The heart of the story is the game of riddles played by Bilbo and Gollum deep inside the Misty Mountains. Tolkien is the anti-Wagner, and his Ring novels (a trilogy with a prologue) re-write Richard Wagner’s insidious Ring Cycle (trilogy with prologue). Readers who listen to Wagner should be aware, first, that there are many bad reasons to like it, and that they can be cured of this harmful habit by reading this article. Tolkien has a lark with the riddles game played by the dwarf Mime and the god Wotan at the end of the second act of Siegfried; their pompous mythologizing becomes the hilarious, frightening banter of Gollum and Bilbo. Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, assisted by Jackson’s special effects, do brilliantly. That single sequence is worth the price of admission.
Jackson had a difficult task at hand: The Hobbit is a children’s tale that nonetheless sets up the events leading to the later novels. Jackson and his colleagues effectively integrated background from Tolkien’s Middle Earth histories to establish context and continuity, and in some cases added inventions of their own. Some of these, for example the appearance of the wizard Radagast, work quite well (and are consistent with Tolkien’s story). And the Three Stooges routine performed by the three trolls was a permissible aside, much in the spirit of the book. Others, notably the entirely invented character of an Orc leader with a grudge against the dwarves, are generic Hollywood claptrap. Those are not minor flaws in a work that for the most part is brilliantly conceived and executed. Nonetheless the film should help keep Tolkien’s wonderful story in the mind of the public. Considering all the other stories we have to hear, that is a comfort.