This is a rather difficult post for me to make. As many of you veterans know I am first and foremost a Tolkien loreist, whatever weight that may hold. Thus this is not simply a film for me but something that embodies a... larger piece of my soul perhaps...
In this post I shall give an extensive overview of how I perceived The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. What I want to focus on is how Peter Jackson and his crew translated the book into the movie, what choices they made, and for what reason I think they made them. Obviously this is going to contain a lot of spoilers, because I intend to pick apart the entire movie in order. If you do not want to know any of this information yet, then do not read on and go see it first.
Furthermore two things are of course to be noted. Firstly that this is my interpretation and my opinion of what is going on. I wasn't involved in its creation so any assumptions as to why certain changes were made are based purely of my understanding of film making. Secondly there is the matter of the books versus the films. Although I am comparing the film to the book, I am not stating that everything should be as it is in the book, I understand the need for changes and additions to bring a story to the silver screen and make it an engaging film that will also sell well. Nevertheless this a movie based on a book, and the scrutiny of the changes made is not purely on a level of 'this did not happen that way', but also questions whether it can capture the books feeling. Now without further a due, lets begin.
The meta story
The film begins just before the first chapter of the Lord of the Rings, with the old Bilbo (Ian Holm), narrating and walking around Bag End, beginning with his book. He talks (as can be seen in the trailer) as if it is directed at Frodo (Elijah Wood), who we also get to see walking around the house. They have a few scene's in which they really tie it in to the LOTR films, with references to the party that is about to ensue, Gandalf's arrival for said party, the sign on the gate, and so forth. It thus serves to place the story in the universe of the LOTR films, and perhaps also give a chance for the known faces to make an appearance. To my opinion not a very necessary addition, but neither does it detract from the story.
Then Bilbo starts with the story, but it is not the main Hobbit itself, but first a prologue, that explains the history of Erebor, Dale and Smaug. Both Dale and Erebor are quite beautifully portrayed, and especially Erebor really feels like a vast Kingdom of a powerful lord. A strange choice is however made, in depicting Thrór (son of Dáin I) as becoming a bit mad. In his narration Bilbo even links this with the coming of the dragon, as some sort of evil attracting evil device. Although not a terrible change in itself, I simply do not see why the need was felt to come up with such an odd story. Probably it comes from the fact that in the book it is stated that the wealth was probably what attracted the dragon, and the makers inferred from this some denunciation of greed, but on the whole it just seems odd. Then there are some minor things, such as the fact that the Dwarves flee the mountain via the main gate whilst it was said that none escaped that way and that Thorin was inside the mountain instead of outside, things that were explicitly described in the books, but that on the whole don't really matter.
What then does, and which in my opinion is a glaring rape of the source material, is that Thranduil (riding an elk) shows up with a host of Elves, as the Dwarves flee the mountain, calling to him for aid. He just looks at them really quaint and then turns around and leaves with his men. This does not make sense on any level, even discarding the fact that it was not in the book. How did he know that the dragon was there and march with his army? The dragon came unexpectedly and they couldn't have been there that fast. Why gather and outfit a host of Elves and then not help? Why not even aid those fleeing without fighting the dragon? All this is left unexplained and is used as a device to explain the enmity between Dwarves and Elves. Now I understand that it would be quit difficult to explain the whole history of Elves and Dwarves, the sack of Doriath, and so forth, and that they needed to find a way of conveying that this existed, but this is a rather odd way to do so.
So this then gets the audience up to speed as to why the quest of Erebor would need to be undertaken, and here is where we get into the real book.
An unexpected party
We start the story with Bilbo in his yard, Gandalf coming by, and the well known conversation that follows. The lines are not all quite correct, but they capture the exchange between the two nicely. The problem however arrives at the very end, which is the source of ruin for the next scene if you ask me. For what is left out is that Bilbo invites Gandalf to come to tea the next day in some ploy to get rid of him, instead he clearly tells him he is not interested, goodday's him one last time and slams the door shut. Gandalf then as some madman scratches the sign in Bilbo's door, and when Bilbo looks out of his window to see what is going on he appears close to the glass like someone escaped from a mental institution.
So why then am I being so particular about the invite to tea? Well this has all to do with the arrival and the party of the Dwarves. We see Bilbo just starting his supper, when Dwaling shows up. He just barges into the house, helps himself to Bilbo's supper (eating in a most disgusting manner by the way), and ignores the obvious tension there. Then Balin arrives and although he is as courteous as he should be, when the two brother's are reunited they completely ignore Bilbo and his summons to stop eating and get out of his house. This gets even worse when the rest of the Dwarves arrive, who really plunder his pantry, remodel his whole interior decoration and in general make themselves at home. The enormous problem here is that Bilbo keeps telling them to get the hell out, stop eating his food, put stuff back, and so forth. Compare this to the book where he is so overwhelmed that he is the one getting all the food for everyone, he does not tell them to get out, he is being a good host, although terribly confused and hoping it is all a dream. The dwarves are here depicted as some rowdy bunch with no manners who don't give a damn what the little Hobbit tells them. The whole idea of Gandalf's ploy to sent the Dwarves in increasing number (as he does later at Beorn's house) is completely lost. They might as well have all arrived together and raided his house. To me this entire scene shows a complete lack of awareness of the dynamic of the situation. On a positive note, the washing-up song and Over the Misty Mountains are both done nicely.
Also I need to mention here that the reasons the Dwarves undertake this quest now also had to be explained for some reason. To do so the makers dreamed up a prophecy that when the ravens returned the reign of the beast was supposed to end. Again, although I understand the need to give uninformed viewers some handles to understand characters motives, why was it necessary to do so here? Would it be too unbelievable if they hadn't given any reason why do so now other than that they were ready for it? This also ties in with the fact that Thorin apparently went to some meeting with the heads of the seven Dwarven Kingdoms (words from the film), where he asked the others to help him, but they said it was their quest. In my opinion this only makes matters more complicated than easier, which is quite an accomplishment, seeing that the Hobbit is the easiest book to read. (Also it may be noted that it is explicitly stated that Dáin does not want to help, which would be odd, seeing that he is also of Durin's house, so stating that this is a matter only for their perticular clan would be odd...)
So we skip ahead a little bit and we come to the matter of the Bilbo coming along on the adventure he doesn't want to go on. In the film he is literally presented with a contract by Balin which he is to sign, he decides not to and the Dwarves leave without him. Then the next morning, as he looks around in his deserted house, he suddenly gets the urge to go on the adventure, apparently realizing the boredom of his everyday live. And we get the running through the fields after the Dwarves bit. Although this is of course a big change from the book, it is one I don't actually mind all that much looking back on it. It would've been hard to explain to the audience how his 'Tookish-side' woke up in him and therefore he suddenly acts like a badass in order to impress the Dwarves. The imaggery of him looking around his now empty house in comparison to the one filled with Dwarves is quite a strong one and conveys in a different way the feeling that I believe Tolkien meant as the Tookish-side. Therefore although I feel that the contract is a bit of a stupid thing in itself, the whole dynamic of it is done quite nicely.
Interlude; the war of Dwarves and Orcs
As they make camp for the night we have Balin tell the story of the battle of Azanulbizar. If I remember correctly it is not named as such, but it basically is, with a few big changes though. Those changes include that Thrór is killed in battle by Azog here, instead of earlier inside the mines, and that Azog himself is not slain by Dáin II, but only lost his hand in fighting Thorin. It gives a nice depiction of Thorin acquiring his name as Oakenshield though and all in all is a good rendition of the battle. What stems from it, is an important fact that will haunt us for the rest of this film though. And this is a major spoiler. Namely that Azog is not dead, and is in fact hunting Thorin and company. Yes, Azog has been made the main antagonist for this part of the, dare I say it, film trilogy. Which of course gives good reasons to put extra fighting scene's into the film where they don't belong, but I'm getting ahead of myself already. All in all I just thoroughly enjoyed seeing the Dwarves and Ors battle in front of Moria.
Alright, so then we get to the trolls. The set up as to why Bilbo has to go check them out is a bit different (he has to get back their ponies), but the result is the same. Bilbo is captured and questioned as a burrahobbit that will hardly make a mouthful. Yet alas, then the swords and axes come out again, because Thorin and company are charging the trolls, creating our first fight that doesn't have any business being there. We hear one of the trolls calling to put them in sacks but this doesn't happen, until another inexplicable choice is made. For the trolls grab Bilbo and threaten to pull his limbs of if the Dwarves don't lay down their arms, and then the Dwarves do. Why!? Have you read the script and know that you will make it? Because to me it seems that you are now all going to die at the hands of these trolls instead of only the Hobbit you have known for less than a week. But anyway, they lay down their arms and end up in the sacks, roasted over the fire. The escape is a bit different then in the book, playing up Bilbo's role in stalling for time, and Gandalf smashing a rock to let the sunlight through, but those are forgiveable. Portraying Gandalf imitating a troll's voice would of course be doable, but would not make for the most interesting film and perhaps even make it a little to comical (although there are enough dumb jokes made at inappropriate times, but more on that later).
After they then escape they find the troll hoard and the swords, Bilbo gets sting and that is that.
Interlude: Radagast and Dol Guldur.
I'm not quite sure if this was at this time in the move or a bit earlier or later, but it doesn't really matter either way.
Why the need was felt to shoehorn this guy in is beyond me, other than that it provides the start to a contained side story about Dol Guldur and the Necromancer. For he serves as a way to let Gandalf and the others of the White Council know that the forest is being corrupted and a Necromancer has taken up his abode in the old fortress. It would of course have been a lot more difficult to have the story line there if it had to be explained with stuff that happened earlier, so I guess this gives an explanation as to why this choice has been made.
We are introduced to Radagast prancing through the woods and looking how everything is getting corrupted, nasty fungi, some sick animals and plants. Then one of the dumbest scene's in the film ensues, namely Radagast trying to save a single hedgehog as his house is being attacked by giant spiders. There were some people in the audience 'ah-ing' as the hedgehog died and was brought back to live, but what is it doing in this movie? This isn't a pixar production I might hope.
We get the by now famous rabbit-sled, that is almost the least ridiculous thing about Radagast, who is not simply depicted a quaint, but rather as someone who's constantly on psychoactive drugs. He goes to Dol Guldur, fights a wrath, and legs it. Nothing really to say about that, its done quite well.
A short rest
Although I titled this part after the chapter in the book, it does not provide the same experience at all. Firstly we need to consider that Thorin did not want to go to Rivendell because he hates Elves. What happens is that a host of Orcs on Wargs attack them and they have to run, of course slashing a few Orcs on the way, because you have to have some fighting. Gandalf leads them into a hiding place and immediately afterwards an Elvish cavalry charges and kills most of the Orcs, the remainder fleeing back to... Azog who is in the neighbourhood riding his giant white Warg to hunt Thorin.
The company moves forth to Rivendell where they are then welcomed by Lindir. Elrond arrives seconds later, for it turns out he was leading the cavalry, that is by now busy encircling the Dwarves (who have also picked up their weapons), in a manner that can only be likened to the encircling of the three hunters by the Rohirim in the Two Towers. We get to see Elrond in armour and distrust from the Dwarves towards him, but then they decide to accept his invitation to come in and eat.
In the next scene there is some further distrust from Thorin towards Elrond, but in the end he agrees to show him the map and have him read it to them. Although I have some nitpicking here too, these are minor things and there is much to discuss.
Namely that here we also have a meeting of the White Council, or at least of Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman and Gandalf. What is nicely done here is the portrayal of Saruman as trying to discourage the council from action, showing the dynamics that were at play here already. A bit odd is that Gandalf already makes a face to Elrond when he hears that Saruman is there, which doesn't make sense since here he should still be on good terms with him. Where it gets really weird though, is the fact that apparently the council is going to forbid Gandalf and the Dwarves from continuing with their expedition. As if Gandalf has to ask permission (the words is literally used) to Saruman for stuff he wants to do. This is not how the dynamics of the Istari amongst themselves of the White Council in general worked. It does serve, as stated above, as a good way to show that Saruman was already moving against them in subtle ways. Here also does Gandalf (who has been earlier informed by Radagast) that a Necromancer is in Dol Guldur, which of course we will see a lot more of in the coming films.
Then there is the scene between Gandalf and Galadriel, which I don't have all that much to say about. You can read sexual tension in it if you want, but you can also see a friend offering aid.
In any case the Dwarves already legged it out of Rivendell before they could be stopped by a supposed disapproval from the Council, which is clearly set up in this way by Gandalf.
Over hill and under hill
Now I've said so before, but here we get perhaps the most ridiculous scene in the entire film. As the company is making its way along a cliff, we get the fight between the stone giants. And luckily for us CGI technology is now so great that we get to enjoy a five minute fight between animated giants made from rocks, throwing rocks at each other, slamming into one another and so forth. It even turns out the companions themselves are on the legs of a giant. Not only does it add nothing to the progression of the story, it is also boring, and makes stuff unbelievable. For example at one point a part of the group seems to be crushed between to walls of rock, but they turn out to be al right.
They then hide in the cave, at which point Bilbo decides to sneak out at night to go back home, because Thorin won't get of his case about how he's useless and a burden. This makes sense in the film to a degree and also not at all. One can wonder why Bilbo would stick with them whilst Thorin keeps being mean to him. But in the book there is no such option as going back, this wouldn't be logical either, because how would he even survive out there on his own? He's stuck with them and that gives the story a certain 'us against the world'-feeling, overcoming obstacles as a group. Rather than a journey he could get out of at any moment.
Anyway this is cut short by the fact that the ground opens and they are all captured by the Goblins. Although not quite in the same way as in the book, it is a nice rendition of the capturing. Furthermore the Goblintown is quite beautifully depicted and has a lot of atmosphere.
On a side note it is a pity that the film makers still view Orcs and Goblins as a different species. But this is by now a widespread and forgiveable flaw.
They are led before the Great Goblin, except for Bilbo, who falls into the deep whilst fighting a small Goblin, and ends up in Gollum's lair, which I'll get to in a moment. The Dwarves are at the Great Goblin, who wants to ransom them to Azog, who has put a price on Thorin's head. Then they find Orcrist and go mad, wanting to kill them all, but Gandalf shows up. Gandalf then does an awesome Gandalf power trick, creating a blinding flash and an enormous push which throws everyone to the ground. In a menacing voice he then summons the Dwarves to take up arms and fight, so we can then have another fight scene. What makes this so problematic to me, is the question why Gandalf does not do this all the time if they are in a fight? Why run from a few Orcs, whilst blasting away half an army of Goblins? Anyway, we get the fight in the form of an escape scene, in which they run over the small rope bridges of the town in what I cannot describe differently than a videogame. I could just imagine this all being turned into a game with only minor changes, they cut ropes at just the right moment, all the slings had exactly the right distance, they use ladders to push people of, Bombur uses his 'roll up like a ball and crash through several stories'-attack, Gandalf uses his staff-attack to break of a boulder and use it to clear the way, and so forth. As you can infer from this I was not really taken in by this scene.
They are then finally stopped by the Great Goblin, who makes a little fun of them and saying they can't win. He is then with a few jabs killed by Gandalf, only uttering the last words; 'that'll do it' in a corny way, think here of the cheesy humour I was talking about earlier, which doesn't really rhyme well with being killed. Then the bridge they are on collapses and they drop for a few hundred meters between the rocks, miraculously all surviving, even when the full weigh of the Great Goblin then also lands on top of them. Then they leg it out of there. So once again we have a very long action scene, in which everyone survives through incredible odds.