(directed by Peter Jackson, 2012)
On a chilly evening last Sunday in Leicester Square, waiting for the doors of the Odeon to open, I found it hard to believe that eleven years have passed since The Fellowship of the Ring came out. A fair amount has happened in those years, but in this moment they ceased to exist: the prospect of spending an evening in Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth made me feel as if I were sixteen years old all over again.
And I am particularly pleased that it is Peter Jackson’s version. I’ve followed the film’s production with great interest and, though I’m sure Guillermo del Toro’s interpretation of The Hobbit would have been stunning (I’m a big fan of Pan’s Labyrinth), the fact that Jackson’s hand is on the reins means that The Hobbit has exactly the same look and feel as The Lord of the Rings. In fact, to all intents and purposes, it’s as if you’ve put the earlier trilogy on pause while you’ve popped out to make a (very time-consuming) cup of tea, and you’ve just got round to pressing the play button again.
Just in case there’s anyone who doesn’t know the story (though I think it’s unlikely), The Hobbit takes place sixty years before The Lord of the Rings and tells how Bilbo Baggins – a hitherto thoroughly respectable hobbit – is rooted out of his comfortable life at Bag End and carried off on an adventure by the wizard Gandalf and twelve dwarves, to seek golden treasure, fight a dragon and reclaim the dwarves’ lost kingdom of Erebor. This first film covers the action of the first six chapters, in which our hero is almost eaten by trolls, escapes from the clutches of the grotesque Great Goblin and his troops in their subterranean kingdom, and engages in a certain game of riddles in the dark. Everything is done with panache and energy, which never overrules the great respect that Jackson has for his source material.
The prologue, which Jackson did add on, in order to show us the history of Erebor and the destruction of the town of Dale by the dragon Smaug, has come in for a fair bit of criticism. However, I thought it was a helpful way to avoid a lot of exposition later on, by setting the scene for those who haven’t read the book or (like me) had read it so long ago that they’d forgotten the details. Straight after this, we plunge back into the Shire, where the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) are bustling about on the morning of Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday: this is exactly where The Fellowship of the Ring began. And then the clock turns back sixty years and we find a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) perched on the bench outside his hobbit-hole as he encounters Gandalf for the first time.
The film rests on the success of Freeman’s performance as Bilbo and he really is very good, bringing warmth, humanity and spontaneity to the role. But what else did we expect? He has made a career out of playing cuddly characters who are just a little bit befuddled by their surroundings but who turn out nevertheless to be loyal and trustworthy. He was surrounded by plenty of familiar faces. It was great to see Ian McKellen return as Gandalf and during the course of the film we also come across Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), prompting inward cries of ‘Don’t trust him, Gandalf!’. I think I also spotted the elven extra christened Figwit by Lord of the Rings fangirls (i.e. ‘Frodo Is Great, Who Is That?’), who has obviously returned by popular demand. This all helps to emphasise the continuity between the two stories and to create a strong integrity for the film version of Middle Earth.
Then we have the new characters, most notably the company of twelve dwarves. I could never remember all their names even when I was reading the book as a child and I didn’t do much better here. But it was interesting to see how the depiction of the dwarves has changed since The Lord of the Rings: then Gimli was very much a comic character, but for The Hobbit Peter Jackson has given them greater dignity and variety. The slight problem with this is that the dwarves don’t always look like dwarves, especially in cases where they’ve obviously been earmarked as heart-throbs. In Jackson’s hands, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) becomes the new Aragorn, a brooding, tortured figure with flowing, unkempt hair, leathers and furs. Kili (Aidan Turner) looks more like a Rider of Rohan than a dwarf; and yet I would like to emphasise that I am not complaining about this.
Generally speaking, the film is a great success. Peter Jackson has done a superb job in giving the story – which was, of course, written as a children’s book – the epic scale that allows it to sit comfortably alongside The Lord of the Rings. The special effects are even better than last time, with the computer-generated characters blending seamlessly with the real actors. Indeed, the best scene of the whole film is Bilbo’s meeting with Gollum and their game of riddles. Andy Serkis is absolutely unbeatable as Gollum, and he and Martin Freeman are both so natural in the way they speak their lines that it felt as if half the scene was ad-libbed. Everything is further tied together by the 3D presentation, which means that tumbles down cliffs or swooping shots through caves and tunnels have never felt so exciting and immersive. It was wonderful to have Howard Shore back in the composer’s seat and to hear the familiar Shire and Ring themes, along with the new theme for the dwarves, which is based on the tune of their Misty Mountains song and which is a splendidly stirring piece.
But there are some less successful aspects. Even as a fan, I don’t think it was necessary to split The Hobbit into three sections. Perhaps I’ll change my mind when I see how it allows Jackson to pull in material from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings and to link the two sections of the Ring’s story together. But here there were some sections, especially at the beginning during the dwarves’ visit to Bilbo, where I felt that the film was a little over-stretched; and the early scenes also veered slightly unevenly between the humour of the book and the dark grandeur of Jackson’s wider vision. However, once Bilbo had made up his mind to have An Adventure and had dashed off to catch up with Gandalf and the dwarves, things rapidly settled down.
On a final technological note, there is the HFR (Higher Frame Rate). This seems to have split opinion down the middle and part of the problem is that it simply doesn’t look like what we’re used to, and so the instinctive reaction of most cinema-goers (including myself) is to resist change. The HFR makes the film smoother and gives it the feeling of video rather than film, which in turn makes it look more ‘real’. Some critics have claimed that the greater smoothness draws attention to the dwarves’ prosthetic noses and Bilbo’s hobbit feet, which look rubbery and unconvincing compared to their appearance on traditional film. Personally I didn’t pick up on this at all. I wasn’t hugely keen on the HFR but that was for other, more aesthetic reasons and even I can see that they aren’t very good reasons.
It’s just that I’m used to watching films which have a slightly grainy quality. When I see something with that kind of slight graininess, my brain takes it as a sign that something has been made for cinemas rather than television. In a way, that graininess acts as the boundary beyond which I know to suspend my disbelief: it’s the border of another world. But when I watched The Hobbit in HFR, that boundary wasn’t there. I find it really difficult to explain this, because it isn’t something I’ve ever had to articulate before. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian made a point that goes some way to explaining what I found odd about the smoother, almost made-for-television style of film: ‘I had the weird, residual sense that I was watching an exceptionally expensive, imaginative and starry BBC Television drama production, the sort that goes out on Christmas Day, with 10 pages of coverage in the seasonal Radio Times, and perhaps a break in the middle for the Queen’s Speech.‘ In time we’ll all get used to the HFR, I have no doubt, and then the graininess of film will become a sign that something is old-fashioned, rather like the difference between black-and-white and colour. But for now, it still strikes me as something unusual, which distracts from my ability to lose myself in the film.
Opinion in the press has varied wildly about The Hobbit. I thought it was fun and I think that fundamentally you can predict whether or not you’ll enjoy it. If the prospect of fantasy completely puts you off, you won’t like it. But if you were won over by the gorgeous landscapes and the sumptuous cinematography of The Lord of the Rings, and if you love being able to escape into another world, then it’ll be right up your street. I was always going to love it, of course; and I wasn’t the only one. Spontaneous applause broke out in my cinema as the credits rolled. For those of us who waited with baited breath every year for the next instalment of The Lord of the Rings to be released, The Hobbit feels like slipping on a comfortable, well-loved pair of shoes. I’m already thoroughly looking forward to next Christmas, in order to get my first proper glimpse of Smaug…