An Unexpected Journey is not, much to the concern of many people, a film of the novel The Hobbit. If it is an adaptation, it is one which does not closely follow the book and the fact that it has been sold as such is understandably an annoyance. Hearing that a slim but entertaining book – essentially a fairy-story – was to be turned into an epic scale trilogy of films was met with great concern that the resulting film would be driven by money more than creativity – a victim of a trend to split single stories into two parts in film essentially begun with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows but also seen with the final Twilight story and apparently the conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy.
Simply put, the actual plot of The Hobbit – as written by Tolkein – would serve one long film and not much more. As a result, if the definition taken of adaptation is something seeking purely to recreate a book in visual form, it fails. Yet despite failing as an adaptation, it remains a good film in its own right; the additions made to the story to add context and depth, being drawn as they are from other Tolkein works, do not feel obtrusive or noticeably out-of-place. In an earlier article on the subject of side-stories and worldbuilding I said that this decision – to add extraneous detail to a simple story – would be highly divisive and quite likely to not work. However, from having seen the film, it is clear that effort has been put into making the story feel like a single narrative rather than one made from a patchwork of ideas added to a simpler core. The best sidestories, as I have said before, are those which stand on their own without relying on the crutch of their franchise or setting to attract interest and the same applies to An Unexpected Journey; were the additions not so well-integrated, and the effect not one of a continuous story that works as a film in itself, it would not only fail as an adaptation but on a more fundamental narrative level.
This does not change, on a fundamental level, that the film being marketed as The Hobbit is in fact not The Hobbit; it is a version of that story, for sure, and it is a fantasy story set in Middle-Earth, but it is not a novel adaptation in any meaningful sense. The exact definition of adaptation is hard to pin down; some of the most highly-regarded adaptations are significantly unfaithful to their source in adapting a story for a different medium. However, at the heart of the matter remains the fact that I think to call something an adaptation – as opposed to some other thing – it should remain close to its source at the very least in the defining details. An Unexpected Journey adds so much that while it is recognisable as being based on Tolkein’s writing, it is as much – if not more – its screenwriters’ story derived from the original text. It is, to be brutal, The Hobbit fanfiction given authority by virtue of being an officially sanctioned work. This, at its core, is no different to watching Do You Remember Love instead of SDF Macross, or Throne of Blood instead of Macbeth – it is arguably a response to the original work which builds on it and alters it. Accepting this – that it is not an adaptation but instead a retelling of the story – allows a viewer to watch the film as its own thing and form an estimation of it accordingly. That it has been mis-marketed is unfortunate.
Thus, the question is now raised of to what extent a work should be reworked and retold. Precise definitions here are difficult; there is a strong argument that many retellings and re-makings are simple commercial ventures intended to stick a carefully chosen trademark on a subpar story and hope to catch crowds that way – for example the remade Total Recall. Yet I do not think these works – or even the culture of nostalgia and retrospection that fosters them – are inherently bad, simply that the concept invites laziness more than other methods of filmmaking. It is like, for example, auto-tuning in music; it can be used to good effect but it is more often used lazily to cover up subpar work. I think it is fair to say the best remakes or reworkings of older things go to extremes rather than sit uneasily in a middle-ground of blandness; they either wholeheartedly embrace the concept of recreating the past and are slavish and respectful, simply patching up signs of age and leaving it largely unchanged, or they completely restart the idea from the ground up, add to it and use the original only as inspiration.
A good example of the latter – which is generally more conceptually interesting – is Rebuild of Evangelion, a series of feature films extensively rewriting the TV anime Neon Genesis Evangelion with a new storyline in the same setting. This is ultimately similar to An Unexpected Journey and it is the difference between the two in terms of execution that explains why the former gives me more faith in the potential for such derivation and reworking. The reworked The Hobbit retains what defined the original novel in terms of style and tone; while much of the plot is new, the combination of the writers having a strong grasp on Tolkein’s style and the roots of the new material in Tolkein’s own writing means that it still feels like a Tolkein story. By contrast, Rebuild of Evangelion adds exciting new action sequences, complex new storylines and popular new characters yet in so doing loses much of what defined the original series. It was the flaws and inconsistencies and apparent weaknesses of Evangelion that made it what it was; by removing these and creating a coherent alternative narrative, the results become better in a structural sense but ultimately not Evangelion. The tone of the original series is lost, and the additions at times do not fit; while dramatic changes in a reworking are to be expected, what defines An Unexpected Journey is how for all the changes, it still feels a unified work.
This first article on An Unexpected Journey dwelled very much on the nature of its story and position as a different sort of adaptation to what was expected. The second will focus on why it works well as a film when considered in its own right.