Having finally made the effort of seating my rump down for three hours to watch the first instalment in the new Hobbit trilogy, I thought I’d cover my thoughts on the experience, but before I do so I’d like to take a few lines to mention some of my history with Lord of the Rings, which will go some ways to explaining some of my feelings on the films, books, games and general adaptery goings on therein. So before I digress too far and just in case you just want to know if I enjoyed it with no spoilers or the like, here is my highly condensed opinion.
If you enjoyed the LOTR films go and see it.
Of Books and Boyhood
Unlike many in the cadre of my generation of middle-class male geek-culture loving types, I actually stumbled upon Lord of the Rings rather late. Whilst I’d been avidly devouring the works of Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein and the like as a boy, I’d somehow skipped lightly from my Mother’s readings of the Narnia books to Science Fiction with no mention of Hobbits (In case you were wondering my Father once attempted to read to us but after referring to the leonine godhead-proxy as Alsan too many times he was soon sent from the room in disgrace. (aren’t children sweet?)
Despite there being a readily available copy of The Hobbit in the house, I somehow never managed to read it. I recalled it being a horridly difficult slog which seemed to drag out interminably, resulting in lots of dwarves in a room arguing while Gandalf blew multi-coloured smoke rings. Had you asked me at age 7 how far into the book it was, I’d have bet real money I’d been over 50 pages into it, rather than the actual 14.
It was only in the mid 90s when I was an avid reader of Empire Magazine, that I had Tolkien brought back into focus when I heard of the upcoming production of Lord of the Rings. It was still a ways off at that point, with rumblings of Gandalf being played by Sean Connery still lingering in memory. So I set about reading the books. By now, at the tender age of…17 or so, I took advantage of one of my last school summers to get a copy of The Hobbit from the library (the old one having been left in a damp outbuilding, where the usually majestic cover-depiction of Smaug the dragon had withered and rotted before being half-eaten by mice) I blitzed through the story in a flash, amazed that such a short work could have seemed so monumental, and indeed so boring as had once seemed to my young mind. It was after reading that that I dived headlong into the family paperback omnibus edition of The Lord of the Rings. Giddy with stories of Hobbits, parties, smoke-rings and walking through forests, and more walking, then even more walking and more forests….. and then a rhyming dancing weirdo called Tom Bombadil.
Well…. I was 17. All hormones, confusion and desperation for some form of viscerality. Not the most patient of ages. However, as many will testify, the opening book (of the six which comprise LOTR) that marks the story up until the troupe reach Rivendell is shockingly slow paced. As much Tolkien finding his feet with the style between his more jolly adventure romp of The Hobbit and the dryly academic lingual and pseudo-historic world building he had been engaged with for the many years it took him to complete the novel. In short, it’s a slow starter, which is still trapped in the style of a woodsie romp through his idealised version of a “truly English mythology” before the story really takes off. In the end it took me the same amount of time to read that first half of Fellowship of the Ring in short stuttering bursts, that it did for me to read the entire rest of the work. I practically raced through it, desperate to devour this place, time and mental image of a fantasy world. One which suddenly explained to me why Krull, Willow, Star Wars and other such films all seemed oddly similar in points.
Now be it a result of Rings simply being well suited for my tastes, or the right book at the right time, I became more than a little obsessed with the entire universe. I’d played a few fantasy based boardgames, read my way through a swathe of Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffery and every Pratchett up to date, but nothing had gripped me like this, and so it became a bit of an obsession. In a very short time, I became “that guy” who talked only about Lord of the Rings. Much to the wearying of my long suffering pals. (most of whom read LOTR as young teens & weren’t more than mildly interested in the upcoming films. But suffered they did, as did my Uni mates as the film became progressively closer, and I lapped up every detail on TheOneRing.net each day. Still finally the day came when, one December night I dragged my parents out to almost the worst seats in a packed theatre to see The Fellowship of the Ring. I was enraptured. It looked as I had imagined it, down to almost every detail. I was uttely amazed. So much so that it was almost as if a plug had been pulled on my love of the series. I didn’t feel the need to keep quite so up to date on every aspect of plot and filming development. By the time Two Towers had arrived, I was already finished University, and working my Post acedemia “Not a gap year” of drunken debauchery in a cinema. I ended up seeing The Two Towers so much that I knew segments off by heart. Perhaps this, and some other aspects of life conspired to draw my attention away. By the time Return of the King came out I was overjoyed to see the end of the tale, but life had filled up with so many more important things going on.
As a result, I’ve not quite kept up with my Tolkien. My copy of LOTR has sat unopened for over ten years, when up until the films had come out I had read it annually, although I had breezed through the Hobbit a few times, it was far from my mind. Even my only once opened Lord of the Rings Edition of Trivial Pursuit, sits on a shelf gathering dust (although in fairness, that was largely because no-one ever wanted to play against someone who knew 90% of the obscurest answers. Like most people I’ve bought the Extended Edition DVDs, although unlike many I have watched the extra features in their entirety. I have played the film-based videogames, and only my general disdain for paying monthly for a computer game kept me from the Lord of the Rings Online MMO. I’ve never braved The Silmarillion, and despite wanting to read it never got round to picking up a copy of the recently released novel The Children of Hurin.
So fast forward several years and can have come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that after the cinematic, money-making and buttock-crumpling masterpiece that was the Lord of the Rings Trilogy would have a follow-up. True that even after the legal wranglings required between the rights holders, New Line Cinema, the Tolkien estate and Peter Jackson had eventually reached a surprising accord, it’s still taken about 3 years longer than expected. Which had both the blessing and curse of Seeing Guillermo Del Toro leave the film as director and Jackson return to the helm. Personally much as I adore Del Toro’s visual flair and emotional work with his actors, his penchant for the occasionally silly and whimsical can lead to more problems than it solves. However his added support to the script development and pre-production of The Hobbit at least ensured a fresh pair of eyes on the project And I think it shows. (more on that later) I’ve not followed The Hobbit all too closely through it’s development. I felt it took some of the mystery from LOTR that I’d seen the ringwraiths, goblins and trolls before the film came out. Leaving little (or not little in the Balrog’s case) to the imagination. So with only the briefest looks at the Trailers I set off to catch a lunchtime showing. Here’s what I thought…..
If you have lived in a hole in the ground for the last 60 years then I’ll not bother enlightening you too much. The Hobbit is the story of slightly fussy curmudgeon Bilbo Baggins, roped into a high-fantasy adventure with 13 dwarves and a grumpy old wizard. Off to reclaim the Throne & treasures of a dwarven kingdom usurped years earlier by a gold-coveting dragon. Oh it’s also the prequel and build-up to Lord of the Rings (in case you skipped ahead here) It’s a romp, a giddly silly film, and has a lot of moments designed to appeal to younger viewers while never becoming overtly childish. In short, it’s very much like the book it was adapted from, curious, odd, mildly problematic and wonderfully good fun.
Given than this is in many ways a prequel, as well as a separate story within the same universe there would always be some discontiguity between the stylistic and thematic content of the two trilogies. Even from the cluttered opening production titles, Now complete with Warner Brothers, MGM and the newly engoldened US TV ugly New Line logo, I was wondering at what point I should expect an opening. However the chirpy Hobbity music over the top never stopped, and it’s from that moment that it’s clear that this a markedly different beast from the previous films. This is back to normality with Bilbo chatting to himself about his adventures, and beginning to write the Red book we see him with at the opening of the Extended “concerning Hobbits” version of Fellowship. It’d be hard to have a more comforting opening than this, despite a sense that it lingers, with several repetitive shots of corridors and a hugely protracted run before the main subtitle of the film actually appears.
This is one of the biggest problems of the narrative in The Hobbit. There’s a ‘let’s take our time’ feel to the story, that betrays the simplicity of what’s being shown. Take the grand opening of the story with the history of Erebor and the folk of Durin. It’s a lovely sweepingly pretty segment which will improve on repeat viewings because of the level of detail, and the strangeness of some the dwarf make-up choices. But it alternately drags and rushes, at first because you are being hammered with so much information, then with a Dragon attack where the director is desperate not to show off his Dragon! It’s still a powerful and clever scene, but most of the cut-away and flashbacks in this all have this same feeling, be it the story of Azog and Thorin’s duel, or Radagast discovering the Necromancer, there’s a sense that this is supposed to be exhilarating and deep but with a whiff of deliberate appetite whetting and withheld expectation. It’s true that there are limited action moments in the story, which are being spread over three films, but this really feels like half a story with padding rather than a third of a decent length adventure.
Looking at the set pieces in the film, there is a reason for this obvious problem. Unexpected Journey is bottom heavy, just as Fellowship was. Only with Fellowship it was a journey of constantly raising stakes. In Unexpected Journey we have almost an hour of pre-amble until the troupe are on the road, then a series of faltering starts before the last hour of almost constant peril and excitement. Don’t get me wrong, the film is never boring. But when the story hits its stride you can tell there is a level of comfort to it.
And when does this occur? As soon as the party leaves Rivendell. Yes the last homely house in the East once again is a moment of stopped action after which the story sets off on a true course, again, much like Fellowship. From then you’ve got Goblin kingdoms, Riddles in the dark, stone giants, wargs, orcs and treetops. Before then you have, snottery comedy trolls, a whirligig of oddness from Radagast the Brown and a bewildering warg chase over land that looks DISTRACTINGLY like the plains of Rohan from Two Towers, only less realistic.
It’s here I have to make a comment on the effects in general.There has been much said about the 48 fps new 3D technology instituted for the movie, and how some say it makes the film look like a cheap BBC TV series from the early 90s. I wouldn’t know, I made a point of seeing the 2D 35mm version because that’s what I wanted to see. I like new tech but I’d prefer not to have distractions the first time I see a film like that.
LOTR used mainly real plate footage with CG enhancements and creatures reacting to actors in make-up and real props. It’s true that CGI technology has moved on since the turn of the millennium but it’s almost as if they’ve forgotten that the trick is matching it to a real background. The CGI creatures have lost a lot of their ‘reality’ Looking more like the more cartoonish Harry Potter creatures. Despite the huge level of detail and fine animation, there is a silliness and falseness to it all. The same stands true for the albino orc Azog, he looks like a plastic cartoon never really inhabiting the same space as the “man in suit” orcs beside him. Additionally there are more than a few instances of truly woeful bluescreen matting and sky replacement. None worse than the Dwarfs arriving at Bilbo’s door. Those shots looked glaringly awful in a way the similar shots from Fellowship never did. Odd and distracting. The practical effects are a more welcome affair with the expected magnificence of props and bigatures making it all looks wonderful. Biblo’s home, Rivendell, the caves, the armour all excellent.
Design choices are for the most part entirely sensible, and especially so when it comes to the Dwarves. Given that in LOTR there are relatively few Dwarves seen, ie. those at Rivendell and during the opening sequence only glimpsed fleetingly, it’s obvious that there would need to be some work in making a cast of 13 rotund comical figures different enough to ensure that they’re obviously NOT humans, hobbits or elves. So to make this easier they each look drastically distinct, with huge latex bulbous noses on many of them as well as massive wigs, beards and oddly giant latex fat-hands. Surprisingly, the different Dwarves are easy to keep track of during the film. Although this is certainly been done to ensure that the audience can cling to several more important characters. The introduction scene is a flurry of names and confusion, which in fact adds to the discombobulation felt by Bilbo. Yet credit must be given to the dozen rank and file Dwarves do stand out from one another visually and in personality quite well.
In fact there are really only four who seem short changed by this first film. Gloin and Oin (the Father and uncle respectively of LOTRs Gimli) The angular haired Nori and the curiously impaired Bifur, each of whom only speaks once or twice obviously during the film. Which led to the odd moment 2/3rds of the way through when on a mountain precipice I caught myself thinking; “Who’s he?” upon seeing Oin. True there are another two films which will accentuate the cast’s proliferation of screen time so it’s fair to assume that by the end everyone will have had their moment. For the most part, this is a film where Balin, Bofur, Bombur and they young ‘uns Kili and Fili stand out the most. That is of course apart from Thorin Oakenshield.
Richard Armitage may not previously have been a well kent face but after these films he’ll be an established property. Adding gravitas and a measures internalised strife to every scene as the bitter and care-worn beggar-King. There’s enough for any capable actor to work from in the book, but the real test of the writing will be on how he grows throughout the next film. Thorin manages to be both sympathetic and irksomely despatched from the rest. In many ways this is sensible as a characters and in his position of higher standing. It also raises him from the others in visual significance in the film as well.
But his is not the only great performance, another standout is the fine work of Andy Serkis who shows up to remind everyone what has been missing from out lives for ten years. In fact the sequence in Gollum’s cave is the standout moment in the film. If nothing else in the movie worked, then this sequence, the pivotal moment that sets the entire plot of LOTR had to be pulled off properly. It was. Aside from giving Gollum up to the camera far too easily, the entire scene was from start to finish note perfect. It’s ultimately a short piece with two actors playing off one another in a semi-ridiculous situation, that’s straight out of pulp folklore. And yet, Gollum has never been so terrifying, or so pathetic and yes, even sympathetic. Bilbo’s infamous decision to spare him is given a moment of pause and emotion that makes sense, it underlines the character of Gollum perfectly and shows his conflict, and the danger which seemed oddly missing from him through most of the Rings trilogy.
Which brings me round to the adaptation and more relevantly the retro-active setting up of the already existing trilogy. Now The Hobbit is a book which barely passes 300 pages. It’s a comical adventure and compared to the three-volume, 1000 page epic tome that comprises Lord of the Rings, it’s barely a footnote. As such it was always going to be a curious effort in expanding and adapting the story to the length of film that was required. Of course this meant the previously mentioned protracted introduction with Bilbo and Frodo (Who unfortunately sounds oddly stilted in his delivery of lines, as if he hadn’t had enough time to properly get back into character) and the history of Erebor, all understandably present before the film segues into the past. Despite visually showing a lot of action in the early part, which is far simpler to tell in a few short sentences, there isn’t anything wrong with the languid pace. This is the starting up of a great engine, it takes time to get going. It’s simple to forget that LOTR is ultimately a story which is already well underway when we begin at Bilbo’s birthday. The Hobbit is the beginning of it all. (let’s face it, there will never be a Silmarillion film)
It’s only once the Hobbits reach the road that it becomes clear that Jackson & co are clambering over themselves to add new angles and characters to the story. The aforementioned Radagast the Brown and his woodland chums is charming enough, but could have been cut entirely down to him meeting them on the road. He’s extraneous, distracting and ultimately seems a bit silly. The Hobbit is the sort of film where Tom Bombadil would have happily popped up, and while Radagast fits in that mold he’s of little purpose other than exposition. Presumably he’ll be of more importance in the following films. Similarly the appearance of Azog, the pale orc, is an understandable choice. As was the inclusion of Thorin’s Pyrrhic hand chopping victory at the battle of Azanulizbar, for both action content and characterisation. The imperative of being chased by vengeful Orcs on Wargs does add a legitimacy to the pressure of the quest, as well as setting up potential for the final act of the trilogy (even if it does lead to the most ugly CGI chase segment in the movie as the heroes are hounded into Rivendell) I doubt anyone but the ultimate purists would mind that fairly minor mythological characters Azog and his son Bolg are being used as ‘face’ villains for the otherwise vacant foes. Compared to Arwen’s replacing of Glorfindel in LOTR and it’s an acceptable change.
More problematic is the inclusion of Galadriel and Saruman at Rivendell. Whilst the acting of the powerhouse team wasn’t ever going to be an issue. Frankly you could stage Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Ian McKellen discuss sock washing and it’d be fairly captivating, as they are powerful presences and great actors. The trouble came from the incredible odd pacing of the scene and a sense that it was written about as far from Tolkien as the film ever gets. It’s a cute little motif to have Saruman reference his “halfling leaf” comment in LOTR with a gripe about Radagast’s mushroom habit, but instead he prattles on about it while Gandalf and Galadriel have the important discussion in a private psychic chat window. This both lessens the power and wisdom of Saruman THE WISE, excludes Elrond and makes the entire scene feel like a civil service board meeting, and not the wisest & most influential powers of good in Middle-Earth. Now while this is also the foreshadowing of the battle against the Necromancer, which presumably will be adding highly to the running time of both of the following Hobbit films, it feels awkward, it reminds of the over-simplified political gibberish in The Phantom Menace. It does however establish some plot impetus and we can only hope it’s followed up in the rest of the trilogy.
The turning of a 310 page book into a 9 hour movie experience is another common complaint. Personally I’m not against the idea of The Hobbit as a trilogy, as evidenced by the subtitles of the films alone An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again, they clearly have a narrative bent to them all, which makes a story sense. Taken on the plainest adaptive level, the next film would have to contain the company lost in Mirkwood, the giant spiders, the Wood Elf King’ court, apples in barrels, Laketown, the arrival at the mountain and facing Smaug himself. Given that this would still leave the remainder of the story with only the scant 40 pages of the book book to fill out the final film; that would also comprise the siege of Erebor and the Battle of the Five Armies and subsequent fallout. Not to mention the journey home. That’s before taking into account the battle against the Necromancer, and any other further flashbacks, stories and additional flavours.
In all I don’t think that The Hobbit has been anything less than a success. You put any child who likes adventure and fun in front of that and they’ll lap it up. What’s more I actually envy the children who see this first, as the easier more whimsical tone, the fun spontaneous singing and the lack of true horror in it means that it will be more enjoyable to younger audiences. What’s more there are a legion of subtle nods to the existing trilogy, from camera angles, acting ticks and small aside mentions, the set-ups for many of the locations in Middle Earth have a more grand feeling here. Rivendell especially feels like a discovery, where as with Fellowship, it seems more like a return. The wonder and surprise that was present in a more muted sense is given a retro-active explanation, as is the danger inherent to Gollum, which never felt palpable until Return of the King, is deliniated in his subtle but evident bloodthirsty psychosis. It has some flaws but overall we are in for a treat with this second trilogy. All that needs to be dealt with now is how to survive the year to the next instalment.
Did someone say that Lord of the Rings Online is free to play?