As an 11 year old excitedly buying tickets to to see The Fellowship of the Ring, I was informed by the acne-ridden man behind the popcorn counter that there was already preproduction occurring for The Hobbit. 11 years, several aborted attempts and directors later, it has finally surfaced. However, it seems that the children’s short novel has been split up into three features. Shot in 48 Frames per second. And in 3D. It is the former of these elements that I feel is the most pertinent to discuss.
Hollywood loves sequels. People love familiarity. It doesn’t matter what critics say, it doesn’t matter how potentially weak the plot is, it’s the new Scary Movie/James Bond/ Iron Man/Taken/Ice Age film! These genre films repeatedly offer the same familiar characters in new, yet familiar environs.
“I’ve liked the Ice Age films…Imma go see the new Ice Age film.”
It’s far less of an effort than researching new plots and new characters before making an informed decision on which ticket to purchase.
But what about this new audacious technique of splitting one potentially feature-length narrative into multiple components? Despite the relative thickness of the final Harry Potter and Twilight novels, it would not be too difficult for professional screen writers to compress the plots into single films. Of course it wouldn’t. But that would halve the box office takings. I guess in a twisted way we should admire the sheer cheek of these studios whilst lamenting the fact that such a technique will inevitably succeed, despite our awareness of this marketing ploy.
So how does Peter Jackson extract what will inevitably be a trilogy of three hour films from JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit? Through the systematic and shameful milking of each of the novel’s narrative events, with a little bit of non-Tolkien plot added on top.
The screenwriters and editors of this film have had to break the contemporary mould of shot and scene rapidity as the audience is treated to superfluous scenes which do not propel the narrative forward. For example, it takes 50 minutes for the Hobbit and his merry associates to leave his hole as we are treated to spontaneous songs and dance routines concerning the washing of dishes. Another example of such delay tactics occurs in a somewhat irrelvant aside where we are shown the activities of a shroom-munching wizard in a different time and place to the central characters. He will make an important appearance later, but this back story is both unnecessary and indulgent.
The tone of The Hobbit is also confused. Tolkien’s text is a piece of children’s, folk-tale revival portraying the quintessential adventure of capturing gold from a dragon. It was only after this world was created that Tolkien decided to drastically enlarge and alter it for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But this does not work for a major studio wishing to cash in on this franchise in the aftermath of its success. Thus, they have added a marked darkness onto certain events and characters. This results in a jarring dissonance between the childish elements they have decided to keep. Unthreatening, cockney stone-giants with ambitions in the culinary world are followed by terrifyingly vulgar goblins and ominous necromancers whose aesthetics are far more apt for The Lord of the Ring’s middle-earth.
This is unfortunately unavoidable if you are wishing to draw in the same audience as these previous films. In this fashion, characters such as Saruman who are, in reality, first introduced in The Hobbit, enter shots with a proclamatory flair which smacks of a celebrity cameo in Friends. It begins to feel like an origins film such as Batman Begins or Prometheus.
And what about the two controversial formats it is shot in? It was bold and potentially evolutionary for Jackson to utilise 48 fps. For those who do not know, since the early 20th century films have been generally shot in 24 fps, a form which due to relative slowness in comparison with the human eye, creates an unrealistic sheen which lies at the foundations of cinematic escapism. High frame rates are therefore now associated with sports, reality TV and behind-the-scenes featurettes. Due to these associations I inescapedly felt that The Hobbit did possess a real clarity which paradoxically acted as an obstacle to narrative involvement (a sentiment I similarly felt in Public Enemies). It is certainly possible that at some point in the future all films will be shot in a higher frame rate. As with the advent of cinematic sound and colour it is true that there will always be a teething period for audiences, but as of now I am not convinced.
The battle over 3D equally rages on with many critics proclaims its death after a flurry of pointlessly post-production converted atrocities. Although at times visually stunning, The Hobbit’s 3D was similarly an obstacle to immersion, cynically added on to gain those few extra important pounds from each ticket. Unlike The Life of Pi or Avatar this format didn’t seem to possess an inherent raison d’être. Moreover, after three hours one becomes plagued by a piercing headache.
Despite all of these qualms it is an undeniably entertaining film with moments of tension, excitement, comedy and visual beauty. In particular, the scene which reintroduces Gollum is the jewel in film’s crown showing a characterisation which possibly improves on that of the Lord of the Rings franchise.
I will inevitably be going to see the next installment. And the next. It is just a shame that the screenwriters didn’t persevere in producing one, cohesive masterpiece which does not waste its audience’s time.