I haven’t read the book, so I am unable to comment on the specifics of the book to film adaptation of “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey”. But Peter Jackson’s last foray into Middle Earth, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was based on three pretty substantial books. Initially, “The Hobbit” was designed as two films, but Warner Bros. persuaded Jackson to expand it to a trilogy. So, a recap: “Lord of the Rings” is based on three books. One film, per book, more or less. “The Hobbit” is based on one book. How do you take material for two films and make it three? “The Lord of the Rings” was released on DVD at least three separate times, each with more footage added to the “Director’s Cut”. It would seem a safe bet to conclude the three films are being bulked up by this “Special Footage”. But if the footage was deemed extra and cut out of the film in the first place, there was a reason for that. Generally, footage is cut because it slows down the story or is deemed superfluous. But in an effort to wring an extra $13 out of loyal fans, Warner Bros. will release one part of the trilogy each December for three years, guaranteeing a certain level of hype and income to their studio coffers. And the fan who watches “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey” is treated to an almost leisurely look at Bilbo Baggins adventure with Gandalf the Grey and Thorin, the King of the Dwarves.
If all three films have approximately the same running time, fans can expect a very leisurely journey indeed. Between eight and nine hours’ worth of time in Middle Earth.
The real trick is for Jackson to make three films, using footage that was cut and would have been included on the “Super Special Absolutely Final Director’s Cut Special Edition” DVD and make the film seem like the original story was not changed at all. In “Journey” that isn’t accomplished; it seems long. Would the initial dinner at Bilbo’s house, when Gandalf introduces all of the dwarves, suffered from losing 15 minutes? I doubt it. This is just one example of a scene that is too long and there are others.
If the original plans to present two films remained intact, I have no doubt this film would have benefited greatly. But Warner Bros. decision to capitalize on a name brand and eke out an extra film will mar the entire series. I picture some executive at the studio is in his cave, covered with gold coins, rearing his head only to protect the fortune from pillage.
Jackson decided to shoot the film at a higher frame rate than normal. And the film is presented in the now obligatory 3-D (all the better to eke out $3 from each patron). The standard for film is 24 frames per second. For video, in this country, it is 30. This is why television looks so different from film and vice versa. I revel in the look of a beautifully photographed film. There is nothing quite like it and it helps to transport me to the fictional world the filmmaker is trying to create. And video has advanced considerably in the last few years.
I really admire filmmakers who try to push the envelope and come up with new techniques for or methods of filmmaking. And these experimental efforts are necessary because they keep pushing the medium forward, but if you look back at the early attempts of a new technique you can usually see where a technique started because it looks so rudimentary, so different. The High Frame Rate used in “The Hobbit” looks good and bad. When the film centers on a computer generated character or landscape, the HFR (High Frame Rate) adds an amazing layer of depth and when viewed in 3-D, the results are stunning; you feel as though you are looking through a window. That barrier between you and the film is removed and you really experience a new way of watching film.
But is this a good thing? Do you want to have that barrier removed? It is a bit strange and unsettling.
When the film concentrates solely on characters played by human beings, the HFR makes the characters and landscapes look like an old video television show. Have you ever seen an old television show, from the 60s or 70s, using the relatively new medium of video? They look strange and oft-putting because the color is over-saturated and slightly off. Some of the footage in “The Hobbit” looks like this. Maybe over time, as we get acclimated to this new look, the technique will become better and more acceptable. But right now, because it works 50% of the time, it seems to be more of a distraction.
The best thing I can say about this new technique is that my eyes were less tired after watching this film in 3-D.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a mixed bag. The excessive length and decision to make three films out of material already stretched to make two mar one of the most highly anticipated films of the year. Jackson’s attempts to use a new filming technique show some promise, but the effect is too jarring at this point. The actors are all good, the special effects are fun and well-made, the landscapes lush and gorgeous.
But watching “Journey” feels like you are physically walking the journey with Bilbo and Gandalf. And this isn’t a good thing.