Back again: The Hobbit
In December 2001 I was invited to the cinema by some friends who wanted to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The Hobbit, its literary precursor, was read to me when I was young, and I had read it myself, but the one-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings which my family owned had always daunted me with its size.
In the cramped seats of Bedford cinema I had a movie-going experience like nothing I’d ever had before. The beauty, the adventure, and above all, the size of Peter Jackson’s film enthralled me. A long year of waiting later, I went to see the second part, The Two Towers. How could it possibly match the first film, or my exaggerated expectations? It surpassed them. Another year passed and the journey was triumphantly completed with The Return of the King.
Having delighted in not knowing what was going to happen in each film, I could now read the book. I’ve now done that most years since, and am doing so again this Christmas. J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation is so deep, filled with old songs, tongues, stories and places, that opening its pages feels like returning to a well-known, much-loved place. For me, it’s like going on holiday to Cornwall yet again.
Jackson’s films may have altered much of the original text, but they retain this sense of depth in their score, setting, and an attention to production detail which makes everything seem real. Two authors may tell the same story differently, especially when the original work is self-consciously mythological – this adds richness, rather than detracting from what came before. In any case, Tolkien’ wrote the two works in very different styles (to say nothing of The Silmarillion), and even rewrote how Bilbo Baggins came to possess the Ring of Power after writing The Lord of the Rings, and incorporated his rewrite into the plot of the latter!
All of this means that I have watched The Hobbit with virtually no critical facilities, it’s just good to be back in Jackson’s Middle Earth.
If this was the first of any of the stories of Middle Earth that I encountered, I doubt I would be as enraptured as I am. There aren’t the great “wow” moments that the original trilogy seemed full of: Aragorn defeating and decapitating the Uruk-Hai captain in Fellowship, Galdalf and the Rohirrim’s charge at Helm’s Deep in Two Towers, or the lighting of the beacons in Return. Perhaps the best and most interesting scene is, unlike most of what Jackson does, cramped and personality-driven: Bilbo riddling in the roots of the Misty Mountains with Andy Serkis’ fractured Gollum, who again prompts disgust and pity.
Overall, the tone is lighter than Lord of the Rings, as is the case with the books. It’s rather uneven, with dwarves providing both light relief and a vengeance narrative. Parallels (echoes?) abound visually, musically, culturally, and thematically. Thorin is this story’s returning king, with a conviction that Tolkien’s Aragorn always had but Jackson’s did not. As such, his character doesn’t go through much development: this is left to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo. If you’ve seen Freeman in The Office or Sherlock, you should know what to expect here: attempts at a stiff upper lip that collapse into outbursts along the lines of “I’m trying to keep calm and carry on but have you seen this madness?!” Whether this signature expression becomes as tediously repetitive as Elijah Wood’s slow-and-sad Frodo remains to be seen but the casting is perfect.
Having watched it in both 3D and 2D, I’m settled in my conviction that 3D is a waste of time that adds little, even to films that are made with it in mind. The other significant decision is to make three long films from one short book. Maybe greed won the day – there is a Smaug-like love of treasure to be discerned in the accompanying merchandise (above). More hopefully, perhaps the film-makers just had so much they thought they could tell. They may have been poorly advised, but I’m still keen to see what other stories from Tolkien’s hints have been woven in. I would expect that there will be much more of that in the following films as this one ends with Bilbo and all about half-way through their journey. Whatever this means for the series' merits as movies, I'm happy to be able to go back to Middle Earth again and again.
Having written this, I read a few other reviews. You might like to read the thoughts of Philip French, Nat Smith, or John Piper.