I do a final check of the hotel suite before leaving.
Two TV monitors, two tape players, two remotes gaffered to the top of the players (little staging tech tip), cables neatly coiled and taped down.
Then it occurs to me.
This is Peter Jackson’s suite.
I radio back to base and they confirm it. (Knowing I’m a fan, the fuckers were gonna wait till I got back to tell me.)
He is in town shooting the theatre scene for King Kong. Both my partner and my current flatmate were extras in the audience. I am ferrying them and other extras to and from Auckland’s Civic Theatre at the beginning and end of each day’s shoot so I know how long they go for. Then the mad bastard must come back here and review other units into the night.
Middle Earth, first in book form and then in film form has always been extremely important to me. From my first adolescent inklings (pun!) of magic’s existence to moving to New Zealand to meeting my partner to getting my first proper job to moving to the UK it has always somehow briefly appeared, like a face in the crowd, as a portent for big changes. (We shall see what this new film portends for 2013, then.)
All of this is why there was some trepidation when sitting down to watch The Hobbit last night. At least I was in good company… my partner is from Wellington, looks quite hobbitish and -as mentioned- has actually been directed by Peter Jackson. My parents and I had a tradition of seeing The Lord of The Rings films when they opened on Boxing Day in Australia. Amusingly, my mother the psychonaut also presented me with a gold ring she had made for my birthday a few years ago that needed re-sizing back home and was thus ‘lost’ to me for six months.
But this film can’t be as good as the first ones, obviously. The book is objectively worse, for a start. It is also missing its early-noughties optimistic zeitgest. I just really didn’t want it to be shit… I didn’t want to have the original rug pulled out from under me a la Star Wars.
So then… in a sentence: It’s not as bad as I feared and not as good as I hoped. Four stars for fans, three stars for everyone else.
A lot of this comes down to the sheer, unrelenting effort of the film’s director. The kind of stamina that is shown by someone shooting on location for fifteen hours and then retiring to a hotel suite to watch two monitors of what I presume was rushes from other units. It’s the kind of stamina I like to think Tolkien would have appreciated, as he himself sat up late through the night after he was done with work to pen both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings.
The Valar know that Jackson surely needed it, as The Hobbit certainly qualifies as a cursed film.
Inevitably with something so dear to your heart, you focus on the few bum notes and ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of the production is fantastic. So let’s get them out of the way.
The biggest challenge is a macro one and it comes built into the original novel: a complete lack of purpose for the actual story. During and after The Lord of The Rings, Tolkien struggled with exactly why one of the Istari would get himself involved in what is essentially a bumbling gold grab. But at the time of writing The Hobbit, he just wasn’t to know that the story was the tip of the richest and deepest invented mythological iceberg of the twentieth century. He was simply trying to do was follow along from that first piece of semiautomatic writing on a student’s exam paper In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
‘All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” I did not and do not know why.’
Though I would probably watch it, Jackson has astutely observed that a story about a bunch of singing fat dudes inexpertly chasing after lucre with the sporadic assistance of an unreliable beardy man is potentially not enough to hang three blockbuster films on. So he has injected the Dwarves’ quest with a noble desire to reclaim their homeland. Their current statelessness is clunkily juxtaposed with Bilbo’s very Middle English obsession with his own home.
It doesn’t work. It’s not exactly his fault because that’s what’s in the source material but it just doesn’t work. It does, however, open up a much more interesting juxtaposition between ‘home’ and ‘adventure’ as part of Bilbo’s journey and that definitely does. But this is why you cast Martin Freeman, by some margin Britain’s best ‘everyman’. Speaking as a reasonably-travelled double-migrant, the simultaneous pull of ‘home’ and ‘adventure’ is universal and little explored. (Which is weird given that both states underpin the Hero’s Journey.) The moment when Bilbo decides to accompany the Dwarves might just be my favourite part of the film.
The other Balrog in the room is the involvement of Elrond, Gandalf and the rest of the council of the Wise in the tale given that we know what’s coming in The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien retrospectively got around this by saying that Saruman was deliberately leading everyone down the wrong track regarding Sauron and the Ring because he was looking for it as well. There is a scene at Rivendell that speaks to this but it’s also very clunky. I suspect it will work better in the extended DVD release but, as with the original trilogy, whenever the screenwriters stray too far from Tolkien you really feel their nervous pastiche.
This scene also enables the filmmakers to include at least one major female character; Galadriel. Again, this is the challenge of the source material. With The Lord of The Rings, Jackson takes what I consider to be the right decision in pulling the Arwen/Aragon love affair out of the appendices and putting it on the screen. There just isn’t anything like that to work with in The Hobbit. It’s a sausage fest and that’s it. (Though weirdly it’s a lot less homoerotic than the original films.)
Things that potentially work better in the film than in the book include anything that involves creatures. In western cinema at least, nobody since George Lucas can hold a candle to Jackson when it comes to beasties. (You could argue that Del Toro does creatures better in a visual sense and you would probably be right, but I would argue that Jackson is better at creature sequences.) His update of the Mountain Giants is electrifying. I can say with some confidence that Tolkien would have approved of his decision to bump up their Norse supernatural physicality.
Including a Necromancer sequence is another one. Genuinely terrifying. Non-corporeal Sauron looks like a Slenderman/Entity attack hybrid. And equating what was in the book simply ‘the ability to raise the dead’ specifically with the resurrection of the Nine Kings of Men is cleverly done.
Oh and the riddle scene! The riddle scene is nothing short of fantastic. You get flashes of ‘book Bilbo’ rather than ‘action hero Bilbo’ in Martin Freeman’s simultaneous portrayal of scared, brainy and wily. Up until this scene I thought everyone’s effuse praise of Andy Serkis was wildly overrated. This is Gollum. The Gollum from your childhood.
Tolkien would say that the discovery of the Ring in a goblin cave was as much a surprise to him as it was to Bilbo. Like the Cthulhu Mythos, this is one of those moments of another world psychically crashing into ours in pieces. I love the idea that this innocuous little plot device -like the Ring itself- clearly has its own mission in our world that we can only guess at.
Much has been made about Jackson’s decision to shoot at a higher frame rate with weird cameras that mean all the actors have to be painted orange or something, and it’s in 3D and blah blah blah. Yes, this means that sometimes the visuals are annoyingly oversharp but actually… I didn’t mind all that much. As a pretentious former film student, I consider the tech secondary to the end product. If it’s good, I’ll watch your feature film even if you shot it on a fucking iPhone. I know what he’s doing… he’s using these films as an advertisement to attract other productions to his Wellington studios, just like he did last time. (And landed Avatar.)
Fine. Like I said, I’d have watched it if he shot it on an iPhone. Because, with anything Middle Earth, it’s not about the tech and in the case of this film, it isn’t even about the story. From Tolkien’s Ring:
‘I am interested in mythological invention, and the mystery of literary creation,’ Tolkien once wrote in a letter to a reader. ‘I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it has no stories of its own, not of the quality I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.’ …
‘I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic. to the level of romantic fairy-story… which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country.’
There is a reason why The Lord of The Ring’s popularity among the 60s counter-culture led to Berkeley college kids putting up, instead of Frodo, posters of the Middle Earth map. Leaving aside its accidental sexism, its implied fascism, its overt conservatism, the stories of Middle Earth are about a place and an idea of place.
And despite a few shortcomings, seeing The Hobbit is a truly welcome return to such a place. As the opening titles begin, a phrase leaps immediately to mind.
Well, I’m back.