A Hobbit Gets Dwarfed
It was, as I recall, a Tuesday afternoon in the Autumn of 1998 and I was flicking through the latest issue of a popular SF and fantasy magazine during the drive home from work.
'Ooh,' I said. 'It says here that they're making a film of The Hobbit.'
'Oh,' said my father, who was driving. 'Where are they going to film it?'
'Well,' I said, perusing the (rather minimal) article in more detail. 'It's not official yet, but it says that locations in New Zealand are being scouted... some people say they've heard they're going to make a movie of The Lord of the Rings. But that's silly, of course, The Lord of the Rings is unfilmable, and anyway you'd want to do The Hobbit first, wouldn't you? It'd only be sensible. They must be making The Hobbit. That'll be interesting.'
'That'll be interesting,' my father agreed.
Well, how wrong can you be? Peter Jackson did not want to do The Hobbit first. The Lord of the Rings is not, it would appear, unfilmable. And the film version of The Hobbit is...
Hang on a minute; it is interesting, at the very least. But the big question – the absolutely key, inescapable question, in every respect – is, how does it compare with Jackson's monumental, decade-defining version of the Rings?
JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, a fairly lengthy children's book, in 1937 and you could be forgiven for assuming that Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of an adaptation of the same. I would argue it is not, or at least not entirely: what it is, is an attempt to use material from this book to form the basis of a prequel to the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. For many people this may be too fine a distinction; I hope I can persuade you otherwise.
The bulk of this film is set sixty years prior to the previous trilogy and recounts the youthful adventures of the titular home-loving Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). For slightly obscure reasons, Bilbo is recruited by the enigmatic wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a band of itinerant Dwarves led by exiled prince Thorin (Richard Armitage). These Dwarves are displaced and dispossessed, their home kingdom of Erebor having fallen to the terrible dragon Smaug. Ignoring the misgivings of many of the finest minds in Middle Earth, Gandalf is intent on helping Thorin get his throne back – and he's also quite insistent that Bilbo come along on the journey too.
Well, there are Trolls and Orcs and Goblins along the way, along with ominous portents of a dark power resurgent in the realm – none of which seems particularly connected to the Dwarves' quest, until Bilbo happens upon a magical ring in the course of his travels...
I have to say I turned up to watch this first part of The Hobbit almost out of a sense of obligation, without much genuine excitement and with my expectations dialled down very low. Quite why this should be I can't really say – I was genuinely excited when it looked like Guillermo del Toro was going to be directing a diptych of Hobbit films, but the news that Peter Jackson was going to do three just made me very dubious.
Part of this is just mathematical – The Hobbit is about the same length as one of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. I can see how you'd justify a nine-hour movie trilogy based on a 1200-page epic novel. I can't see how or why you would want to make a nine-hour movie trilogy (which is what this promises to be) out of a 350-page children's story.
Except, of course, this isn't what Jackson's doing. Where The Lord of the Rings still had to have great chunks chopped out, just to fit on the screen, The Hobbit has had to have large quantities of new material added just to (delete according to taste) expand the story onto a larger canvas / bloat the running time sufficiently to justify making people pay for three movie tickets. Some of this is extrapolated from stuff mentioned in the novel, other bits are derived from additional material in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings itself (it appears that Jackson and his team may not have the rights to all of Tolkien's peripheral material, as they don't seem able to use the names Alatar and Pallandro), and quite a lot of it looks like it's completely new.
Now, in some ways this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows Jackson and his crew to open out their vision of Middle Earth even further, and it is – of course! – lovely to see people like Cate Blanchett and Sir Christopher Lee coming back to reprise their characters (even if it is fairly obvious that Lee has a stand-in most of the time he's not in close-up). We also get the pleasure of Sylvester McCoy giving a very – er – Sylvester McCoy-ish performance as the psychedelically-addled wizard Radagast (Peter Jackson is apparently a big fan of McCoy, which makes you wonder why he's made the actor perform all his scenes covered in excrement). Take this as you will, but Landy Bloom is being held in reserve for later installments in this trilogy.
But the upshot of all this new material is that the narrative focus of the film is all over the place – it's baggy and saggy and strangely paced, and, for a film called The Hobbit with an actor as good as Martin Freeman playing the Hobbit in question, the protagonist gets relatively little chance to shine. Freeman is good in his opening scenes, and again in the riddle-game sequence playing opposite Andy Serkis as Gollum, but too often the rest of the time he's either lost in a crowd of Dwarves or not on the screen at all – there's so much other stuff going on that Bilbo Baggins largely shrinks almost to obscurity.
It's a shame, especially when you consider that the filming of these movies was very eccentrically scheduled simply in order to allow Freeman to appear here while still honouring his commitments on Sherlock. That, if nothing else, exemplifies why I have a problem with this movie – it's just fundamentally very self-indulgent film-making, and too often this shows.
I suppose when you've won over a dozen Oscars and made over a billion dollars, you're entitled to exert a little clout in future projects: so why not film on different sides of the world and shut down and restart production just to meet the availability of some of your key cast members? Why not write characters in just to satisfy your existing fanbase (I can't think why else Elijah Wood appears as Frodo in this film)? Why not throw everything but the kitchen sink into the narrative?
Certainly, telling Tolkien's original story doesn't seem to have been a major concern. I popped into one of my favourite restaurants for a buffaloburger before seeing this film, and got chatting to the waitress. It turned out she was considering seeing The Hobbit herself, but hadn't seen The Lord of the Rings and was worried she wouldn't be able to follow it. I confidently assured her that, as this story took place earlier, no prior knowledge was needed. This is not the case, I suspect: the way the film is written and played seems to me to assume you already know who Frodo is, who Saruman and Galadriel are, the significance of things like Mordor and 'Morgul blades', and so on.
I know I have been very negative about The Hobbit, and this honestly pains me, partly because the Lord of the Rings movies are so special but also because, in many ways, this film is technically brilliant (even in 24FPS 2D on the small screen with the inadequate rake at the Phoenix). There are breathtaking visuals, striking effects sequences, a stirring score and some memorable performances – but even here it seemed to me that the film was just aping the style of its distinguished predecessors. Thorin comes across as a brooding heir-in-waiting in a very Viggo-esque manner, while the big action sequence with the Dwarves escaping from the Goblins hits so many of the same beats as the Moria section of the first film.
There are enough good things about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to make me excited about seeing the other films in the series, and not even regret promising to see it again in the not-too-distant future. But it's a bloated spectacle rather than a compelling story. The Lord of the Rings films were so special partly because they seemed to be taking a leap into the unknown and tackled bringing epic fantasy to the screen with ceaseless originality and imagination. The Hobbit, on the strength of this first outing, just feels like an exercise in ticking boxes in order to meet the requirements of a pre-existing formula – in many ways a beautiful formula, but a formula nevertheless. The toxic miasma surrounding the words 'prequel trilogy' still lingers, somewhat.