Holm Is Where the Heart Is
Considering its risk-laden and first of its kind production that under no circumstances was ever considered a guaranteed success, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and casting director Amy Hubbard were under tremendous pressure to populate the definitive live-action adaptation with talent worthy of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved literary source material. Their hiring of Ian Holm, thankfully, soon proved to be a stroke of genius.
In a departure from the theatrical cut, the superior Extended Edition (in this fan’s estimation, at least) follows the opening expository prologue with a graceful segue to Bilbo Baggins at work on writing a memoir in the study of his home Bag End in the Shire. The comforting timbre of Holm’s voice provides the very first dialogue we hear in the present-day story, guiding us through an idyllic day in the life of Hobbits and essentially introducing us to the foundation that will ground viewers amid the ever more expansive story to come. Fittingly, Ian Holm thus becomes synonymous with the very concept of home, of a rural utopia and an innocent way of life, of all that stands to be lost should the Fellowship fail in their ultimate mission.
But even beyond the narrative function of establishing stakes, Bilbo quickly becomes our gateway to both his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) and oldest friend Gandalf (Ian McKellan), two of the most important protagonists in the entire trilogy. No matter which version you watch, the surprisingly Bilbo-centric scenes early on give us a thoroughly fascinating personality to identify with while steadily ingratiating ourselves with Frodo and Gandalf through the meaning they hold for him. What stands out the most is the depths to which Bilbo clearly cares for these two characters – even if he rarely admits as much in so many words, which means we’re mostly watching Holm’s precise body language, observing the creases in his well-worn face, and listening to the tone of his voice – and the extent that they both care for him in return. Before we know it and with us hardly even noticing, Ian Holm’s assured presence ends up being the secret weapon in getting audiences to invest in our main hero and his mentor figure.
An Unexpected Journey
Of course, we come to learn that much of Bilbo’s madcap and occasionally disturbing behavior stems from his possession of the all-powerful Ring, extending his lifespan and preserving his youthful looks but at the cost of his sense of security and stability.
Once again exclusive to the Extended Edition, Frodo’s joyous meeting with Gandalf on his way to visit Bilbo soon turns melancholy and suspicious as the younger Baggins details some of the increasing eccentricities of the elder – at which point we cut to Bilbo frantically searching for the Ring, turning his house inside out before Holm’s shaky sigh of relief reveals that it was in his pocket all along. All isn’t quite right in the paradise of the Shire, an unsettling development that casts a foreboding shade upon the sunlit hills and one that follows Bilbo even into his home. After Gandalf finally arrives, light banter over food and wine suddenly gives way to talk of Bilbo’s mortality and restlessness of spirit on the cusp of his 111th birthday, punctuated by Holm’s haunted delivery that hits even harder today: “I am old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart.”
Ian Holm’s wonderful range of talent is on full display in much of the first half hour of The Fellowship of the Ring, running the gamut from Bilbo good-naturedly scaring adorable Hobbit children with stories of his past adventures (the filming of which Peter Jackson reminisces about in his recent heartfelt tribute) to his grandiose rendition of the absurdly hilarious “I don’t know half of you half as much as I’d like…” birthday speech to his profound and regretful farewell look to Frodo before slipping on the Ring, disappearing into thin air as he finally begins his long-planned escape from the Shire that has come to suffocate him.
It’s in the following moments in Bag End, however, where we’re treated to a powerhouse showcase of everything Holm was truly capable of.
Despite Gandalf’s urging to leave the Ring behind as an heirloom to Frodo, Bilbo’s long-delayed internal dilemma rises to the fore and nearly consumes him. Lashing out at his old friend and as ragefully stubborn as we’ve ever seen him, Holm takes out the Ring and seems to shrivel into the carefully calibrated image of an addict before our eyes – a venomously whispered line delivery here, a maniacal widening of the eyes there, and ultimately a helplessly shameful embrace in Gandalf’s reassuring arms signals that the madness has passed. Upon succeeding in his final excruciating test, using all remaining willpower to literally let the Ring go as it falls to the floor with an unnaturally heavy thud, we’re given a greater display of the raw power and influence of the Ring than a thousand worldbuilding prologues full of battles and epic vistas could ever accomplish. As it turns out, Bilbo Baggins’ – and Ian Holm’s – most important contribution to The Lord of the Rings was to be a vessel through which viewers could wholly buy into the corruptive and destructive nature of the saga’s most important plot device.
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Farewell Dear Bilbo
Though he would reappear once more halfway through Fellowship before making a future poignant appearance in The Return of the King as well as bookending The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Battle of the Five Armies a decade later, The Fellowship of the Ring is thoughtful enough to offer one distinct moment that serves as a bittersweet goodbye to both the character of Bilbo and Ian Holm himself. Immediately after dropping the Ring and marching outside without a second look to embark on his last great adventure, he pauses to collect himself before announcing that he’s settled on a proper ending to his memoir and, thus, his life’s story: “And he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.“
When revisiting this groundbreakingly epic yet intimately personal trilogy in the years to come, it’ll be impossible not to be acutely aware of the hole at its heart now that Ian Holm is no longer with us. But we’ll always be left with the picture of a slightly disheveled Hobbit who just barely managed to claim victory over his weakness and shortcomings, clutching a walking stick and hoisting a small knapsack with the precious few earthly possessions that he holds dear, a brief wistful smile on his face as he gives one final glance to a dear old friend, and begins a resolute walk beyond his front gate into the wider world, softly singing a walking song as he fades into the distance.
“The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow if I can.”