Roundtable: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) awaits the continuation of his journey. Anton: I remember after the incredible financial and critical success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson was being touted as the next Steven Spielberg. But after seeing the first installment of The Hobbit, I think Jackson may actually be the new George Lucas. Wait, I think I’ll have to qualify that statement, seeing as how Lucas is such a controversial figure. What I mean by the comparison is that The Hobbit shows Jackson to be a talented commercial filmmaker with nearly infinite resources at his disposal, but who is chiefly concerned with making a film that matches his own vision and personal tastes. Like the prequel trilogy, The Hobbit is both populist and incredibly idiosyncratic. It’s actually hard now to think about what Guillermo del Toro’s version of The Hobbit would have looked like, because An Unexpected Journey is such a Peter Jackson film. We get helicopter shots aplenty, slow-motion scenes of emotion, a delight in the grotesquery of orcs and monsters, and long, inventive action sequences. Lastly, to further my comparison, like any return to a beloved franchise, The Hobbit has been greeted with reactionary backlash.

Aren: I think we can all acknowledge that An Unexpected Journey never reaches the heights of The Lord of the Rings. And being such a personal vision of Middle Earth, it also shares many of the same flaws as Jackson’s epic trilogy. Again Jackson loves the grotesquery of the orcs almost to the detriment of everything else. How else to explain so many shots of wargs snarling right up near the camera or close-ups of orcs’ rotting teeth? The addition of Azog the Defiler is a perfect example of this. Jackson needed a villain, and what better villain than a monstrous, towering orc with a pitchfork for a hand? At least this grotesquery allows us the Great Goblin, a hilariously fat, monstrous villain covered in pustules and speaking in a smarmy gilt.

The trolls discuss how to cook the dwarves.

Anton: Anders has discussed the adaptation at length in his review, but I don’t entirely agree with him. I’m not fully satisfied with the film as an adaptation, but I’m also increasingly resistant to the idea that adaptations of books should essentially be books on film. I disagree with people who simply want to see their beloved novel visually represented, because, frankly, I’m more than happy with my own version of The Hobbit that has played out in my mind since I first read it as a child. I agree with Anders that a number of Jackson and company’s changes are odd, and that we’ll have to see how they play out over the next two films.

On a fundamental level, I think many of Jackson’s generic interests (swashbuckling adventure, gory horror, slapstick comedy) do not agree with Tolkien’s high fantasy, and so Jackson’s films will never perfectly duplicate the tone and structure of Tolkien’s works. But as I said, I’m not interested in duplication. I think the biggest problem is shifting our orientation from the hobbit to the dwarves, but I don’t think the effect is totally as Anders suggests. If anything, the two prologues (Erebor and the Shire) demonstrate that the film is divided between Bilbo’s journey and the dwarves’ story. However, Thorin was never just one more dwarf in Tolkien’s book. I like that we’re not following thirteen Gimlis walking about. I also like that some of the dwarves — Thorin in particular — are allowed to be dramatic and not comic. Martin Freeman is perfect as a befuddled, exasperated Bilbo, and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is integral, linking Jackson’s two trilogies. McKellen’s performance also demonstrates the two sides of Jackson’s films: with his winks and nods, the playful side, and with his sententious pronouncements, the serious side.

Aren: I still can’t get over how perfectly cast Martin Freeman is as Bilbo. He brings his signature British befuddlement to the role, and reminds me of just how lively a character Bilbo is. Frodo may be the signature hobbit within the whole Middle Earth mythos, but Bilbo is certainly the more enjoyable character — more humourous, more adventurous, more fun.

Dwalin and Balin discuss Bilbo's hobbit hole.

Anton: The Hobbit is one of those movies that, if it’s not a great film, it is great fun! There are scenes I don’t like and wish were removed (like the unnecessary scene with Elijah Wood’s Frodo), but there are also scenes that blew me away, like the escape from the goblin caves. It has been a long time since I saw an action sequence that I need to see again. Whereas the big battle at the end of The Avengers bored me with its constant barrage of identical baddies and repetitive action, the flight from the goblins is endlessly inventive and visually stunning. As an action set piece that allows a great filmmaker to show off it reminded me of the mine cart chase in Temple of Doom. If Jackson’s emotional scenes generally play out in a similar fashion, his action sequences are very imaginative.

Aren: As well, for all the talk about how overloaded with special effects the film is, which it certainly is, not enough credit is ever given to how perfectly animated Gollum is and how the technology is integral to making him come alive. The Riddles in the Dark scene is probably the high point in the film, where the focus shifts squarely to Bilbo and the first true test of his heroism comes. Gollum’s facial animations are astounding. Andy Serkis can never get enough credit for how wonderful his performance as Gollum has been, but also, the animators are too often overlooked in bringing Gollum to life. He remains the greatest achievement in motion capture filmmaking. Also, with the film being explicitly connected to The Lord of the Rings films, this scene had to take on an even greater significance with Bilbo’s finding of the One Ring. Jackson plays up just how important this scene is within this specific story, and within Middle Earth as a whole.

While talking technology, I might as well get into the High Frame Rate. The discussion around the necessity or, might I even say, morality, of 48 frames per second has reminded me of just how downright reactionary some people can be.

First of all, if 48fps didn’t work for you as a viewer, you have every right to say it didn’t work for you. But acknowledge that as a matter of taste, and not some moral statement about what film should be. It took me about 10 minutes to get accustomed to the highly smooth image and the hyperreality of what I was seeing on screen, but once my eyes adjusted, I was astounded by how good everything looked. The 3D wasn’t even noticeable because it made it seem like you were staring out at actual figures in this fantastical land. This was no pop-up book 3D, but rounded, deep images of figures. But this being said, I still fully acknowledge my enjoyment of HFR being a matter of taste.

Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Gandalf (Ian McKellan) in Rivendell.

Anton: I just want to say that HFR blew me away. Everything looks so clear. I was impressed. I don’t want to see every movie in this format (and I don’t think Jackson would want to either), but as another format option for action blockbusters, I’m onboard. And I’ll just add that my wife, someone who has little concern for the controversies of film technology, really enjoyed watching it.

Aren: Good point. I don't think most people are nearly quite as incensed by the whole thing as critics. If it works for them, they'll like it, and if it doesn't, they won't. It has nothing to do with the morality of film for them. What isn’t a matter of taste is the stupidity of the discussion about what is the definitive frame-rate for film. People often say that for as long as film has been around, it has been projected at 24fps. This is incorrect. In the silent era, film was often projected at 16 to 18 fps, which gave it that herky-jerky look. When sound came along, the frame-rate had to be upped to 24fps, which is the bare minimum rate to have sound synced to film during projection. Thus, the decision to use 24fps as the standard frame-rate was not one predicated on what the perfect film image should be or what the human eye is most attuned to; it was based off money. 24fps was the cheapest option since it required the least amount of celluloid, which put costs at the bare minimum. So this decision that reactionary critics have been defending as the artistic ideal of moviemaking was actually a crassly economic decision made by the studios.

With all this being said, I don’t want to disparage 24fps, but simply acknowledge that we like it merely because we’re used to it. And being used to something is not reason enough to damn someone when they try something new. Filmmakers like Peter Jackson now have the option to choose their own frame-rate, which is something that has never been an option in the past. The artistic control of the filmmaker can now overflow into such technical fields as frame-rate.

I think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey works marvelously well in HFR — I felt transported and loved how realistic everything looked on screen — and I’m excited about the future potential of this new technology. HFR is not perfected, obviously. This is the first taste we have of this advanced frame-rate and I can’t wait to see how it will improve and how other ambitious filmmakers will put it to use in making their own artistic creations. All I ask is that critics have an open mind, and realize that there is nothing morally wrong about HFR, and that their own idealism about 24fps is misguided.

So what did you think of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? Did you love or hate the HFR? Like the additions from the Appendices? Let us know what you think in the comments.