THE Lord of the Rings is one of the world’s most famous and enduring literary sagas, aided and abetted by director Peter Jackson’s trilogy, among the most successful movie franchises of all time. It long ago superseded its progenitor, The Hobbit, which was published in 1937.
The Lord of the Rings was written when the publishers of The Hobbit requested a follow-up to the hugely successful children’s tale, but writing it was a less than smooth process for Tolkien. He toiled on The Lord of the Rings for over a decade, beginning before World War II and finishing his magnum opus years after it, keeping his son Christopher informed by letter of his painfully slow progress.
The author would probably appreciate the pressures Jackson was under when delivering his film of The Hobbit, even if the New Zealand director did things backwards.
After a similar gestation period, beset by legal wrangles, threats of industrial action, illness, accidents and a change of director, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, finally hits Irish screens this weekend.
The vast profits generated by The Lord of the Rings a decade ago made another outing for the hobbits inevitable. The lavish screen version is a far cry from the book’s humble origins.
It began with a few lines scribbled on the back of an examination script, when Tolkien, a professor of English at Oxford, wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on the back of one of the papers he was correcting in the early 1930s, an unprepossessing start for a series of books that would capture the imagination of millions of readers and cinemagoers.
There has been much discussion of the fact that Jackson is planning a trilogy of films based on The Hobbit, a slim volume compared to the hefty Rings trilogy. Having planned to make only two films, Jackson announced last July that there would be a third, which would use appendices to The Return of the King as source material.
Jackson, an avowed Tolkien nerd, has also been aided by the vast historical hinterland that the author created to give depth and reality to his narrative. For instance, the movie begins with a stirring battle, a cinematic depiction of the dwarves’ expulsion from the Lonely Mountain, which is only briefly referred to in the book.
Jackson obviously couldn’t resist the temptation of creating another one of his trademark battle scenes, which drew such acclaim in Lord of the Rings, though it may be out of kilter with the more gentle, pastoral themes of the literary The Hobbit, the story of Bilbo Baggins, uncle of Frodo, and his adventures with Gandalf, Gollum, assorted dwarves, elves, orcs and Smaug the dragon.
As the eponymous hairy-footed one, much of the film hinges on how Martin Freeman inhabits the role of Bilbo. The former Office star might seem an unlikely big-screen hero, but his diffident persona is ideal for the character of Bilbo, whose development from homebody to hero is traced over the course of The Hobbit.
Freeman had the backing of not one, but two directors. He was originally offered the part by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, after auditioning. But when del Toro left the project, it appeared the part was up for grabs again.
However, Freeman was also first choice for Jackson, and it says a lot about how central he was to the director’s creative vision of the Hobbit that Jackson halted filming for six weeks to allow Freeman return to Britain to finish filming on the second series of the BBC drama Sherlock, in which he stars as the famous detective’s sidekick, Dr Watson.
“We didn’t have anyone else we wanted for Bilbo, other than Martin. If you don’t get that casting right, the film is simply not going to work, no matter how much you spend. It was the most critical aspect of the film,” said Jackson.
His choice has been more than rewarded, with reviews of Freeman’s performance glowing in the main.
Other additions to the cast include comedian Billy Connolly, the ubiquitous Stephen Fry, and Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch. Irish actors James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner feature as dwarves, while Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen reprise their roles as Galadriel and Gandalf. Reviewers have praised Andy Serkis for another show-stopping performance as Gollum. So immersed in the world of Tolkien, and the vision of Jackson, is Serkis that he also served as second-unit director on the film.
Apart from the opening scene, Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit has been described as “strenuously faithful” to the first six chapters of the 19-chapter book, a visual feast that Lord of the Rings purists will delight in. But while the diehard Tolkien fans are willing the film on to critical and commercial success, the naysayers are waiting in the wings. There have been telling complaints about the pacing of the movie, with criticism, for instance, of the long-winded dwarves’ ballads.
In addition, people who have seen the film have raised issues with the format. Jackson has broken relatively new ground by shooting The Hobbit in the ultra high-resolution 48 FPS format; in other words, double the traditional rate of 24 frames per second with which cinema audiences are familiar.
However, despite the sophisticated technology, many of those who have seen the film say it looks more like a television programme, with one wag unkindly comparing it to the 1970s BBC serial I Claudius. It has also been said that the hyper-real quality of the film has made viewers feel sick, with reports from test screenings saying audiences experienced nausea and migraines because of the new format.
However, Warner Brothers rejected the claims and it is unlikely to be an issue for Irish audiences as most screens here do not support the new format.
Such reviews are unlikely to deter the fanatics, who are prepared to check in their critical faculties at the cinema door when it comes to Tolkien, and Jackson, who has earned their eternal devotion for the work he did on bringing the Lord of the Rings to the big screen.
For the many others who remain impervious to the charms of The Hobbit et al, and who are weary of the pre-release hype, there is the consolation, as Middle Earth agnostics, that they are in good company. Tolkien often spent evenings in an Oxford pub in the company of such academic luminaries as Narnia author CS Lewis, where they discussed literature and read aloud from their work.
Legend has it that when the great man got to his feet one evening to contribute, one of his colleagues groaned: “Not another fucking elf.”