Tolkien made several retrospective revisions to The Hobbit throughout his life in order to bring the story into line with his subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy. His last revision reportedly had him shift the tone of his children’s book into line with its adult-targeted successor. After receiving criticism for this shift, Tolkien elected not to publish this edition.
Unperturbed by this, Peter Jackson has attempted to do the exact same thing with his Hobbit films bar the good sense to realise prior to publishing that destroying the tone of the original book is, in fact, a bad idea. Is it arrogance or egoism on Jackson’s part to presume that he can improve upon Tolkien or is it economic studio interference to produce a cash cow? I suspect a fair portion of both but the result is the same: a three hour movie extravaganza of a children’s novel which numbers but a few hundred pages that is more bloated than Bombur’s belly.
The film begins with a pre-credit sequence showing the destruction of Lake Town by the dragon, Smaug. That this sequence ought to have been the grim finale of the previous film speaks again to the dishonourable, money-grabbing intentions of Jackson and the studio alike. It is the literary equivalent of finishing a book mid chapter, which is precisely what Jackson did with the previous instalment, The Desolation of Smaug.
Time and time again throughout this trilogy Jackson has departed from Tolkien’s script in ways that substitute the economy and elegance of the source material for Hollywood tropes favouring slapstick comedy, bombastic action, invented villains and fabricated romances. In his attempt to reinvent the wheel, Jackson and co have delivered a fully pimped out 16 wheel limousine replete with bar service, 8 TVs and a swimming pool. In case there’s any doubt, I’m saying this is a bad thing. An exquisitely crafted horse drawn sulky would have been more appropriate.
As was the case in the previous two films, CG is on full tilt here. There’s a CG sheen to just about everything in the film, from the rocks to the Orcs to the faces of the stars. There’s something very unnatural about it all; it all looks very ‘shot in a studio’, which, of course, much of it would have been. But since The Wizard of Oz major advancements have been made in cinema to make films look like they were not shot in a studio but Jackson has disregarded this almost completely. Like a dwarf in gold, he seems to revel in all this shiny new (unrealistic looking) technology. The result is a film that doesn’t even look like it’s trying to look real. Add in the HFR (high frame rate) component and it all looks astoundingly fake, sticking out like the voice of Billy Connolly in a crowd – wait, that happens too!
Martin Freeman is miscast as Bilbo. There, I said it! The problem with Freeman is his inability to overcome his natural comedic nervous shtick. As a result, you never know whether he is being serious or playing a scene for laughs. His performance is devoid of the childish fuddiduddiness that typifies the character of Bilbo, a characteristic that Ian Holm nailed with aplomb. Freeman would have done well to impersonate Holm.
Performances from the ex-Rings cast of McKellen, Blanchett, Lee and Weaving are naturally splendid though these guys must be sleepwalking these roles by now. Other performers seem cast for their personality rather than their acting chops – Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly – and this is distracting, extricating you from the on-screen fantasy.
The film ends hopelessly unresolved. The movie is called ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ and the battle is fought for the riches left behind from the slain dragon but what happens to the treasure in the end? What happens to the all-important Arkenstone? Do the Elves get their share of the loot? How do the broken men of Dale and Lake Town fare. What happens to the Dwarven Kingdom? Will Billy Connolly become king? It seems that the most important thing to happen after these three lengthy films is that Bilbo gets to go home.
Jackson has done to The Hobbit what he inflicted on King Kong: he’s taken a much-loved classic and ruined it with self-indulgence. After his excellent Lord of the Rings adaptation, Jackson ought to have been the man to author the definitive Hobbit film. Sadly, that film remains unmade.