It’s over 16 years since Peter Jackson first began work on his adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and his achievement in bringing those books to the big screen, as well as the first two of his equally visually-spectacular Hobbit films, remains a remarkable accomplishment.
Yet while his first trilogy of Tolkien adaptations were rightly celebrated by long-standing fans of the author, film geeks, highbrow critics and casual cinemagoers alike, reaction to the first film of The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, proved to be mixed, to say the least. It was a troubled production, during which the original director Guillermo Del Toro left the project due to ongoing delays and actors union strikes also delayed filming. In addition, Jackson’s reasons for converting one book into three (long) films rather than the originally intended two have been oft-questioned, particularly because the ‘unexpected journey’ of the first film took an age to get going. Most notably Jackson came under fire for the baffling decision to eke out a dwarven dinner party / singalong / washing up sequence for what seemed like an eternity.
Still, the first film was not without its merits. Jackson sensibly retained much of the look and feel of his Rings trilogy, a logical decision given that both tales are set in the same fantasy world and feature many of the same characters. Several actors reprised their iconic roles; some of them appeared to be shoe-horned in cameos, but by and large fans seemed to enjoy the return of Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Andy Serkis (Gollum). The set design was similar, Howard Shore again scored the film, the special effects were often breathtaking and yet again the use of New Zealand’s landscape was as good an advert for tourism that the nation could ever hope for. Yet despite all the pieces of the jigsaw appearing to be available, the picture at the end just didn’t quite look right.
The decision to film The Hobbit as a trilogy has had an effect on The Desolation Of Smaug, too; even though the pace is faster, at 161 minutes it’s not exactly a leaner, more taut affair than its predecessor. Many scenes are included which did not appear in the original book, or have been considerably altered due to the presence of certain characters, and Peter Jackson has included a lot of material that one BBC critic on The Film Show referred to last week as “very expensive fan fiction”. One difference from Tolkien’s book, for example, is the number of scenes that show Gandalf visiting the stronghold of Dol Gudur to battle the Necromancer (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch; the other day, at the exact moment that I was making the point to my wife that Benedict Cumberbatch suddenly appeared to be everywhere, I switched on the television and found Benedict Cumberbatch staring right back at me. “Fuck”, I muttered under my breath). Elsewhere Orlando Bloom returns as a younger Legolas (the character doesn’t actually appear in the source material) and a completely new elven character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is introduced. Even though this kind of tampering may irritate the purists, the more open-minded will see that the presence of both Legolas and Tauriel helps the film considerably. The pair take part in some of the more thrilling action sequences, lessen the focus on the dwarves (which in turn stops them from becoming too irritating) and Tauriel adds much-needed feminine presence.
As mentioned above the pace is faster, and it is generally kept that way throughout as Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and their company of squat walking carpets continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain and the gold-laden dwarf city of Erebor, current resting place of the dragon Smaug (also voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, just in case you had forgotten that he exists).
Along the way they encounter a man named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) who can apparently change form into a bear, killer spiders in the forest of Mirkwood, Elves who imprison the dwarves before they escape via a less-thrilling-than-you’ve-been-led-to-believe river run in barrels, the city of Esgaroth, or Lake-town as it is also known, and finally the giant, intelligent dragon himself, all the while pursued by a company of angry, bloodthirsty orcs.
These action sequences are quite enjoyable: it’s more family fun (with the occasional young-kid-troubling-beheading) played out in front of impressively-designed sets, all the while incorporating CGI successfully. It would seem as though Jackson’s achievements in bringing the cities of Middle Earth and events depicted by Tolkien to life are now being taken for granted, somewhat; the man is chastised for the misjudged pacing of An Unexpected Journey and now only sees lip-service paid to the epic realisations he continues to fabricate. After five Jackson / Tolkien films it’s possible that movie audiences are just a little tired of Middle Earth, which is unfortunate but also understandable. Still, I can think of quite a few films that suffer from worse pacing than anything Jackson has produced in the past 15 years, and equally I can’t think of many filmmakers that have matched the scope of his creative vision during that time.
I enjoyed the first Hobbit film (more than most, it would seem). I’m fully aware it sagged at times, but overall the experience of being transported back to Middle Earth was one I enjoyed. I also appreciate Martin Freeman as an actor, and he is on good, likeable form here; his blinks and occasional confused stares into the middle distance will be familiar to anyone who watched the original UK version of The Office, and his Bilbo is a reluctant hero that children and adults alike will be able to identify with.
The long running time might test the powers of concentration of younger children, but this time round Jackson just about includes enough action to satisfy those that found An Unexpected Journey a little slow and ponderous. The cast additions work out well; Bloom is a little blank at times but Lilly makes a decent fist of the Elven heroine written especially for the movie, and thankfully breaks up the Tolkien Boys Club. Stephen Fry is typically Fry-esque as the bellowing Master of Lake-town, though his appearance is only surprising for the fact that it has taken Jackson four films to employ him, and Luke Evans makes the most of his fairly sizeable supporting role as Bard the Bowman.
It’s by no means perfect, and it suffers a little from being a typical ‘second film of a trilogy’, offering no concessions to those who are not on board already and ending with a cliffhanger of sorts that will be resolved in the third film, There And Back Again, which made me feel a little frustrated as the house lights were turned on. Still, a few faults have been ironed out and the cast are still showing great conviction, bellowing out every one of Tolkien’s names, place names and made-up historical facts as if they were the most important things ever said. That kind of nonsense understandably puts a lot of people off, but for fans of Jackson’s adaptations so far, there is much to enjoy. It may be a lighter, less portentous series than The Lord Of The Rings, but many of the best elements of those films are retained as the Hobbit’s journey continues. I’ve never counted myself as a fan of the fantasy genre and I’m no big fan of Tolkien, which makes it easier to swallow some of the decisions taken by the director and the screenwriters, but Jackson’s interpretation still impresses me after five Middle Earth-related movies.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, JRR Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly
Running Time: 161 minutes