When Bilbo leaves his home in the Shire and doesn’t immediately mourn the fact that he forgot his pocket handkerchief, I was concerned that the new rendition of Tolkien’s simple, yet masterful story, “The Hobbit”, would be unfaithful to the original.
It may not mean much to you, but it means a great deal to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to forget his snot rag, and it represents the core theme of the story. Whether you are driven out of your home by a dragon, or murderous orcs, or a demanding wizard, or political lines post-war, or because you don’t want to miss the adventure of a lifetime, the handkerchief is a symbol for the comforts of home, and the peace and tranquility we find there. Home—and not a small amount of greed—is the very reason this cadre of dwarves is heading off to the Lonely Mountain: to reclaim their home.
Not too many minutes later, while riding his pony, the hobbit sneezes, and then, the lost handkerchief is missed. Like many of the changes to the now legendary story, this new version takes liberties with the plot and adds entire tangential stories to bring to the screen characters that were only given a mere mention in another book. But, in the end, the script always comes back to the core elements, comes back home.
It is a pretty easy task to criticize this film; its need to be bigger than what the original story ever was, the ego of the filmmakers to do more and be cooler—easy targets. (Indeed, there was a moment when I could empathize with an imagined overworked digital artist creating even bigger blisters on the swollen jowls of the Goblin King.) There are more battles (and lots more orcs), more backstory, and not enough singing for me in this new film.
But there are wonderful things only a film can do, and one is giving actors a chance to bring to life characters full of strength, weakness, misgivings, pride, beauty, charm, secrets, trust, heroism, and utter hopelessness.
The “Riddles in the Dark” passage at the first meeting of Bilbo and Gollum is masterful. I didn’t think it could be any better than my imagination and Tolkien’s writing, but it was. The Arkenstone came to life as well, in a way that made me feel the Dwarven King’s insane desire for it. And the sneak peeks into Smaug (the dragon, or, as one dwarf put it, “an incinerator with teeth”), are chilling. Like a diva waiting for her big entrance aria in the second act, this first part of the story gives us the same feeling hearing stories of the dragon must have given Bilbo.
The best way to look at this new re-imagining of the hobbit’s tale, is to think about all the stories we keep telling ourselves in narration, song, plays, and poetry. Pushkin’s beloved tale, “Eugene Onegin” has become an opera, and a film. Shakespeare retold the histories of kings and wars based on classical models. Mozart retold French plays in Italian opera. Tolkien himself drew on Beowulf, Peter Pan, and so many others to create his works. Did they embellish? Did they rewrite? Of course—they had to. A different medium requires different structure.
And if 2012’s version of the tale of a rabbit-like creature finding his own courage means blown up stories, or ultra-realistic Warg fangs, or a kind of filmic reminder of LOTR—things I would have done without for more deep-throated Dwarven melodies—then sit back and enjoy it. (And don’t let the 2k vs 5k technological babble keep you away; it’s a non-issue for enjoying the story in 2D.)
Ultimately, the filmmakers have their hearts in the right place, and we do get valuable screen time with the moral choices facing the important issues in the book that we still grapple with today. Just expect a lot of goblin-bashing along the way.