When staging the wizard battle between Gandalf and Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson was adamant that flash and fireballs be avoided. Instead, the invisible spells zinged like whips, the actors were flung against the walls. Noses filled with blood, dirty nails cracked against stone. The fight was physical. REAL.
More broadly, when giving the brief for the design of The Lord of the Rings as a whole, Jackson told the staff at Weta Workshop to imagine Middle Earth as a real place, the way J.R.R. Tolkien presented it. The crew had the enviable task of excavating this secret history prior to the “Fourth Age” dominated by the race of men. It would be an effort in alternate archaeology, rather than of uninhibited imagination.
And it worked. The Lord of the Rings films and books were my Star Wars when I was growing up: I had the soundtracks, the screen-savers, the reference guides. My favourite piece of tie-in merch was a book called The Lord of the Rings: Weapons & Warfare, which read like the films narrated by a military historian. The detail was extraordinary. Middle Earth as presented by Jackson and his crew was REAL. You could fucking RESEARCH the place.
Which is why the super mega 48 frames-per-second look of The Hobbit robs the franchise of some of its magic. It reminded me of the disconnect between Northern Lights, which dwelt heavily on the concentration camp atmosphere of Bolvangar, and The Golden Compass, which tried to conjure the tacky wonder of Chris Columbus’s Hogwarts. The Hobbit is less jarring, but the gloss and smoothness subtracts from the immersive grainy tone set by The Lord of the Rings. I saw the film in 2D, thankfully, but I imagine the extra dimension would make the effect even worse. As it stands, The Hobbit in many places looked to me like the fabulously illustrated cutscenes of a Warcraft game. NOT REAL, that is.
The problems don’t end there, though (and you thought this was just about cinematography!) The Hobbit, unfortunately, is a mess. Tolkien’s books are unfairly maligned for being plodding and weighed down with description. Actually, I think even the long first part of The Fellowship of the Ring is carefully and deliberately paced. Jackson just had to speed it up a little to fit it into a three hour film. He kept the fundamental division between the first and second parts intact. And he can do brevity: the second half of Fellowship does the Pass of Caradhras, Moria, Lothlórien and Parth Galen all in an hour and a half. The Hobbit, as a book, is positively zippy. Rather than editing it down, Jackson committed himself to filling it out.
Tolkien’s books supplied the first and third Lord of the Rings films with natural endings which would carry enough dramatic weight to leave an audience satisfied: the death of Boromir and the coronation of Aragorn. For The Two Towers, Jackson and the writing team had to tie-up the sprawling plot-lines on their own. They succeeded, just about, in Sam’s speech at the end (“There is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”). Not poetry exactly, but effective precisely because it is simple, coming from an everyman who can only dimly comprehend the huge forces crashing around him. It’s why the story is told through the eyes of hobbits in the first place: Tolkien’s faintly paternalistic faith in the common soul triumphing over the ambitions of the great. That speech was the product of many sleepless nights and countless re-writes. Nerves were shredded over it, and it’s a superior feat of composition as a result. Two Towers will never have the simple through-line of Fellowship or the operatic sweep of Return. It is the worst film of the trilogy, but it is arguably also the most impressive – despite its numerous disadvantages, it nevertheless works as a standalone work.
If the much shorter Hobbit is divided into three, it’s difficult to see where the natural endings of the first two parts will fall, or what will provide the thematic unity for each installment. For An Unexpected Journey, Jackson set himself the same challenge as in The Two Towers, and here he doesn’t quite pull it off. Bilbo’s arc – from small-minded, comfort-seeking obscurity to self-sacrificing hero – strains credibility. Martin Freeman isn’t to blame, I think. He is very well cast in the role. Rather, the accumulating series of set-pieces (in which Gandalf repeatedly serves as resolution deus ex machina) distract away from the developing relationship between the dwarves and their burglar. Too much time was wasted on ancient battles and giants throwing rocks at each other: indulgences Jackson can scarce afford when there is a company of more than a dozen to introduce. When Bilbo’s heroic last stand finally takes place, I didn’t quite understand why he did it, even though he explained himself very clearly afterwards.
The film as a whole feels like a guilty treat for the filmmakers and the fans. Much of the overlong framing sequence with Frodo would be puzzling for those who don't have every second of the extended DVD edition of Fellowship committed to memory. The inclusion of Saruman and Galadriel in Rivendell was needless: they were cameos serving only to trigger fond memories of their star turns in the previous films. We know how this story will end anyway. It was already succinctly told in the prologue of the first Lord of the Rings film. I’m left wondering if the hefty new Hobbit series will have anything new to add.