Today was J.R.R. Tolkein Day, celebrating the great writer whose birthday was January 3rd. He would have been 121 (11^2, which is not quite the same as eleventieth in terms of birthdays, but would probably suit him just the same). When it comes to Tolkein’s oeuvre, I believe there are three types of people: Those who are rabid followers, those who don’t know and don’t care (maybe they saw the movies), and those of us in the middle.
When it comes to us from (wait for it…) “middle earth,” Peter Jackson’s films are a bit of a godsend (or Gandalf-send). I never really understood 80 percent of The Lord of the Rings before I watched the first two films in Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy. Now he’s gone and done it again, making a three-film odyssey out of The Hobbit, a slim book that—if you are a casual Tolkein reader—is the book most familiar to Americans.
So why not make the most of J.R.R. Tolkein day by taking in The Hobbit? It’s as good a way as any (along with bangers and ale) to celebrate this auspicious anniversary.
What did I think of the film? First off, it makes me want to go back and re-read the book, which is pretty much as lofty praise as you can give to a filmmaker who is adapting literature. Second, I’m none too worried about the work being stretched into nine-hours worth of film; Jackson can take a single sentence of Tolkein’s and stretch it out into an eight-minute fight of daring-do between Rock Monsters. There’s plenty of mining to be done from Tolkein’s prose, and none of it has to do with Moria!
I also thought that the final portion of An Unexpected Journey was cleaner than the ending to The Fellowship of the Rings, which—if you hadn’t read the book—was terribly unsatisfying; okay, even if you read the book, it was pretty unsatisfying. Part 1 of The Hobbit (minus the cutaway to Smaug at the very end) was a complete film in and of itself.
So, why didn’t I like the movie? Because whether the movie house had camera issues or Jackson’s choice to film in heretofore unexplored 48 frames per second digital shooting, I literally felt nauseous by the end of the movie. However, that may be one of those things that is particular to me (I don’t do IMAX or any of those films that your eyes make you feel like you’re moving when you’re not; I get sick in a train station when the train next to me gives the illusion that I’m moving when I’m sitting still). What is not particular to me is that the entire film is like watching a video game. Nothing looks real excepting the actors (although when Richard Armitage—brilliant, btw, but standing 6’2″—is shrunken beside Ian McKellen—no dwarf himself, pun intended, but shorter at 5’11″—it’s arguable if even the actors look real); you know there’s a disconnect in the film when the most compelling actor is the motion capture genius Andy Serkis.
Speaking of which, because my daughter is in the business, we always stick around for the credits. I was pleasantly surprised to see Serkis’ name come up as 2nd Unit Director. I love what Serkis is doing in this film and in the industry; he’s the reason why motion capture technology is wrong wrong wrong for film. Serkis is a brilliant artist who should have been nominated (and probably awarded) an Oscar for his motion capture acting in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If you have ever seen anyone else (including the entire cast of Avatar) try to pull this off, you realize that only an actor who “gets” the technology can actually act through the technology. Knowing he’s behind the camera at least part of the time is reason enough for me to stick with Jackson’s experimental filming and hope for a more genuine and real effect in parts 2 and 3 of The Hobbit.