A few months ago I went to a reading of The Hobbit by Andy Serkis, the actor most famous for providing the voice of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was reading the part where Bilbo Baggins first encounters the mysterious Gollum, deep under a goblin-infested mountain.
For the parts of Bilbo and the narrator, his voice had a child-friendly Jackanory quality to it but when it came to Gollum, he transformed – vocally and physically – into the creature we recognise from the movies. He hissed and purred and argued with himself, all at the same time, like some malevolent beatboxer. I had assumed there was some degree of audio trickery used to construct Gollum’s distinctive voice – but no, he was there, right in front of me. Even Serkis’ face became Gollum: twisted, contorted and mad. It was captivating (and made all the more surreal by the gigantic Hobbit’s second breakfast banquet table he was perched next to and some hairy-footed violinists; I definitely didn’t dream this).
There were times during The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that I found myself wishing they had just filmed Serkis reading the whole thing.
The decision to make The Hobbit into a trilogy has received a lot of stick. Compared to The Lord of the Rings, it is a slip of a book (by the same logic, LOTR should have spanned nine films). It felt like it was cashing in on the last filmable JRR Tolkien novel (I can’t imagine any bidding wars for film rights to the Silmarillion). Is there enough meat to fill three films, even when you bring in Tolkien’s various appendices and excerpts? On the strength of the first installment: no. No, there isn’t.
It kicks off with one of Jackson’s now familiar swooping shots through a gigantic dwarven palace, which brings back happy memories of his epic LOTR. But then we’re whipped back to The Shire (home of the Hobbits, obviously), where a pre-Sauron Elijah Wood is a reminder of how annoying Hobbits are when they are not being attacked by orcs. He doesn’t last long, though, because the rest of the story is told through a big flashback, transforming Ian Holm’s familiar Old Bilbo into Tim from the office. Then it starts to go wrong.
The first act is set entirely in Bilbo’s home in The Shire, where a bunch of dwarves turn up to ruminate on their lost homeland. This doesn’t stop them from squeezing in two musical numbers, one of which, involving throwing crockery around, wouldn’t have looked out of place on CBBC. It takes somewhere between half an hour and several years for them to leave The Shire and begin the eponymous Unexpected Journey, by which time I was thoroughly sick of both dwarves and hobbits. Set pieces are provided through skirmishes with trolls and goblins and the occasional orc, and the battle scenes are impressively epic. The problem is, it’s all very disjointed, and very little like I remember the book. Were there really so many protracted fight sequences? Was Randagast (a spirited appearance by Sylvester McCoy) such a big part? At times it feels like the material has been stretched to breaking point to fill the time.
That isn’t to say it isn’t fun. Familiar faces including the magisterial Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Christopher Lee as Saruman, make The Hobbit hard to dislike. It’s a bit like a school reunion: everyone is older and more jaded but determined to relive the good old days. And then there is Serkis, who completely steals the show. The scenes involving Gollum are enthralling. His performance should be remembered alongside the cinema greats – Brando in the Godfather or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.
But even during these moments, The Hobbit looks…wrong. Almost like you’re watching a made-for-TV movie. Jackson shot The Hobbit in 48 frames per second, which is twice as many as we’re used to. His reasoning is that more is better. But it also makes everything look fake, like a giant film set, which is exactly what it is. Doubling the frame-rate gets rid of blur and strobing – but that’s what our brains are used to seeing. It’s what makes cinema look different to TV. Maybe in a few years people will look back piteously at our generation, with our regressive love of blurry old movies, as we might look at an old man who can’t get used to listening to music without a gramophone.
The Hobbit had a lot to live up to; one of the most beloved children’s books ever written and three of the greatest fantasy movies ever made. It inevitably falls short. Too many factors conspire to stop it reaching greatness. That said, even Peter Jackson on a bad day is thoroughly watchable – just prepare yourself for a very long journey indeed.
First published in City A.M.