I’m literally just back from the Cromer Enormoplex where I
was subjected to saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, so what follows is very much a second impression: Howard Shore’s soundtrack is still ringing in mes oreilles. There might also be spoilers, so if you plan to see this particular flick, all two hours and 46 minutes of it, make sure you pee first, and take something comfy to sit on look away now. (My first impression? The same as that critic of Wagner, who said that Wagner’s music had wonderful moments and dreadful quarters-of-an-hour.)
The Hobbit was originally a twee tale Tolkien wrote for, and read to, his children. Its publication, in 1937, was almost by accident, and it was likewise a coincidence that Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released that same year. Like Disney before him, Peter Jackson, director of The Hobbit, seeks to scale new technical heights. Snow White was the first feature-length animation, and people were worried that a cartoon that long would be too taxing on the human eye. Jackson has filmed The Hobbit at an unprecedented 48 frames per second, double the usual frame rate – and I have heard rumblings of a similar sort, though with the Cromer Enormoplex it’s probably hard to tell.
Both stories feature a lot of dwarfs, or, as Tolkien had it, ‘dwarves’, but there the similarities end. In Tolkien’s story, a stay-at-home, everyman character, the protagonist, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, is whisked away on an ‘adventure’ that tests his mettle, and on the way he discovers hidden depths, an inner strength and resourcefulness he never knew. This theme runs throughout all Tolkien’s writing, perhaps because he, like many other ordinary people, was a veteran of World War I, fighting on the Somme. ‘Even if you survive to tell the tale’, Gandalf warns Bilbo, ‘you will not be the same’. For an insight into this aspect of Tolkien’s writings look no further than the very excellent Tolkien and the Great War by my very excellent friend John Garth.)
I must confess that as a novel, The Hobbit doesn’t work for me. Its tone is uneven, it is horribly dated, and it let down by patronizing, authorial asides. The rollicking adventure story at the beginning dissipates by the end into a geopolitical power-play that I could never quite fathom when I was eight. What happened was this: what started as a stand-alone story for children got sucked in to the rich undergrowth of Tolkien’s private fantasy world – taking shape in the protean, never-to-be-fully-published Silmarillion.
The Hobbit, however, was a hit, and Tolkien’s publishers wanted a sequel. This, if nothing else, shows that you should be careful what you wish for. Seventeen years and more than a thousand pages later, and after another World War, Tolkien delivered The Lord Of The Rings - an altogether weightier proposition. Where The Hobbit was simple, often comedic, tolerably linear and the text concentrates on the narrative while keeping the scenery vague, LOTR is complex, often serious, multi-layered, and the scenery is rendered in what, for the reader, is almost photorealistic detail. If The Hobbit was a fairy-tale for children, LOTR was a fairy-tale for grown-ups, and, as such, started the fantasy genre we know today.
The prospect of turning any part of Tolkien’s world into film was always going to be daunting. The ‘realistic’ tone of The Lord of the Rings made it the
easiest least difficult contender. Despite Peter Jackson having to film a wide range of fantastic creatures on an epic scale, using every film-maker’s trick he could get his hands on, from old-fashioned forced perspective to up-to-the-minute computer animation, Tolkien had done much of the scene-setting.
The Hobbit, though, is different. If you are going to give it the same, ‘realistic’ treatment, one might have thought, you could well do violence to its fairy-tale air. In our heads, and as we read to our children, we want to hear the dwarves sing as they do Bilbo’s washing-up – but what would the effect on our minds be were we to see this rendered realistically? The trolls in The Lord of the Rings are terrifying – in The Hobbit they are buffoonish and cor-blimey. In The Hobbit, the ‘back story’, involving the ‘White Council’ meeting to discuss what to do about the strange ‘Necromancer’ that has come back to haunt the world, is merely done as reportage, to give an excuse for Gandalf’s frequent absences from the action, which are always ended by a return just in time to get the dwarves out of a pickle. Here, the back story has to come to life.
And what of the dwarves themselves? Anyone raised post-Disney will inevitably read Tolkien’s long roll-call of dwarves – Ori, Nori, Dori, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and the rest – as Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy, Sneezy and Dopey, even though Tolkien emphasized that his dwarves were as proud, tough and hard-bitten as Disney’s were gurning and stupid. Tolkien’s own word to describe the dwarves was thrawn, and this comes out in the names for his dwarf kings – Thrór, Thráin and Thorin. (Note the accents. Always nice to have a few accents when one wants to appear exotic, gothick or just really, really tough. Motörhead, anyone?)
The choice for Jackson, then, was simple – The Hobbit had to be pulled from its fairy-tale moorings and treated as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Bits of the backstory, including the White Council, had to be made more explicit, as did the reason why the dwarves were engaged on their quest to begin with. In this, Jackson is doing what every good film-maker should – he is showing, not just telling. There is a lot more fighting, a lot more action in the film than in the book, and this is just as it should be: Tolkien’s action was always there, just relegated to dry annals, footnotes and noises-off. However, this only points up as a little awkward the parts of the novel which, as prose or poetry, are the set-pieces – the unexpected party in Bilbo’s cosy hobbit hole; the dwarves doing the aforementioned chores, and singing about their lost treasure (admittedly to a beautiful theme by Howard Shore); the scene with the comedy trolls. Yes, there are places where the patchwork doesn’t quite hang together.
The things that save the film, though, are not the effects, but the good, old-fashioned virtues of script, direction and acting. Great care has been taken with the dwarves. Yes, they are all ‘characters’, but far from cute or bedisney’d: their character comes from a hard and weatherworn life, not from any inherent jokeyness. Their ‘hardness’ is indicated by a range of British regional accents – Bofur is an Irishman; Balin a Scot; Fili and Kili are as Yorkshire as Tetley tea bags. I could have sworn that one of them was a Geordie, but I didn’t catch any Welshmen. Thorin, their leader, is pure received-pronunciation, perhaps to indicate that he is a haughty posh boy. At least we were spared the strains of Kiwi and Strine that occasionally offended one’s sensibilities in LOTR. Their characters, though – not necessarily their accents – are traceable straight back to Tolkien – Thorin is indeed proud; Fili and Kili are young, and good archers; Balin wise, and kindly to Bilbo. Jackson has brought them to life with appropriate reverence to the text.
A highlight scene for me is the one which, in retrospect, is the most significant in the novel – Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, during which Bilbo quite by accident ‘steals’ Gollum’s magic ring, the same artefact that causes all the trouble in The Lord Of The Rings. Readers of The Hobbit will remember the riddle game, and this is done full justice in the film, and again it’s the acting that carries it. Martin Freeman, with his innocent, everyman understatement, is peerless as Bilbo, and Gollum is a role that Andy Serkis made his own a decade ago.
The film ends on a cliff-hanger – literally. There are two more episodes to go before we come to the denouement. That doesn’t mean that the end isn’t satisfying, because it is. It closes with Bilbo admitting that whereas he often yearns for his comfortable, bourgeois home, he is motivated to stick with the dwarves precisely because they don’t have a home, and are striving to reclaim it from an enemy in the face of indifference from others, especially the elves, and even their own kin. It is perhaps no coincidence that Tolkien wrote the novel at a time when the homelessness of the Jews was high in peoples’ minds, and with the rise of Nazism tweaked feelings of liberal guilt. This is more than idle fancy – Tolkien several times likened the dwarves to the Jews, a proud, secretive and awkward bunch who’d long since lost their homeland. If Jews, like dwarves, are proverbially enamoured of jewels and gold, it is because small, high-value items are the easiest to take with you when you are turfed out the door.
Yes, one could say that The Hobbit as a film is overblown considering its source material – overwhelming, even. As a prequel to The Lord of the Rings it is (so far, at least) a little jarring. That doesn’t mean it’s a clunker – it’s much, much better than, say, The Phantom Menace when compared with A New Hope. Again, traditional virtues save it. The casting is almost without exception superb: we don’t have to suffer the juvenile whining of Hayden Planetarium. A better comparison, though, is not with The Lord of the Rings but with Peter Jackson’s treatment of King Kong. It’s vast – but in its detailing and sensibilities it’s very true to the 1933 original. You get the impression is that this is how the film would have been made in the thirties, had the technology been available. Like The Hobbit, King Kong wins through its acting, in this case by Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis (yes, him too) and the marvelous Naomi Watts.
Three last things about The Hobbit.
One: Cate Blanchett is, once again, luminous as Galadriel.
Two: despite the vast amount of orkish sword-fodder, why do we never see any girl orcs? Hint: I offer several answers in The Science of Middle Earth (you didn’t think I could resist a plug, did you?)
Third: why does the Elvenking ride a moose?