Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a blockbuster landmark achievement. It demonstrated that the movie going masses are willing to tolerate (nay, embrace) 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 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:
Round 1: The Characters
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 bulls eye – 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: The Fellowship of the Ring, for more nuanced protagonist(s) and their relatable personal journeys.
Round 2: The Story
An Unexpected Journey is novelist in design; it unfolds in chapter-like segments, most of which progress the central narrative thread (and others which place out the groundwork for future Middle-earth installments). By comparison, Fellowship is action-reaction oriented and thus, adheres closer to a conventional three-act film structure. Overall, though, there are actually numerous plot points and elements in the two films that mirror one another, including:
Opening prologue with narration from a character whose POV informs the story (Older Bilbo vs. Galadriel), followed by a subtitle “The Shire… 60 Years Earlier” vs. “…60 Years Later.”
Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) visits a reserved and uninterested young Bilbo in An Unexpected Journey vs. the friendly reunion with older Bilbo (Ian Holm) in Fellowship.
Leaving The Shire segues into a subplot involving another wizard (Radagast in Mirkwood and Saruman in Isengard, respectively).
Cross-country chase sequence (with orcs in An Unexpected Journey, Nazgul in Fellowship) culminates with the central characters arriving in Rivendell.
And so forth. Nonetheless, An Unexpected Journey‘s layout allows for prolonged enjoyment of the intimate details that distinguish its familiar (formulaic) fantasy-adventure sequences; Fellowship, by comparison, is somewhat “chewy” and packs in so much material (side-plots, supporting characters) it can be overwhelming on an initial viewing. Some (many?) prefer the chunkier narrative, but The Hobbit‘s less-is-more choice is welcomed by me.
On the other hand, Fellowship does have a drive and immediacy that events in An Unexpected Journey do not possess; the sense of constant danger is taxing, but exhilarating. Moreover, the former does not suffer from the anti-climactic ending to the first Hobbit installment (following the escape from the Goblin tunnels, that is); though, that sequence does serve a purpose in terms of character development, it flails more than necessary, for a handful of reasons.
WINNER: Fellowship of the Ring, for more satisfactory “falling action.”
Round 3: The World
An Unexpected Journey and Fellowship of the Ring unfold in the same fantastical realm, yet Middle-earth in these films feels like two entirely-different settings. In the former, it’s a world at peace; one where daily life consists of difficulties, but nothing of a world-threatening nature. Moreover, Middle-earth in An Unexpected Journey feels richer and more properly-realized. Case in point: we bear witness to the tiny creatures that populate the woodlands; orcs speak in their native tongue among themselves (meanwhile, Goblins and Trolls actually speak); even Elvish and Dwarfish culture is legitimately portrayed, through the scenes set in Rivendell, the opening prologue and the behavior/appearances of Bilbo’s companions.
Fellowship, by comparison, does not fail to envelope viewers in Tolkien’s magical kingdom; part of the installment’s enduring appeal is how it creates a living and breathing Middle-earth. However, such locations as the heavenly Elvish locales (Rivendell, Lothlórien), organic Shire and the decaying, hellish caverns of Moria are gorgeous to behold, but Fellowship just has less time to devote to an appreciation of Middle-earth’s diverse cultures; thus, they have less of a voice than in An Unexpected Journey.
Much of the propulsive energy and relentless sense of danger that drives the action in Fellowship comes from the setting (“The world has changed,” Galadriel narrates somberly during the opening titles). An Unexpected Journey has the opportunity to relish in the experience of visiting Middle-earth. Indeed, it can be a silly, exciting or quiet place, depending on where you’re at and who’s in the area (“I've found it is the small things, every act of normal folk that keeps the darkness at bay,” notes Gandalf during an exchange with Galadriel in An Unexpected Journey).
Winner: An Unexpected Journey.
Round 4: The Action/Effects
It’s certainly unfair to compare the quality of effects in these two films, seeing how An Unexpected Journey has ten years of advancements in digital technology at its disposal (not to mention, a budget 2-3 times larger than Fellowship). However, the same could be said for the comparisons between the original Star Wars films and prequel trilogy; yet, many prefer the SW films that are several decades old now to the comparatively-fresher prequels, purely in terms of effects and action. So why, then, does the first Hobbit movie avoid being branded with the same stigma?
Well, the difference is the SW prequels swap ingenuity for rudimentary film making; scenes are saturated with eye candy, but realized through basic shooting/editing techniques. An Unexpected Journey, by comparison, does not use effects and a bigger budget as a crutch; instead, it combines approaches to create dazzling 3D dioramas and elaborate shots that make diminutive Dwarves and Hobbits appear all the more authentic. Moreover, it does improve the integration (and interaction) of live-action characters and settings with CGI elements – passing over the heightened realism of those digital components, compared to Fellowship.
Fellowship makes clever use of energetic cinematography and in-camera tricks for purposes both symbolic (Saruman constantly towering over Gandalf) and from a practical storytelling angle (Fellowship members tower over their Hobbit peers). It also has the benefit of grislier close-quarter combat sequences and brawls, but that is a stylistic choice (fitting with the darker tone of the Rings films in general); though, Fellowship is free of certain visual restrictions that An Unexpected Journey endures due to its use of 3D cameras and HFR format.
WINNER: Fellowship of the Ring for action, An Unexpected Journey for effects.
Round 5: Direction
Overall, An Unexpected Journey has its flaws; although there’s nary a scene that doesn't serve a purpose or lay groundwork for development in a later film, it does feel overstuffed. However, the direction is quite confident, editing is consistent and pacing shifts very consciously faster and slower. Everything from characterization to bridge-work for later films is conducted with an assured hand – even one prone to lavishing brushstrokes that sometimes come off as too-much.
Fellowship does not become ‘weak’ when juxtaposed with An Unexpected Journey; rather, Jackson’s energy right out of the gate is observable in every facet of the former. However, there’s a roughness that Hobbit doesn't suffer from, like choppy passages in terms of editing (see: Gandalf and Frodo traveling through the Shire). Similarly, there are character arcs with enough missing material, they seem to almost come from nowhere in the theatrical cut (see: Aragorn’s commitment to Gondor, upon Boromir’s death).
Despite making An Unexpected Journey with experience on his side, the Fellowship of the Ring won four Academy Awards from thirteen nominations, and that says it all really!
WINNER: The Fellowship of the Ring
Overall Winner: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring!
Remember: both these films are excellent pieces of cinema, and many of the issues raised here with these Middle-earth adventures are founded on preference (be it an endorsement or critique). Hence, it you have a stronger liking for what Fellowship of the Ring strives to be, its flaws are bound to seem more trivial that An Unexpected Journey (and vice versa). However, at the end of the day, this writer feels that the latter accomplishes more of its goals than the former.