In early December, I had the opportunity to sit down with Peter Jackson, the director of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as well as members of the cast and crew to discuss their experiences on the much-anticipated film which opens nationwide December 14.

My father once told me that The Hobbit was the fairytale Tolkien wrote while composing his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Having now seen the first (of three films) installment of Tolkien’s prequel, I believe my father’s statement was correct, but in the best way possible. Jackson's The Hobbit is what J.R.R. Tolkien’s plucky hero, Bilbo Baggins, has always claimed it to be: a great and wonderful adventure.

Like The Fellowship of the Ring, this story begins in the Shire, where a younger Bilbo Baggins (played here by Martin Freeman) is enjoying a quiet, uneventful life until the arrival of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Suddenly, Bilbo finds his peaceful home thrown into utter chaos as one dwarf after another arrives to eat, sing, and plan for the journey of a lifetime.

Led by the exiled prince, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the dwarves prepare to set out toward the Lonely Mountain, the heart of their ancient kingdom and the dwelling place of the dread dragon Smaug. Long ago, the dragon invaded the dwarven kingdom and drove the inhabitants from their home, claiming their treasure for his own. Now, after many years, the dwarves believe the time has come to confront Smaug and reclaim their lost gold. Though he initially rejects Thorin’s offer to join their company, Bilbo begins to understand there is more to life than his small home in the Shire. With this newfound realization, Bilbo takes a leap of faith and becomes the fourteenth member of the expedition.

However, more is going on in the corners of Middle Earth than Bilbo and his company realize. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), one of Gandalf’s fellow wizards, has uncovered a dark power hiding in the ruins of Dol Guldur. The free peoples of the world convene The White Council, hoping to drive the evil figure from the land. All the while, Thorin finds himself being hunted by an enemy from his past...

It's against this backdrop that we were privileged to ask this talented cast and crew about everything from the creative process to J.R.R. Tolkien and the themes he utilized to bring to life the beloved story of Bilbo Baggins...

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With The Lord of the Rings, you had three books to draw content from. The Hobbit is a slender children’s story; what made you turn it into a trilogy?

Peter Jackson: That’s a very good question. It surprised us a bit too because we were originally planning on doing only two films, but it really became a question of “What do you leave out?” The Hobbit is a very misleading book because it’s written at a very breathless pace; huge events in the story are covered in only two or three pages. So once we started to develop the scenes, do a little character development, plus adapt the appendices from The Return of the King with events that happened around the time of The Hobbit, we had more than enough content to pull it off.

Philippa Boyens: I think if we hadn’t made The Lord of the Rings movies first this would be a very different story, but we had, and we realized the Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings is not the same Gandalf in The Hobbit, and we really wanted to tell that part of the story. It’s easy to forget the depth that is in this children’s book at the end - the story doesn’t conclude with the defeat of Smaug like you would expect - and children love that because it takes you further than you expected. The process also allowed us to bring back great characters like Saruman, and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, as well as create an emotional background for characters like Thorin.

How did it feel returning to Middle Earth after all these years?

Peter Jackson: I admit, at first I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it. I was afraid I’d end up competing against myself to some degree, but during the time we worked on the script and began developing the lines for the film, I came to realize there is a lot of charm, a lot of humor in The Hobbit that wasn’t present in the Lord of the Rings. It’s a completely different story with a completely different tone. When we finally started shooting I was really happy I was there.

For the new characters, what was it like assimilating into a cast that was already so well connected?

Richard Armitage: We arrived together at the beginning of 2011 and went straight into the film's training program, and it was sort of a bonding experience for us. It really formed our group and helped establish our character dynamics. As for coming into the old community, they were very welcoming to all of us newcomers.

Martin Freeman: I had always thought The Lord of the Rings movies were fantastic, and for my part, being a part of these films was a great experience. It gave me a chance to work with a lot of talented actors, a lot of actors I knew from home but had never actually met, and to make a lot of friends. It had a way of not being intimidating.

In today’s media it's rare not to have a strong female character present in the main cast. Are you concerned this will have a negative affect on the film? 

Philippa Boyens: Professor Tolkien actually wrote brilliantly for women, one of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth at this time was Galadriel, and we have her story as Tolkien wrote it, which in its own way informs The Hobbit. We did add a character named Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly, who is a pure invention of ours, though she is based on a story thread present in The Lord of the Rings. You’ll learn a bit more about her later. So I wouldn’t worry, it’s going to get good for the girls.

In the movie, there is a speech Gandalf gives about simple acts of kindness vs. great heroism. How does this theme carry out through the film?

Peter Jackson: One of the things I really liked about this film was being able to connect little pieces of The Lord of the Rings to The Hobbit. You may remember that in The Fellowship there’s a scene in the Mines of Moria where Gandalf is talking to Frodo about how the pity of Bilbo rules the fate of all. It’s great to actually see that scene where Bilbo confronts Gollum and spares his life because he realized true courage comes in deciding when to give life rather than take it.

Do you think Tolkien gave any of the characters different qualities in The Hobbit as opposed to The Lord of The Rings?

Ian McKellen: Well, Gandalf the White has to help save the world, so he's cut his beard down to size and gone white in the process. He has no time for jokes because it’s a story where the hero probably won’t make it back home. Bilbo gets back home because he’s on an adventure. So he doesn’t need Gandalf the White to look after him, but Gandalf the Grey is someone he can joke with and they eventually learn to trust each other. The characters are much more humane as opposed to The Lord of the Rings.

What did you personally take away from The Hobbit when you first read it? 

Richard Armitage: One of the things I really find when I look at the book is that I get a real sense of Tolkien’s Christian faith. You can see it in his chivalric view of the world, and there’s this essence of nobility, kindness, and mercy that is expressed in all of his characters. I find that very inspiring.  

Martin Freeman: It seems like a classic tale of the small guy who ends up being the hero against his will. What is always said is true, that heroism and deeds of bravery are done when you are most afraid. If you’re not scared you’re not being brave, you’re just being normal. For me, it’s all about a small guy thrust out into a huge world who manages to do the right thing. There are a lot of interesting things to be drawn from that.

Ian McKellen: In some ways I think Tolkien’s view of the world is bang up to date. He takes old people very seriously and gives them their full weight and due, young people he is very keen on, and I think the message that resonates with people who have read the books and seen the film is, “Yes, this world is organized by people who are very powerful and set on the preservation of Middle-Earth, but they are entirely dependent on the little guy.” As someone who’s been through two World Wars knows, it’s not the people we build statues to who shape the world; it’s the foot soldiers who stand up to the moment.

Do you think The Hobbit has any messages we could apply to today’s world?

Martin Freeman: The dangers of greed.

There’s a great scene in the movie where Gandalf and Lady Galadriel discuss how it's small acts of kindness that beat back the darkness. How would you say this applies to everyday life?

Ian McKellen: Well, I’d say the line itself basically summed it all up. It’s like what we have been saying, sometimes the person we need is the little guy, the guy who may be expendable, who may not come back. There’s a line in the movie where Bilbo says "Are you sure I’ll come back?" and Gandalf says "No," and it's a bit chilling.

Martin Freeman: Yes, I agree. I think the important thing for the audience to realize is that Bilbo still chooses to go on this journey even after getting this very honest appraisal telling him "even if you come back you won’t be the same." Which is very scary, but also quite touching.

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Many things can be drawn from J.R.R. Tolkien's tiny story. There are mutliple examples of kindness, bravery, and wisdom, but for those waiting to see The Hobbit on December 14th, perhaps the most significant lesson to learn before going is the difference between a mission and an adventure. Where The Lord of the Rings was a quest to save the world, The Hobbit is an adventure to explore it. And while it may not be quite as epic as Jackson's original trilogy, this prequel contains a bit more charm, an appropriate touch of innocence (it was written as a children's book, after all), and perhaps even a dash of whimsy. So, for those eager to return to the rolling hills of Middle Earth, this is one hopeful journey that should not be missed.

From Warner Brothers Entertainment, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey releases December 14, 2012 and stars Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Richard Armitage, and Andy Serkis. The film is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence.

Publication date: December 7, 2012