A small eternity watching ‘The Hobbit': a personal view

On the weekend my wife and I went to see The Hobbit.

The Hobbit is one of my favourite books, Jackson is one of my favourite directors, and we live where it was made – there has been a buzz around Wellington for years. Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings – all three parts – was stunning. It was stunning as a story, stunning for Jackson’s deft handling of an epic canvas. Stunning for its effects.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal - a marvellous example of the model-maker's art.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal – a marvellous example of the model-maker’s art.

So we had plenty of build-up for this one. And in many ways it did not disappoint. The actors were superb. The effects were brilliant. The set dressing was astonishing. The attention to detail was incredible. I wasn’t worried that the movie bore only passing resemblance to the book, either. Movies are different media – they require different handling, especially this time. Jackson has taken Tolkien’s low-key story of a quest for treasure – explicitly, Bilbo’s hero journey – and turned it into a nine hour epic. That meant it had to be significantly deepened.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Weta’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

There was just one small problem.  Nothing happened other than a relentless bang-bang-bang succession of chases and (literally) pit-falls.  The movie was about half over when my wife whispered in my ear. ‘Are we there yet?’ We weren’t. Eventually the end credits rolled. ‘Well,’ my wife said. ‘That was awful.’  I nodded. ‘Yes, that’s three hours of our lives we won’t get back.’

What happened? To me, the main problem was that it hadn’t been deepened enough – or properly structured. The existing Hobbit plot was stretched, thinly, across a three-hour movie-scape in which other material seemed to intrude, sometimes for no obvious reason. It opened with a loving, nostalgic reprise of The Fellowship of The Ring, which didn’t seem to do anything for the plot other than add fan-fic style ‘completeness’. It took over an hour for the story to actually get going, and then, as my wife put it, the thing felt at times like a succession of out-takes from The Fellowship of the Ring, slung into a bucket. I got the impression, at times, that I had been watching The Hobbit re-written as rather mediocre fan fiction.

That diorama from another angle.

That diorama from another angle.

Structure is everything with fiction – novels and movies alike. In the specific, to me the main over-arching plot, leading to the ‘big boss’ battle at the very end – was Azog’s quest for revenge. This was a new element, not envisaged by Tolkien. Unfortunately, Azog kept turning up to intensify danger or push chases along, without real build-up or tension – more melodrama than drama. But in any case, the whole thing needed a more epic plot to match the scale of movie, the scale of effects, and the scale of the settings; and Tolkien’s legendarium has many gigantic elements that could have been brought in – from the origin of dragons as corrupted Maiar and servants of Morgoth, to the full back-story of Sauron deceiving the elves into forging rings.

The other problem was tone. It came across to me as an awkward juxtaposition between Jackson-style slapstick – not much related to Tolkien’s gentle brand of intellectual humour – and deep, dark seriousness, which the plot elements didn’t quite match.

To me the strength of the 1937 Hobbit novel was tightness and the fact that the magic and wonder of Bilbo’s world unfolded for us as it did for Bilbo. Along the way we watched Bilbo grow as a person.  All was presented with Tolkien’s gentle humour and pitched for its reading audience, initially his children. Tolkien’s characters were also discomfited by ordinary problems, such as rain and storms, which we can all identify with. It led them into adventure with trolls and goblins. The ordinary became the extraordinary – but one we could share because we had been led gently into it. I got none of that feel with the movie.

I am a huge fan of Tolkien. I am a huge fan of my fellow Wellingtonian, Sir Peter Jackson. But this movie didn’t do it for me.  The Gollum riddle game, which was truly masterful, went some way towards redeeming the whole. But not far enough.

What did this movie do for you?

In post-scriptum, we found succour on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrKXH1CeXck

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: Write It Now, Part 2; more on kindness; and picture inspirations from earthquake-hit Christchurch.