“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” may be one of the big movie events of the season, but it also offers parents a prime opportunity to use a Hollywood blockbuster as a tool for teaching their children important life lessons.
The Deseret News recently screened “The Hobbit.” Tolkien scholars Devin Brown and Corey Olsen helped identify three themes that parents can discuss with their children after watching the new movie together — the deep value in doing your best, the importance of knowing yourself and being grateful for what you have, and the impact faith can have on actions and outlook.
‘An unlikely hero’
“Unexpected Journey” is the first installment of a new film trilogy produced by Peter Jackson and based on the book “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. The last time Jackson crafted a trio of movies from Tolkien storylines, the three “Lord of the Rings” films released between 2001-03 combined to gross more than $2.9 billion in global box office receipts and lay claim to 17 Academy Awards.
The primary protagonist in “Unexpected Journey” is the smallish hobbit Bilbo Baggins (satisfyingly portrayed by actor Martin Freeman, who is perhaps best known as Watson in the spectacular BBC drama “Sherlock”). Yet from all outward appearances, Bilbo looks and acts nothing like a cinematic hero.
Brown, author of “The Christian World of ‘The Hobbit’” and a professor at Asbury University in Kentucky, told the Deseret News, “Bilbo is certainly an unlikely hero. He’s not particularly smart, compared to everybody else. He’s not particularly strong, compared to the other creatures he faces. He’s not even particularly experienced.”
Tolkien wants children to understand that heroes can come in all shapes and sizes — and sometimes even emerge from the unlikeliest of places.
“As a matter of fact, over the course of the whole (story) Bilbo won’t do anything that we as viewers can’t do,” Brown said. “His courage is a moral courage. He’s like all of us when we were little: all he can do is try to do what’s right and do the best he can. Tolkien makes it clear that that’s absolutely good enough.”
Identity and gratitude
About an hour into “Unexpected Journey,” Bilbo leaves his home in the Shire to go on a journey and ostensibly help 13 dwarves reclaim their homeland from the gold-hoarding dragon Smaug. For the rest of the film — and into the forthcoming second and third installments of the “Hobbit” film trilogy — Baggins will be the only hobbit in sight. Consequently, that unique sense of “otherness” helps Bilbo come to understand who he is.
“‘The Hobbit’ story is really about home and identity,” said Olsen, the author of “Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’” who also hosts The Tolkien Professor podcast and teaches English at Washington College in Maryland. “One question you want to kind of think of in terms of discussion points for kids to have at the film: ‘Who are you? What is your identity, where do you belong and what matters to you?’ Bilbo discovers all that.”
As Bilbo acquires a greater sense of his own identity throughout "Unexpected Journey," he begins to lament the absence of the Shire and the comforts of home that he had always taken for granted. Olsen pointed out that that lesson is wholly applicable to children capable of taking their families for granted.
“What we see about Bilbo is that he has this beautiful hobbit hole, this very comfortable existence. And he completely takes it for granted — he doesn’t really appreciate very much at all about his life. What happens with Bilbo is he comes to recognize and appreciate (his life at home) much more as time goes on, so that when he returns to it his eyes are really open to it.”
Throughout “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” religious themes and values abound. However, whereas Tolkien’s contemporary and close friend C.S. Lewis chose to infuse a more overt Christianity into the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, Tolkien opted instead for a subtler literary embrace of Judeo-Christian values.
For instance, when Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen, reprising his iconic role from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) entrusts Bilbo with a special sword, he sternly admonishes the hobbit, “True courage isn’t knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.” Those words weigh heavy with Bilbo as he has the chance to kill Gollum after their riddle game, but instead chooses to spare the life of the sad, woebegone creature.
Another example of religious themes in "Unexpected Journey" is the ever-present question of whether miraculous circumstances and last-minute rescues are the fruits of luck or providence.
“In terms of moral truths and worldview, the faith of Lewis and Tolkien does not differ because they share a similar Christianity,” Brown said. “The way it’s embedded is different: Tolkien’s Christianity was much more fundamental, much more below the surface; Lewis’ was more direct.
“Lewis had an interesting word for it: He called Tolkien’s Christianity more ‘latent’ than his, which is a good way to describe it.”
Highlighting this distinction for adolescents and teenagers could potentially open their eyes to the myriad ways faith themes play out as subtext across all sorts of movies, television and stage plays.
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.