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 neatness and semantic beauty, is also a perfect description for the first instalment in Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of The Hobbit, which I now fear is doomed to be referred to as 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 Bela Tarr, whose grinding tale of apocalyptic poverty The Turin Horse ran to a mere 155 minutes, feels nippy by comparison.
This film is so stuffed with extraneous faff and flummery that it often barely feels like Tolkien at all — more a dire, fan-written Internet tribute. The book begins with the unimprovable 10-word opening sentence: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” Jackson, by contrast, starts with an interminable narrative detour about a mining operation run 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 film, to almost nobody.
The stuffing is required because Jackson and Warner Bros have divided Tolkien’s fairly short story into three incredibly long films, which will mean vastly 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 intention is to make the digital special effects and swoopy landscape shots look smoother, which they 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. Also, two of their names are mispronounced throughout the entire film, which is 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 an interminable conversation with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), which gets so boring 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, rather than undermine, the mythical drama of Bilbo’s adventure. As a lover of cinema, Jackson’s film bored me rigid; as a lover of Tolkien, it broke my heart.
The hobbit: an unexpected journey (u/a)
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt
Running time: 169 minutes