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On Endings: An Unexpected Journey

“Does The Hobbit really need to be divided into three films?”

It’s a valid question. I’ll admit, I mulled it over more than once. The originally planned two-movie split seemed more logical, more natural–after all, Tolkien’s novel basically runs out of plot once Smaug is dead; devoting the entirety of the second installment to the Battle of the Five Armies would have handily eliminated the source material’s most glaring flaw. But a trilogy? “How on Middle-earth,” I wondered, “will Jackson create a satisfying ending when our heroes haven’t accomplished their primary narrative goal?”

The answer, it turns out, is remarkably simple: the Oscar-winning director emphasizes the journey rather than the destination. True, the promise of a lost Dwarf kingdom overflowing with treasures (and of the bloodthirsty dragon residing therein) makes for a tantalizing “carrot,” but the real backbone of the tale is mild-mannered Bilbo Baggins’ gradual, subtle evolution as a character. Consider the nugget of wisdom that Gandalf imparts to the timid Halfling shortly after he uses his wits to best a trio of hungry trolls:

I hope you never have to [use a sword]. But if you do, remember this: true courage is not about knowing when to take a life, but knowing when to spare one. 

Sure enough, Bilbo eventually finds himself creeping up behind an oblivious Gollum, cloaked by the power of the One Ring. How easy it would be to plunge his blade into the foul creature’s back and be rid of him once and for all! And yet, when he catches a glimpse of the frantic desperation in the poor wretch’s eyes, he stays his hand. A deleted exchange between Bilbo and the wizard would have further illuminated the significance of this moment: “I did find something in that cave: my courage.”

Another pivotal scene occurs mere minutes later, when Bilbo, still wearing the magic ring, catches up to his Dwarven companions… and overhears them discussing his conspicuous absence. “I’ll tell you what happened,” says Thorin Oakenshield, seething with anger. “Master Baggins saw his chance [to go running back to his soft bed] and he took it[…] We will not be seeing him again.” While the company leader’s words are harsh, they ring true: Bilbo may have answered the call to adventure in the first act, but he’s since spent the majority of the long, perilous trek doubting his decision. He urged the group to turn back over something as insignificant as a handkerchief, and even announced his intent to return to the comfort of his Hobbit hole after Thorin made it clear that he considered him a nuisance (luckily, the Great Goblin’s trap disrupted those plans). Now, fate has presented him with a convenient avenue of escape, and his comrade’s continued ridicule gives him adequate cause to take advantage of the opportunity–yet he instead chooses to reveal himself, finally committing fully to the quest and all of the dangers it entails.

The greatest turning point in our reluctant hero’s development, though, comes when a pack of vengeful orcs puts his newfound bravery to the ultimate test. One of the barbaric warriors stands over a wounded Thorin, poised to deliver the coup de grace. The remaining members of the party dangle helplessly from the branches of a tree perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. Only Bilbo is close enough to save the fallen Dwarf lord, and so he swallows his fear, unsheathes his “letter opener” of a weapon, and rushes to his ally’s aid–proving his mettle beyond a shadow of a doubt. The humbled king later expresses his gratitude:

You! What were you thinking? You nearly got yourself killed. Did I not say that you would be a burden? That you would not survive in the wild? That you had no place among us? I have never been so wrong in all my life!

Thus, Jackson brings the first leg of Bilbo Baggins’ personal journey to an elegant, cathartic conclusion. And although the Lonely Mountain remains little more than a blurry speck on the horizon by the time the credits roll, the fullness of our protagonist’s character arc makes An Unexpected Journey a fulfilling, engaging, and–above all–complete cinematic experience.

[Originally written December 20, 2012.]

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