It has been nearly a decade since Peter Jackson has taken audiences to Middle Earth with the Oscar winning final chapter, “Return of the King”. Jackson proved that JRR Tolkien’s seminal trilogy was not only filmable but could also be huge commercial and critical success.  But Jackson had three novels and oodles of extras to cobble together that trilogy.

Now for the prequel, he is down to a 319 page novel that some call a children’s tale. That is roughly 100 pages for every film in this new trilogy or 35.4 pages per hour. That isn’t a lot to milk or develop.

Back in 1977, animators Rankin-Bass developed an animated Hobbit film that last just 77 mins. In that film it takes just 37 minutes to cover everything that Jackson does in his first entry in the trilogy. So what exactly is going to be expanded on in Jackson’s new “overly-stuffed” version.

Jackson begins his version of “The Hobbit” back in the Shire, older Bilbo (Ian Holm) is writing his memoirs and the birthday party which kicks off the other trilogy is about to begin. Gandalf (Ian McKellan) approaches Bilbo and asks him if he wants to partake on a marvelous journey. Bilbo will have nothing to do with Gandalf so the wizard is forced to leave a mark on Bilbo’s door. That evening a huge gathering of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)  invade Bilbo’s quiet home.

The dwarves are on a quest to face down the evil dragon Smaug who is nesting in their ancestral home underneath the Lonely Mountain. The party’s mission is to regain their home. Gandalf sees Bilbo as the party’s burglar because halfling’s can slip into a situation and almost be unnoticed. They are also quick on their feet.

Reluctantly Bilbo eventually joins the party and they are off to face Smaug. For this chapter of the journey they meets some giant trolls, visit Rivendell and escape the Goblin Kingdom.

“The Hobbit” is a very basic quest story. And is often used as a way to introduce new readers to fantasy literature. Much of the novel is about introducing the world to Middle Earth and since Jackson already did this with “Lord of the Rings” then that portion of the novel has to be tweaked.

Jackson had to take some liberties so he could expand Tolkien’s first novel. He combed through lots of old manuscripts of Tolkien and even dissected Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, short story novel. Within that tome lies the story of “The Quest of Erebor” which focused on Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin. This story has been folded into the Hobbit story on screen.

Also Jackson has expanded characters that are just mentioned in Tolkien’s stories. Randarghast, for example, has quite a bit of screen time given he is only mentioned in whispers in the actual text. The same can be said for Azog the Defiler who was only talked about in legends pertaining to Thorin’s grandfather. Jackson tweaked Azog as a main adversary for Thorin. Now he is responsible for slaying Thorin’s father and Thorin thought he defeated him now Azog is hunting Thorin’s party.

Thorin himself has also been changed. Thorin isn’t a mighty hero in the original text but more driven by greed and the dwarves are quite timid. Jackson has used some of “The Quest of Erebor” to flesh out Thorin more. And it is interesting how this new version of Thorin is developed in the film. He is sort of a grumpy Aragorn. Armitage is really at home with this character since he played a very duplicitous Guy of Gisbourne on the BBC’s brilliant “Robin Hood” series. You can see a side of that character in Thorin.

Martin Freeman’s take on Bilbo will also be very familiar with people who know BBC’s “Sherlock” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. His sense of humor, reluctance and shyness are all trademarks of Bilbo and that is why he is the perfect choice for the role. He is completely delightful.

The songs in the film that the dwarves sing before the journey came from Tolkien himself and were featured in the 1977 version of “The Hobbit”. One song could have been cut but I think Jackson was trying to elevate the allure of the dwarven culture.

I really hope that when this trilogy comes to DVD that we don’t see an “Extended Edition” as well. I think some really interesting extras and the theatrical lengths are perfect. What else could have been cut.

Jackson’s knowledge of Tolkien’s world is his best weapon in expanding the film to fill a trilogy. Use the main quest as the skeleton’s spinal chord but expand when the party comes to a juncture. If you loved the original trilogy then you won’t mind hearing about these other less known characters in Middle Earth.

4 out of 5

So Says the Soothsayer

Note: For those interesting the 48 fps vs. 24 fps. The 48 fps look kind of reminded me of what an HDTV looks like before it is calibrated properly. You get that caked on makeup, on the film set look. Some of the intimate scenes in Jackson’s film really suffer from this presentation. Some of the CGI characters also suffer. I am not completely sold on 48 fps. I like a little magic with my movie watching.

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