The Trouble with The Hobbit


The Trouble with The Hobbit
Peter Jackson's epic adaptation is here but we have some issues...
The Hobbit is finally in cinemas. After years of delays, a change in director and a move from two films to a massive trilogy from Tolkien’s tiny tome, audiences around the world are primed to experience this latest return to Middle Earth in their droves this coming weekend.

The problem is, at its most basic level, The Hobbit isn’t very good.

That’s not to say that Peter Jackson’s epic spectacle is a bad film – it represents Tolkien’s 1937 novel in a competent way, throws in some well wrought fantasy elements and a handful of watchable set pieces – but the result is never awe inspiring. It just lacks the energy and vitality of Jackson’s original Fellowship of the Ring over a decade ago, while having too few narrative reasons to capture the scale of either The Two Towers or The Return of the King.

There are many potential factors for this disappointing turn of events and I touch on some of them in my lengthy review of the film but I’d like to take the chance to examine just three of them in a more concentrated manner below.

The Hobbit is a kids book – there’s no getting away from that fact. Conceived in tales Tolkien told his own children, running a mere 300 pages and possessed of a spry, playful tone, it stands firm as one of the defining children’s fantasy novels of the 20th century.

Which isn’t to say that kids books can’t have their big budget adaptations, just look at the decade long span of Harry Potter’s adventures, but there’s a charming lack of complexity to plot of The Hobbit, in considerable contrast to the overly dense Lord of the Rings trilogy.

To combat this, Jackson and his writing team have gone back to Tolkien’s own appendices (which appeared at the end of the original Return of the King text) to fill in the perceived gaps in this tale. Thus we’re treated to a look at where Thorin gained his title ‘Oakenshield’ from and more time with Gandalf, the White Council and mentions of the evil Necromancer.

And it’s generally good stuff, helping to add a single comprehensible villain in the form of the Orc Azog and adding some weight to the otherwise fluffy proceedings. But these additions are layered on top of the entire existing material – meaning almost every page and line of Tolkien’s text is represented, even when it might be better on the cutting room floor.

Adaptation from book to screen includes a necessary process of editing, trimming content to suit the faster pace of cinema. But Jackson has become so enamoured with this world he doesn’t know what to cut, forcing us to sit through many minutes of dwarfs sitting around a hobbit hole and some seriously insufferable singing.

It’s impossible not to see these decisions as a way to expand the running time to almost three hours and the series to a full three movies. The result is nothing less than a bloated first entry, making us fear for the inevitable extended cut.

Radagast - one of the many additions to the story
Radagast - one of the many additions to the storyEnlarge Enlarge

Peter Jackson knows Middle Earth. He’s proven this with his suitably epic pursuit of the original Lord of the Rings Trilogy – from essentially making The Frighteners as proof that his production company could handle a larger project to gaining the rights for the film, shooting for over a year and delivering three features on budget and in just three years.

It’s an incredible achievement, rightly celebrated with a massive bevy of Oscars for Return of the King that were clearly aimed at the entire trilogy.

But 11 years on, it feels like Jackson’s love affair with the universe has waned somewhat. Originally set to produce and write the films, he stepped in when Guillermo del Toro had to pass and there’s a sense in which he was the only filmmaker ready to take up the reigns, rather than actually being interested in the job. Jackson has already lived and breathed the series for years, it’s not unreasonable to expect a little Middle Earth fatigue might have set in.

It can be seen in his inability to trim the original work (as mentioned above) but there’s also a feeling of malaise about the thing – of perfunctory happy Hobbiton times, cued by Howard Shore’s effective score, and a little relish taken in crafting the action and set pieces. The gritty detail which felt the logical progression of Jackson’s early splatter films is missing, painted over with lavish CG that neuters any real audience engagement.

And personally, after three massive (and massively successful) films, I was kind of hoping to spend some time with another directors vision for this universe.

Would the action have been better with Guillermo del Toro at the helm?
Would the action have been better with Guillermo del Toro at the helm?Enlarge Enlarge

I have now experienced The Hobbit twice in IMAX, 3D and at 48 frames per second and my verdict is – please stop assaulting my brain.

This triple threat, in my opinion, presents too many barriers between the audience and the film. Those bulky glasses, the epic span of the screen and (most offensive) the jittery motion of frames being blasted at your brain pans at double the normal speed.

With Jackson also shooting the film at 5K resolution and the copious overuse of CG the film seems in danger of being overshadowed by the way it has been captured. The original LOTR trilogy had a scrappy, lived in feel – with Weta leaning on practical solutions whenever possible, right down to create vast (yet miniature) models of Isengard for epic flythrough. It created the intentional feeling of a handheld documentary which just so happened to be taking place in Middle Earth and was all the better for it.

The Hobbit boasts a budget well in excess of $200 million dollars (far in excess of Fellowship $100) and every penny is onscreen. The result is quite the spectacle but is often less involving as dozens of CG enemies are decapitated and foes fall with the greatest of ease – particularly in the Misty Mountains sequence. These scenes quickly descend into nothing more than an on the rails video game sequence, with platforming elements as the invulnerable crew swing wildly from one area to the next. It put me in mind of the worst of George Lucas or later Spielberg offerings in its only passing interest in real world physics.

On the subject of those 48 frames, there’s no getting around the fact that familiar human motion looks naff. Movements feel sped up rather than smoother and camera pans judder across the screen – looking for all the world like something shot on a low end camera system. You may notice that The Hobbit is almost free of live action crowd scenes and there’s a reason for that – the glimpses of groups of humans in Dale in the prologue have the look of the kind of cut rate reconstruction you might see on a History Channel documentary. Motion looks unnatural and the look too sharp and HD.

Telling me that my eyes will have to adjust to the new form is not comforting in the slightest – I like the way 24 frames per second looks, it is literally what cinema is to every corner of my mind and I have no interest in suffering through years of having to move between both formats. Not to mention the issue for punters who now have to choose between flat, 3D, IMAX, 24fps and 48fps version of their movies. Don’t bet on that high frame rate revolution just yet.

Jerky Hobbitses...
Jerky Hobbitses...Enlarge Enlarge

You can read my review of The Hobbit here and watch our interview with star Aidan Turner here.

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