The films have lost sight of the depth and richness that made JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit work, says Robbie Collin
9:00AM GMT 12 Dec 2014
In the early 1970s, Nicol Williamson, the great Scottish character actor, sat down with the founder of a record label that specialised in recordings of steam locomotives and planned a dramatisation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Williamson was a self-declared lover of Tolkien’s writing, and was also in discussions with director John Boorman, who wanted him to play Gandalf in his forthcoming film version of The Lord of the Rings. Boorman’s film eventually came to nothing, for various reasons, including United Artists’ horror at the sex scenes the director had inserted into the plot. But the recording went ahead with Tolkien’s blessing, and was released by Argo Records in 1974, in a four-LP set.
The whole thing runs to just under three-and-a-half hours. The words are all Tolkien’s, but were significantly edited down by Harley Usill, Argo’s owner, and then trimmed again by Williamson. Yet it retains everything that’s wonderful about The Hobbit: it’s witty, warm and wholly accessible, but also keenly attuned to the depth and richness of Tolkien’s original work.
Even as events around Bilbo Baggins sprawl ever more fantastically in all directions, the story cleaves to his four-foot-high perspective. It’s no coincidence that a Halfling’s-eye-view of the world is almost exactly the same as a child’s, and to abandon that viewpoint for one that’s notionally more ‘grown-up’ – i.e. bigger, louder and cooler – is to knock the Hobbitishness out of The Hobbit.
Which brings us to the Peter Jackson adaptation. The final part of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, arrives in cinemas this weekend, like the final season of a steadily worsening box-set – something not to be watched so much as ploughed through for closure’s sake.
The overriding problem, which just wasn’t an issue with Jackson’s earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy, is that muddled perspective: the story has been bulked out with material that belongs nowhere near it. There are the much-touted additional details from Tolkien apocrypha, written in a florid, high-fantasy tone and from a sweeping perspective completely at odds with The Hobbit, alongside bonus characters, cartoonish violence, double-entendre and toilet humour from the pens of Jackson and his co-writers.
The result has been three films all desperately working to cancel themselves and each other out. The latest begins with a joke about constipation, then shows us the destruction of a conspicuously digitised Lake-town by Smaug the dragon – faker and more incoherent than any of the Transformers movies – then finds Thorin stalking around his halls of stone and asks us to take the situation seriously.
Later, the venerable wizard Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) displays a heretofore hidden knack for kung fu. Much like the dwarves’ attack on Smaug at the end of Part Two, which turned the wily old dragon into a blundering halfwit, it’s a throwaway thrill at the expense of everything the character previously stood for.
Unfortunately, this is what happens when enough story for one substantial film (the Williamson recording is about as long as Gone with the Wind) has to be spun out into three: inevitably, in the process of cramming in extra material, plot cracks and potholes start to open up.
Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellan in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The Battle of the Five Armies runs for 144 minutes, during which time it covers the six final chapters, or 47 pages, of Tolkien’s book. At a storytelling rate of just over three minutes per page, this makes it the slowest-moving part of the trilogy by some margin, even though it’s also the shortest. The battle itself takes forever to start, and then takes forever to stop.
Tolkien’s masterstroke was to boil it down to almost nothing at all, capturing the tragic grandeur of the scene in prose as tightly wound as haiku.
“The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West,” he writes, as the goblin armies close in on the Longbeards’ treasure-hoard: an epic scene made personal and visceral. But for the most part, Jackson zooms out as far as he can, whirling his camera round towers and mountain-tops, confusing scale with spectacle.
On the rare occasions Bilbo (an excellent Martin Freeman) has been allowed out of the wings, you glimpse what a worthwhile film version of The Hobbit might have looked like. Towards the end of this third film, Freeman shares a scene with the dwarf-king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) that’s alive with sadness, and for a moment the preceding two hours of deoxygenated carnage starts threatening to mean something.
But it’s a passing phase. Soon we’re back in the world where hunky dwarves whisper “You make me feel alive!” to Amazonian elf-maidens, and a warrior chieftain with the voice of Billy Connolly shouts “bugger” while charging into battle on the back of a computerised pig. It leaves you feeling much the same way you did 11 years ago when Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came to an end: that you’d really like to see a film version of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Photo: Moviestore / Rex Features