When Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, it was something very special. I’d been waiting for it for years, and I watched it with friends who had been waiting just as long, one of whom was only a few hours off a flight from San Francisco to Dublin. Inevitably, the release of The Hobbit wasn’t going to get the same degree of anticipation. But does it deserve the amount of opprobrium being thrown at it? (Including by some of those selfsame friends…)
Martin Freeman is the heart and soul of the film, and it’s no surprise that Peter Jackson rearranged his shooting schedule to ensure his casting. No one does the put-upon everyman with as much warmth, wit and humour, and the highlight of the film comes when Freeman’s Bilbo encounters Andy Serkis’s Gollum. Sadly, it’s not a meeting that will be repeated, if the book is hewn to, but there’s always the banter between Freeman and his Sherlockian partner Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug to look forward to.
The Hobbit, in fact, is a much trickier book to adapt than The Lord of the Rings, due to its more fairy-tale tone, and that’s all the more true when you consider that it has to match up with the more serious adaptations of the later books. So credit to Peter Jackson and co. for managing that balance well. There’s plenty of humour, danger and depth here, without any one element dominating the others. (Your mileage may vary, of course – the Tolkien fanatic I went to see it with was disgusted.)
What doesn’t work?
The prologue is utterly pointless. Prologues are something of a fantasy trope, and a dangerous one at that. Here, we get 20-30 minutes of highly rendered backstory and cameos from the disturbingly plastic looking Elijah Wood and Ian Holm. It’s all completely unnecessary, as the backstory it provides is repeated over the course of the rest of the film. Far better to start the film as the book does, with Bilbo on his front step, and Gandalf coming around the corner.
Secondly, there’s a habit throughout the film to nod towards the massively successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s an understandable impulse, but is there any real need to bolster the connections? Worse, presenting fantasy, especially humorous fantasy, requires those involved to play it straight. All the nudges and winks in the script amount to reminding the audience that they’re watching another of those films.
What kinda-sorta works?
This is a slender book, which I reread over two days, at a relatively leisurely pace, and material from the appendices has been used to pad it out to three films. It’s good material to use, and it gives parts to some returning favourites (Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee, most notably), but absolutely nothing happens with it in this first film. If anything, it detracts from the main plot of the dwarves returning to their lost city, turning their adventure into just part of a setup for the next two films. Some of the appended material strikes a bit of an odd note too – Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast is an overly whimsical figure, with his rabbit-powered sleigh.
The fabled, and much-discussed, 48 frames-per-second filming is occasionally a problem. I wasn’t sure whether I was watching it at first, just that the picture looked oddly clear and sharp. Not such a problem with exterior shots, which look like HD nature documentaries, but definitely an issue with sets and props and CGI. The fact is, cinematic techniques have been honed to work with 24fps for decades. Eventually, 48fps will work beautifully, but right now its an attractive, if gangly and awkward child. (As for 3D, I still don’t much care for it, but The Hobbit at least doesn’t seem to suffer from the murkiness of most 3D films.)
So, arrange for yourself to arrive half an hour late and try not to think too much about the Lord of the Rings trilogy. You’ll be rewarded with an unsurprisingly faithful, if very baggy retelling of a slender book. Freeman’s Bilbo alone is worth the price of admission, and his thirteen dwarven companions are well-drawn enough to support him, if occasionally straying into caricature (mostly at the very start of the film). As a film, it’s more likely to please a wide audience than it is the hardcore Tolkien fans, but I doubt Peter Jackson will be too worried about that.
Edit: Having watched it again, this time in 24fps 2D, my opinion of The Hobbit has risen quite a bit. It’s still baggy, and despite its faithfulness to the source unlikely to appeal to the purists, but not having to deal with the masses of detail that 48fps presents allows your brain to sink into the material with greater ease. 24fps has its own technical issues, particularly when it comes to camera motion and a lack of detail, but for the moment it’s the better way to see the film.