The Hobbit- Analysis of a Trilogy

An Explanation for writing this article
(If you have no interest, feel free to skip ahead to ‘The Article’)

I Love Lord of The Rings- I’m talking uber-fan from birth…not really

I’m writing this article because I felt so horribly disappointed after watching all three Hobbit films back to back on Dec 15th at TCL Chinese theater. I’ll give a little back-story. I’ve been a Tolkien fan for a long time. I don’t say that as some kind of nerd challenge as if I were a fan while still in the womb or something. I’m just saying that Tolkien has been around since my childhood and it created a strong sense of wonder in me and continues to do so. When I was not even old enough to read I would stare at the cover of The Hobbit, a copy of which my parents usually had lying around their bed-stand bookcase. I even typed (yes, on a type-writer) a short story about a dragon named Smaug (‘Smog’ in my version I think). I would often rent the Rankin/Bass animated Hobbit film at our local video store (If you’ve never seen it, then just stop reading this and go watch it now). Years later in High school I had to choose three books to read for my AP English class. Students were not allowed to read the same books, so you had to call dibs if you knew what you wanted. I shot my hand up in the air faster than anyone and said ‘Lord of the Rings!’ as my fellow classmates groaned and stared daggers at me. If those stares were because people thought the books were an easy read (they’re not) or because the film trilogy had been announced (more likely) I don’t know. I do know that I had made it a point to fully read the trilogy before the arrival of the films, and I am so glad I did. SPOILER! I’ll never forget the part in Two Towers when Shelob seemingly kills Frodo. I called up my girlfriend who had read the books, and I was literally in tears as she told me to keep reading. Sam and Frodo making their way through Mordor and up the staircases of Cirith Ungol is to this day the most haunting thing I’ve ever read in a book. I still remember how I pictured those parts of the story in my mind.

The reason I’m boring the few people who have chosen to read this section, with all these personal sentimental recollections, is because those who love Tolkien understand and probably have similar, more engaging stories involving trips to New Zealand, Tattoos, or trivia contests. The people who don’t understand the level of fandom should know that the LOTR films were as significant to many as the original Star Wars trilogy. Millions of people, my friends and I included, were obsessed. It’s not an understatement when I say that those films exceeded all expectations for me. Each year I prayed that I would continue to live and hopefully not go blind or deaf so that I could experience the next chapter in the epic story. I saw each of the three films three times each in theaters. A close friend of mine saw ‘Return of the King’ 9 times. YES 9 times. We even took a road trip to Boston in order to attend the science museum LOTR exhibit. We spent hours there. I’m the guy who spent roughly 12 hours at the Regal Cinemas in Downtown LA watching all three extended versions of LOTR in preparation of The Hobbit. So why now, ten years later, am I writing an article about how disappointing The Hobbit trilogy is? I know, it sucks, and trust me, I would much rather be joyfully dancing about praising Peter Jackson for hitting another home run, but I can’t. I won’t lie to myself. Maybe I’m jaded after living in LA for the last 5 years, or perhaps I’m just plain wrong in my opinion. Maybe I just care too much about a story that’s been with me for the majority of my life. Whatever the reason I have to get this off my chest, because some of you seem to have forgotten that Return of The King won 11 Academy Awards. One more time. 11 ACADEMY AWARDS. Including the title of being the first fantasy film to win Best Picture. That’s how high Peter Jackson and company set the bar just ten years ago.

The LOTR Adaptations

Now there are purists out there who will tell you those films sucked. Where’s Tom Bombadil, bleh bleh bleh. No adaptation will EVER be good enough for them. Those people are welcome to their opinion. In fact they are probably writing nasty stuff about The Hobbit as we speak. I never understood how those fans could be so pissed off, until now I guess. And to me that’s significant. How could I have switched sides only ten years later to be one of the people poo-pooing something that I should love? Hopefully this reflective article will shed some light.

I love LOTR as a book, but I feel that Peter Jackson and friends actually elevated the source material beyond the page and gave it fresh life. Let’s be honest, LOTR can be a really dry read. Let’s be brutally honest, LOTR can be utterly boring to the point where you have to question whether or not you’re really enjoying it. I’ve tried re-reading them multiple times over the years and have yet to complete them again since that first high school read-through. Jackson brought energy to that story in a way that remains true to the narrative and characters. He took everything that was great and put it on screen in a way that captivated millions, and that’s no small task. It’s like truncating the Bible, and to many it is just that. Over the years I’ve come to understand that films will never be the same as books, because THEY ARE DIFFERENT! What matters in any adaptation is the soul of the work. It’s hard to argue that those films didn’t do the books an incredible justice. It sparked the interest of millions of people who maybe never read the books, and only further solidified Tolkien’s name among the great writers of our time.

Please, I’m not a critic

Now, have I convinced you that I am both a fan of Tolkien and his work as well as an open-minded individual? I hope so, because I really tried to love the Hobbit trilogy, but in the end find myself writing this. I believe in giving credit where it’s due, and recognizing the valiant efforts of people who are trying to do more than just make a dollar off of someone else’s hard work. I’m not some random film critic (I despise critics), and I’m not here to ruin anyone’s opinion of anything. These are my thoughts and opinions, maybe you agree and maybe you don’t. I’m here to analyze why The Hobbit, in my mind, was such a massive disappointment overall. Not just a disappointment to the source material, but a disappointment in filmmaking. That isn’t to say it’s completely worthless, but overall it has fallen below the high bar that Jackson himself set. A bar that showed us what a faithful adaptation of beloved source material could be. In a world of horrible studio cash-cow adaptations (Harry Potter/Twilight/etc…) LOTR stood apart in a way that dwarfed (pun) the competition on every level. So what exactly happened with the Hobbit? I have a few ideas…

The Article

These are my thoughts on why The Hobbit Trilogy fails as an adaptation of The Hobbit book. The first part deals with the technical aspect of the films in regards to digital technology. The second part looks at the story of The Hobbit and how the filmmakers use The Appendices from LOTR as well as fabrications to bring the narrative to the screen.

Part One: Technology

If you haven’t seen it yet, then by all means please go and see the newest and last Hobbit film in the series trilogy. I say that because everyone should form their own opinion on things, and not just read an article and agree or disagree with it. I also say that because whether you like it or not, this is film history. Nobody knows if or when a film will ever again be screened at a non-standard film rate the way this Trilogy has, and if you are at all interested in the future of film, than this is pretty significant stuff. With that said, I really can’t say whether or not I would recommend it to someone based on the actual content.

I bought my ticket about a week prior to the release to see all three films in a marathon style at the TCL Chinese theater in Hollywood. 3D/IMAX/HFR. The way Peter Jackson would want you to see it. I love film, and I saw this as an historic occasion. These films are most likely the only ever to be screened at a non-standard frame rate. It was an interesting idea, and while not mind-blowing, I think it does offer something. That being said, in hindsight, I think that Jackson should have held out on shooting The Hobbit in 3D and HFR and saved these ideas for a future project.

Film Vs. Digital: Choice of a different Format

For one thing, part of their goal in doing this trilogy was to bridge the narrative with that of LOTR. By choosing to shoot on a different format from Rings, along with HFR and 3D, they made a conscious decision to aesthetically differentiate the two trilogies from each other. Now look, this is a massive debate in the film world right now, and we could have a whole discussion on film vs. digital alone, but what’s important here is that an artistic decision was made that would inevitably make an aesthetic difference. If the LOTR were paintings done with oil on canvas, should a follow-up be done with acrylic on wood? Yeah my analogy sucks, but do you get the point I’m trying to make? Honestly I’m struggling right now with how to phrase this in terms of aestethic tone, and mood so maybe I’ll just do this:

LOTR: Shot on film. Utilizes real locations, and environments of New Zealand. Sparingly uses digital effects. Creates a serious mood. Makes Middle Earth feel like it could be real.

The Hobbit: Shot digitally. Sparingly uses real locations and environments. Relies heavily on digital set pieces and characters. Creates a lighthearted Mood. Makes middle Earth feel like a videogame/comic book/cartoon.

Now a valid argument could be made that The Hobbit is indeed different from LOTR in its tone/vibe/aesthetic. The former was a children’s book and the Latter considered heightened literature. So is it so wrong to play with a different palette? Well, I say yes. And the reason is because this trilogy is not only telling the story of The Hobbit, but also that of the appendices. This means that either The Hobbit’s narrative needs to be escalated to a more serious tone to match that of LOTR and the appendices, or the appendices need to be toned down to a lighter level to match The Hobbit. It seems that the filmmakers tried to keep the narrative tone with that of LOTR, but the visual tone separate from Rings. And for me these choices don’t work, and reveal that maybe The Hobbit should have been adapted separately from The Appendices.

I assume that they were thinking ‘Let’s shoot LOTR 2.0’. We can make it look better, and really give our fans the kind of immersion into Middle Earth that films like Avatar created with Pandora. This is all good thinking, but it seems to lead down a slippery slope in the use of digital technologies. Like Avatar, The Hobbit begins to look more like a videogame than a film. This works in Avatar because Pandora is kind of like a videogame to the characters who are being plugged into it. While in Middle Earth all it seems to do is cheapen the experience. Wide shots of New Zealand landscapes still look incredible, but it’s jarring to cut from them to an obviously fabricated digital set and the latter seem to be used more heavily over the former. Certain environments look real, gritty yet beautiful and grounded, while characters and digital sets pop and gleam in a way that really reveals the stitching of the two. At times it is just a visual mess that isn’t coherent in a way that we’re use to.

Despite how far we’ve come our brains are still stuck in an all-or-nothing mindset. If you’re not crafting a Pixar film or the next Avatar, then you should sparingly use digital tools and you should not linger on it because it takes us out of the experience. Granted the newest Planet of the Apes film looks incredible (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), but here is a film, like Avatar, which is almost completely digital. A lot of the shots are recreated digitally over the existing sets, so in the end it all matches. The Hobbit however, like LOTR, wants to pride itself with its lush REAL New Zealand landscapes, of which there are many. And that’s when you start to notice a problem. As good as The Hobbit can look at times, it has issues differentiating between the real and the imaginary. Most of the time it looks far too polished as the crystal-clean image pops right up in front of me. It’s just too pretty. It doesn’t have the lived-in feel that rings had. And I hate to sound like a purist, but I know it’s because these were not shot on film. I am taken out of the story every time I see what is clearly a set piece surrounded by green/blue screens. Look at the shots in the beginning of the first film when Smaug attacks Erebor; The Dwarves are clearly on a practical wall, while everything else just feels wrong. Both trilogies utilize the vast and beautiful NZ landscapes to establish place via wide aerial shots, and both have a lot of great ‘on the road’ scenes through forests and mountain passes. Overall there’s something about the look of The Hobbit that takes me away to a place that doesn’t feel like the Middle-Earth that was crafted only ten years ago. And all my thinking points to the aesthetic choice of shooting digitally.

Shooting on RED seems to have enabled the filmmakers to adjust their entire process to a more digital framework and thus aesthetic degradation overall. Over the last few years, WETA, the effects company that became a household name after The Rings trilogy and who seemed to champion the use of practical over digital, started a sort of sister company called WETA-Digital. Over the last decade WETA-digital has been working on every digital-laden film you can think of from Avatar to Planet of the Apes. In fact the company who was seen as the knights in shining armor for their use of practical effects over digital solutions now seem to be the leading name in all things digital. Let’s dig a little deeper. LOTR is not free of digital effects, but the difference is that it only relied on them as a last resort to things that would be virtually impossible to create practically. WETA developed MASSIVE as a solution to shooting battle sequences, and master shots of thousands of soldiers. They also painstakingly created Gollum as a digital image over a real human being. These are just some examples, but what they show are that WETA was using digital the way we as an audience want it to be used; sparingly.

HFR/3D

At first everything will appear to be moving too fast, as if someone were fast-forwarding through the film, but once your eyes adjust and the HFR combines with the 3D aspect, you will find that these films have the ability, at times, to look amazing. Middle-Earth is brought right to your eyeballs, and it is breath-taking, at least if you don’t look too closely and notice plastic leaves, or the abundance of CGI. All three films are slathered in the latter, and they really don’t seem to mind lingering on it. The technology is ironically counter-productive. The 3D brings everything right to my eyes for close examination, and makes it a lot easier for me to notice things that I shouldn’t.

Conclusion

Now let me play devils advocate to myself. To make these films work, and be successful, they would have to rely pretty heavily on digital effects. Making a full-scale dragon that can actually fly is obviously out of the question. Knowing this, shooting digitally seems like the right decision. Right? Won’t things rendered digitally look less jarring if integrated into something shot digitally? I’m not an expert, but is this what they were thinking? And if it is, than did they think that they could get away with using more CGI this time around? I’m speculating that this was part of the process and in the end I think that this mindset lead to a lot of decisions to do things digitally over practical solutions, and thereby creating a world that just feels false. I don’t know any other way to describe it. Yes, the tone is different from LOTR, but while Rings feels lived-in and real with both dark and comical moments, The Hobbit feels glossy and fake, and without heart. Whoa! Hold up Dan, I totally cried after the eagles save the Dwarfs from the pine trees and Thorin apologizes to Bilbo. There’s heart in these films Dan! Well that brings me to the next section. Obviously the technical aspect to these films doesn’t take the full weight of what has gone wrong with them. I wrote this section because I think it’s a very important example in this debate of film VS digital. You can’t outright say that The Hobbit failed because it was shot digitally, and LOTR succeeded because it was shot on film, but I really think there is something there. And right now this is probably the best example for the debate. Two very similar source materials adapted by the same people in very different aesthetic ways. More on this later, but for now let’s press on, to the stuff that really bothers me…

Part Two: The Narrative

The Hobbit… AKA The Appendices

Honestly, I had no problem when it was announced that Jackson had decided to beef up The Hobbit with information from the appendices of LOTR. In fact it seemed genius. After watching the first Hobbit film I thought “This is great, we are getting so much content and it is all going to piece together brilliantly into one massive Tolkien adaptation!” Part of me would have loved to see a straightforward faithful adaptation of the Hobbit, but if I want that I can always sit down and watch the Rankin/Bass animated film (which I do frequently). Now that I’ve seen all three films together as one, I have a bit of a problem with this idea. I found myself more engaged in the non-Hobbit material than I did with the story of The Hobbit itself. Maybe that’s because I’m less familiar with that information and it’s exciting to see how Sauron rises to power, and what Gandalf is doing while away from the Dwarf party, but overall it really pulls me away from Bilbo and the Dwarfs and their quest. Simply put, I was far more interested in how Jackson was connecting the two trilogies, than I was with the actual adaptation of the Hobbit, and that’s a problem. When you say you are adapting a piece of work and you title your work as such, there’s an expectation that comes with that. This side-story telling especially becomes apparent when characters like Legolas and Tauriel seem to get far too much screen time while Dwarfs who have barely said anything continue to get none.

The Hobbit feels more like The Appendices than it does The Hobbit, or at least it feels like a really messy hybrid. The fact is this trilogy excels at bridging the two trilogies, but that isn’t really what we wanted. We wanted The Hobbit. It’s less about telling Bilbo’s journey and more about setting up the events of LOTR. As a Tolkien fan I appreciate this, as a fan of the Hobbit I despise it. Why? Because all of that precious screen time could have been spent on things like actually establishing Beorn as a character instead of putting him on screen only as fan service, or showing Bilbo save the dwarfs from spiders by taunting them in a heroic battle in which his sword is named. Instead a lot of this stuff feels rushed. I remember Rings holding on moments and giving characters great dialogue. Those moments are still present, but are few in The Hobbit. There’s a scene where Thorin is on fire. On Fire! And as he runs through a doorway and the flames are put out, you don’t even have a second to breathe before he says “I’m fine let’s go” (something to that effect). This leads us to a whole other topic that has to do with wasted screen time. I already know what many of you are probably thinking. Love triangle. For the love of all that is holy, this seriously outright angered me. This is where the hobbit really dives head first off the edge of a cliff into the deep waters of Tween fandom. I’ll accept introducing characters who aren’t in the book in order to progress the story, I’ll even accept that Killi and Filli look like they belong in a dwarf boy-band, but I can’t tolerate storylines that are fabricated to no ends other than to sell toys. Seriously, the Elf/Dwarf love story feels like a Barbie/Ken commercial. It’s sickening. Now this is where my fanboy comes out strong and I’m sorry, but I can’t hold back. The Hobbit along with the appendices contains such a wealth of information that I just can’t fathom why screen time is wasted on characters like Tauriel and Alfrid. Everytime they are on screen I cringe, because I know that I’m watching something completely fabricated for the sake of garnering emotions (romance when it comes to Tauriel and comedy when it comes to Alfrid). These emotions could have been achieved with the already existing characters. We don’t need to see a love story because it already is one. Show me the brotherly love of the dwarfs in the same way that you established the fellowship in Rings. I don’t need to see the greediness of Alfrid because the entire story is about Greed. Dwarf Greed, Dragon Greed, etc. And why even have him at all?! He’s a clown shoe, thrown in to be the Jar Jar Binks of the story. I love Stephen Fry , but even his character is pretty much worthless. You have 13 Dwarfs and a hobbit, give them more screen time!

This is a work in progress…more soon

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