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Binoy Kampmark: Extending The Hobbit

Extending The Hobbit: Peter Jackson’s Lust for Gold

No film should be longer than 90 minutes unless it has Papal dispensation.
Roger Corman

Stretched, drawn but not so much quartered as triangulated, cinema goers await the next Peter Jackson trilogy, a permanent love affair with J. R. R. Tolkien’s work from beyond the grave. This time it is The Hobbit that finds itself in Jackson’s expansive embrace.

Every director deserves a sway of artistic license, even one to exploit, butcher and maim the work in consideration. This is a rule that has governed script writing and adaptation from novels in Hollywood – and anywhere else – since the film director came into being. If Siegfried Unseld felt a pang of admiration for Napoleon because he once had a publisher shot, he might have expressed those same sentiments had the emperor encountered film directors. Their sins are often graver.

Quips aside, we have in The Hobbit a piece of work that will thrill card-carrying Tolkien followers but make others yawn. Jackson’s sin here is not one of maiming or abridgment, but expansion. This is the same cinematic degustation as what was served in the trilogy of Lord of the Rings – entre at the shire where tiny hobbits cook up hearty meals and live in middleclass splendour, the appearance of the wizard Gandalf seeking adventure, recycled themes a vicious, gold-craving dragon called Smaug, multiple dwarves, elves, orcs and the haunting darkness of Sauron on the horizon.

Such a repeat formula is unavoidable. Tolkien set the parameters, and Jackson tweaked them. The origins of the work are inauspicious enough. In Tolkien’s own words, “On a black leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it for a long time.” C.S. Lewis, in reviewing the work in 1937, found in it a “deft of scholarship and profound reflection” which would no doubt be missed in those initial readings “in the nursery”.

The original work was subtitled “There and Back Again”. As reviewers have noted, there is no secret here, no sinister subplot that undermines the hero – Bilbo returns, though what he returns with is not clear. Jackson’s amendment is “An Unexpected Journey”, which is a good bit of balderdash. Such a presumption is perfectly within Jackson’s purview, and he is making a killing as a result.

That is all well, until you start to nod off within the first hour. “The movie starts to feel like some Buddhist exercise in deliberately inflicted tedium,” claims Dana Stevens in her Slate piece aptly titled “Bored of the Rings.” For Stevens, Jackson’s adaption of The Hobbit resembles Teletubbies and was “way too long” (Dec 7, 2012).

The sentiment is repeated by David Cox in The Guardian (Dec 12, 2012), though he is generous to throw in a few other offenders of the uncut parade. For this season’s delicious lengthy companions, we have Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained at 165 minutes, with Zero Dark Thirty and Les Misérables both clocking 157 minutes. The editing room, it seems, is filled with idle cutters.

For Stevens, Jackson’s effort in The Hobbit falls short of the weighty effort made for Lord of the Rings, though in this, she is not alone. The main reason, she argues, is that the latter afforded an interest across groups – one did not need to be a Tolkien fan to appreciate the action packed trilogy. There was much to laud the use of CGI and “motion capture technology”, the depiction of the changeling Gollum, the astonishing battle scenes. But Stevens curses – Bilbo only leaves the shire an hour into the film.

Jackson seems to insist on a microcosmic telling of a tale – the tragedy of the dwarves (driven out of their promised land) and the loss of Erebor. That said, Stevens has time for Freeman’s depiction – he is most passable as a Hobbit, even if one can’t quite get past the fact that he was a superb, unorthodox Dr. Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes.

Notably, cinemas are offering various viewing sessions to enhance the experience. The conservative cinema goer can still pick a film devoid of 3-D extravaganzas, though those days are numbered. The Hobbit uses the striking high-definition format of 48fps. In simple terms, this means that the audience is seeing frames at 48 a second, rather than 24. Nausea, critics suspect, might have been induced.

So one might leave a bit dizzy and feeling that time might have been better spent elsewhere. But there are those off the screen set who are distinctly unimpressed by Jackson’s lust for gold. His efforts have managed to infect New Zealand with a sickness. This has taken the form, Glen Scanlon notes for CNN (Nov 28, 2012), of the giant Gollum in Wellington’s airport’s ceiling, or the Hobbit flags “fluttering in Wellington’s persistent wind before a giant Gandalf hovers into view.”

New Zealand’s tax payers have subsidised the films to the tune of $US 82 million (the total cost being $575 million). The New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has reminded his electorate that his enthusiasm to spend constituents’ tax payer dollars on this project was well worth it in terms of jobs. Democracy tilts in odd ways when the leader of a country is held hostage to a film studio.

New Zealand’s opposition party, NZ First, hasn’t succumbed to the Jackson spell. The party is demanding Warner Bros repay the tax subsidies provided to the film project, given the gross earnings of The Hobbit so far. Since opening in New Zealand on December 12, the film has earned $US 886 million globally. According to the party’s suspicious leader Winston Peters, the figure of 3,000 extra jobs the film project was meant to have created was merely “plucked out of thin air”. The time for the reckoning has arrived.

That is where Jackson, and his hunger for bigger shares of gold like Tolkien’s Smaug, comes in. He may well have overstretched his oeuvre in the name of excess. What happens in that ‘hole’ at the start of the Hobbit’s tale doesn’t merely enchant the reader, or Bilbo. It does the same to Jackson.

There are accounts now coming out suggesting that Jackson, along with his team of writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro – believe they have discovered the only Tolkien worth discovering (Salon, Dec 13, 2012). The Hobbit speaks through them, and they have ventriloquised. We can sincerely hope that is not the case.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

ENDS

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