Monday, December 31, 2012

The Hobbit

It's inevitable I suppose that I was going to be a little disappointed. I've been waiting for a live action film of The Hobbit since the summer of 1978 when I read the book. I was one of those kids who was obsessed with Tolkien way before it was fashionable or even socially acceptable. I got The Lord of the Rings as a Christmas present in 1978 and I'd read it twice before school started again in January 79. I wrote to Christopher Tolkien and made my own series of maps of Frodo's and Bilbo's travels throughout Middle-Earth. When I got my first computer, a Sinclair Spectrum, I wrote a 32K adventure game based on The Hobbit and of course I played MERP the Tolkien universe equivalent of D&D. I met my wife in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford where she'd gone because it was her local and I'd gone to geek out in the room where Tolkien, CS Lewis and the other Inklings read out first drafts of their stuff.
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I grew out of Tolkien a little in my teens and although I still had a lot of affection for the Tolkien books I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with Tolkien's conservative ethos. Tolkien - unlike Lewis - was not a Christian evangelist but he had an old fashioned One Nation Tory attitude towards the working class (which comes across pretty clearly in the officer/footman relationship between Frodo and Sam and all the irritating king worship through the books) and I do think it's a bit creepy that the South African born Tolkien associated black skin colour with evil in the novels. Tolkien has been criticised for his shallow characters but actually some of his leads are pretty complex (Gollum, Boromir and the rather interesting Grima Wormtongue) but admittedly most show little capacity for change or growth. I never really understood the motivation of the bad guys in Tolkien's books (Sauron wants to rule over a desolate Middle-Earth filled with idiot orcs?) (why do dragons need treasure?) And I found myself worrying about what the goblins and orcs ate if they had no agriculture and lived under a mountain. (I still don't know how Elrond and the elves feed themselves. They make bread but don't grow crops). 
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However, when The Lord of the Rings movies came out I was teaching high school English in Colorado and I dragged along a class of students to The Fellowship of the Ring and very few of them complained. I thought Fellowship was a perfectly acceptable film and I really liked Peter Jackson's Two Towers. I only began to get bored and fed up during the interminable Return of the King (the worst of the 3 films and the one which predictably got all the Oscars under the Martin Scorsese rule). 
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I finally saw The Hobbit this week and to be sure I got the complete experience I saw it twice, once in 2d projected at 24 fps and once in 3d Imax projected at 48 fps. The 3D Imax 48 fps (Peter Jackson's preferred format) was an unqualified disaster. It was absolutely horrible to look at and seemed like some kind of lost BBC adaptation from the 80's. 48 fps is not a format to watch movies in. Neither of course is 3D and watched together in both these formats the film looks tawdry, unpleasant and fake. Despite what some British and New Zealand critic/apologists have been saying you do not get used to viewing a film like this as you go along. The Hobbit at 48 fps looks really cheap and nasty which is ironic as it's one of the most expensive films ever made.
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In 2D at 24 fps the film is much much better. The plot? Well the film faithfully follows the book through about chapter 7 with seemingly nothing at all left out and a lot of stuff thrown in from the Appendices of Lord of the Rings (they can't add stuff from the Silmarillion or Lost Tales because they don't own the rights to those books). Casual movie fans and many critics have complained that the first hour of The Hobbit is really boring and the comedian Doug Benson had a funny line "you know your movie is in trouble when the thing everyone is talking about is the game of riddles." I however wasn't bored by The Hobbit. I enjoyed the meandering plot and the attention to detail. If Guillermo del Toro hadn't been subtly edged out as director The Hobbit would have been more daring and interesting, but as it is Peter Jackson has made this film for the fans not for the casual cinema goer and to be honest that's just fine by me. Martin Freeman is a perfect Bilbo and I enjoyed the attempt to provide some visual contrast between the dwarves (it was smart too to give them different accents). Yes The Hobbit is slow but I didn't mind slow in a world where I spent several years of my childhood. Indeed if Peter Jackson hadn't made it in 3D or 48 fps I would have said that The Hobbit was at least as good as parts of The Lord of the Rings - better than Return of the King, not quite up there with Fellowship or the magnificent Two Towers. I'll definitely go along to films 2 and 3 of The Hobbit. If I want intelligent subversive high fantasy I'll keep watching Game of the Thrones but The Hobbit will continue to be a pleasant nostalgic trip for me especially next time if I avoid the 48fps and 3D versions...