Last night, we watched the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I had heard so many negative reviews of the film, that I was fully prepared for disappointment. As a result, I wasn’t exactly disappointed (because my expectations were so low), but nor was I delighted by it. I think it was a decently entertaining (though overblown) film, and despite the epic running time, I didn’t find myself looking at the clock every 5 minutes. On the other hand, I wasn’t drawn, enraptured, into the world of Middle Earth as I had been in the Lord of the Rings films, and by the books. If you’re not interested in a review, skip about half way down to my critique of Middle Earth Health and Safety practices.
I’m certainly not the first to say it, but The Hobbit (the film) has really suffered from being inflated to a ridiculous extent by the demands of the film distributors. The original book is 300 pages or so, and as I remember it1 cracks along at a very brisk pace. It’s also a simple story: Bilbo the Hobbit agrees (against his inclination) to join a band of dwarves who (with the aid of the wizard Gandalf) are trying to steal back some of their hoard of gold from Smaug the dragon who captured their kingdom inside the Misty Mountain. They go on this quest, meet lots of dangers on the way before returning safely. The End.
In order to fill three films, each with more than two hours running time, this simple story has been padded with all sorts of other stuff, long battle scenes and so on, and in the process it lost the heart of the story which was one told from Bilbo’s humble, slightly bewildered position. In the book, Bilbo spends quite a bit of the time being homesick and thinking about food, and while he shows guile, cunning and even courage in overcoming the obstacles he encounters, he is still at heart the same, down to earth little Hobbit who likes his second breakfast and a pipe in front of a warm fire. In my opinion2, Bilbo should be the focus and the heart of the film, and he is not. This is a great shame, because Martin Freeman did a great job with the material he had, and his is a much more convincing Hobbit (physically and temperamentally) than Elijah Wood as Frodo. Both Freeman and Ian Holm have a quiet, grounded, solid, earthy sort of strength that I think should be characteristic of a Hobbit.
The second problem with the film is that they try to make it a prequel trilogy to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We all know how well that worked out with Star Wars. The Hobbit was published before Lord of the Rings, and to be fair, Tolkien himself apparently made a few retrospective adjustments to parts of The Hobbit in later editions, so that they fitted in with events in Lord of the Rings. These mainly focused around altering the scene between Gollum and Bilbo so that Gollum was furious with Bilbo for having stolen ‘his precious’, thus setting things up for their re-encounter in Lord of the Rings.
Given that Tolkien had already made the necessary adjustments to avoid contradictory events between the two works, all the other connections made in the film feel completely unnecessary. There’s a linking scene at the beginning with the older Bilbo and Frodo, so that the rest of the film is cast as a kind of flashback, and they try to shoe-horn in some of the themes of growing evil that appear in the Lord of the Rings. This is clunky, dilutes the simple story, and slows down the action.
Visually it was good (though with rather startling Technicolor-like colours which reminded me a bit of a HDR photograph), and there are some wonderful scenes, particularly the one between Bilbo and Gollum. Of course, we watched it on DVD and so not in 3D, and I can’t say that the 48 fps filming made a huge impact on me. As I said, overall, I enjoyed it well enough, but I do think an opportunity was lost to make a really warm, exciting, stand-alone film, with a plot that zipped along and took you on a ride with it.
Middle Earth Health and Safety (or lack thereof)
I have to mention one more thing: in the scenes in which my attention was wandering a bit, I started looking at the architecture of Middle Earth, and finding some frankly shocking violations of acceptable Health and Safety practice. I first noticed it in the Kingdom of Erebor: there were countless narrow walkways, hundreds of metres above the ground. Not only were these walkways made of some slippery-looking stone, but there were absolutely no handrails. I mean, if you’re going to do without handrails for the look of the thing, at last put some fluorescent warning strips on the edge of the walkway, and a non-slip coating on the surface. And don’t Dwarves get drunk a lot? That seems like an accident waiting to happen. All this apparently happened before the King went all gold-obsessed, so you can’t blame it on an oversight caused by caring more about gold than building regulations and the resulting safety of your people.
Of course, Dwarves are rough, tough miners, used to a bit of risk and danger. Perhaps they just take a bit of a devil-may-care attitude to Health and Safety? That being so, you’d think that of all the Races of Middle Earth, the Elves would be completely on top of this kind of thing. I mean, they are joyless enough to apparently live entirely on lettuce, for example. But no! Rivendell is a mass of slippery aerial walkways, with not a handrail in sight. Even worse, at one point, Gandalf and Galadriel wander out to chat together on an over-hanging bit of rock face, at the top of an impossibly high cliff. Are there barriers, or even warning signs to keep away from the unstable cliff edge? Not a sausage. If they live only on lettuce, Elves must be pretty light, but even so, that chunk of rock is only a tiny bit of water erosion away from breaking off from the face. At that point, you’d better hope that you’ve got the giant Eagles on telepathic speed-dial so that they can come and pluck you out of the air before you plunge to your death. If you let that kind of lax safety culture persist, you eventually end up with the Insane Steward’s Fiery Death Plunge Gap 60 years or so later in Minas Tirith.
Indeed, it comes to something when even the Goblins have somewhat safer walkways in their underground lair than the Dwarves and the Elves. Yes, they are rickety rope and timber structures in close proximity to naked flames, but they do at least (for the most part) have rope handrails, at least. Races of Middle Earth, pull your socks up and appoint and Health and Safety officer with a clipboard and a hard hat before somebody gets hurt.