Nine years after The Return of the King, the concluding third of his magnificent film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, hit theatres, director Peter Jackson has unveiled the first part of his translation of The Hobbit. As many have pointed out, The Hobbit is a lighter, slighter book than any of the three Rings volumes. When Jackson announced it would be made into two, then three, films, many condemned the move as either a naked cash-grab or the overindulgence of a Tolkien superfan, whose blockbusting grosses and Oscar sweep (The Return of the King won 11 categories in 2003, including Best Picture and Best Director) had, in effect, given him the “one ring to (over)rule them all.”
My own enthusiasm for a screen Hobbit — a novel I’ve never returned to nor really even thought about much since I read it as a grade-schooler — took a big hit when Guillermo Del Toro, the writer/ director of Pan’s Labyrinth and other extraordinary films of a fantasy/ sci-fi/ horror bent, left the project during its budget-related delays. Jackson, who’d initially planned only to produce the Hobbit movies, settled back into the director’s chair. In the years since he became Hollywood’s hobbit-king, he’d directed a remake of King Kong (underrated, in my opinion) and a little-loved adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones.
Jackson told the BBC he was already deep into shooting his two scripted Hobbit pictures when it occurred to him that the addition of material from the Rings trilogy’s roughly 100 pages of appendices could sufficiently fatten the story to make a three-part adaptation worthwhile. He has patiently defended his decision on the grounds that he knew he would never return to Middle Earth again, so why not give the Tolkien fandom — of which he is himself a fervent part — one more film to savour?
Even as someone who has a lot of patience for long movies, I found the substantial pleasures of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey muted by bloat and repetition. Besides pushing the boundaries of prose-to-cinema adaptation — in the sense that he and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and del Toro didn’t compress elements of the book, but actually added more stuff — The Hobbit is also a technologically pioneering film. It’s the first major commercial release to be shown at 48 frames per second, double the frame-rate that’s been standard for almost a century. Viewers in many markets have the option of choosing among format permutations: traditional 2D, 24 frames per second (fps); 3D, 24 fps; 3D IMAX, 48 fps. But frame-rate seems to be the variable producing the most divisive effect among viewers. Many critics have complained that the higher frame-rate makes the lavishly budgeted film look cheap, more akin to a behind-the-scenes video shot on the set of the movie than the article itself.
Jackson has countered that this is simply the knee-jerk reaction of an audience unaccustomed to what it is seeing. The increased frame-rate, he says, solves much of the image-blurring that has marred the presentational quality of other films released in 3D. In sequences where the camera is moving, producing a blurring of the frame so familiar to audiences we barely notice it, the higher frame-rate eliminates the blur. The effect of this change is that the figures onscreen appear to be moving too fast, somehow.
“Moving too fast” is not a charge that could be levied against the film’s story, regardless of what form you see it in. The subtitle of Tolkien’s 1937 novel is There and Back Again, a sequence of words that won’t flash onscreen until the third film arrives in 2014. This first instalment doesn’t even quite get us “there” — specifically, the Lonely Mountain, which the dragon Smaug forced the dwarves to abandon some years earlier, as we’re told in an extended prologue. The dwarves’ mission is to slay the dragon and retake their home, and they bring Bilbo along because they need a burglar to help them sneak inside.
It’s not exactly an urgent mission. The film’s digressions are full of further digressions. Gandalf’s frequent disappearances from the novel are explained here. We see him conferring with Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman, and there’s no denying it’s fun to see Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee all on screen together again, even if the scene is a momentum-arresting tangent, and far from the only one.
The most troublesome bloat comes at the beginning. It takes nearly an hour simply for our hero, the gentle Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, in a wonderful performance with exactly the right note of comic reluctance), simply to leave his home and embark upon his grand adventure. Jackson lingers over meals like no film since Stanley Tucci’s Big Night; later, a slapsticky scene wherein three trolls argue over how best to dine on the dwarves they’ve captured seems to go on longer than most cooking shows. Not until Andy Serkis reprises his role as Gollum from the Rings pictures, two hours into An Unexpected Journey, does the film recall the mythic resonance of its precursors. So grand is that resonance that it’s almost enough.
Klimek is a Washington DC-based writer