A Total review of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: including the book, the audiobook, the audio drama, the animated TV program and the new movies

Fantasythe-hobbit-dwarves-desktop-names

 In brief:

The-Hobbit-HERO-2In celebration of the release of the new Hobbit movie by Peter Jackson, and after having been asked to review the BBC audio drama of it by AudioGO, I thought it was a good time to do another 360° review (the last one being the The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy).  Unlike the past time, however, I won’t spend much time of the book. After all, it’s wonderful.  It is a children’s book that can be fully enjoyed by an adult.  It paved the way, not only for The Lord of the Rings and the rest of Tolkien’s Middle Earth cycle, but effectively created the genre of modern fantasy.[1]

Instead, this article will focus on the three major adaptations of Tolkien’s classic tale: the 1968 audio drama, the 2002 Audiobook, the 1977 Animated version and the 2012 movie release.  Indeed, bit I will discuss about the book is a very brief description, and so, and so and so and so…

 The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1937, 1938, 1966)

Hobbit1Grade: Α — (Alpha) Great book, must read regardless of what Genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book.

In brief:

For all three of you who live on this planet and don’t already know, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is the tale of that most famous of all hobbits, Bilbo Baggins, and his adventures on the way to the Lonely Mountain.[2]  Bilbo is a reluctant hero, somewhat press-ganged into helping a party of dwarves fight a dragon by the wizard Gandalf.  On the way Bilbo meets elves, trolls, goblins, and a huge host of other mythical beasts that help and hinder him.  Though it is clearly intended for children, primarily mid-grade aged, it is a marvelous tale that should be read by anyone at any time.

Setting:

Middle Earth, that wonderful world of medieval fantasy adventure created by J.R.R. Tolkien.  the-hobbit-book

Audio book:

The Hobbit (Sci-Fi Audio, 2002; Narrator: Rob Inglis)

This is a very well produced audio book that is brilliantly narrated by Rob Inglis.  Though it is perhaps a touch exaggerated in it its style, as if told to young children, it remains very good and, after all, The Hobbit is primarily a children’s tale.  If you’d rather listen to the Hobbit than read it, this is a great version and comes highly recommended.

Audio Drama:

The Hobbit (BBC, 1968; Adapted by Michael Kilgarriff, produced by John Powell)

The_Hobbit_Audio_2008Grade: Δ — (Delta) A solid listen, but only buy it if you like the genre.

Cast:

Bilbo Baggins – Paul Daneman, Gandalf – Heron Carvic, Thorin Oakenshield – John Justin, Gollum – Wolfe Morris, Balin – Peter Pratt, Smaug – Francis de Wolff, Elrond – John Pullen, The Elvenking – Leonard Fenton, Beorn – Denys Hawthorne, Bard the Bowman – Peter Williams, The Tale Bearer (Narrator) – Anthony Jackson

In Depth:

Audio Drama’s are extremely hard to pull off.  All the more so with a story like The Hobbit, where a good portion of the pleasure of the book is in the flow of the narrative.  In 1968 the BBC did a passable job with their radio production of the classic tale, but I cannot say that I would recommend this to anyone who does not already love the tale.  Even then, you might find it hard to get into initially.

There are several elements of this version that grate.  First off, many of the characters, indeed all of the dwarves except Thorin, sound effectively the same.  In fact, it sounds a bit like someone let loose a large amount of helium in the recording studio, for they all sound a bit high pitched and nasal.  Even Gandalf suffers a bit from this, though in his case, his “mystical-magical-mysterious” way of talking is filled with a bit too much portence in every sentence.

The-HobbitblackcopyAdditionally, many of the names are pronounced with very strange affectations. Gandalf, which is normally pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable (GANdalf), is pronounced with emphasis on the second (ganDALF).  Thorin, whose name is normally spoken with a very soft, voiceless th as in thin cloth, is pronounced with a very hard th, sounding more like a dh, harder indeed than in a phrase like these clothes and results in sounding more like a soft d as in adorable.  All of this is, of course, in direct conflict with how Tolkien notes it should be pronounced in Appendix E of The Return of the King (Tolkien, 1955)[3], and one cannot help but think it would have irritated him to no end.

What is more, when doing the adaptation, Kilgarriff (the writer) decided have the narrator (in this case entitled the Tale Bearer) interrupted in his tale by Bilbo, who frequently fills in little important details.  While this was no doubt intended to add to the depth of the story, it actually resulted in my being pulled out of it each time they interrupt each other.  Instead of being drawn into the narrative, it kept reminding me that I was listening to someone else telling a tale, and that adds distance between the listener and the story.  Had they used a narrator or simply had Bilbo narrate, it could well have worked, sadly they went for this casual style that didn’t.

However, once one gets used to these elements, the rest of the tale runs fairly smoothly.  The battle scenes are a bit abbreviated, but that is frequently the case in audio dramas, as that it is hard to describe a battle without direct use of a narrator.  Indeed, I have only once seen battles handled well in an audio drama, and that was in the BBC’s magnificent version of The Lord of the Rings (1981).[4]  What is more, “Riddles in the Dark,” is done very well, and though I was somewhat irritated with its abbreviation[5] it still comes off quite solidly.[6]

Yet, more importantly, this audio book holds something that really does make it quite special: Interviews with the late great author himself.  Not only do these reveal some of his tricks and traits of writing, it reveals his voice.  Not just the tonal qualities, but the cadence of his speech.  Indeed, hearing them I could not help but associate them at once with one of his characters.  Oh no, not Gandalf, Aragorn or even Frodo.  Upon hearing his voice one person came to mind immediately: Bilbo.  That bravest of brave little hobbits.

Don’t get me wrong, the man’s scholarly nature comes through, but then again, Bilbo was a scholar, and in some ways was just as brave, if not braver than Frodo, Gandalf or the like. After all, unlike Gandalf, he was mortal, and faced a dragon one on one.  He did this without the end of the world lurking over his shoulder, and without a Kingdom of his own to gain.  No, I think Bilbo is the most admirable and heroic of all Tolkien’s characters.

So, to this end, if you are an aficionado of Tolkien, you must hear this version, but if this is your first introduction to the tale, then read it or listen to the audio book first.

Animated version:

The Hobbit, (Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr., 1977)

HobbitAnimeGrade: Γ — (Gamma) A good or even fantastic show within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.

In Depth:

This brilliantly drawn and animated version of Tolkien’s classic tale is more squarely aimed at children than even the novel, but the skill and artistry in the drawings really does make it stand out.  Furthermore, despite the fact that the tale is heavily abbreviated, it gets the general gist of the story across in a delightful way.

hobbitanime1Indeed, in many ways, this book helped form my view of hobbits and Middle Earth, as that I saw it when I was about twelve and it thoroughly engaged me.  With such powerhouses as Orson Bean (Bilbo) and none other than John Houston (Gandalf) serving as voice talents, this remains a dearly beloved version of the tale appropriate for children.[7] It is well worth a watch for anyone with kids or who likes animation.

Besides, Bass and Rankin[8] managed to adapt the book to a seventy-seven minute version, while Jackson turned it into three movies, the first one alone of which is over twice that.

Movie:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, (New Line Cinema, MGM and WingNut Films, 2012); Director, Peter Jackson, Screen writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro.

the_hobbit_2-HD2Grade: Α — (Alpha) Great movie, must watch regardless of what Genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book. 

Starring: Ian McKellan (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavis (Dwalin), William Kircher (Bifur, Tom the Troll), James Nesbitt (Bofu), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin, William Troll), Jed Brophy (Nori), Mark Hadlow (Dori, Bert Troll), Adam Brown (Ori), and many many others.

In brief:

Awesome.  Not a literal adaptation, but an excellent movie.  I went into this film with some significant reservations, particularly as that I knew it would be a trilogy despite the fact that The Hobbit is not that long of a book. I am happy to say, however, that my reservations were ill founded.

560.hob.lc.072111In Depth:

Whenever reviewing the movie adaptation of a book, one must remember that different forms of media require different approaches.  Such is certainly the case with Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit. Oh, the story is the same, more or less, but Jackson took license with portions of the tale, and included and adapted many elements from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings to fill out the story and transform a children’s book into a movie intended for adults.[9]

reg_1024.TheHobbit23.mh.120712To that end, this is less the ‘self-contained happy-go-lucky’ adventure of Bilbo Baggins than it is an addition to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It has many bits that play into that epic tale, including appearances by the members of the White Council (Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman, etc.), not to mention Radagast the Brown and the Necromancer of Dol Gulder.

So it is that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey introduces elements into its telling that will not be solved even at the end of The Hobbit movie trilogy, but are solved by The Lord of the Rings trilogy.[10]  Having said that, I suspect the tale as a whole will still be nicely wrapped up when we eventually get to the final movie installment.

That is not to say that the movie is without some padding.  There is a segment that occurs in the Misty Mountains that comes across more like the advert for a ride at Universal Studios than a part of the plot.  While it is based, very loosely, on something mentioned in the book, it plays pretty heavily with that scene and really adds nothing of any value to the tale.

reg_1024.hobbit.king.ls.121212This stands in sharp contrast, however, to other added and/or altered scenes, which all serve strong narrative purposes.  Jackson’s alteration of the ‘Roast Mutton’ scene from the book was, for example, quite necessary.  It transforms a fun scene that works quite well in a children’s book but would have seemed silly in an adult movie, into a scene that works moderately well in an adult’s movie, though still shows some questionable decisions by the dwarves.[11]

The-Hobbit-imageMore importantly, the addition of the personal revenge theme between the Dwarf King Thorin and Azog, the Orc King of Moria, varies considerably from any of Tolkien’s texts.  This is, however, clearly done to create a stronger, more adult narrative that will flow through the trilogy as a whole.  Indeed, loath though I am to criticize Tolkien, but I always thought the battle scene at the end of The Hobbit was a bit of a let down after the long slow build up to the threat represented by Smaug, the great dragon.[12]  By adding this element of the story, based, albeit altered, on plotlines from Tolkien’s other Middle Earth tales, Jackson added a really strong dimension to the tale that I suspect will work out very well.  Most importantly, it adds extra dimension and gravitas to the character of Thorin.

reg_1024.hobbit15.mh.091012And there, indeed, is the greatest strength of this film:[13] the portrayal of Thorin Oakenshield.

My biggest pet-peeve about Jackson’s version of LOTR is the way he portrayed Gimli. Rather than play out Gimli as the noble and complex character Tolkien intended, Jackson’s LOTR used him as cheap comic relief. He did so not only in a way that was offensive to the way Tolkien described the race of Dwarves, but also in a way that was likely to be offensive to Little People in the real world.

Thorin in animated version... not quite so sexy.

Thorin in animated version… not quite so sexy.

His portrayal of Dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, however, more than made up for that.[14]  While they certainly have their moments of humor in the movie, the dwarves of this film are brave, noble warriors of heroic proportion.  Their feelings and motives are deep and complex, with truly moving elements to them, and Thorin… well Thorin is truly epic.

My wife came out of the movie saying, “I don’t remember Thorin as being so… handsome.”  And I whole heartedly agree.  He would put any Elven Lord to shame.  Brilliantly written and wonderfully acted by Richard Armitage, he came across as the kind of King that I would follow with little more than a dozen friends into the lair of a dragon that had killed thousands.  Wow.  Really Wow.

TheHobbitSdtkCover900Indeed, Thorin could have stolen the show, but a brilliant performance by Martin Freeman made Bilbo stand out despite his very human dimensions.  Previous to this role, I had only known Freeman through his work as Watson in the British TV Reimagining of Sherlock Holmes.  He is very good in that role, but he does serve as second fiddle to Holmes himself.  Here, he is truly wonderful.  Sympathetic, touching, and very very Bilbo.  He has, indeed, brought one of my favorite characters to life in a manner that surpassed any expectations.

the-hobbit-s-48-fps-format-ruins-film-s-artistry-previewers-complain-8b3a3248e2Similarly, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings one of my favorite books to life in a manner I had not expected.  I truly enjoyed this book, and if it takes liberty with the novel, it does so, for the most part, in a manner that transforms the lyrical narrative style of the author into an epic tale for the silver screen.

Watch it and see.


[1] Even though technically, it isn’t modern fantasy.

[2] What is a hobbit you ask? Well… read the book.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (1955), Ballantine Books 78th Printing, 1986. pp. 487-492

[4] Indeed, the BBC’s radio version of LOTR’s is, if you ask me, the quintessential audio drama of all time. I mean, really, it is wonderful and while one can nitpick, it brings the art form to a very high level.  The Battle of Helm’s Deep is just amazing, and far better than Jackson’s version, even though he had the advantage of visual media.

[5] and the fact that Gollum is pronounced Gol-LOOM.  I mean, really, did these guys actually READ Tolkien’s appendices?

[6] Though, admittedly, if you want a really really good version of it, a 1955 version narrated by J.R.R. Tolkien himself can be found in The J.R.R. Tolkien Audio Collection.

[7] Though many younger children might get scared by some scenes and I wouldn’t show it to my three year old.  I mean, this is Tolkien after all.

[8] Yes… the Bass and Rankin who did the claymation, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Clause is Coming to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, etc. etc. etc.

[9] And make no mistake, this is not a kid’s film.  It is scary, violent and has many adult themes.  No!  Not sex!  This IS Tolkien! Goodness, you people…

[10] Indeed, the manner in which Jackson slipped these in was very artfully done.  Would that Lucas was as adept at making prequels… but that is another article I suppose.

[11] Without spoilers, this is hard to discuss, but let’s just say it is a poor King with little understanding of the enemy who would have made Thorin’s choice in that scene.  Even so, it was a better change in the scene than I would have come up with.

[12] Anymore would be a spoiler for both of you who do not already know how the book ends.

[13] Well, other than the acting, which is superb.  I mean really really superb.  Particularly Martin Freeman as Bilbo, who is PERFECT, and Richard Armitage as Thorin, who is also PERFECT.  Would that Aragorn had been as well portrayed… though that is a directorial thing and… oh shut it Evans and review THIS movie.

[14] Well, it made up for what he did to Tolkien’s dwarves.  I cannot say how Little People in the real world feel.

 

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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12 Responses to A Total review of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: including the book, the audiobook, the audio drama, the animated TV program and the new movies

  1. aprilkuhlman says:

    I’ve been following you for awhile because I am a writer, avid science fiction fantasy reader, and enjoy writing book reviews simply for the sake of writing them. When I saw this one I decided to check it out because I am what you would call a “hardcore Tolkien fan” and just saw the move last Sunday. What a great, all-encompassing and objective review! I agree with you on almost every point and I really enjoyed the movie – even though I was surprised by some elements.

  2. Matt B says:

    I agree with some parts of your movie review but not others, to raise some points….

    I had no problem with the extra plot details, but still felt the film was stretched out too long and could’ve done with trimming by at least half an hour. The pace of the movie would have been much the better for it. The White Council scene for example started out well, but then seemed to go on for hours whilst various characters droned on and on, much like many meetings I have been to….

    Whilst the characterisation of Thorin (and most of the other dwarves) was spot on, the look was not. Dwarves are described by Tolkien as short and stocky, broader and heavier than hobbits but not really much taller. Some of the Jackson ones simply looked liked people made to look a bit smaller by cgi and camera trickery and having a bad hair day. I thought Thorin suffered especially from this and for me the believability of the character suffered as a result. Bilbo was spot on though.

    You don’t mention the infamous 48 frames per second, all I will say of this here is I found it distracting and it made it difficult to concentrate on the film.

    That said, despite all this, it is still worth going to see for the bits that do work.

    I am also disappointed you don’t make mention of the graphic novel

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/110909993/THE-HOBBIT-Graphic-Novel-by-J-R-R-Tolkien

    or the excellent 1980′s computer game ;)

    http://www.twinbee.org/hob/play.php?snap=hobbit

    • Thomas Evans says:

      First off, I would like to thank you for posting, and note to my audience that this is none other than THE Matt Bradley, the archaeological Geomatician of remarkable skill and knowledge, known to those of us in “the Know” as the Geomancer and after whom I named the Bradley Projection.

      Now, on to his comments:

      I agree that the White Council was a bit protracted, but we are talking Tolkien, King of the Talking Heads, after all; he was hardly the kind of author to provide a succinct meeting scene. More to the point, that scene was not only setting up the rest of the film, but also providing link between this trilogy and LOTRs. Indeed, I think it is clear in this scene in particular that Jackson is viewing the Hobbit not so much as its own tale (written before the LOTR) but as part of the series as a whole. To that end, this is a set up for revelations in both of the next two movies and for the LOTRs.

      Even so, I thought his treatment of Gandalff’s reaction to Saruman was a bit premature, and that while Gandalff may have had some doubts about the Head of his Order by this point, they would not have been so pronounced to have resulted in a shrug when he saw him present.

      I will, however, agree that the Dwarves did appear a bit too much like scaled down humans. I had always thought Hobbits to be about 3 feet tall, and dwarves about 4 feet tall, and so the height difference was about right, but I agree I thought they would have broader, stockier builds. Still, I suspect this was done in order to allow for reactions like my wife’s “handsome Thorin,” and thus allow viewers to more readily see the dwarves as heroic. Mind you, the prime reason Thorin came across as sexy was due to his attitude and portrayal rather than his appearence, but would this have come across if he looked less human? I don’t know. Still, Balin and Dwalin both had the right proportions in my mind.

      As for the 48 vs 24 frame shooting, Honestly, I barely noticed it. For me, it seemed to add to the IMAX 3D element, and at no point did I find it distracting. But that may well not have been the case for others. Honestly, it just wasn’t that important to me.

      As for your links, well now, there are TWO MORE MOVIES coming along, and I have to talk about something during them. Indeed, there is another audio drama version of the book that I intend to review next year, along with the Graphic Novel. The video game will be reviewed with the final episode….

      but as along as we are talking about things not mentioned, you have given me the perfect seque into this little ditty from the 1960′s:

      You have only yourself to blame.

      • Matt B says:

        ah, well that’ll teach me to post on your blog ;)

        Yes I agree Balin and Dwalin (and some of the others) were the right dwarfish proportions. I didn’t see it in IMAX only at 48fps so perhaps the IMAX makes the difference.

        Actually I thought Gandalf’s reaction to Saruman was about right (rather than suspicious more sort of ‘not him again, I bet you he’ll just drone on and on and nothing will get done’…I’ve had the same reaction to some people in meetings ….). I agree Tolkien’s meetings can be as interminable as well…some meetings, but I thought the Council of Elrond was handled much better in LOTR by Jackson he managed to keep it to its essence and keep the pace simmering.

        Something I didn’t know until recently was that Tolkien changed bits of the Hobbit in later editions after starting LOTR to fit in with it (for example the riddle scene between Frodo and Gollum) so it wouldn’t be the first time things have been moved around to link in with LOTR and make it more of a prequel.

        You mean I have to wait another two years before you review the game ? well I will be very disappointed if a some point in the trilogy Thorin doesn’t sit down and start singing about gold….

      • Thomas Evans says:

        Ha! I would love to see Thorin’s gold song…

        As for the IMAX 48fps element, it is possible that elements that I thought were just 3Dish were in fact 48fps-ish. I did hear from someone who saw it in “just-good-ol’-filmish” that there were blurry bits.

        And yes indeed, Tolkien tinkered around a lot with the Hobbit, expressing he wished he had tinkered around even more.

        As for the White Council meetings, well, I will assume you were not referring to MY meetings, which were always gripping.

      • Matt B says:

        Tom, your meetings were always the highlight of anyone’s day….

      • Thomas Evans says:

        I was just talking to Elizabeth Haydon, who pointed out to me that the Dwarves in the Hobbit got more robust with age. Thus, when we first see Thorin, he looks like a scaled down human. By the time he get’s to the Shire, his nose is larger and thicker.

        That made me note that it wasn’t just the noses the younger dwarves in the Company were gracile, but their build, while Balin and Dwalin, who are shown as older than Thorin, were similarly robust. Indeed, it would seem that Jackson has dwarves grow more robust in both facial and physical features the older they get. In contrast, Fili, Kili and Nori were all gracile.

        Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Geomancer

  3. Lily Wight says:

    Great post, Thomas. Jackson’s films have become “Star Wars” for the generation of kids lucky enough to grow-up watching them.
    Thanks for the link too x

  4. JoJo says:

    Thorin – I would totally tap that dwarf!

  5. Maria says:

    If the boss liked Thorin then I highly recommend Series 7 of Spooks ! And Strike Back. In terms of the film – good, not amazing. Well worth the cinema trip though

    • Thomas Evans says:

      We’re watching Strike Back right now… who is he? We’re at episode 4….

      and Spooks (MI-5 for my American readers) has SEVEN series? We only got up to about series 2 before quitting. It struggled after the lead character (of series 1) left. Should we give it another go?

      We did try out Robin Hood, but it was awful.

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