Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a blockbuster landmark achievement. It demonstrated that the moviegoing masses are willing to tolerate (nay, embrace) sprawling tentpole productions that run some 3 hours long and are geared heavily towards geek crowds. Jackson returns to Middle-earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (read our review) and today we’re going to examine how much has (and has not) changed in the filmmaker’s approach to adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s literature over the decade since his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Feel free to jump ahead to the poll at the conclusion of this article, in case your mind is already made up as to whether An Unexpected Journey is a weaker, equal or better introduction to Middle-earth than Fellowship of the Ring. Everyone else? Keep reading, as we dive into important qualities of both films, beginning with the two famous ring-bearer halflings: Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), as introduced in Fellowship, is a wide-eyed and good-hearted hobbit who demonstrates immense courage in the face of overwhelming danger. He’s also an unwilling adventurer at his core, who might’ve been content to never leave his home. However, Frodo becomes an unlikely savior for Middle-earth and is essentially forced to endure the burden of carrying The One Ring of Power – given his unprecedented resilience to its influence – despite being both physically and mentally-unfit for the task.
Young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in An Unexpected Journey has more personality than Frodo. He’s fussy, proper and often self-concerned, yet enters dangerous situations with but a little encouragement (and sometimes, none). Bilbo endures taunts and disdain from his dwarf peers to become an important player on their quest; indeed, Bilbo ultimately chooses to accept the responsibility of helping Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his kin reclaim their home, rather than having the task forced upon him.
Speaking of Thorin: the hardened Dwarf is (arguably) as much a protagonist in An Unexpected Journey as Bilbo. Flashbacks illustrate how he came to be a monastic and cynical warrior in the present; despite his accomplishments, Thorin is humble and places his faith in Dwarfs whom he admires for their gusto (not because they are the strongest and wisest). Moreover, Thorin still possesses an optimistic spirit, which (like Bilbo) inspires him to accept the daunting challenge of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain from Smaug – ultimately, of his own free will.
That’s all to say: Fellowship (from a protagonist perspective) is about acceptance of destiny thust upon you – a theme echoed in subsequent Rings films, as when Aragorn becomes King – and An Unexpected Journey deals with choosing a destiny and accepting the responsibility that comes with it. In a way, the latter presents a more timely dilemma; namely, whether to take it upon oneself to better the world (when presented the chance) or simply continue to make your way in life.
As for the remainder of the cast: Ian McKellen captivates in both films, offering two connected (but distinguishable) portrayals of Gandalf the Grey. Similarly, both An Unexpected Journey and Fellowship of the Ring have supporting characters that hit the bullseye – in particular, Andy Serkis as mo-cap Gollum in The Hobbit and Sean Astin as Samwise in Fellowship – while others Middle-eartheans possess either a satisfactory or flat presence (sorry, Orlando Bloom as Legolas). Thus, these films are evenly-matched in this department (for this writer, anyway).
WINNER: An Unexpected Journey, for more nuanced protagonist(s) and their relatable personal journeys.
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