Since the box-set of The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings, tells a single story over multiple films, there’ll be no jumping around with these films: today is the first of three successive Sundays devoted to this epic.
I’ll begin by disposng of the allegation that the adaptation of what was a short, and childish, children’s book into a three-film extravaganza was no more than elephantiasis, a cynical and commercial money-grubbing exercise in milking Middle-Earth for all it was worth. The argument is to be expected: the trilogy bears very little resemblance to the book, except that the latter’s spine provides the sequence of (greatly-expanded) events. Originally, when The Hobbit was supposed to be the work of Guillermo del Toro, it was to be a two-film project, one for The Hobbit tory, and one to bridge the sixty year gap between that and The Lord of the Rings. Short of the by now traditional trip into Earth-2, we’ll never know how that would have worked out.
But del Toro departed and Peter Jackson, who hadn’t previously intended to direct The Hobbit for precisely this reason, ended up taking over. The film grew in the telling, too much for some people. I like it as it is: I read The Lord of the Rings first and came eagerly to The Hobbit without seriously understanding the vast difference between the books, a gulf I’m still massively aware of whenever I return to them.
But the books were written in that order and the films weren’t. They exist in the same continuum, they are two parts of a single story separated by sixty years. By that token alone, The Hobbit had to be consistent with its ‘predecessor’. It would have been a colossal mistake to make a Hobbit film faithful to the tone of book, a silly, kid’s semi-comedy, told in archaically condescending tones that very few modern kids would stand for. It would have been ‘pure’, and almost certainly a pure disaster.
An Unexpected Journey was the first part of the story, and the most criticised, as slow and stodgy. I’d agree with that to a large extent, and of the six films I think this is substantially the worst, and a large part of that is down to Jackson compromising himself to be accomodating to the tone of the book. With one glorious exception, everything that tries to faithfully depict the more childish parts of the story drags the story down.
Jackson chooses to start An Unexpected Journey in the hinterland of his first trilogy, with the elderly Bilbo deciding to write the true account of his adventure sixty years before on the day of the Birthday Partythat will see him leave The Shire forever. Elijah Wood sticks his head in to establish the context for us, just before he runs off to meet Gandalf, and there’s one of those by-now standard time-shifts on the front porch, from pipe-smoking Bilbo to pipe-smoking Bilbo, from Ian Holm to Martin Freeman.
Now I like Martin Freeman, in The Office, in Sherlock, and the moment I heard he’d been cast as Bilbo, I said he would be perfect for the role, and I was right, so let’s just record that and save ourselves repeating it over and again. He holds the film together, even where it is dealing with scenes in which he is not represented: The Hobbit is about Bilbo in a way that The Lord of the Rings was not about Frodo but about a group of people with a shared goal.
Jackson begins with Bilbo’s uncomfortable encounter with Gandalf when the latter, unbeknownst to Bilbo, selects him as Burglar-by-Appointment to Thorin Oakenshield, and continues with the unexpected party that lends its concept to the film’s sub-title. This is the first of the points where Jaackson’s attempt to be faithful to Tolkien trips up over its stodginess. There’s a nod to the dwarves arriving two by two that rapidly gets tedious, so Jackson collapses (literally) the arrival of the last two-thirds of them into one go to spare patience.
This however has the effect of rendering the dwarves pretty indistinguishable. I mean, they are to a large extent in the book, but whilst the designers do a good job of making the dwarves visually distinct, and some of the actors – mainly Ken Stott as Balin and James Nesbitt as Bofur – get enough lines to establish their personalities, the majority struggle to be more than local colour, and it’s bloody difficult to remember which is which. I mean, James Nesbitt plays cheerfully Irish enough to stand out but the film’s half over before it registers that he’s Bofur and without the final credits I couldn’t tell you what the one with the ear-trumpet is called.
It’s deliberately silly, and the tonal shift to the serious elements is hard to pull off,, as is the awkward mixture of the songs. Jackson tries to incorporate some of the songs that interrupt The Hobbit book, an attempt thankfully abandoned by the second film, with the jokey blokey clearing-up scene as a jolly singalong then followed by the wholly different, completely serious and, in its way intensely moving incantatory song about Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the haunt of Smaug, the home that draws each of these seemingly idiotic characters so powerfully onwards.
The party scene sets a scene, and Jackson stays faithful to the story: Bilbo’s mad dash, his discovery he’s forgotten to bring any handkerchiefs, the bit with the Trolls, the battle of the Mountain Giants, the Goblin King’s song in Goblin-Town (which works precisely to the extent that that is Barry Humphries under all that CGI, Humphriesing away with great glee, and no further), all of these come from the book, and all of them are awkward. The film’s heart is not really in them, because they don’t sit with the serious elements.
The one silly scene from The Hobbit that really works, and this is a combination of clever adaptation and fantastic acting, is the Riddle-Game, and that’s Martin Freeman alone and scared, standing up to Gollum, Andy Serkis reprising his role in glorious fashion. That this pair would fall into a contest of riddles is wholly believable, and almost inevitable.
But the film’s real heart lies in what it makes up out of whole cloth. This can be entirely serious, such as the meeting at Rivendell of the White Council, bringing together Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, Iam McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, or daftly comic, such as anything Sylveste McCoy does as Radaghast the Brown (I still love the Rabbits of Rhosgobel).
Of course, it’s not totally whole cloth, it is actually extracting things from the deep background that Toolkien passes over in the book, the boring stuff that constructs the story but which would bore his eager children stiff. Here, though, the writers and the director get the chance to shape these elements exactly to their purpose, without having to try to make something meant for little children nearly one hundred years ago work in their context.
The film goes furthest in building on gossamer material in its introduction of Azog (nicely played by Manu Bennett). The Defiler, the Pale Orc, has his proper place in Dwarvish history, but Jackson & Co build him out of almost nothing to become a personal rival to Thorin Oakenshield, a hated enemy, slayer of Thror, Thorin’s grandfather. Azog’s place in the story does not become fixed until th final film, but of course The Hobbit was planned as a single story, necessitating Azog’s appearance long before he becomes crucial to the conclusion.
I’ve been critical of the film’s failings today, because they’ve seemed more obvious on a Sunday morning. In the cinema, in a crowd of excited, enthused people, the film was far more resistant to criticial response, and I do enjoy it. It has much that is great fun, much that is exciting, much that is extraordinarily beautiful: no time spent gazing at Rivendell, or at the New Zealand countryside at its most magnificent, could ever be regarded as wasted. But it is still the weakest film of both trilogies.
Which means that the next two Sundays will be even more fun.