Peter Jackson, director of this new set of Hobbit films as well as the Lord of The Rings films, seems to like to make life difficult for himself. Lord Of The Rings had long been considered an un-filmable book; technology allowed Jackson to have a good go, but even the trilogy of extended editions had to leave large chunks out. There’s only so long a film can be, really. I loved those films, and I love the books, but I know the detail and the style can alienate. Popular as these films were, it’s hard to imagine they won over any new fans to the genre. Now he’s taking on The Hobbit; a much shorter text, aimed at children, written and set long before Lord of The Rings. So it will be a short film, right? Wrong. Three parts, each around 3 hours in length. In 3D. A lucky few with access to compatible cinemas will see it at the revolutionary High Frame Rate (HFR), supposed to enhance the 3D experience considerably. I didn’t have that option, so I saw this first film in regular 3D – a format I don’t like.
There’s a huge risk in taking what will amount to 9 hours to tell a less than 400 page story; that the plot will feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread (as someone once said). It’s an inescapable accusation – with back story filled in, songs sung at length, battles re-enacted instead of just described by characters – all the meanderings and details mean we don’t always feel tension. The story loses some dramatic momentum for the sake of painstaking detail. Add to that the dashes of childlike humour, even at crisis moments in the narrative, and the film often lacks a sense of danger – something you could never accuse the Lord Of The Rings films of in their action set pieces.
Much of the film could have been lost, probably at benefit to the story. Did we need so much set-up to the conference in Bilbo’s home? Did the songs really have to stay? Did we need so much flashback?
With this in mind, I had a dawning realisation as I watched this film. It was this: I was very, very happy. Why? Many reasons. In no order … there are moments of genuine visual beauty, even with ‘normal’ 3D’s usual loss of light. There was one shot of a battle of such clarity, such involvement, such depth that I suspect I audibly gasped; another shot of characters walking through a forest in the rain was similarly beautiful – in that case I know I said so aloud. Another reason for my happiness was the acting – which was more consistent than in the previous trilogy. Special mention must go to Martin Freeman as Bilbo: his craft learned on British television (most notably The Office and Sherlock) he can suggest much very economically. He has brilliant comic timing, and can move from farce to pathos without breaking stride. He’s brilliant, and he owns the film. Equally brilliant is, of course, Andy Serkis as Gollum. He and Freeman share a long scene together, and it’s hypnotically enchanting – you could watch twice as much of them together and still not have enough. Ably backed by a largely British collection of primarily television actors, the ball is hardly dropped – which couldn’t always be said of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy (Orlando Bloom, I’m looking at you.).
My happiness was really all about one thing: grace. It may seem an over the top word, but I felt I was being given a treat I didn’t deserve or expect in an adaptation of a children’s book. This is made with care and love – it could be shorter, and that would have benefits … but it would forfeit so much. The sense that this has been poured over and crafted by a team who care, deeply; the visual gags that keep surprising – the animals in the forest scenes, the insects rising and falling from a beard as a character sleeps, the careful lighting drawing the eye to the otherwise unseen nooks and crannies of a shot. This is a grace dusted film – inessential details lifting the heart and soul, inessential but there to make the heart and spirit sing if you have eyes to see. All meaning, that with all that detail the plot (though lacking momentum) never has the sense of being ‘on rails’ as it does so often in adaptations of poured over texts (see the early Harry Potter films especially, and the Twilight ones). It feels free, loose, unstructured where it could have felt controlled and predictable.
It’s far from perfect – that was inevitable, really, given the limitations of the story. A shorter adaptation would have garnered more praise, and been a safer bet. Peter Jackson, though never wants to play it safe; he even risks an unhelpful comparison by echoing Fellowship Of The Ring‘s structure – narrated flashback, arrival in the shire, feasting, decisions, sudden leaving, opposition, Elves, underground battles, final battle outside, finish on the brink of a new stage. In fact there’s more similarities than that suggests; in doing so it risks unfavourable comparisons, pointless repetition and short attention spans. What it ends up being, though, is like a symphony echoing an earlier musical theme – drawing, even subconsciously, associations in the mind which give depth and weight to the sense of building history to the world and the characters.
Maybe a film regarded as more faithful would be more child-friendly. That’s no doubt true. Instead, it’s more than that – child like in ambition, fun, wonder and a sense of what could be. If it fails to be what some long for it to be, it does so magnificently.
I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com & 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com