Fidelity is hardly the prerequisite of adaptation, but Peter Jackson's inability to make a modest film means he has entirely missed the point of The Hobbit. The result may be impressive in some regards, but it still breaks one's heart.
The book that started JRR Tolkien's great saga of Middle Earth began as a story he told his children. As such, it lacked the detail and scale of the later work, particularly The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. The Hobbit is funny and charming, doesn't take its heroes or itself too seriously, moves along at a good clip and is no less a glorious adventure for its levity or brevity.
But Jackson misses all that. The director who won Oscars and fans aplenty with his nine-hour trilogy is now so deep in Tolkien lore that he simply can't take the foot off the pedal. He has not only decided to turn the modest single volume of The Hobbit into another trilogy, but the first of these comes in at just under three hours. And so the tale of Bilbo Baggins has become a baggy affair indeed.
The novel concerns the hearth- and home-loving Bilbo (Martin Freeman), who one day is mortified to find himself engaged by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a group of dwarves in the recovery of their stolen gold from the dragon Smaug. Though reticent, he finds himself going on the dangerous adventure – on which they encounter elves, goblins, trolls, wolves, eagles and men; some friend, some foe – and Bilbo's ingenuity and increasing pluck frequently saves the day.
There's more than enough here for a film. But Jackson and his fellow screenwriters have decided to join the dots between Bilbo's adventure and that of his young cousin Frodo, 60 years later in The Lord Of The Rings, using Tolkien's appendices to the trilogy.
The result is that An Unexpected Journey features many unexpected new storylines, with a number of actors from the earlier films reprising their roles, among them Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as the older Bilbo and Frodo, and Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett as white wizard Saruman and the elf Galadriel. There are also legions of orcs.
Now, orcs don't feature in the book at all, and the presence here of these terrifying creatures ensures that Jackson's departure from his source is not just one of length, but of tone: this is no longer a story for children, unless their parents want them to have nightmares.
Much has been made of the director's decision to shoot in 3D and at 48 frames per second, twice the usual speed. And this too is a mis-step. The super-crisp image is strikingly real, but when accompanied by moribund pacing and a ponderously twee soundtrack, the effect is of watching HD TV. The immediacy detracts hugely from one's sense of wonder.
On the plus side, Freeman was born to play Bilbo. An Everyman with impeccable comic timing, he's able to be vulnerable and utterly dependable in the same moment, which is rare. McKellen's Gandalf is as mighty and mischievous as ever, and there are moments when storytelling and special effects do hit their mark, notably involving the trolls (including one who disgustingly mistakes Bilbo for his handkerchief) and the stone giants.
The film's best sequence (and one that does appear in the book) involves Bilbo's meeting with the scheming and sinister Gollum, again played brilliantly by Andy Serkis via motion capture. Their game of riddles – Gollum's prize if he wins being to eat the hobbit – is wonderfully acted and suspenseful. As ever, Gollum steals the show. But he can't save it.