As the end credits rolled up on The Hobbit: Battle Of Five Armies, I said ‘well, that’s 144 minutes of my life I won’t get back.’ That followed the 169 minutes I lost with the first one (my wife said ‘it felt like out-takes from The Lord of The Rings’) and the 161 minutes I lost with the second.
My main problem this time was a fundamental structural failure – the dramatic pacing associated with the big battle, which didn’t build to anything and diverted instead to a one-on-one combat on a skating rink. All of which puzzles me. Jackson is a genius film-maker. He’s nailed the current trend, he can get tremendous performances out of his actors – all of them masters of their craft – and he’s got an awesome team behind him.
But the movies weren’t The Hobbit. Not The Hobbit I grew up with, the delightful kids’ book that Tolkien published in 1937. I’ve been a Tolkien fan since forever. I must have read The Hobbit 20 times, and I hugely enjoyed Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.
I know full well that movies can’t exactly follow books. But this adaptation had, to me, missed the spirit of the original, largely through a mis-match of scale. You see, I am pretty sure that Jackson and his team know what they’re doing. About a decade ago one of the scriptwriters who’s worked on all six movies – Phillipa Boyens – told me that they, themselves, were fans. She also outlined how they’d done The Lord Of The Rings, and why it’d been adapted as it had been – for instance, dropping the Tom Bombadil sequence. All very sound, sensible reasons with which I agreed, princpally flowing from the fact that a movie demands very different structure and pacing from a book.
Yet The Hobbit movies came across as disproportionate to the scope and scale of the original story – in effect, as very, very bad fan-fiction – a mishmash of Tolkien’s world with cartoonish bad guys and plots and characters that never existed in anything Tolkien wrote, an Elf-Dwarf romance that was the reverse of Tolkien’s own mythos, and lots of biff-bang-wallop adventuring. All presented with glacial pace and over-long set-piece chase sequences such as the goblin tunnels and the barrel ride, which seemed more designed as entrees for a video game than dramatic film scenes.
I can only speculate as to what happened. But a large part, I think, is the direction film-making has generally taken in the last decade, partly in response to the capabilities of CGI and a new generation’s expectations, partly on the back of an increasingly risk-averse film industry. Films won’t get funded without meeting the market, and studios are increasingly aiming to get best bang-for-buck – capitalising on development costs by spinning multiple franchise movies out of a single investment.
Another issue is the fact that The Hobbit of 1937 is a period piece, these days – a tale framed by 1930s thinking. It lacked female characters. That stands against modern needs and ideals. Hence, I gather, the need to introduce one, Tauriel. All three Hobbit movies were excellent examples of modern film-making. Jackson’s unquestionably nailed that.
Tolkien did epic too – not least in The Lord of The Rings, more so in The Silmarillion, which is packed with tales that absolutely demand the Jackson big-screen treatment. But The Hobbit wasn’t among them. It had its epic moments, but they unfolded against a quieter background, as Bilbo engaged in his journey of self-discovery, and that to me was the spirit of the tale. To turn that into three multi-hour epic movies also meant the original themes and ideas were buried. Obviously a book has to be adapted to film; but to my mind the scripting went well beyond that. Largely, I suspect, to meet that need to make three movies.
And this, I think, is the problem; the fact that huge-and-epic stands against what Tolkien envisaged with The Hobbit, which was a short-ish childrens book with simple plot. Bilbo’s hero journey. Aspects of it were there – and Martin Freeman captured Bilbo’s character arc. But it was well buried amidst a panoply of other plot, characters and story line. As I say, to my mind the spirit of the original had been lost.
Given that, I can only lament the fact that the Tolkien estate hasn’t released the film rights for The Silmarillion and some of Tolkien’s other works. Jackson could certainly do them justice. But as I understand it we’ll have to wait until 2048, when it enters public domain, to see anything more on screen.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015