Mail & Guardian

'The Hobbit': Return to middle-earth

14 Dec 2012 01:19 | Shaun de Waal

A hobbit goes forth: Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. (2012 Warner Bros Ent)

A hobbit goes forth: Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. (2012 Warner Bros Ent)

When Peter Jackson announced in June that his treatment of The Hobbit would run to three movies, not just two as originally planned, the inevitable question was immediately asked: How would he take a book about one sixth the length of The Lord of the Rings and turn it into a movie trilogy?

Jackson responded that JRR Tolkein had added several appendices to the third volume of The Lord of the Rings, giving deep background and various bits of “historical” information about the world of Middle-earth, and that some of that could be incorporated into The Hobbit to extend the storyline. Jackson mentioned 67 pages, I think it was, of useful material; looking at the addenda of The Lord of the Rings, though, it’s hard to see even that many pages providing information that could be turned into extra narrative for The Hobbit.

A fair amount of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings reads like the “begats” sections of the Bible — there are king lists, carefully marshalled imaginary timelines and, also like the Bible, short tales about various events related to this king or that. It feels as though Tolkein had been reading not the Icelandic sagas that were his speciality and passion but rather the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles.

That makes it pretty tedious to read, though the most trainspottery of Tolkein fans will have absorbed this as part of their understanding of Middle-earth. It does help to create a very full picture of this imagined world. But it doesn’t exactly provide narrative, as far as I can see. Here Jackson has had to take what are little more than hints and expand them into flashback episodes. For instance, a great underground battle between the dwarfs and the orcs is mentioned briefly by Tolkein, and Jackson has built this up into a raging CGI flashback sequence in the middle of the first Hobbit movie, subtitled An Unexpected Journey.

 It works reasonably well because, as everyone knows, in an action movie a half-page in the script can be turned in the filming into a lengthy action sequence. And this movie needs action sequences, The Hobbit being much less actiony than The Lord of the Rings. But it’s still not enough. Unlike the movies of The Lord of the Rings, in which the pressure to squeeze in all that vast narrative surely contributed to their rapid pace and sense of urgency, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels as though it has been stretched and stretched again to fill up a running time of nearly three hours.

The unexpected journey of the title is the one upon which Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) embarks, as cajoled and prodded to do by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian Mc-Kellen). We know from an excitingly vivid prologue section that the great city of the dwarfs, built inside a mountain, was seized by the dragon Smaug, who wanted to get his claws on the great hoard of gold it contained. Now a remnant of the scattered dwarfs has gathered under the leadership of Prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and they plan to recapture their city from Smaug.

The trouble is that there are only 13 of them. Add Gandalf and Bilbo and that makes 15, which is an improvement, but can 15 people outwit and defeat a dragon? We’ll have to wait until episode three of the trilogy to find out, of course (unless you read the book in the meantime), but until then the viewer is likely to feel that there are, in fact, too many dwarfs. It’s impossible to keep track of them, and their names don’t help — Fili, Kili, Nori, Ori ... Oh for something relatively simple, like Dopey, Sleepy, Grumpy and Sneezy!

Early in the movie, these 13 dwarfs arrive at Bilbo’s salubrious little hole in the ground and make themselves at home. They practically eat him out of that house and home, and the sequence displaying this is nicely done and often amusing, but it goes on for too long. If a moment works, it is repeated; we cut to Bilbo looking annoyed and anxious again and again. Every narrative filigree is given another filigree on top of it. And, as will be continued throughout the movie, if there’s a reaction shot to be had of Gandalf looking mysterious or twinkly-eyed or both, it will be used — and used again.

As the adventure unfolds, the dwarfs, the hobbit and the wizard find themselves in various forms of trouble. Such moments — nearly getting eaten by trolls, or having to avoid battling rock giants while tiptoeing along a narrow mountain ledge — are well played. Like the more obvious fighting scenes (mostly in flashback), they have a great deal of visual punch. As in The Lord of the Rings, Jackson’s visual sense is powerfully on display.

Still, even as one is awed by it all, one feels as though each of these scenes is being milked for every possible second of screen time. No such thing, here, as leaving the audience wanting more. You want more? You got it. And here’s some more more.

An Unexpected Journey is of course in 3D, as any such fantasy blockbuster must be nowadays, and it is moreover shot in 48 frames a second — double the usual amount. This allegedly improves the quality of the computer-generated effects, making them “smoother” and much more natural-looking. Me, I can’t see much of a difference: the mutant-hyena creatures that provide mounts for some evil orcs, for example, still have the oddly galumphing gait of all such GCI animals.

In book form, the slender volume of The Hobbit offers a lighter and more childlike story than its gargantuan successor; it’s a lovely little tale, practically perfect in its own right, and one that is unfairly overshadowed by The Lord of the Rings. (I’ve read The Hobbit several times since I first encountered it when I was about 11 or 12; once was enough for The Lord of the Rings.) It’s a mistake to bloat The Hobbit into three movies, to try to turn it into another three-decker epic; it’s like taking a sonnet, pulling it apart and trying to reassemble it as a saga that would take days to recite.

Just call me Grumpy.

View the original online publication here