Friday, January 18, 2013

An Unexpected Pleasure: Bilbo Baggins on the Big Screen

At home, my mother pours glasses of wine for the family. We all pause midway through cooking dinner and, raising our glasses solemnly, give the toast we’ve been giving for years: “To the Shire.”

We’ve always been a Tolkien family. In fourth grade, my mother ordered a boxed set of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy for me. She read The Hobbit to me, and I remember begging for one more chapter each night. Every moment still stands out vividly in my mind: Bilbo seeing the goblins come through the opening at the back of the cave, Gollum and his ring, the treacherous spiders and brackish water of Mirkwood, the dwarves riding in the barrels down the river, and the great dragon Smaug speaking with Bilbo about a goblet.

To a child, such a tale was almost unimaginable in its grandeur and scope. The moment my mum closed the back cover of my now-battered paperback, I was in bed with my flashlight under the covers, opening back up to the front and rediscovering the whole adventure again.

I read the trilogy as well, and I loved it for its own merits, but somehow Frodo and his companions failed to capture the attention of my nine-year-old self. In fact, upon opening The Fellowship of the Ring and discovering that Bilbo was old and would be replaced by Frodo, I closed the book and refused to read it for a year. I have since fallen deeply in love with that chapter of Middle Earth’s history, but at the time my love for Bilbo Baggins and his companions were such that no one else could replace them.

You can imagine my joy when Peter Jackson, who had done such justice to the trilogy, declared that he would actually be making a film version of The Hobbit. I followed filming avidly, watching each production video released by the crew over the months leading up to the release. I went to the midnight premiere, and the moment that music started up and the Shire appeared I flashed back to the same childlike wonder with which I had first read, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” I was lost to the real world for the following several hours.

Now, for those of you who remember The Hobbit as fondly as I do, the movie might not have resonated in the same way. Peter Jackson’s decision to make one book into three movies has necessitated some filler material. The filler material is rich and full and all comes from Tolkien’s other writings about Middle Earth, but it still does not originate from The Hobbit.

 My memories of Gandalf in the book, for example, mostly involve his occasionally disappearing for stretches of time (most notably when he left the company just before Mirkwood, after which everything very rapidly went pear-shaped). The dwarves and Bilbo often dismissed these absences as some sort of wizard business, and therefore much less important than their own quest, and so while Tolkien makes mentions of the Necromancer and evil rising in the east, the reader is never quite clear on what exactly Gandalf is doing. The film adaptation seeks to fix that.

Quite a few of the “filler” scenes serve as foreshadowing for The Lord of the Rings; we even have a cameo from the Witchking of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul and notably taken down much later by Éowyn in The Return of the King. There is much talk among the wizards and elves of evil and what may come in the near future. All of this is put in for the viewer, particularly the viewer already familiar with the trilogy. These scenes, combined with various flashbacks to historical battles and such, give the viewer an episodic feeling that certainly takes one or two views to settle into.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit
Once you accept the episodic quality of the first half of The Hobbit: There and Back Again, you can fully appreciate the art of the film as a whole. Every single character is depicted lovingly by both the actors and the script. Thirteen dwarves can be quite difficult to keep straight, but each actor’s adoration for his character shines through, with the result that each dwarf feels utterly familiar by the end of their first gathering in Bag End.

Martin Freeman’s depiction of Bilbo Baggins, in contrast, has that familiarity within the first two minutes of his screen time. The moment his expressive face takes in Gandalf looming over him, the audience is fully won over. I found that my fondness for Bilbo Baggins washed over me again in a wave, and I was as enamored of the character from those opening scenes as I had been fourteen years ago. I don’t want to spoil the ending of this segment for those unfamiliar with the story, but Bilbo’s declaration of loyalty to the dwarves’ quest – a wholehearted vow given as a simple statement in the way only a hobbit can manage – speaks to something everyone can understand: the desire and love for a home, a place we belong.

I cannot speak to the treatment of the whole book, because of course only a third of it has been released in theatres thus far. However, I can say that the film adaptation of The Hobbit has the same warmth of heart and strength of character that Tolkien’s book did, and as I watched it I felt that familiar feeling wash over me: I felt that I was home.    

Post by Esme Rabin, Book Passage Classes Coordinator

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