“Every good story deserves to be embellished.” – Gandalf to Bilbo, An Unexpected Journey
It’s pretty remarkable that the short children’s story The Hobbit has been stretched into three blockbuster movies, considering that the 1,000 page Lord of the Rings trilogy was also made into three blockbuster movies. Some (or most) have speculated it was a call made by greedy Hollywood producers whispering at Peter Jackson’s side, since the book could easily have fit into one film but three movies would certainly make more money. How does Jackson’s Unexpected Journey turn about 1/3 of the book (amounting to a little under 100 pages that’s scant on action and padded with dwarf songs) into a three-hour long blockbuster?
Well, Jackson turns action that is alluded to or given a few meager sentences in Tolkien’s Hobbit into epic twenty-minute sequences. In the Hobbit, the fourteen companions witness a brief “thunderbattle” of stone-giants wrestling and throwing boulders across a mountain range, but nothing besides complaints from the dwarves indicate they are in any real danger. In Jackson’s Unexpected Journey, the audience is suddenly immersed in a CGI animated sequence of stone-giants crushing and collapsing the mountain pass. The dwarves and Bilbo huddle against the cliff while boulders explode over their heads, and the sequence involves many death-defying jumps and absurd gravity-defying rides on the stone-giants’ bodies. But in comparison to the Lord of the Rings, where Boromir and Gandalf are dead by the end of the first film, the audience never feels that the company is in any real danger. Each of the dwarves and the inept hobbit manage to escape every seemingly impossible situation that Jackson throws them in.
Another addition to the film’s plot is the side-story of Radagast the Brown, friend of Gandalf the Grey and one of the five wizards in Middle Earth. While his character is only briefly mentioned in both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books, he gets many lengthy and comical scenes in An Unexpected Journey. From the books we know that Radagast “prefers the company of animals” and that he is lower on the wizard totem-pole than Gandalf and Saruman, but that’s pretty much it. In the film, Radagast lives in a Burrow-like cottage in a forest and woodland creatures flutter at his beckon call like he’s a Disney princess. He also travels around on a wooden sled led by a pack of anthropomorphic rabbits, which stays true to the book’s childlike fantasy but seems ridiculous in the context of the film’s epic version of fantasy. Later, during Saruman’s unexpected cameo he accuses Radagast of being out of touch with reality from eating too many “mushrooms.”
Perhaps the largest addition to the plot is the story line of the Pale Orc, who is out to get Thorin Oakenshield’s head in order to end the line of dwarf kings. The nerdiest of us know that the pale orc is supposed to be Azog the Defiler from the books, an orc leader who battled against the dwarves at the front gates of Moria. This background story is given a full scene at the beginning of the movie to contextualize the dwarf vs. orc subplot, but the Pale Orc is a grossly overdone and Hollywood version of Azog. To compare, the orc leaders in the Lord of the Rings films were misshapen, lumpy, gooey, and all together disgusting (such as the one marked with Saruman’s white hand and beheaded by Aragorn in the Fellowship, and the fearless pale military leader in Return of the King who heads the orc army against Minas Tirith). The Pale Orc in An Unexpected Journey is nothing like these primeval blobs. He has the sculpted body of a man on steroids and markings that are meant to look like scars but seem more like fashionable tiger stripes. He looks like a villain from the Avengers, or the Incredible Hulk’s albino doppelgänger.
Overall, I enjoyed watching the Hobbit just because I couldn’t wait to be immersed in Middle Earth again. The purist in me wishes that Jackson had taken less creative license with the plot, though I must admit I enjoyed Radagast’s character.