I read JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion at various times throughout my life. The first I read for fun, the second almost out of a sense of the duty, thankfully peppered with enjoyment, and The Silmarillion... I didn't finish.
I didn't go into Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films as a Middle Earth fan, I went in whipped up with my love of Brain Dead and Bad Taste and Heavenly Creatures.
It was a little different with The Hobbit. I've actually been waiting for these films as a fan of Middle Earth - the cinematic Middle Earth.
I don't mind at all, then, that this film has played around with the narrative of The Hobbit a great deal - creating a new prologue, drawing in sidebar scenes from Tolkien's appendices. But nor will, I imagine, most hardcore Tolkien buffs. This is, for the most part, original Tolkien, translated into cinematic terms and ordered as a flowing story, not with footnotes chopped off and scattered.
The film starts in very familiar territory with Ian Holm reprising the role of older Bilbo and Elijah Wood making a brief cameo as Frodo, the two of them cavorting about Bilbo's snug Hobbit hole, Bag End. This is used to frame some significantly less homely scenes of epic-scale back story, huge scale battles and ancient history. Much as we saw at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, we start with a bigger picture, and then plant a rather wee little Hobbit in the middle of it all.
And talking of Fellowship, the Hobbit prologue comes to a rest right where Fellowship started. And I do mean a rest - a nice relaxing sit down and a puff on a pipe. Hobbit bliss.
Rapidly upended, of course. Gandalf turns up, tries out Bilbo for his purposes, and finding him satisfactory, sends in the dwarves. There's enough of them to stuff a Hobbit's dining room and they're here to recruit a burglar, somebody who can help them on their expedition to The Lonely Mountain. There they plan to face the fierce dragon Smaug and reclaim the ancestral dwarfish home.
Bilbo doesn't understand why they'd choose him to join them on this quest, but Gandalf has his reasons, and definitely a plan. These are the two threads we pick up at the beginning - Bilbo's doubt and Gandalf's confidence - and it's these we follow until the story has taken us through battles with Orcs, battles with Goblins, battles with Trolls, a death-defying adventure with massive stone giants and as much spectacle and adventure as you'll find anywhere on the silver screen this Winter.
By tracking more of Gandalf's plan on screen, rather than letting him vanish away, Peter Jackson and his co-writers have incorporated several scenes from Tolkien's appendices. It's clear now, having seen this first film of three, that they've pulled back from the narrative of The Hobbit, nudged the stakes a little and are building to a slightly different, bigger conclusion.
But before that final climax, they have two other wrap-ups to handle, closing this film and the next. I don't know how the deck was stacked when this was set to be just two films, not three, but An Unexpected Journey ends perfectly. Not by wrapping up the Gandalf thread, but by tying a loop in the Bilbo one.
Bilbo's story isn't done - not by a long chalk - but he certainly undergoes a specific transformation in this film. The resolution of this first film offers a real sense of change in Bilbo, an achievement, a development of his character that feels real, and earned and is touching.
Here's hoping the filmmakers can find two suitably developed pay-offs for him in the subsequent chapters - particularly the third, where Tolkien's original text short changed him a little. So far, this is Bilbo's story, with Gandalf in the background, believing in him. It would seem complete and satisfying, I think, if they can continue this.
I'm going to file a full report on the film's 48fps cinematography later, but I can promise you that it does no harm to the regularly jaw-dropping visual and special effects. A large section of the film takes place in the subterranean, fire-lit Goblin Town, a place of rocky outcrops, rope bridges and deep, deep drops, and Jackson's camera treats it like a real, explorable 3D space.
It feels, so much of the time, like Jackson actually found this place, went in there with a thousand burning torches and an army of real Goblins, and filmed it for real.
The stand-out sequence, I think, takes place in the bowels of the mountain, below Goblin Town. It's adapted from the chapter Riddles in the Dark and is where Gollum appears, and where Bilbo first comes into possession of the one ring.
It's mainly a two-hander conversation, with Bilbo and Gollum playing a game for the Hobbit's life. Not only is Martin Freeman absolutely alive in this scene, so is Gollum - thanks to Andy Serkis, to Joe Letteri and the CG team, and also the sharp, tightly adapted writing.
At the moment, I'm quite in love with this film.
I shall be returning for a considerably more expected journey with The Hobbit this Thursday when it opens across the UK.
And I don't think this will be the last you hear from me on the subject.