Poland’s premier airline LOT offers a wide array of in-flight entertainment options to pass the 11 hours between Tokyo and Warsaw. As I’m flicking through the menu I notice that three of these options are The Hobbit films. Huh, I think. I don’t really remember much about those films. Nobody talks about them anymore, and I have half a memory that it’s out of respect for Peter Jackson, because these films – unlike their illustrious forbears – were not particularly good. Although I definitely would have watched them when they came out. All my closest friends at university were committed nerds, people who had read The Silmarillion more than once and whose idea of a good hangover was enjoying a Lord of the Rings marathon hunched over a Domino’s. Why did we never do this with The Hobbit? What was so wrong with it?
There is something compelling in the fact that I would, in theory, have time to watch the whole trilogy back-to-back on this flight. In the absence of the possibility of a Lord of the Rings marathon, surely this is the next best thing. Admittedly, an over-bright screen the size of an envelope on the back of an airline seat is not the viewing experience that the filmmakers had in mind when they made The Hobbit. But maybe without the distraction of the big-screen visuals, it will be more obvious whether or not there was a good film (or even three good films) beneath the bombastic CGI. More than anything else, though, I am bored, and watching all these films is an available option, and not the worst of the options I have to entertain myself.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The dwarves find a jewel so shiny and covetable that it sends the owner mad with power – one jewel to rule them all, you might say. So far, so familiar. Then a fearsome dragon swoops in and hoofs the dwarves out of their mountain gold hall for the next however many years, and the elves refuse to help them.
Gandalf tells a reluctant Bilbo that he’s ‘looking for someone to share in an adventure’. Adventure is an important idea in The Hobbit. It implies intrigue, bravery, enjoyment, but it doesn’t particularly imply seriousness. In the book, adventure is the order of the day: Bilbo, Gandalf and a loosely drawn cohort of dwarves go on an adventure to win back a treasure hoard from a dragon. Unlike Lord of the Rings, this is not a mission of life and death, good versus evil with the fate of the world in the balance.
And here in the first film, it looks like adventure with a healthy dose of slapstick silliness is what we’re in for. The dwarves throw fussy old Bilbo’s crockery around and sing rousing shanties while getting pissed. They do downbeat folky numbers too, and the song they sing in Bilbo’s kitchen, whatever you think about the rest of the trilogy, uncontestably bangs. Fun!
Because it’s Hollywood, I guess they needed someone in this film to be unambiguously hot. According to the canon, Bilbo is not hot, as he was not hot in Lord of the Rings, which leaves them either the emphatically un-hot Gandalf, or one of the dwarves. Which is how we end up with Aidan Turner: hot Poldark dwarf. So hot, in fact, that he looks completely unrelated to his fellow dwarves. And while we’re here, I feel it will be a major narrative obstacle that there are far, far too many dwarves. Perhaps three or four times too many dwarves to care about.
Now we meet Azog the Defiler, a large pale orc who is definitely not in the book. I remember now that the CGI is a significant part of why these films are not well thought of. Where Lord of the Rings relied on cleverly cheated perspectives and prosthetics for its special effects, The Hobbit is rammed full with nightmare digitalised monsters, and it looks shiny and uncannily fake in the way that plastic food does.
These films were supposed to be both designed and directed by Guillermo del Toro. He was given years of lead time to flesh out his own vision of Middle Earth, one that would be visually and conceptually different from Peter Jackson’s one. It was also supposed to be two films, not three. You can watch, as I do after the flight, an extraordinarily candid BTS video about the making of The Hobbit, in which Jackson’s creative team freely admit that when Guillermo del Toro had to leave, they made it up as they went along. There were three films not because there was so much material that the films demanded it, but because Jackson needed to put off the final parts of the story because he simply hadn’t had time to plan them. This video features bleak shots of an exhausted Peter Jackson sitting arms akimbo against a piece of prop dwarf palace, his dead stare appraising several dozen metres of green screen and some fibreglass rocks; shots that scream ‘what have I done?’
One thing he has done, for better or worse, is include a scene in which Radaghast the Brown, his hair full of bird poo, pulls a stick insect out of his mouth.
Dinner is served. I imagine I’m eating haute cuisine Elven salad, or whatever the dwarves are enjoying at Rivendell, rather than having a grey sliver of what might be chicken out of an oiled tray.
Bilbo accuses the dwarves of not belonging anywhere. Occasionally you get glimpses of what this film is trying to be about: belonging, displacement, brotherhood, power, bravery. But it’s also about carousing and slapstick and wizards with hair full of bird poo, and the two do not sit well together. It’s a study in bathos gone wrong.
Still further villains capture the dwarves, this time under the aegis of what I guess is supposed to be a sort of Gout Orc. This is the worst CGI so far, his horrible bulbous chin pulsating like a medical software rendering of tumour growth. It’s gross and I wish this scene had come before I ate that chicken.
Gollum is here, and Bilbo gets his hairy mitts on the one ring. I quite like this scene. This is about as portentous and sinister as the films should get – reminding you of what will come in the future of Middle Earth but not pretending some dwarves fighting a dragon equates to a struggle to save the world. And a riddle is always fun.
Everyone is suddenly rescued by some big birds. Narrative Strategy 101 stuff.
That mountain’s still a long way off. All we get of the fabled dragon in this first film is one stinking eyeball, which to my mind is a poor return on 160 minutes time investment. This first film is alright though. Not great, but watchable.
This earnest cover of the dwarf song over the credits is easily the most embarrassing element so far. It’s not Ed Sheeran, but it’s not not Ed Sheeran.
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug
Legolas is… in The Hobbit apparently! And presumably to make him look younger for these prequels, he’s got a sickly computerised glow that does nothing so much as remind you that you haven’t seen Orlando Bloom since Pirates of the Caribbean and so can’t say whether he’s aging well or badly. Is he married to Katy Perry? I can’t remember, but luckily there’s a more important and more incongruous romance to consider: Arwen (she’s back too! Remember from Lord of the Rings? You loved that! Love this!!) and Hot Dwarf.
THE BARRELS! Now this I remember vividly. I also remember people saying that the scene with the barrels is the moment that released them from any expectation that these films could aspire to Lord of the Rings level greatness; that the barrel scene, in its massive, stunning stupidness, is the focal point of the films being ruined. But that isn’t the problem. The problem is that this whole film should, by rights, have been a series of fun, silly barrel scenes. Up the barrels. Up the dwarves being hidden under piles of fish in the barrels. Up barrels everywhere and all who travel in them.
The realpolitik of Lake Town is cool, but this feels like another film completely. We’re introduced to a whole new society and about eight new characters midway through the journey, including Stephen Fry’s mayor who actually, literally does have gout.
I look out of the window at the emptiness of Siberia below me, and understand what it must feel like for lost explorers to embrace death.
Alright here we go, time for Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role of Smaug the dragon. This section is good: spooky, fun and engaging, but my God I’ve watched a lot of digitally enhanced rubbish to get here.
The lady next to me is watching Crazy Rich Asians. I zone out for several minutes watching a lavish wedding party in Singapore to the soundtrack of orcs squealing through my headphones.
It’s possible that one of the things Peter Jackson didn’t have time for was researching the elemental properties of gold, or indeed how to animate molten gold, so it doesn’t look like a Now That’s What I Call Music advert.
‘What have we done?’ is the last line in this film, immediately followed by a cover of the dwarf song that definitely is sung by Ed Sheeran. This is a bit on the nose for me.
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
Five armies? I really can’t remember anything about this film. Did I even see it?
This is just going to be one long battle isn’t it. I maintain that watching Lord of the Rings all the way through doesn’t feel like this does. I’ve done it, by choice, on a number of occasions. It’s great. This feels like waiting for mince to defrost, knowing full well that the meal you’re going to make with it will be shit anyway.
I wonder if you can download Age of Empires to play on your laptop.
By the time that Billy Connolly comes out riding a war piglet I am absolutely sure that I never in fact saw the final Hobbit film, because it would be virtually impossible to forget this image.
I notice someone a few seats in front has just started watching the first Hobbit film and experience a Pavlovian nausea response. Could also be the chicken.
The boat man’s kids. Gee, I do hope some kind of dragon-related peril doesn’t befall these new apples of our eyes!
We say goodbye to our budget Fellowship as the dwarves scuttle back to their mountain. Goodbye, so and so. So long, James Nesbitt. And you, the one with the beard. Farewell, other dwarf with beard.
With Bilbo safely back in the shire, to spin out his days being driven slowly mad by the one ring, the credits roll, and at the end of my own unexpected journey, I reflect on the fact that what I should obviously have done was just go to sleep instead. Some films are so bad that they transcend notions of quality and can be enjoyed for their badness itself, but it’s a fine line. None of The Hobbit films break into that second golden zone of good shit, like The Rock or the 1997 Batman & Robin film. Nor are they good enough to be genuinely enjoyable. They were trashed at the time of their release, and history will trash them in perpetuity, even more so because they represent a disastrous blot on the landscape between the two high points of recent film and TV fantasy: the Lord of the Rings films and Game of Thrones. But they did give us those YouTube videos of Benedict Cumberbatch wriggling around in a motion capture suit, clips which hold more entertainment value than 8 hours of the films themselves. Somehow, despite these films’ unforgivably massive length, I still have the thick end of three hours to fill on this flight. It seems like a needless cruelty that when I finally do get to sleep, I dream of hobbits.