(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films
Wow. These days a lot of people hate hobbits. I base this statement on the comments posted below a movie review on the Guardian website yesterday. The review was of the third and final instalment of director Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit, which is set in Tolkien’s imaginary realm of Middle Earth and is about to be released under the title of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
“Jackson’s just Tolkien the piss!” exclaimed one poster, inventively. “That’s right, Jackson,” cried another, “your films are of lesser creative merit than a computer game. How do you sleep, multi-quadrillionaire Peter Jackson, how do you sleep?” A third lamented, “How does anyone sit through these awful, awful films?” A fourth, concerned about the fact that there’s still one major item in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth oeuvre that hasn’t yet received the Jackson treatment, pleaded, “Please no Silmarillion, enough is enough! I can’t stand any more hobbits, elves or orcs.”
All right, I suspect that at least some of those critics of Peter Jackson and his Hobbit movies do actually like hobbits. In fact, they probably love hobbits – at least, they love the way Tolkien portrayed the hairy-footed little fellows in his book and in its follow-ups, the three volumes that make up the Lord of the Rings saga. However, they hate what Jackson has done to Tolkien’s books while translating them from page to screen: first with his three Lord of the Rings adaptations, released in 2001, 2002 and 2003; and then with The Hobbit, which he managed somehow to transform from a slim children’s book into three lengthy films that’ve appeared in 2012, 2013 and – just in time for Christmas! – 2014.
The disdain that many fans of Tolkien’s fiction feel for the films was summed up by the author’s son Christopher, who in 2012 informed Le Monde of his low opinion of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy: “They gutted the book, making an action movie for 15-to-25-year-olds.”
Well, I have to say that I was never a fan of Tolkien’s work. Even when I tackled Lord of the Rings as a teenager I found his prose turgid and his goody-two-shoes characters deeply uninteresting. His books had nothing that compared with the moral complexity, imaginative detail and genuine out-and-out weirdness of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, a fantasy series published around the same era.
And I find it ironic that Tolkien Junior accuses Jackson of cheapening the stories by aiming them at ’15-to-25-year-olds’. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who raved about how good the Lord of the Rings books were who wasn’t older than 15. Indeed, the only period of my life when I regularly bumped into Lord of the Rings enthusiasts was when I was attending Peebles High School. Okay, I do remember talking to a thirty-something science teacher one day and he suddenly started gushing too about the greatness of Tolkien. But you could argue that, being a teacher, he was also still at school. And mentally, that particular teacher didn’t seem to be older than 15 anyway.
However, I consider literature to be a more complicated and more profound medium than cinema. And although a story may seem shallow and perfunctory when it’s told in written language, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be ineffective when it’s retold in the less demanding medium of sound and images that greets you every time you enter a cinema or sit down in front of a DVD. And for me, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit work perfectly well as movies. They’re no more works of art than the books on which they’re based, but they’re quite palatable as two-to-three-hour viewing experiences where you can enjoy the performances of some great actors and actresses, the stunning New Zealand scenery and the obvious flair Peter Jackson has for orchestrating action and spectacle. There’s too much CGI in them, of course, but that goes without saying these days.
New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films
That said, I wasn’t a big fan of the third Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King – mainly because it was ruined by a tedious final half-hour that consisted of a parade of characters saying farewell to one another or marrying one another. When Aragorn tied the knot with Arwen, and Arwen appeared in her bridal costume, somebody sitting close to me in the cinema exclaimed, “Liv Tyler looks just like a gerbil!” And do you know what? She did.
The Hobbit movies in particular have had brickbats hurled at them because of the accusation that Jackson has unnecessarily padded out a short book to make three big, and presumably money-spinning, movies out of it. No doubt this is true – The Hobbit trilogy could easily have been condensed into two films, or even into one – but I’m not particularly bothered. I find the films entertaining and I’m not going to condemn something for having the temerity to entertain me.
As I said above, I particularly like the films’ casts. Tolkien’s characters may seem leaden on the page but distinguished performers like Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Christopher Lee have managed to breathe some proper life into them. It’s particularly gratifying to see the 92-year-old Lee get another opportunity to display his acting chops – even if he was too frail to make the journey to the film-shoot in New Zealand and had to be filmed in Britain instead, with his image being digitally woven into the action later on.
One thing I find interesting about the Hobbit movies is the hierarchy of accents that the filmmakers have bestowed upon the inhabitants of Middle Earth. The more superior beings in Tolkien’s milieu – i.e. the wizards and the elves – seem to make their proclamations in an imperious Received Pronunciation. The hobbits sound less posh but they communicate in a reasonably well-spoken Standard English. That doesn’t surprise me really, as the Shire has always struck me as a ghastly, nicey-nice middle-class ghetto in the suburbs of Middle Earth where the main reading matter is probably the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.
New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films
However, the dwarves – at least, the more prominent ones – seem to be mostly Scottish or Irish, with actors from north of the border and from across the Irish Sea like Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner talking in the films in the way they’d talk in real life. I’m told that Billy Connolly will pop up in The Battle of the Five Armies playing, yes, another dwarf. (On the other hand, the dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield – or as he’s described by my girlfriend, ‘the hot dwarf’ – is played by Richard Armitage, who’s from Leicester in England.)
Now is this not a little prejudiced? Isn’t it a little off to assume that if you’re a dwarf, a non-royal dwarf anyway, with a big nose, a gi-normous beard and a fondness for working deep down in the mines, you ought to sound Celtic? I admit that one of the wizards, Radogast the Brown, is played by another Scottish actor, Sylvester McCoy. But it was made plain in the first Hobbit movie that Radogast eats magic mushrooms and is permanently covered in bird-shit.
Having lived for many years in Ireland and Scotland, I can safely say that I’ve met hardly anyone in either country who has a big nose, a gi-normus beard, an appetite for magic mushrooms and a disdain for personal hygiene that makes them neglect to rub bird-shit off themselves. Well, I’ve met a few people like that, but not many. Well, not that many.
On the other hand, while Jackson seems happy to let Stott, McTavish, Nesbitt and co. blether away in their native accents, I think it’s sad that he won’t let the leading elf actors – i.e. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond – speak in their native accent, which is Australian. Maybe Jackson does this out of spite. I know how New Zealanders feel about Australians.
Frankly, I’d love it if, in the midst of some Middle-Earth excitement, Cate Blanchett turned around to Ian McKellen and exclaimed: “Strewth, Gandalf, you ol’ baaastard! Those blaady orc bogans from beyond the back stump are givin’ us a gobful. Do we bail out or stay ‘n’ give ’em a rip-snorter of a battle?”
(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films