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I can honestly say – and I have this in common, I suspect, with a number of friends and acquaintances – that I don’t know quite what shape my life would be, in the absence of the works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. I probably don’t fully appreciate the scale of their influence, for the same reason that it’s quite hard to accurately gauge the size of an island while you’re living on it. That said, I don’t think I ended up living in Oxford solely because Tolkien resided here for much of his life, even though he has a palpable link with the city (much more so than Jo Rowling, not that this bothers the speciality tour operators and gift shop owners much). Anyway, it seemed entirely fitting to go and see Dome Karukoski’s new film about Tolkien’s early life, entitled (unsurprisingly) Tolkien, in Oxford. Tolkien is such a draw around here that the new film even managed to challenge the Marvel hegemony and land the biggest screen at Oxford’s most distinguished city centre cinema.

The meat of the film gets underway with Tolkien’s youth in the rustic idyll of a place called Sarehole (UK readers, feel free to come up with your own anagrams), but this naturally does not last long. With his widowed mother on her uppers and the family reliant on the charity of the church, it is still a shock when local priest Father Transporter Chief from Star Trek (Colm Meaney) has them all moved to grotty digs in industrial Birmingham.

Still, young JRR (Harry Gilby) soon makes friends with the better-off boys from the prep school he is sent to, and they swear eternal friendship and all the usual sort of thing, forming a club to discuss art and poetry and music and other sorts of culture (suffice to say that Wagner does not prove popular – ‘there’s no need to take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring,’ someone complains, one of the few flashes of genuine wit in the script). However, as the one-day-to-be Prof gets older (transforming into Nicholas Hoult along the way), he finds himself increasingly drawn to his adopted sister Edith (Lily Collins), despite the disapproval of Father Transporter Chief, who thinks he should be focusing on trying to pass the Oxford entrance exam.

Well, to cut a fairly long movie short, there is Oxford, potential failure, heartbreak, philology, and then the looming spectre of the First World War. It’s all enough to give a man the idea for a best-selling (and that’s putting it mildly) series of books…

I don’t mean to be harsh to what is an undeniably pleasant and apparently well-meaning movie, but Tolkien is basically a con trick, trying to fool you into thinking things are in it which are simply not present. As everyone involved has taken great pains to point out, they don’t have the rights to any of Tolkien’s fiction – his most famous books were brought to the screen a few years ago, as you may possibly have noticed it – and so the film can only allude to them. (They don’t even appear to have the rights to quote from Tolkien’s gravestone, the text of which is referred to but not in any detail.) So much of the film consists of subtle little hints and references intended to put you in mind of something Peter Jackson did on a rather bigger budget in New Zealand, without actually being a direct steal.

The other problem is one common to many biopics operating in this particular sphere of the arts, which is how you make the life of a writer remotely cinematic. Writers tend not to have very interesting lives (well, except for maybe Hemingway and Steinbeck); the life of Tolkien, the part for which he is remembered, with him actually putting in the hours and writing out The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and so on, was that of a middle-aged university don sitting in his study every night for years and years. How are you supposed to turn that into a film with any kind of commercial prospects?

Karukowski’s answer to this is to put together a fairly predictable coming-of-age storyline which mostly feels like off-cuts from Dead Poets Society seasoned with a sort of lament-for-doomed-youth vibe, as the bold and bright (and mostly very rich) young lads grow up together before marching off to the trenches. Intercut with this is a conventional romance-against-the-odds plot as Tolkien must overcome his own limited prospects, not to mention Father Transporter Chief’s resistance, and win the woman he truly loves.

You may be thinking ‘this all sounds very generic’ and you would be right. Karukowski’s cunning way of giving all this Added Tolkien Value is load the film with sly little references, mostly to the Jackson films: we see Tolkien the boy playing in a landscape intended to suggest the Shire, and when the family move to Birmingham, it is a dark, hellish vision of looming towers, belching smoke and spouting flame (not sure the Birmingham Tourist Board are going to be wild about the suggestion their city is effectively twinned with either Barad-dur or Isengard). Young Tolkien can’t see a tree outside the window without being inspired to start drawing Ents, and – in the film’s biggest set piece – the feverish young officer witnesses the battle of the Somme and has a vision of dragons and wraiths devastating the British army. All the while on the soundtrack, Thomas Newman is trying to sound as much like Howard Shore as possible without actually being sued. As someone else has said, it is a bit like Shakespeare in Love but without the jokes; if this film were true, it’s not really surprising that Tolkien wrote all those books, it must have been essential therapy for him.

But it’s not true, and it does Tolkien the disservice of suggesting his whole life was essentially preparation for the moment he sat down and wrote the word ‘Hobbit’ for the first time. So much of what made Tolkien such an extraordinary man is entirely absent from the film – his extraordinary facility for language is touched upon, but many telling facts are omitted, perhaps for fear they would make him seem a bit weird: the fact he claimed to recognise archaic Anglo-Saxon upon first encountering it, his habit of referring to the Norman conquest as a relatively recent event, and so on. I’ve seen it suggested that Tolkien felt the Norman conquest essentially destroyed native Anglo-Saxon culture, and that his works were an attempt to provide a substitute for this – ‘how one man, in his lifetime, did the work of nations,’ to paraphrase a quote off the back of my copy of The Silmarillion.

There are moments in the film which do fumble their way towards a more authentic notion of JRR Tolkien – there’s quite a long scene discussing his belief that the words cellar door are the most euphonious sound in the English language, and quite a long section where he and his mentor (Derek Jacobi) discuss trees, which Tolkien loved. They lift the film, but also suggest the possibilities of a much more interesting, but probably more cerebral and less commercial one, which this definitely isn’t: Tolkien is basically the romantic lead throughout, albeit one whose walls appear to be covered with pictures from Peter Jackson’s art department.

That said, the film is as well-mounted as you would expect, in the usual British hats-and-fags way, and it has to be said that Nicholas Hoult does the very best he can with a somewhat unrewarding part. The film clearly admires Tolkien and wants to be respectful towards him, but too often it makes the easy and obvious choices. The result is a good-looking but ultimately rather simplistic film that sometimes seems to be more interested in Tolkien’s books (or, even worse, their film adaptations) than the man himself.

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It was, as I recall, a Tuesday afternoon in the Autumn of 1998 and I was flicking through the latest issue of a popular SF and fantasy magazine during the drive home from work.

‘Ooh,’ I said. ‘It says here that they’re making a film of The Hobbit.’

‘Oh,’ said my father, who was driving. ‘Where are they going to film it?’

‘Well,’ I said, perusing the (rather minimal) article in more detail. ‘It’s not official yet, but it says that locations in New Zealand are being scouted… some people say they’ve heard they’re going to make a movie of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s silly, of course, The Lord of the Rings is unfilmable, and anyway you’d want to do The Hobbit first, wouldn’t you? It’d only be sensible. They must be making The Hobbit. That’ll be interesting.’

‘That’ll be interesting,’ my father agreed.

Well, how wrong can you be? Peter Jackson did not want to do The Hobbit first. The Lord of the Rings is not, it would appear, unfilmable. And the film version of The Hobbit is…

Hang on a minute; it is interesting. But the big question – the absolutely key, inescapable question, in every respect – is, how does it compare with Jackson’s monumental, decade-defining version of the Rings?

JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, a fairly lengthy children’s book, in 1937 and you could be forgiven for assuming that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of an adaptation of the same. I would argue it is not, or at least not entirely: what it is, is an attempt to use material from this book to form the basis of a prequel to the movie version of The Lord of the Rings. For many people this may be too fine a distinction; I hope I can persuade you otherwise.

HOBBIT-POSTER-570

The bulk of this film is set sixty years prior to the previous trilogy and recounts the youthful adventures of the titular home-loving Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). For slightly obscure reasons, Bilbo is recruited by the enigmatic wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to assist a band of itinerant Dwarves led by exiled prince Thorin (Richard Armitage). These Dwarves are displaced and dispossessed, their home kingdom of Erebor having fallen to the terrible dragon Smaug. Ignoring the misgivings of many of the finest minds in Middle Earth, Gandalf is intent on helping Thorin get his throne back – and he’s also quite insistent that Bilbo come along on the journey too.

Well, there are Trolls and Orcs and Goblins along the way, along with ominous portents of a dark power resurgent in the realm – none of which seems particularly connected to the Dwarves’ quest, until Bilbo happens upon a magical ring in the course of his travels…

I have to say I turned up to watch this first part of The Hobbit almost out of a sense of obligation, without much genuine excitement and with my expectations dialled down very low. Quite why this should be I can’t really say – I was genuinely excited when it looked like Guillermo del Toro was going to be directing a diptych of Hobbit films, but the news that Peter Jackson was going to do three just made me very dubious.

Part of this is just mathematical – The Hobbit is about the same length as one of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. I can see how you’d justify a nine-hour movie trilogy based on a 1200-page epic novel. I can’t see how or why you would want to make a nine-hour movie trilogy (which is what this promises to be) out of a 350-page children’s story.

Except, of course, this isn’t what Jackson’s doing. Where Lord of the Rings still had to have great chunks chopped out for the screen, The Hobbit has had to have large quantities of new material added just to (delete according to taste) expand the story onto a larger canvas / bloat the running time sufficiently to justify making people pay for three movie tickets. Some of this is extrapolated from stuff mentioned in the novel, other bits are derived from additional material in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings itself (it looks like Jackson and his team may not have the rights to all of Tolkien’s peripheral material, as they don’t appear able to use the names Alatar and Pallandro), and quite a lot of it looks like it’s completely new.

Now, in some ways this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it allows Jackson and his crew to open out their vision of Middle Earth even further, and it is – of course! – lovely to see people like Cate Blanchett and Sir Christopher Lee coming back to reprise their characters (even if it is fairly obvious that Lee has a stand-in most of the time he’s not in close-up). We also get the pleasure of Sylvester McCoy giving a very – er – Sylvester McCoy-ish performances as the psychedelically-addled wizard Radagast (Peter Jackson is apparently a big fan of McCoy, which makes you wonder why he’s made the actor perform all his scenes covered in birdshit). Take this as you will, but Landy Bloom is being held in reserve for later installments in this trilogy.

But the upshot of all this new material is that the narrative focus of the film is all over the place – it’s baggy and saggy and strangely paced, and, for a film called The Hobbit with an actor as good as Martin Freeman playing the Hobbit in question, the protagonist gets relatively little chance to shine. Freeman is good in his opening scenes, and again in the riddle-game sequence playing opposite Andy Serkis as Gollum, but too often the rest of the time he’s either lost in a crowd of Dwarves or not on the screen at all – there’s so much other stuff going on that Bilbo Baggins largely shrinks almost to obscurity.

It’s a shame, especially when you consider that the filming of these movies was very eccentrically scheduled simply in order to allow Freeman to appear here while still honouring his commitments on Sherlock. That, if nothing else, exemplifies why I have a problem with this movie – it’s just fundamentally very self-indulgent film-making, and too often this shows.

I suppose when you’ve won over a dozen Oscars and made over a billion dollars, you’re entitled to exert a little clout in future projects: so why not film on different sides of the world and shut down and restart production just to meet the availability of some of your key cast members? Why not write characters in just to satisfy your  existing fanbase (I can’t think why else Elijah Wood appears as Frodo in this film)? Why not throw everything but the kitchen sink into the narrative?

Certainly, telling Tolkien’s original story doesn’t seem to have been a major concern. I popped into one of my favourite restaurants for a buffaloburger before seeing this film, and got chatting to the waitress. It turned out she was considering seeing The Hobbit herself, but hadn’t seen The Lord of the Rings. I confidently assured her that, as this story took place earlier, no prior knowledge was needed. This is not the case, I suspect: the way the film is written and played seems to me to assume you already know who Frodo is, who Saruman and Galadriel are, the significance of things like Mordor and ‘Morgul blades’, and so on.

I know I have been very negative about The Hobbit, and this honestly pains me, partly because the Lord of the Rings movies are so special, but also because, in many ways, this film is technically brilliant (even in 24FPS 2D on the small screen with the inadequate rake at the Phoenix). There are breathtaking visuals, striking effects sequences, a stirring score and some memorable performances – but even here it seemed to me that the film was just aping the style of its distinguished predecessors. Thorin comes across as a brooding heir-in-waiting in a very Viggo-esque manner, while the big action sequence with the Dwarves escaping from the Goblins hits so many of the same beats as the Moria section of the first film.

There are enough good things about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to make me excited about seeing the other films in the series, and not even regret promising to see it again in the not-too-distant future. But it’s a bloated spectacle rather than a compelling story. The Lord of the Rings films were so special partly because they seemed to be taking a leap into the unknown and tackled bringing epic fantasy to the screen with ceaseless originality and imagination. The Hobbit, on the strength of this first outing, just feels like an exercise in ticking boxes in order to meet the requirements of a pre-existing formula – in many ways a beautiful formula, but a formula nevertheless. The toxic miasma surrounding the words ‘prequel trilogy’ still lingers, somewhat.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally posted December 29th 2002:

As you may have noticed if you’ve read this column before, I go to the cinema rather a lot. And at the cinema I’ve seen films provoke many different responses: most often, cheers when the BBFC title card finally appears after the adverts and trailers (most noticably before Attack of the Clones – and, yes, we all felt slightly embarrassed for doing it once we’d actually seen the film). But also I’ve heard screams (most recently during The Others) and seen people walk out in confusion and/or disgust (that’d be in the middle of David Cronenberg’s Crash). But only once in a British cinema have I seen the audience give a film an ovation as the closing credits started to roll: and that film, as you’ve probably guessed, was Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

I must admit I was a little bit sceptical about this middle bit of Middle Earth, recalling that for quite a long time in the book not much happens – and most of the interesting stuff happens towards the ends of the various stories, which I already knew had been shifted back to next Christmas’ concluding installment. And after the powerhouse opening sequence, briefly reprising the duel at Khazad-Dum before moving on to depict Gandalf (Ian McKellen) putting the smackdown on the Balrog amongst the foundations of the world, my worries seemed briefly founded. This is the entirety of the recap that Jackson provides before plunging us back into the various travails of the different elements of the Fellowship – Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are struggling towards Mordor, alternately stalked and guided by the ruined creature Gollum (a remarkable fusion of actor Andy Serkis and CGI), while Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), having being been grabbed by the Uruk-hai (sounds painful), are being carried off to the clutches of renegade wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) – but not if their comrades Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) have anything to say about it! The movie assumes this is all already clear in the minds of the audience, so the early stages can seem a little unwelcoming. But as time goes on and the rhythm and power of the film seduces the imagination, Jackson unfurls the fullness of his vision, and the result is a heroic fantasy of the highest quality.

All the pleasures of the first film are here again to be enjoyed – Mortenson’s macho posturing and slightly strangulated Numenorean accent, McKellen’s formidable wizard (regenerated in true Dr Who style into a arse-kicking new incarnation), Howard Shore’s majestic score, and much, much more. And there are, of course, new characters and locations by the bucketload – Bernard Hill gives a quietly powerful performance as King Theoden, Miranda Otto lights up the screen as shieldmaiden Eowyn, helplessly drawn to Aragorn (intrigued, no doubt, by the impressive length of his pipe), and Brad Dourif1 oozes unpleasantness as Wormtongue. And while The Two Towers inevitably lacks some of the impact of The Fellowship of the Ring, there are still gobsmacking visuals on a regular basis: armies of darkness on the march, the opening fight sequence, the gates of Mordor grinding open, Nazgul on fell beasts flying over ruined cities…

Even moreso than the first time round, Jackson and his fellow writers have taken liberties with the text in order to make this work cinematically. Most obviously, this film only covers the events in fourteen or so of the twenty chapters in Tolkien’s book (so anyone expecting the abhorrent Shelob to appear, or Pippin and Merry to be reunited with their friends, is in for another year’s wait). The timing and order of events have been significantly rejigged beyond this, though, so that things occurring days apart in the book happen simultaneously at the climax of the film. Personally, I didn’t have too much of a problem with this, but you don’t have to surf too far across the internet to find a message board full of Tolkies seething and screaming their outrage – ‘Peter Jackson is a second-rate director with no imagination and he should be slapped!‘ is one of the milder things I’ve read. It does seem that the more familiar you are with the book, the more likely it is you’ll find something to object to in the movie.

I’m only really a dabbler when it comes to Tolkien but even I think there are needless flaws here and there in this film. The Aragorn-Arwen romance is once again inserted into the film with all the subtlety of a shot from a trebuchet, there’s a pointless subplot about one character being missing presumed dead, and Gimli’s role as the sole source of comic relief in the film perhaps deviates a little too far from the Professor’s vision for my taste. And while Jackson’s decision to shift the last six chapters of the books into film three is doubtless justified, it does mean that many of the most popular characters from Fellowship get surprisingly little screen time in this installment.

But these are minor, minor flaws in what is – to my mind at least – an almost incomprehensibly good film. The above excepted, it delivers on nearly every level – as pure spectacle, most obviously, but also in terms of the performances, the handling of the themes, the production design, the score… and most of all, in terms of Jackson’s contribution. The script deftly juggles anything up to five different plotlines at once, while still managing to evoke the story’s Shakespearean parallels (Henry V, Macbeth, and King Lear are all alluded to). The progress of the siege of Helm’s Deep is expertly handled and always clear. But his direction encompasses the moving, personal stories as skilfully as the epic battles – frequently switching from one to the other within the same scene.

Short of Peter Jackson dropping the ball in a major way in the course of the next year (or going under a bus), I’m certain that – when complete – The Lord of the Rings will come to be seen as the greatest achievement in the history of popular cinema. As things currently stand – well, longterm readers may be forgiven a sense of deja vu, but The Two Towers is quite literally awe-inspiring cinema, and, if there’s any justice in this world, the recipient of next year’s Academy Award for Best Picture.

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