The son and literary executor of JRR Tolkien’s estate, Christopher Tolkien, has passed away at the age of 95. I and millions of other readers owe him an inestimable debt for his life work. Without him, nothing of The Silmarillion or the other posthumous works of Tolkien would have been published, stories which have made my life so much better. Rest In Peace, Christopher. May we meet again in our Lord’s presence.
- Letters from Father Christmas
- by J.R.R. Tolkien
- Goodreads link
- Pages: 110
- Published: first in 1976, this edition 2004
- Spoiler-free Synopsis: From 1920 to 1943, the children of J.R.R. Tolkien would write letters to Father Christmas. Every year, Father Christmas answered them, often with accompanying pictures. These are those letters and pictures.
- Re-readability: I do believe this will be an annual tradition for me, from now on. It is highly rereadable, both for its relative brevity and its abundance of charm and invention.
- Recommendation: If you have children, this book can quickly become a beloved yearly tradition for your whole family, as it was for Tolkien’s. I think I would have loved it as a boy, as much or moreso than I do as a man. However, I imagine that if I become a father one day, and read this to my children as I plan to, it will set an impossibly high bar for what my children would expect from their father! I’m a writer too, and occasionally a doodler, but I’m no Tolkien! But I enjoy this book so much that I’d read it to them anyway.
I knew this book would be charming and inventive, and it absolutely was. What I didn’t expect was how hilarious it could be, and, nearing the end, a bit bittersweet.
We meet a family of lovable characters at the North Pole in these letters. Father Christmas is, as we expect, quite generous and affectionate towards the children he writes to, but he’s often exasperated when things interfere with his busy preparations for Christmas and is quick to complain about his helper, the North Polar Bear. The P.B. (everyone gets abbreviations in these letters) is really a good bear, but a bit foolish and clumsy; he gets to make his own comments in the margins and post-scripts, defending himself against unfair accusations or making other remarks, often funny. Late in the book (16 years into the letters), Father Christmas gets an elf secretary, Ilbereth, who writes for him and carries on a truly amusing banter with P.B. in the margins.
It has gone on being warm up here, as I told you – not what you would call warm, but warm for the North Pole, with very little snow. The North Polar Bear, if you know who I mean, has been lazy and sleepy as a result, and very slow over packing, or any job except eating. He has enjoyed sampling and tasting the food parcels this year (to see if they were fresh and good, he said).
Somebody haz to – and I found stones in some of the kurrants.
But that is not the worst – I should hardly feel it was Christmas if he didn’t do something ridiculous. You will never guess what he did this time!December 23, 1931 [bold script is the North Polar Bear, regular is Father Christmas.]
There are other characters and many interesting stories that serve to make the North Pole feel like a real, lived-in place, though never mundane or un-magical. The letters tell of mending broken roofs and silly accidents that P.B. has as often as they do battles with evil goblins.
Most of the letters are accompanied by Tolkien’s drawings and paintings, ostensibly in the hand of Father Christmas or one of his helpers. It must be said, Tolkien was an outstanding artist, and his drawings of the North Pole are a delight to behold.
With each letter or two, a year ticks by, and we realize that Tolkien’s children are growing up. Some are no longer receiving letters. Baby Priscilla is now quite a big girl. And that’s where the bittersweetness comes in. It can’t last forever, and Father Christmas knows it; so does Father Tolkien. The final letter is for 1943: the “horrible war” is making rations tight even in the North Pole, and some of Father Christmas’ messengers haven’t come back. But he tells us not to worry. He assures Priscilla that even though she will soon be too old to hang her stocking at Christmas, he will continue to serve other children, and he’ll be happy to write again once she has children of her own.
And that is why this is a perfect Christmas book — at least insofar as it doesn’t address the religious meaning behind the holiday (which I’m a little surprised it doesn’t, considering how Tolkien passionately wove his faith into his Middle-Earth mythology). Christmas culture in the West is a potent mix of peaceful beauty, reverent magic, and affectionate humor, but also has a streak of melancholy in its winter air. We grow older, and so do our kids. The old magic is hard to recapture. Sad memories accumulate around the holidays that are hard to shake. But it remains a time to remember hope, and beauty, and family. “Letters from Father Christmas” gets all of that, and I love it.
Very much love from your old friend, Father Christmas.Christmas 1943
Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics
Audiences seem to have ignored Tolkien at the box office, but it raised quite a noise among the Tolkien fandom. Many regard its inaccuracies and dramatizations as a kind of betrayal of the man, whereas its supporters say that its accuracies and artistic truths make it a beautiful and moving tribute to the Professor and much that he valued.
What I caution is this: it simply isn’t helpful or honest to be polemical. For one, Tolkien is a drama, and to demand that a drama be instead a documentary is ludicrous. Likewise, to demand that the film be either a perfect success in all areas biographical and artistic, or else be judged a vulgar failure and disgrace, is to apply a standard so hideously unfair that nothing not divine could satisfy. Any good standard must acknowledge the imperfection of every human work and counter that with, as Christians ought to know, grace. Some films, even after this grace, will seem bad. In others, we begin to marvel at the good that flourishes in spite of the flaws. And this is how I see Tolkien. It is not a great biography, nor artistically a truly Great Film, but it is a good and unique film that deeply loves J.R.R. Tolkien the man and tries very hard to do right by him. Its stumbles are disappointing, but when it stands tall, strides purposefully, and finds deep meaning in dancing, it manages to evoke and celebrate much that I love about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his work.
Plot summary, please
Plot summaries are boring and have little to no place in a review because they reveal next to nothing about the story’s quality. Reviews should be concerned primarily with a story’s quality.
Getting curt with your section titles, are you? Seems a bit self-indulgent, but it’s your blog, I suppose. Still, what’s actually in this film?
Tolkien covers J.R.R. Tolkien’s teenage and young adult years, ending before the publication of his famous novels. A wise choice, I think, as his later years were fairly sedate, to my understanding, and would have been difficult to dramatize. Instead, the film specifically examines his relationship to his future wife Edith Bratt, his deep friendships with the club known as the T.C.B.S., and how his love of and affinity for languages fed into his desire to change the world through art.
Opinion summary, if it ain’t too much trouble, guv
While not a definitive exploration of the themes or events of Tolkien’s life, Tolkien is very good and I strongly recommend it for fans of the man. The film is sincere, good-hearted, and often beautiful, though it sometimes stumbles and loses sight of the real man at its heart.
But is it ACCURATE?
The film does alter or gloss over some details of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, which is simply a thing that all biopics do for their subjects, and frankly Tolkien changes far less than most. I commend it for including so much:
- his hatred of his childhood move from the English countryside to dirty Birmingham
- his early interest in languages
- the stern but generous help from Father Francis
- his lack of academic diligence and direction until his meeting with Professor Joseph Wright (who provides two of the film’s best scenes)
- the loyalty and idealism of his early friendships
- the ways in which he and his romantic interest Edith gave each other a unique support in difficult times
- the way he was kind of an obsessive nerd, but also was an aggressive rugby player
- that he also was a passable artist who illustrated his own work
- the fact that this period of his life was characterized by some benign trouble-making and testing of boundaries (i.e. the scene where he and friends “steal” a bus is based on a real incident)
- that he was a somewhat lower social status than his three friends in the T.C.B.S., being a poor orphan living on scholarships and charity whereas they were all from rich families, and yet they all not only accepted him as a brother, but counted him as the most worthy of their number for academic and artistic success
- and so, so much more detail and nuance from Tolkien’s biography that the film portrayed quite nicely
The film plays with the chronology of real events as it attempts to emphasize certain themes and relationships. Sometimes I think the result was less effective than the real history; for example, its alterations to the timeline of Tolkien and Edith’s relationship felt less meaningful and were awkwardly conveyed, whereas the account in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography was clear and moving.
What about his Christian faith and the Catholic Church?
One notable glossing is in the area of religion: the role of the Catholic Church in Tolkien’s life is mentioned a handful of times, and positively, but he is not shown to personally participate in it. I’ve heard people complain about this, as though there was some attempt to erase or downplay Christianity in the film. And while I get that complaint, I think it is also based on some misunderstandings.
On the one hand, I would have loved for the film to address his spiritual development directly, and to have shown how it influenced his relationships and work. But in actuality, this period of Tolkien’s life is one that he himself regarded as spiritually weak. He went an entire year without once hearing mass, and Dr. Corey Olsen, a Tolkien scholar, believes that the religious influence on Tolkien’s writing at this time was pretty slight. From what I can tell, the film’s portrayal is a much smaller deviation than many reviewers seem to think. It wasn’t until later that he began attending mass every day and taking an active role in his own spiritual development.
The film’s representative for Catholicism, and indeed for any Christianity, is in Father Francis, Tolkien’s legal guardian. It’s a very fair portrayal, quite in line with what we know. He was stern, but very generous and sincere in his concern for Tolkien. He forbade Tolkien from seeing Edith until he was an adult, partially on account of Edith being Protestant but also because Francis knew, correctly, that romance would distract the easily-distracted Tolkien from his already struggling studies at Oxford, and could seriously endanger his future. Rather than fashion Father Francis into a symbol of a repressive and unforgiving Church, the film acknowledges his generosity and the perfectly valid reasons he has. It’s a refreshingly true, even-handed portrayal.
The other thought to keep in mind has to do with the art of adapting someone’s life for a dramatic medium. You simply can’t cover every aspect of the subject’s life, you have to choose which threads are most relevant to the story you want to tell. And since Tolkien’s religious practice was weak both outwardly and inwardly during this period, it makes sense for the filmmakers to leave it at the barest mention and spend more time on the aspects of his life which were dominant. If a film wanted to examine Tolkien’s faith and its relation to his life and work (and I very much want to see that film), it would probably choose his later years with the Inklings.
How is the portrayal of Tolkien himself?
Nicholas Hoult is excellent as the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and this sentence is a relief to type. He has a sort of nervous energy, as though his intelligence is itching for the chance to express itself creatively but hasn’t quite found the right outlet; which is fair, because while Tolkien was in fact already writing and studying languages by this point, his imaginative ideas hadn’t quite coalesced in the way we think of them now. He is brilliant with languages but slacks off at school. He plays rugby confidently but his words stumble over themselves when he tries to express himself. He adores Edith, but also sometimes overlooks her until she stands up and demands his attention. And he is deeply loyal to his friends, even though it was they who sought him out rather than he them. All of this is close enough to the Tolkien I met in Carpenter’s biography and in the earliest of Tolkien’s letters.
If there is one part of him I wish they had portrayed more, it is Tolkien’s humor. His earliest letters have a light, wry touch even when describing unpleasant circumstances. “I had to pay a duty call to the Rector in the afternoon which was very boring,” he writes to Edith in Letter 1 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. “His wife is really appalling! I got away as soon as possible and fled back in the rain to my books.” I was also disappointed to see no reference in the film to the time at university when Tolkien acted in a student play and made his role, a grumpy old battleaxe of an aunt, the most hilarious and memorable part on the stage! Hoult’s Tolkien is too serious for all that, able to enjoy his friends’ jokes and silliness without offering much of his own.
But Hoult does portray Tolkien’s passions, loyalty, and intelligence quite well. It’s a nuanced portrayal that held my interest the whole way through.
And the others?
Tolkien’s friends made for the strongest thread in the film. They met each other at King Edward’s School and formed a club they called the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (or T.C.B.S.), after Barrow’s Stores where they took their tea and discussed art, literature, and the future of the world. The actors all do fantastic jobs, portraying young men intoxicated with the possibilities of the future, with the strength of their education, with their own artistic talents, and especially with the bonds of brotherhood that were growing between them. They have a natural charisma as a group, and the growing realization that their fellowship is destined to be torn apart by a world war that none of them wanted or anticipated is upsetting.
Edith Tolkien, as portrayed by Lilly Collins, is a sharp-witted, beautiful young woman who is frustrated at being trapped in a boring life of servitude to an old woman, and who challenges Tolkien to think more carefully about the meanings of words and how they affect people. We don’t actually know much about Edith from history, as the Tolkien Estate and family have elected to keep much of that information private. Collins’ spirited portrayal is pretty close to what we know of her, and makes for a good dramatic foil for the more stoic Tolkien. My one complaint is that in their attempt to have her contribute to Tolkien’s intellectual development, the filmmakers give Edith credit for certain ideas about language and story that I’m pretty sure Tolkien already was espousing before he met her. Still, it’s a fair enough change in service of the greater story: she did support his writing in reality, even though she didn’t share his enthusiasm for languages.
What of those “stumbles” you mentioned?
I can think of three main areas of the film that felt weaker than they should have been. The first is his relationship with Edith. The movie fumbles their first meeting by not really showing it! We see him get a first glimpse of her while she plays the piano, unaware of him. Then later we see them sit down to dinner at the house they both live, which is presumably the first time she’s seen him—but no acknowledgment of that is made. And then it literally cuts to a scene of them having a private, familiar talk together, as if they were already past introductions and into a fast friendship. By making their first meeting confusing this way, we lose the impact that meeting her really had on him. There are more pacing stumbles in the later parts of their relationship, too, where the timing of events becomes a little unclear to the point where the movie forgets to actually show their wedding.
Another concerns the T.C.B.S. – we needed to learn more of what really made them tick as a group, what their ambitions really were, especially regarding Tolkien himself. I loved watching them interact and encourage each other, but the film didn’t really show us how the four of them might have been able to change the world together, had they all survived World War I. And they never really let Tolkien himself share his writings with the group. The film will leave you thinking that Tolkien barely wrote anything of his own during this period, where in reality he wrote quite a lot of poetry (some of it gorgeous) that he was sharing with his friends and occasionally publishing.
The T.C.B.S. were Tolkien, Smith, Gilson, and Wiseman – Tolkien writes in Letter 5 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that they had believed they were “destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.” He wrote that in a 1916 letter to Smith, after they had both received news of Gilson’s death. The way he writes to his friend sounds very much like the friendship portrayed in the film, with the exception that in the letter Tolkien is more explicit about his ambitions for the future than film made clear, and more confident in his beliefs as he tries to make sense of his friend’s death.
Which brings me to my final frustration with the film: its portrayal of Tolkien dealing with the horrors of war by hallucinating fantasy creatures on the battlefield. I think the filmmakers were trying to show how Tolkien’s trench fever and shell shock were causing him to process the battlefield in terms his imagination already understood, as a way of shoring up Tolkien’s belief in the ability of fantasy and myth to help us understand the real world. But because the film hadn’t showed Tolkien writing any of his own fantasy yet, nor even talking much about it, these scenes instead conveyed the idea that he got his ideas for stories from the hallucinations themselves. This all contradicts what Tolkien himself said about his experiences at war and writing his first fantasy stories in the trenches, it trivializes the process of art creation, and it also ends up downplaying the real horrors of the Somme.
And yet even as I acknowledge these genuine problems, I can’t help but remember all the stuff I loved in the film. The T.C.B.S. especially, but also Hoult’s performance, and his genuinely romantic chemistry with Edith. There are at least three brilliant conversations in the film: one where Edith chastises Tolkien for a moment of selfishness, one with Prof. Joseph Wright discussing the importance of the history of words, and a final, heart-wrenching conversation with the mother of Smith, who was killed in the war. Then there is fact that the movie portrayed a world in which platonic friendship could be one of the most passionate and pure forms of love, and in which even romance was stronger when it was moral. It is an essentially Christian worldview, and that a film today would advocate for such a worldview by showing it stoking healthy passions, self-sacrifice, and creativity is, in its own way, wildly, dangerously radical.
All film images from IMDb. Photo of the real Tolkien from Wikipedia.
Humphrey Carpenter met with J.R.R. Tolkien once before the Professor’s death. He made an appointment, showed up promptly, and was ushered into the man’s cluttered study, which was in a converted garage separate from the main house. It is some time before he is able to state his business, as Tolkien seemed to treat a new pair of attentive ears much the same as he would a blank page: as an opportunity to talk at length about things that interested him.
“He says that he has to clear up an apparent contradiction in a passage of The Lord of the Rings that has been pointed out in a letter by a reader… He explains it all in great detail, talking about his book not as a work of fiction but as a chronicle of actual events; he seems to see himself not as an author who has made a slight error that must now be corrected or explained away, but as a historian who must cast light on an obscurity in a historical document.
Disconcertingly, he seems to think that I know the book as well as he does. I have read it many times, but…” (Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, 4-5)
…but The Lord of the Rings and its multifaceted legendarium is vast enough for even the most ardent explorer to get lost in from time to time. Such was my thought when I read that passage in Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, the only such biography authorized by Tolkien’s family. I’ve lived with Tolkien’s works for so long, and read through many other books about his world produced by other authors, that I think I know it all fairly well. But I fear if I too were face-to-face with the Professor himself, listening to him ramble delightfully to the air around me about all sorts of minute details of the world of Arda, I too would soon be lost. Happy and fascinated, but at least a bit lost!
But part of what makes Carpenter’s biography so excellent, is that it at least never loses sight of the real, human man behind the legends. Here was an excellent man, a good man, but not a perfect one. He could be overly stubborn and picky, and seems to have gotten moreso as he aged. His marriage was imperfect, though loving. His friendship with C.S. Lewis became strained in later years, and it seems to have mostly been Tolkien’s own fault (though his grief at Lewis’ death is a very moving thing to read about). But he was generous, often very patient, and devoted to his friends. While he treated Faerie seriously, he had quite a roguish streak in him as well—in college he acted a crossdressing role in a comic play that apparently got rave reviews as the most hilarious performance of the evening!
Many other studies have been published about Tolkien’s life, which I hope to delve into before too long. The Authorized Biography, however, remains an essential and warm-hearted starting point. Each page of Carpenter’s book gave me a better understanding of the man whose writings have shaped so much of my own life. He is less a pristine statue in my mind, and more a real human whom I cannot wait to meet in heaven.
Following from the post on some of my favorite history podcasts, I want to let you know about some of my favorite literary podcasts. Today, it’s The Tolkien Professor!
Look, if you’re a fan of Tolkien and have some listening time, you should check this one out. Corey Olsen is a professor of things medieval, Christian, and literary, and is a MASSIVE fan of all things J.R.R. Tolkien. His long-running podcast has grown to include several different series. He has seminars on several Tolkien and Tolkien-related books, courses on other famous fantasy books, Q&A episodes, interviews with people like Tolkien artist Ted Nasmith, and even fascinating reviews of The Hobbit films.
If you just look at his podcast list in iTunes, it can be overwhelming, but fear not! His website organizes all his many series and links to each episode. And they’re all lively and entertaining to listen to!
Some of my favorites are his courses going through The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion chapter-by-chapter. Even after some two decades of being a Tolkien reader myself, I still learn new things from these. Olsen’s work has also expanded to include courses on other subjects, such as medieval literature that Tolkien knew and loved, and even free courses through Mythgard Institute on other great works of fantasy and science fiction.
If all this college-level material (however entertainingly delivered) sounds too intense for you, fear not! He’s also been leading a merry band of conspirators on dreaming up just what an ideal Silmarillion TV-show would look like –freed from the depressing constraints of money and marketing, of course! It’s a fun exercise in speculation.
And don’t forget you can get a taste of what he has to offer by tuning into his livestream of the latest Lord of the Rings seminar on Tuesdays at 9:30PM EDT, or checking out the videos of the stream that get posted on his YouTube channel.
What Tolkien book would you recommend to a reader after they’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings?
There are a few possibilities for this one, depending on your tastes. But my first answer would be The Silmarillion. This is the book with all the tales of how Middle-Earth came to be. It has the history of the Elves, Men, Dwarves, and a bit of hobbit history too, although for such unadventurous folk their origins are rather mysterious. It is a magnificent tapestry of hundreds of stories that all form a cohesive, meaningful whole. Anyone who reads the tales of Bilbo and Frodo and wants to know more about Middle-Earth should turn first to The Silmarillion.
But perhaps you’re intimidated by the size and density of The Silmarillion? You’ve heard it described as “the Old Testament with Elves” and worry that it will be too dry or complicated to jump right into. Even in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s language has a dense, old flavor to it that can be hard to swallow for readers unfamiliar with that style, and the promise of more stories told in a still denser, older style can intimidate even those who want to experience the stories themselves. In that case, I would recommend The Children of Húrin. This book tells one of The Silmarillion’s stories in an expanded form closer to a short novel. The language is still high and beautiful, but it’s a quicker, more self-sufficient read, and will give you a good taste of what to expect in The Silmarillion. I do warn you, it’s a dark, tragic tale, but as epic and moving as they come. If you like it, you can rest assured that you will find more of that quality in The Silmarillion, but also many stories that are happier and more hopeful.
Next up: Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic? (You can discuss the musical or the book version, or the differences between the two.)
Hail and well-met!
Forgive me for not mentioning this a few months ago, but Dr. Corey Olsen — a.k.a. The Tolkien Professor of so many incredible podcast episodes — has been running a free weekly online seminar going through The Lord of the Rings chapter-by-chapter. Every Tuesday at 9:30PM EDT.
He broadcasts live on Twitch, and there’s an active chat room on Discord that runs simultaneously. Sometimes he even responds to viewer comments and questions! There’s also a forum here where you can carry on discussions throughout the week and post questions in advance for him to answer during the broadcast. I’ve done that a few times and definitely found my appreciation of Middle-Earth broadening.
If you play The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), he’s actually broadcasting from within the game, and you can join him and other players there in Hobbiton. But even if you don’t play the game, as I don’t, you can watch and take part in the discussion. After the chapter discussion, he takes viewers on a field trip through locations in the game that correspond to the locations that have just been read about in the book, and discusses the ways in which the game developers have interpreted Tolkien’s writing.
I’m in the middle of tonight’s broadcast right now, and hope some of you can join us later. Godspeed!
In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw […]
A new Tolkien book is always exciting! Granted, this sounds like it might not have any new material that isn’t already published in other books. But still, the story of Beren and Luthien is one of my absolute favorites, and I welcome the chance to read even many variations of it in its own book, accompanied by the lovely art of Alan Lee.
Also, as a little heads-up for you guys, I’m preparing another book review of a more recent (well, no more than 10 years old…) fantasy novel, so look out for that in the next week or so. Happy reading!
The morning of truth arrives. I’m off to see The Desolation of Smaug.
I’m not quite sure what to do with my expectations. On the one hand, An Unexpected Journey set them very, very low. And reviews from some friends and others confirm this. On the other hand, I now know not to expect anything remotely faithful to Tolkien, and still have good reason to expect Lee Pace’s Thranduil to be amazing. Some other reviews have indicated that the pacing — one of the first film’s major flaws — is much sharper this time around, and that the action and drama are more effective. These give me hope for an enjoyable experience, if one that is divorced from my book experience.
Or maybe the purist in me will get all mad regardless of what I already know. We shall see, my friends, we shall see.
N.B. – This is the review that nearly killed The Warden’s Walk. Thinking about the movie, even over a year after I saw it, depresses me. It’s torn me up, trying to evaluate it. Are a few flecks of brilliance enough to make a dull rock valuable? I hope so, but I wonder. Yet The Hobbit Part 1 is too big a movie for me to ignore, and so I felt that I shouldn’t focus my energies on other reviews until this one was finished. Considering how long it has delayed the rest of my blog’s activities, this may have been a mistake. Yet here it is, my review at last, arriving after The Desolation of Smaug has been released (and as it remains unseen by me, hopefully not for long).
Title: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, WETA Digital, the Seventh Doctor, assorted characters actors, several elves, ten dwarves and one stunted GQ model masquerading as a dwarf
Score Composer: Howard Shore
Length: 169 minutes (two hours and 49 minutes!)
Rating: PG-13 for frequent combat, mostly bloodless, but involving heads and limbs hacked off
Opinion summary: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was my most looked-forward-to movie of 2012, but it is the least out of the eight movies I saw in theater that year. As an adaptation of Tolkien it is disappointing, and as mere entertainment it is adequate, but unbalanced. For every fun moment there are two dull ones, for every salvo of awesome inspiration there are three that misfire, or even aim at lower standards. The movie as a whole left me feeling empty and a bit hurt inside.
An Unexpected Frame Rate (or 48fps 3D versus 24fps 2D)
Let’s get this out of the way first. A higher frame rate nearly eliminates motion blur in action sequences (finally making them watchable in 3D) and greatly reduces eye strain for the 3D in general. This is good. However, in all other matters it pretty much ruined my first viewing of the film. It distracted me from the movie itself, exposed the copious CGI as even more fake than usual, caused me to feel more distant and removed from the world of the movie, and captured so much detail of movement that the subtler scenes ended up looking almost jittery and slightly sped-up (a phenomenon reported by other reviewers as well). It made me tense just watching it. There’s such a hyper quality, like the screen was shouting at me constantly, that it was hard for me to focus on the visuals themselves and the wonders of the art design and sets. Some people have liked it or not minded it, so perhaps it doesn’t bother you, but I greatly regret seeing the movie that way. It satisfied my curiosity, but nothing else.
My second viewing, in normal 2D 24 fps was like a breath of fresh air – finally, it looked like a real movie with some class and elegance to it! I know Peter Jackson believes higher frame rates are the future of cinema, just as sound and color were early in the 20th century, but the difference is that sound and color can actually add meaning to a film and allow the telling of different types of stories, while I can’t yet see how a higher frame rate could do these things. Harping on a vague word like “immersion” doesn’t mean a thing, especially when the actual product rudely kicks viewers out of the story.
The 3D itself is competent and doesn’t usually detract from the picture, but neither does it add anything. It doesn’t look as well-integrated and thought-out as the 3D in such movies as Hugo and Life of Pi. Those movies proved that 3D doesn’t need to always be a gimmick, but can be a legitimate artistic tool for the director. But Jackson simply doesn’t have the artistry of Scorsese or Ang Lee, and in The Hobbit the 3D is sadly just a gimmick, and not a very interesting one.
That actually is pretty close to my feelings about the movie as a whole: too much gimmickry, and none very interesting. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff I love in the movie. But these tend to be isolated or background bits: seeing the Shire again, glimpses of Dwarven might and Wood Elven glory, the singing, walking with Gandalf the Grey again, etcetera. But too much is stilted, or flat, or bloated, or pandering, or self-indulgent, or just plain mediocre. I walked into the theater with a excited grin on my face and left trying to maintain a smile but feeling very “meh” about the whole thing. There’s a whole lot of lesser Peter Jackson on display, and—despite the extensive mining of The Return of the King‘s Appendices—simply not much Tolkien.
A Short Shrift
From my fan’s perspective, there are three scenes which it was imperative that Jackson nail for a successful adaptation: Bilbo’s good morning with Gandalf, the trolls, and Riddles in the Dark. Granting that I am neither screenwriter nor filmmaker, I think these scenes should have translated pretty smoothly from book to screen: Tolkien gives them all tight, interesting dialogue, and the latter two have satisfying pay-offs preceded by well-paced dramatic action that develops character. Let’s look at the film’s versions.
In the “good morning” scene the timing just feels off. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it never sat well with me on either of my three viewings. It lacks spark, feeling more like a recitation than like the characters are actually reacting to each other. Now, this scene is supposed to show Bilbo so comfortably, happily at ease in his own challenge-free world that he doesn’t remotely believe that Gandalf will actually bring adventure to his doorstep. In the book, Bilbo seems to really believe that his cheery “No thank you, we don’t want any adventures here!” is all that is needed to stop adventure from coming. Yet Martin Freeman plays Bilbo frightened and jittery from the outset, wide-eyed and puffing on his pipe as a toddler clings to his blankie for comfort. Point is, I think that before the dwarves’ arrival Bilbo is supposed to be confident and calm in his untroubled little world—isn’t that the whole point of Bag End and the Shire? The movie’s first scene with Martin Freeman portrays a hobbit already ill-at-ease with his life, but in denial about it. It may not be the greatest departure from Tolkien or anything, but it makes this whole scene feel a bit off, and far from the iconic moment I feel I had a right to expect.
Now the trolls. I’ve noticed many other reviewers single this one out for criticism as well. Most of them mention the troll snot as being the worst offender, but I think that is a minor offense compared to what follows. Jackson turns an episode which is all about sneakiness and creative thinking into a bloated fight that sucks all the charm and cleverness from Tolkien’s passage. It also ends up indicating some rather big tonal shifts for the characters and the story as a whole.
Now, I understand Jackson’s desire to make the dwarves tougher and more warlike than the comic, petty, unprepared rabble of the book – after all, it’s hard to stuff in random combat scenes (and sell action figures) when most of your characters lack combat experience and weapons. But doing so completely upends the purposeful way Tolkien portrayed them. Now it is even less acceptable for them to have no plan for dealing with the dragon, or to be so afraid as to send Bilbo to investigate the trolls first. It is played for laughs when Fili and Kili cheekily push Bilbo towards the trolls and hide themselves among the bushes at a safe distance, but it seems out of character for such bold, war-trained young men armed to the teeth. Not to mention a bit cowardly.
But okay, they’re immature and just think they’re having fun. The scene continues fine for a bit, as Bilbo sneaks about and narrowly evades being seen by the arguing brutes. Then he’s caught, and we get a scene of juvenile gross-out humor with the troll snot. The fight that ensues when all the dwarves charge out of the trees to save Bilbo has some fun bits on its own, but is gratuitously long and simply doesn’t belong. Though clearly intended to make the scene more exciting, I found it quite boring. The music and camera movements build it up as a soaring moment of heroism and grandeur, but in reality it’s just pointless. The dwarves should have won that skirmish with ease, and indeed are shown to be in the process of doing just that, but in our hearts we know that they must be contrived to lose. And contrived it is, with Bilbo suddenly being held hostage.
The worst departure, perhaps in the entire movie, is the ending of this scene: Bilbo desperately stalls (without much focus or cleverness, and only a little success) until Gandalf jumps up and magically breaks a rock so the dawn sun shines through and turn the trolls to stone. While Gandalf does admonish Thorin by saying that Bilbo had the nerve to stall, the part that cleverness plays in this scene is distinctly inferior to that of the raw power of magic; Bilbo only stalls for about a minute or so. Rather than solving the dilemma by outwitting their enemies, the encounter becomes another action scene solved by violence from the power inherent in one of the characters. Compare to the book, where Gandalf hides in the woods and throws his voice around, fooling the trolls into fighting with each other until the sun rises on its own. So much more clever, charming, and poetic. This is not one of those scenes which wouldn’t work in a movie as written and had to be changed. It’s a literary scene, sure, but it would have worked so well in the movie, had Peter Jackson only trusted his source material.
Now, it’s not all bad – the trolls themselves look great and sound the way Tolkien wrote them. I feared that they would lose their working-class accents and humorous, petty bickering, but nope, that’s all as it should be. I’m glad Jackson resisted the urge to reduce them to growling, snarling beasts. Some of the scene’s original comedy is intact, and there’s fun to be had. My nephews (7 and 9) enjoyed it. But for me, the pace of the scene was tiresome and the departures from the spirit of the book too depressing.
Now, the riddle scene is really pretty good. Upon reflection, it is probably the strongest part of the film, staying more to the point and pairing the two most complex and entertaining characters in all of Jackson’s movies against each other. I am generally happy with it.
And yet, and yet…that ending! Gah! Did they have to bungle the ending of the riddle scene? For the final riddle Gollum asks, Bilbo is supposed to answer accidentally by trying to ask for more time (“…time, time!” was all he could squeak out). In the movie, though, it is Gollum who says “Time’s up!” and stupidly gives away the answer with a modern cliché. This may seem like a minor thing, but it makes Gollum more stupid and less cunning. Gollum is a very clever creature and unlikely to make such a mistake. It also feels less Providential an escape for Bilbo, as it relies more on Gollum accidentally or subconsciously giving him the answer rather than on his own fear coming to his aid. Now, one may argue that Providence was still needed to cause Gollum to slip up in the first place. I can see that. But I don’t see how this change is at all an improvement on the original or in any good way meaningful.
So, in summary of these three vital scenes, they didn’t do their jobs. They didn’t make me feel that the best parts of the book were being appropriately and entertainingly realized on the screen. And this is, ultimately, the heart of why the entire film didn’t end up working for me.
Over-Long and Underfocused
It seems I’m still really angry at the story being dragged out through three massive movies, and the resultant reshaping of a lovely, relatively gentle quest into a grim war epic. It’s annoying, it’s unnecessary, it’s exhausting, it’s downright immature.
Yet my biggest beef with The Hobbit is that I just don’t think it’s a very good movie on its own merits. It’s boring. I repeat, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey bored me. As in, after about two hours I started to doze and only barely remained awake through sheer force of will. See, whatever anyone says about the various and sometimes-egregious changes that the Lord of the Rings movies made to the books, they were nothing less than genuinely thrilling adventures. But here there are too many deviations from the main plot, too many unneeded and stupidly-long action scenes, and too many scenes that are written awkwardly and forced into a story they don’t belong in.
There are also some queer laps in logic, such as when Radagast promises to lead the orcs away from the company as a diversion, and then proceeds to lead them along the company’s very escape path. That’s just boneheaded writing, refusing to do what makes sense in favor of an action scene.
I’m also a bit confused with Jackson’s treatment of elven politics. For those of you not familiar with the lore of Middle-earth, the elves under Elrond in Rivendell and those under Thranduil in Mirkwood are very different culturally and politically. Elrond and most of his direct subjects are Noldor, who in previous ages had lived among the angelic Valar and founded most of the great elven kingdoms. Thranduil and his people are Sindar, those who never learned the wisdom of the Valar and are generally considered lesser than the Noldor in their achievements and virtues. Thranduil is also understood to be an extremely stubborn, willful king, modeling himself after Thingol of Doriath, who had a bad habit of trying to force his will on everyone else, even on Noldorin elves whom he should have respected.
With these facts in mind, there are two parts of the film that really confused me. The first is the prologue, where Thranduil is shown paying homage to the Dwarven King Under the Mountain. I nearly shouted in the theater. Arrogant, independent Thranduil, who consciously models himself after the one elf that dwarves hate the most, is willingly swearing fealty to a dwarf? Elves generally look down on dwarves in Tolkien’s mythology, especially Thingol and Thranduil. The movie’s situation is unthinkable! The second moment that confused me is Thorin’s rude remarks to Elrond in Rivendell, where he seemingly equates Elrond and his people with Thranduil and the Greenwood Elves. Not even angry dwarves would be that ignorant! Again, this is just lazy writing that tries to insert or increase tension where it doesn’t belong.
Other (and as Subjective As Ever) Thoughts
While I said above how great is the work of the art and set design folk at WETA, I have one major beef with the look of The Hobbit (beyond the frame rate and 3D!). So much looks like it was filmed in soft focus, with a bright shiny gloss reminiscent of Pantene shampoo commercials and Gaussian girls. Perhaps this was intended to give the film a more fairy-tale aspect than its predecessors, and so to distinguish it more, but if so that was a poor choice. Part of what made us believe in Middle-Earth was that it looked real, not all glossy and fake. You could see the dirt and the lines on faces, and the places looked lived in and tangible. Only the elven realms of the Lord of the Rings films were glossy, and even then not to this extent. But this movie looks like a video game. Even the real sets look CG because of this effect. And the CG looks like poor CG, even if the technology behind it is undeniably more sophisticated than what WETA had a decade ago. (At first I thought this was the fault of the high frame rate, but the weakness of the illusion persisted in my 24fps screening.) That white orc chasing Thorin looks like an early design from the God of War game series, and the wargs (while better designed than LOTR’s wargs) never look to be on quite the same plane of reality as the flesh-and-blood actors. It undercuts the verisimilitude of the entire world. Some people say that for whatever The Hobbit’s flaws, we should just be grateful for returning to this world on the silver screen. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I was returning to the same world, but rather to a next-gen video game approximation of Middle-Earth. I almost would rather have not returned at all.
I have just recently re-watched The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and I marvel again at how fun and impressive they are. It has been probably four or five years at least since I had sat down to watch them, and I saw them with fresh eyes. And you know what? They still hold up extremely well. Sure, they have their own pacing issues and questionable choices, and unfortunate deviations from Tolkien. But they remain good films, and tended to keep the heart of Tolkien’s story. I also reread the books in 2013 and find this still to be true.
In the first film trilogy there was a sense that the filmmakers were honestly telling the story in the best way they could, and that even their mistakes in adaptation still came from their desire to serve the story. But here, it feels like Peter Jackson is trying to ignore the actual journey to the Lonely Mountain as much as possible. He no longer approaches the story with the humility of someone adapting a great story into another medium, but as a conqueror who has stolen a kingdom and is rebuilding it in his own image.
Jewels in the Dark
Before I wrap up, let me turn our minds to more positive thoughts. There were several things I really did enjoy.
The Art and Set Design people at WETA totally outdid themselves. The dwarven cities of Erebor and Moria in particular are exactly how I hoped they would look; grand and expansive, bursting with craftsmanship and the dwarven love of mineral beauty. The human city of Dale looked gorgeous and more full of life than the cities in Jackson’s original trilogy. In Rivendell we were finally given a sense of how big the place is and where rooms are in relation to each other. That stuff is immersive.
Those prologue scenes of Dwarf armies fighting were excitingly well-realized, especially since I don’t know of any movie that’s really dealt with dwarven societies to this extent and detail. We’ve seen humans and elves fight onscreen, but never so many dwarves, and it was great to see all those stubborn little powerhouses hammering through hordes of orcs under vast mountain halls.
Likewise, I loved the designs for each individual dwarf in the Company, barring Kili, who is just too much “GQ magazine cover” and doesn’t seem to display many dwarven qualities. The others all are very dwarven and still very distinct. Balin in particular is absolutely perfect, in look and character, to the wise, kind-hearted friend of Bilbo’s in the book. Their designs and personalities hint at the depth and variety of dwarven culture in a way that we could never get from the portrayal of Gimli in Jackson’s original trilogy, which traded too much on basic clichés and height-related humor, especially in the The Two Towers. I’d also like to give a nice mention to the character they created for Bofur, especially his little moment with Bilbo in the Misty Mountain cave when he confronts the hobbit trying to leave in the middle of the night. I may not care much for Peter Jackson decided Bilbo would try to give up, but I liked how Bofur gave him some encouragement while honoring his decision to go back (however short-lived). That’s the sort of character expansion I was hoping the movie would engage in, as it fills out Tolkien’s story within the framework of the book.
The “Over the Misty Mountains” song and accompanying scene. Perhaps the most “Tolkien” moment in the whole movie, it rang very true and thrilling.
The plate-breaking song! I wouldn’t have complained if Jackson had left it out, but it is a nice nod to Tolkien’s love of silly verse and I enjoyed that whole scene. In fact, I find I’m generally a fan of any singing in these Middle-Earth movies.
Howard Shore’s score, natch.
Martin Freeman as Bilbo is excellent. Not a perfect Bilbo, as some have said (that distinction goes to Ian Holm). If I may be allowed a critical observation, I believe he plays the role too jittery and neurotic, especially in his very first scene (more on that later). But on the whole he is very hobbitish, and brings out some of the nuance and unexpected cleverness of Bilbo. He’s very likable, and is easily the most interesting character in the movie. This fits well with the book, in which Bilbo is also the most layered and entertaining character (and reminds me that movie-Frodo is rather boring in comparison).
The eagles look amazing. They’re one deus ex machina I haven’t yet tired of. Of course, Jackson doesn’t let them speak, as in the book, but that’s a sacrifice I can live with. It helps that I have a very soft spot for flying scenes in any story.
The Rivendell Elves and Elrond do seem a tad more down-to-earth than they appear in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, and I’m grateful for that. Elrond actually speaks at a normal pace, rides a horse, wears armor, and generally acts like he’s alive (which makes him even cooler than before). Galadriel, it must be said, seems more physically inert than ever, but she’s so radiantly gorgeous and communicates so much through her eyes (thank God for perfect casting and Cate Blanchett!) that I find it hard to mind.
Speaking of the Elves, that brief glimpse we got of Thranduil was also encouraging. It doesn’t answer the question of whether Jackson will allow the wood elves to be wilder and more Fey-like than those in Rivendell and Lothlorien, but they sure do look awesome. Lee Pace will, I think, prove to be a great choice as the wood elf king, if he’s allowed to do some real acting. That look he gave the fleeing dwarves was aloof, but not quite cold. Plus, he rides a massive stag. That’s like a +15 to Awesome.
Radagast! Granted, he wasn’t exactly vital to the plot, but I thought he was a lot of fun and pretty cool in his own way. Outrunning wargs on a rabbit-led sled must count for something, right? He played out as I had imagined him from the books. I also like that his scenes in Mirkwood, while not quite plot-vital, nonetheless showed his close connection to the natural world and how the creeping influence of the Necromancer damages that world. I didn’t even mind the movie taking a bit of extra time to showcase his desperate fight for the life of a little hedgehog. In a way, it reflects Tolkien’s own focus on the small, the little things, and their importance in God’s view of the world. Now, if only they could do something about his hair, and then integrate him into the story without forcing all sorts of illogicalities and tiresome digressions…
And lastly for this ragtag list, Neil Finn’s rendition of the Misty Mountain song that plays over the credits. His voice doesn’t sound quite like I expect a dwarf’s to sound, but the song is deep and rousing and one of the best the series has offered us. Well done, Neil.
Were my expectations too high? After all, we did read and discuss the book in detail, and I do tend to be fairly purist when it comes to adaptations of books I love. But I already knew some of the deviations ahead of time, courtesy of Jackson’s excellent production videos, and am familiar enough with what he did in the original trilogy. I’ve seen how Jackson approaches epics and reasonably expected that, as before, his strengths would overcome his weaknesses. I am sorry to report that they did not.
I haven’t yet seen The Desolation of Smaug, although I hope to within the next week. Reports have been mixed from my Tolkien-loving friends, with some enjoying it much more than An Unexpected Journey and others much less. My hope is that by now I will finally be able to view it as its own film and “forget,” as it were, that it is intended to be an adaptation. I’ve liked what I’ve seen of the Wood Elves and Smaug thus far. So I haven’t lost hope for this series completely, even if my patience has been severely tried. After all, what’s worse than a poor film is a long poor film.
Near the end of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo says something to the effect of “I believe the worst is behind us now.” I hope so, Mr. Baggins, I hope so.
Post-Review Note: Despite the long gestation period for this review, most of it was written within the first few months of 2013 and I’ve chosen to let the text reflect the strength of my emotional reaction at the time. As time has passed and I’ve seen the film again on Blu-Ray and TV, the pain of disappointment has subsided due to familiarity. I’m willing and even eager to hear from fans who think An Unexpected Journey isn’t an artistic failure; heck, even Dr. Corey Olsen, The lauded Tolkien Professor, defends the films with some rather impressive arguments. (I actually haven’t read that article yet, as it has spoilers for The Desolation of Smaug, but I’ve listened to literally hours of him and his cohorts talking about the films on his excellent eponymous podcast.) I remain disappointed in Peter Jackson’s vision for The Hobbit, but discussion of it remains fascinating.