The Neverending Hobbit

3 January 2013

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy changed my life. But the first part of his Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, looks in danger of developing serious sequelitis.

As a New Zealander, I’m unabashedly proud of the achievements of director Peter Jackson to film the ambitious Lord of the Rings trilogy in his back yard and enjoy massive success worldwide for a job well done. I was lucky enough to get to work on LOTR as a journalist, filing monthly reports on the making of the trilogy for American internet entertainment website E! Online, from 1999 to 2002. (My articles no longer appear on E!’s website, but my mother has kept print outs of each one in a large folder). It was an extraordinary experience, to have more or less unrestricted access to filmmaking of such massive size and scope, to meet thousands of artists and technicians clearly thrilled to bits to be working on the project, as well as a great opportunity to stretch and flex my journalistic muscles. Watching the three LOTR movies was a very moving emotional experience for me, because I’d seen so much of the movies being made, and had a firsthand insight into the years of work that had gone into set construction, special effects, costume design and post-production: from the artisans who individually linked circlets of chainmail to make vests for battle scenes, to the gardeners who’d tended the gardens in the hobbit holes of Hobbiton 18 months before filming commenced, to the beleagured travel coordinator who convinced an airline to hold a packed passenger flight at Houston Airport so that a certain high-maintenance cast member could get to New Zealand and not hold up the next day’s filming.

Given the success of the LOTR trilogy, it was inevitable that Hollywood, which loves the repetition of a proven formula much more than it likes taking risks with new material, would make The Hobbit into a film. Like LOTR, the Hobbit project had a long and tortured history. Peter Jackson was originally set to direct, but squabbles with film studio New Line over his share of profits from the LOTR films lead New Line to take the project away from him, with studio head Bob Shaye (the man who’d originally green-lit the three movie deal for LOTR) quoted as saying Jackson would never direct another movie for New Line again. Spanish director Guillermo del Toro was set to direct with Jackson taking a writing and producing credit, and spent two years living and working in New Zealand on pre-production for the project. When film studio MGM, which co-owned the movie rights to The Hobbit, went up for sale in 2010 with a reported US£3.7billion in debt, the project still wasn’t green-lit, and del Toro quit, with some regret. Jackson renegotiated his way back into the director’s chair soon after, and early last year he announced (via his Facebook page) that the original two-movie structure would be extended to a trilogy.

It’s at this point that my heart sank slightly. Assuming a three-hour running time for each movie, that would make nine hours of The Hobbit. Too much already? Three films had seemed sensible for LOTR, a three-novel saga that dealt with the potential destruction of the world, a battle between the forces of Good and Evil and the changing of the natural order. The Hobbit, by comparison, is a much more light-hearted children’s adventure story, in which a dodgy-sounding quest by dwarves to steal back gold from an elderly dragon is mostly background to the more important narrative: how the unassuming hobbit Bilbo Baggins transforms from a prissy well-mannered fusspot into a morally ambiguous burglar with a seriously creepy dark side. The decision felt like a very convenient fusion of Jackson’s Tolkien-geek desire to film every second of The Hobbit and not waste a scrap of footage on the editing room floor, with the desire of the film studios to milk a very profitable cash cow for all it was worth. Why make two movies when you can make more money doing three? The salivating LOTR fans are happy, the box office receipts are good, and Jackson’s prowess as a director speaks for itself… everybody wins, right?

Having seen Part 1: An Unexpected Journey, I’m afraid to say my initial suspicions were confirmed. If this first movie is anything to go by, the Hobbit project is impressive but feels terribly bloated. The story of The Hobbit, which could’ve fitted quite comfortably into two movies (or, with some careful pruning, into one) feels over-stretched, over-stuffed and over-produced, and reaches for an LOTR-like epic significance that it can’t quite sustain. Every chapter from the book becomes a gargantuan, fifteen-minute set-piece, filled with eye-popping CGI effects and perilous chases through tunnels and off cliffs. The work is exemplary, and Jackson continues to demonstrate his mastery as a director of big action sequences. But as adventure follows adventure without respite, intersperced with some fairly dull and unconvincing backstory (more on that in a moment), my buttocks, which were clenched with excitement throughout most of LOTR became leaden and strained as the blood drained out of them during what started to feel like a 14 hour ordeal.

Realising that a story about dwarves and dragons fighting over gold is unlikely to appeal to anyone with a mental age of greater than 10, Jackson and his co-writers have amused themselves by padding out the screenplay with sub-plots drawn from Tolkien’s other writings. While I’m sure these are delightful for the hardcore Tolkien fans, the extra baggage weighs down the narrative and disrupts the flow of the editing. The dwarves’ greed for gold, which comes across as petty and grubby in the book, is recast in heroic terms as the search for a tribal homeland, with head dwarf Thorin Oakenshield recast as a Wagnerian hero seeking to fulfil his destiny. It doesn’t quite mesh, and actor Richard Armitage is a wan replacement for LOTR star Viggo Mortensen’s smouldering magnetism. There’s a similarly ponderous attempt to re-introduce the presence of Evil, leading to a very dull council between important elves and wizards in which they discuss whether someone called The Necromancer has returned to Middle-Earth. Cate Blanchett returns as elf queen Galadriel – a character not in The Hobbit, and awkwardly inserted here to capitalise on Blanchett’s star power and lend a female face to an otherwise relentlessly male narrative. Although beautifully lit, she barely moves her face or body and communicates with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf via telepathy – which would be impressive if it wasn’t so laughably silly, and reminiscent of French & Saunders’ take-off of LOTR.

As Bilbo, Martin Freeman is perfectly affable, and has an appealing openness which lends itself well to being the star of a 9-hour epic, though he’s a little too bland for my tastes. Most of Bilbo’s rough edges – his prissyness, his endless complaints, his self-reassurances that he’s still a well-mannered mummy’s boy despite his compromised position – have all been sandpapered away, leaving Freeman essentially playing the same nice-guy character he played in The Office, but this time with hairy feet. With Bilbo’s protestations about going on the gold hunt removed, the narrative develops a Mac truck sized hole – just why is Bilbo on a quest for something he’s not personally involved with? Again, the screenwriters invent a homily for Bilbo at the end of An Unexpected Journey in which he expounds on the importance of “home” and his commitment to helping the dwarves find theirs. It sounds nice, but spiritually it’s a big departure from the book, and a trifle too staged. Bilbo was never this friendly or noble, and was much too self-interested to truly give a damn about the dwarves. Though Freeman has the good sense to underplay most of the sentiment in his role, he has a long way to go before he can approach the psychological complexity of the great Ian Holm, who reprises his role as the elder Bilbo from LOTR. What a wonderfully edgy Bilbo Holm would have made in his younger days.

Thank God for the ever-delicious Ian McKellen, who gives a secure and entertaining performance as Gandalf the Grey, and the great Andy Serkis, who blows everyone else out of the water as a motion-capture Gollum. The “Riddles in the Dark” sequence is the highpoint of Jackson’s movie, in which the CGI effects and sound and fury are mercifully switched off, and we’re allowed to focus on the deadly battle of wits between Bilbo and Gollum. It’s edgy, funny, nail-biting stuff, and a merciful break from what the New York Times refers to as Jackson’s “cinematic maximalism”. The scene works best, I think, by not needing to explain itself completely. For those who’ve watched the LOTR movies, they’ll know that Gollum is a major character and that the invisibility ring Bilbo steals from Gollum is in fact the evil One Ring that forms the main part of LOTR‘s narrative. Mercifully, Jackson resists the temptation to do yet another flashback to explain this to his audience, and instead lets the scene play out mostly as Tolkien wrote it.

Alas, this restraint and subtlety isn’t to be seen anywhere else in the movie. The Hobbit‘s major failing is its Tolkien-geek need to explain and reference everything, to show rather than to suggest, and to leave very little to the imagination. As a result, the audience may be impressed and overwhelmed by the spectacle the movie presents, but this is at the expense of any sense of wonder at the mysteries of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

The other big winner in the movie is, of course, the New Zealand landscape, which is rapturously photographed by Andrew Lesnie, and made me simultaneously homesick and grateful that I’m from such a stunningly beautiful country. Despite the lack of sensation in my rear end at the movie’s close, I made myself sit through all 10 minutes of the closing credits, to give a cheer to the thousands of Kiwis who worked on the project so passionately. Ka pai, you fullas.

No doubt I’ll be back at the end of the year to see the second movie, and if I’m still alive by the summer of 2014 I’ll wheel my walking frame into the cinema to see the finale – perhaps with some Deep Heat and smelling salts to apply at convenient moments during the proceedings. It’s the kind of thing the real Bilbo would do, you see – I’m sure he would approve.

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