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Robbie Collin has something to say about Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Hobbit, before its UK release, featuring Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen.
“Like butter that has been scraped over too much bread” was how JRR Tolkien described the supernatural world-weariness of Bilbo Baggins in the opening chapter of The Lord of the Rings.
This phrase, incomparably Tolkien-esque in its syntactic cleanness and semantic beauty, is also a perfect description for the initial installment in Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of The Hobbit, which I now afraid is doomed to be called a ‘prequel’ to Tolkien’s fantasy magnum opus.
The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey barely leaves the driveway. The film lasts for 11 minutes short of three hours, and takes us to the end of chapter six in Tolkien’s original novel, which falls on page 130 of the official movie tie-in edition. That’s half an hour per chapter, or one minute and 20 seconds per page. The work of the sombre Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr, whose grinding tale of apocalyptic poverty The Turin Horse ran to a mere 155 minutes, feels nippy by comparison.
This movie is so full of irrelevant faff and flummery that it hardly feels like Tolkien at all but more a dire, fan-written internet tribute. The book begins with the unimprovable ten-word opening sentence: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” Jackson, on the contrary, begins with an interminable narrative detour about a mining operation led by a team of dwarves, involving magic crystals, orc armies and details of dwarf family trees that are of interest, at this early stage in what is supposed to be a family movie, to nearly nobody.
The stuffing is highly needed as Jackson and Warner Bros have split Tolkien’s fairly short story into three incredibly long movies, which will mean hugely inflated box office revenues at the small cost of artistic worth and entertainment.
Jackson has also chosen to shoot the film at 48 frames per second rather than the industry standard of 24. The purpose is to make the digital special effects and swoopy landscape scenes look smoother, which they actually do. The unintended side effect is that the extra visual detail gives the entire film a sickly sheen of fakeness: the props look embarrassingly proppy and the rubber noses look a great deal more rubbery than nosey. I was reminded of the BBC’s 1988 production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and not in a good way.
Eventually we are introduced to Bag End, and Bilbo Baggins as Martin Freeman, who makes exactly one-third of a good job of portraying the character. We also meet Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the 13 dwarves who accompany Bilbo on his adventure. Ken Stott stands out as the bibulous Balin and James Nesbitt is rather good as the mischievous Bofur, but the others move around as a kind of amorphous dramatic blob. Additionally, two of their names are mispronounced throughout the whole movie, which is highly unforgivable.
Off the party treks towards the gold hoard at the Lonely Mountain, stopping off at the Elvish city of Rivendell: the Middle Earth equivalent of Heston Services. Here, Gandalf has a boring endless interminable talk with Galadriel (played by Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), which gets so tiresome that Bilbo and the dwarves leave without them.
Thank heavens for Andy Serkis, whose riddling return as Gollum steals the entire film. It is the only time the digital effects and smoother visuals underline, instead of undermine, the mythical drama of Bilbo’s journey. As a lover of cinema, Jackson’s film bored me rigid; as a lover of Tolkien, it broke my heart.