I really liked it!
I have some lore and continuity thoughts below, primarily from the point of view of an insufferable Tolkien nerd. Spoilers ahead, DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT
- The tone is perfect, and they do a really good job of making this “Not Lord of the Rings,” complete with the implication that Bilbo likely embellished parts of the story. It’s lighthearted without being goofy or dumb, and captures that sense of innocence of a time much less dark and dreary. I suspect this might throw off some who are less familiar with Tolkien’s work, who expect every one of his stories to feel like LoTR, but we know better, don’t we? There are many different stories in Middle-Earth with many different purposes.
- Radagast plays a prominent role toward the beginning of the film, but you’d never expect he was an addition to the main narrative. Of course he is mentioned in The Hobbit, but now what he was up to is fleshed out a bit, and fits very well into the larger story in which Gandalf is involved. He acts to set off the story’s side plot, revolving around Dol Guldur.
- The Necromancer of Dol Guldur - Beautifully woven into the main story. Not much to go on so far, but just enough to let you know that evil’s brewing in Mirkwood. My one complaint here is that the Witch King (or his ghost?) shows up briefly in Dol Guldur like a cheap Scooby Doo villain. Having the Nazgul return with the Necromancer’s rise is a fine way to adapt the story, though the visual part of that was a little weird. I’ll be withholding judgement until I see it again.
- The Witch-King - Galadriel states that the Witch King was defeated and buried in Angmar, which makes no sense at first, but then I got to thinking about it. They’ve basically kept the same events as Tolkien’s legendarium, but have moved up certain dates and condensed timelines. An obvious difference is moving up the Necromancer’s return, but another here is that the Nazgul did not become wraiths until very recently. The implication of the film version of The Hobbit is that the Witch-King still caused all the same trouble he did in the books, but he was still in a corporeal form, more or less. While in the books, becoming a wraith was a gradual transition over centuries or thousands of years, in the movie it seems that they more or less held on to a body until that body was destroyed, but their Rings (and Sauron’s general power) won’t let them die proper. Very little in the books is directly contradicted, as Tolkien never expressly states when exactly Ringwraiths became wraiths. It could have even been only during the War of the Ring, or whenever Sauron actually took the Nine Rings for himself again.
- Elrond - Remember how Elrond was an asshole in the other movies for no clear reason? Well they fixed him! Hugo Weaving completely sells a happy, generous Elrond who is not a dick to anyone. This honestly was one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the film. Presumably the movie logic was that in LoTR he was more stressed out about the War of the Ring and Aragorn not being terribly interested in becoming king, which I’ll accept.
- The White Council - The “behind the scenes” meddlings of the White Council (as described in the appendices of RoTK) are introduced very naturally. All of the drama you’d expect- Saruman being skeptical of Gandalf and Radagast, Elrond as the straight man, Galadriel being Gandalf’s biggest fan - it’s all there and performed wonderfully. You can really tell Gandalf’s had enough of Saruman, and you get just a hint that Saruman’s got plans of his own.
- Azog becomes sort of this side villain in the story. Instead of being killed during the Battle of Azanulbizar, Azog only lost a hand to Thorin Oakenshield (who at the time, of course, uses some oak for a shield). He has a habit of hunting the Dwarf party with a small band of Warg riders throughout the film. This is definitely the largest departure from the books, but the scenes are infrequent and to be honest, it’s a nice way of reminding you of the larger and older history between the Dwarves and Orcs, and that their quest is about more than just getting a pile of treasure back. Azog’s presence only emphasizes existing themes and scenes, and never detracts from what was originally going on.
- Bilbo is incredible. Martin Freeman is the best Hobbit that ever Hobbited.
Final thoughts: a really great, well-paced movie that effectively combined The Hobbit book with Tolkien’s additional material extremely well. I went in with a lot of reservations about how they were going to make this into three films, but honestly it all makes sense now.