

Photo by James Fisher – © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

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