What has it got in its pocketses?
We were lucky to have won tickets to the first public screening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We were seated quite close to the front, but the free popcorn and coke were a nice bonus. Because really, who wants to pay for popcorn? Free popcorn really does taste better.
Meanwhile, some excellent spot prizes were given away*, after which we settled in. But for what were we settling in? Many people at this screening (at 12:01 am, 12 December) were very excited, and appeared determined to love the film. We were a little more ambivalent — were three films necessary for the very slim Hobbit? is the fuss over the frame rate warranted? what about its troubled start in life? could Peter Jackson and his team create the same magic again?
So, a few days on, having had some time to ruminate, here are some thoughts on An Unexpected Journey. As a warning, there will be elements below that may constitute spoilers. If you don’t like spoilers, perhaps it would be wise to stop reading here.
The film begins at the same place as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, on the day of Bilbo’s long-awaited party. Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprise their roles as Bilbo and Frodo respectively, before the real story of this film begins. I wondered who this story would be narrated by, and it was an interesting choice to have Bilbo tell his own tale. It also created the first strange instance where strict faithfulness to the novel is jarring when set against the logic of the film: who is Bilbo’s audience? why is he writing about himself in the third person? Likewise, though I am sure connection to the LOTR trilogy, particularly the inclusion of Mr Wood will please many fans, it adds little but length to this film, which is rather long already.
My initial impression of the 48 frames per second (from now on, HFR), and the 3D was that it looked very strange. A few minutes in, I stopped thinking about the strangeness. But still, it intrudes from time to time. Some sets look very set-like. This is not a good thing. Some props look very prop-like. Bilbo’s feet just look odd. Other scenes, particularly those featuring the New Zealand landscape look astonishingly rich. And that is a very good thing. On balance, I think the jury is probably out on the format.
It is evident that Peter Jackson masterfully manages very large-scale productions, in the face of labour disputes, the vagaries of local politics, scheduling conflicts, technical, financial and logistical difficulties, and always manages to turn out a highly refined, visually pleasing piece of work. Gollum, in particular, is significantly improved upon in this film. The riddles in the dark scenes are well conceived, well executed, and well acted. Andy Serkis and Mr Freeman develop a high-level of tension, and make what could have been farcical dramatic.
On the other hand, adaptation is a risky business. Though it is obvious that a film forms the creation of a new work, the new work cannot realistically be judged on its own merits without some relationship to the book (or game, or comic) from which it drew its inspiration. As Virginia Woolf once wrote:
All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters and their famous scenes, only asked, it seemed, to be put on the films. What could be easier and simpler? The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to the moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples.
We have certainly come a long way since 1926, and I do not share Woolf’s dislike of cinematic adaptation. But still, I feel that on this occasion the screenwriters didn’t rise to the occasion in quite the way they did for the LOTR. There are weird moments of slapstick, the dwarven** company of Thorin Oakenshield appears to be made bumbling oafs (for the most part), an aspect I do not recall from the novel, and could not find as I re-read it. The addition of the character Azog (“the white orc”) is understandable (given that Smaug features only a little, and the Necromancer barely at all) but the attempts to make this element of the story reach the same epic heights as the Rings is dramatically undercut by (for example) the excessively long and comical troll scene.
Certainly, I enjoyed watching the film. I will probably watch its follow-up efforts too, but I remain unconvinced that this is a worth successor to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and reminds me, for that reason, of the Star Wars prequels, which though entertaining in their own way, were not really as good as the first three films.
Photos by CIA, Embassy Theatre and Te Papa
* We didn’t win. Sadface.
** Dwarves, Tolkien stressed, and not dwarfs.