Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Hobbit - an Unexpected Movie

'Well, I'm not going!" I said, as soon as I heard Peter Jackson was going to divide Tolkien's The Hobbit into two films. "If he could make The Return of the King in one film," I fulminated, "he can certainly give us The Hobbit in one."

Then we heard it was going to be THREE movies! "No," I groaned. "I'm NOT going! I'll wait for the director's cut box set of all three and watch them on DVD."

So, on Sunday 23rd December, off I trotted to the local multiplex with husband, sister, middle daughter, son-in-law and two huge bags of salted popcorn (and some chocolates, if truth be told).

You see, going to watch Peter Jackson's take on Tolkien was a Christmas tradition for three years during the LoTR era and we were just swept up in the pleasure of returning to PJ's vision of Middle Earth (and Richard Taylor's and WETA's and Alan Lee's and Howard Shore's and many other people's). We wanted to see Hobbition again and Ian McKellen's Gandalf and Hugo Weaving's Elrond and Andy Serkis's Gollum. And there was Richard Armitage, of whom more anon.

We knew it would be long - nearly three hours - but we have stamina and form, especially for popcorn. We knew it would be padded out (with material from the LoTR appendices) but I'd read those. And I knew it would have Richard Armitage.

It began very pleasantly in Bag End, with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their just pre-Surprise Party scene and Frodo running off to find Gandalf. Then we were into flashback with the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) meeting the wizard on the much earlier occasion that led to the mark on the door, the invasion of thirteen dwarves, and setting off on a journey "There and Back Again."

Of course this first episode doesn't even reach There. It covers the first six chapters of Tolkien's 1937 novel, which I immediately re-read in the rather handsome fiftieth anniversary edition, which looks like this plus a red flash and a red sun (which was what Tolkien wanted - the red sun, that is):

The opening chapter with its visit of demanding and greedy dwarves, who make inroads into Bilbo's larder, is very true to the book. But then there is a lot of back-story about how the dragon Smaug (pronounced "Smowg", which is apparently how Tolkien said it) laid waste to Erebor nearly 200 years before.

Now, I don't mind this kind of thing but some reviewers have found it slows down the pace. What I thought made this movie less good than LoTR was the reprising of several episodes and special effects from the trilogy. Giant eagles sweeping to the rescue when all seems lost, Gollum and Sméagol in dialogue with each other, our heroes overcoming terrific odds in underground battles, and so on, and so on.

But of course all those things (or most of them) are there in the book so it's Tolkien using the same tropes in the trilogy that have already worked well in the previous book. And it's not as if the pacing in the book is perfect.

                                                  SPOILER ALERT

In The Hobbit the dragon is dispatched with very little sense of jeopardy 44 pages before the end, with one well-placed arrow, and the rest of the story becomes more or less a squabble over the division of the spoils. Yes, there's a battle and yes, an important character dies but I'm amazed at how un-child-friendly the action is. Surely a fight with a huge terrifying dragon is more thrilling than how the treasure is divvied up - even though treasure itself is mildly exciting?

I'm sure that is something Peter Jackson will handle better in the movies.

We watched in 3D though not in 48 fps - how amazed Professor Tolkien would have been by all these options. What this brought home was how very much it is a movie for the computer games generation. That won't be a negative for many viewers but it was for me.

Scene after scene of hobbit and dwarves conquering impossible odds as swarmed over by hundreds of goblins or orcs just feels too lacking in real threat. An Agincourt happens rarely in real life and it just seems too incredible that fourteen questers - fifteen if you count Gandalf - survive to the end of the movie with not even one broken bone!

And yes, fantasy does need to be in some sense credible.

Well what of Richard Armitage then? One of his many charms is his height and yet he is cast as a dwarf, albeit the Leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. Most of the actors playing dwarves have a great deal of prosthesis about them but Thorin's dwarvishness is suggested only by a slight nose-extension (and the fact that he appears to be standing in a ditch). This gives an unpleasantly eugenics feel to kingship for me.

And the only moment that moved me was between Thorin and Bilbo, one that doesn't happen in the book and is characterised in the very good TLS review by Tom Shippey as "a final Hollywood-sentiment scene" in which Bilbo explains that he wants to help the dwarves because he has a home and they have lost theirs. And afterwards I felt my emotions had been manipulated by something not genuinely Tolkien.

And I'm afraid Radgast's bunny sled is unforgiveable!

So I'll probably be off to see it again soon - damn you, Peter Jackson.


Jon M said...

Mary, I'm shocked... I mean salted popcorn! It has to be toffee. Sweet at least! ;)

Sarah McIntyre said...

Ha ha! I think I came to similar conclusions, and yes, I'll most likely be trotting along to the next one. Cheers!

Mo said...

In "Smowg", is the "ow" that of "now" or of "snow"?

Sue Bursztynski said...

I went on Boxing Day, the first day of showing here in Oz, with a friend, her son and my teenage ephew, who has read it and LOTR several times. Wednesday I'm going to see it again in Gold Class, where you get a comfy armchair and can order champagne or lunch or both as you sit with about two dozen other cinema goers, with the same friend, minus kids. 3 d this time. And I loved it! The bunny sled was hilarious. As for the king eugenics, Tolkien has no problem, in LOTR, making his kings and aristocrats taller than everyone else. Boromir is broader than Aragorn, but they're both tall. It may be that they eat better or that they're Numenoreans. Probably Tolkien wouldn't have recognised his Thorin in Richard Armitage, but, come ON, Mary, you don't waste a sex symbol like that with prosthetics! ;-) you may have noticed that Fili and Kili were also minus the Dwarvish additions- they'll be for the teen girls, while Thorin is there for the drooling pleasure of adult women.

Otherwise, you might as well have hired John Rhys Davies or Brian Blessed, both wonderful actors and ar more Dwarvish in build, to play Thorin.

Unknown said...

Yes, foolishly long. Three films? But it's so beautifully shot, and there is Aiden Turner as Kili, and oh, Richard Armitage. I agree about the bunny sled. He leads the orcs away with rabbits?! But, I will, of course, see the other two. And buy the DVD box set, if not the individual DVDs so I don't have to wait.

Mary Hoffman said...

Mo, as in "now." Sue, I didn't WANT RA to have prosthetics but that is an aspect of Tolkien I find uncomfortable.

Jon M. sweet popcorn is the invention of the devil!

Katherine Roberts said...

Haven't seen it yet, but I intend to! (Three films, really?) I gather there's some extra material added for more female balance.

It was always one of my gripes as a young reader that all the hobbit heroes in LOTR were boys... if I'd been writing the book, I'd have made at least two of them girl-hobbits (and Bilbo would have been a girl in the Hobbit, of course!)

Katherine Langrish said...

Just got back from seeing it! I liked Radagast and his bunnies! Got fed up with the interminable length of some of the 'swarming over collapsing matchstick bridges' bits - but on the whole, a pleasing experience.

It was good to see Christopher Lee again, too.