Did the middle-Earth move for you?

Sophie Haydock has some searching questions about the The Hobbit

The first part of the eagerly anticipated The Hobbit was released last week, but not everyone is a fan. Amid cries that An Unexpected Journey is overly long and overly produced, that those at the top are cashing in by stretching the thin book into a trilogy – not to mention a charge of sexism – audiences and critics are asking: is the Tolkien bubble about to burst?

The high-fantasy epic tale, alongside The Lord of the Rings, was once little more than the reading material of boy scouts, nerds and hippies. But with its Middle-earth world of dwarves, hobbits, orcs and wizards – played by a cast of A-list actors, with Peter Jackson at the helm – the Tolkien seed grew bigger, sparked more imaginations and made more money than anyone, least of all the mild-mannered professor of English who wrote the stories in the 1930s and 1950s, could ever have dreamt.

JRR Tolkien penned The Hobbit as a book for children in 1937, following it 17 years later with the better known Lord of the Rings. But he never fully anticipated its appeal. At the time, he wrote a letter (now kept at the Brotherton library at Leeds University, where he taught for five years), to a fellow author, saying the sales of The Hobbit had been “not very great”. Tolkien would send him a copy “if there is a re-print”. The book went on to sell 100 million copies.

The really unexpected journey began in 2001, when the first part of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Rings, was released as one of the biggest and most ambitious movie projects ever undertaken. Its budget topped $285 million.

The Hobbit was never seen as equal to The Lord of the Rings in terms of storytelling

Over the next three years, the three films became some of the most popular in history and broke boundaries for the genre and the box office. The final part, The Return of the King, took in more than $1 billion around the world and scooped 11 prizes out of a possible 11 at the 2004 Academy Awards, including best picture, and best director for Jackson.

The Hobbit, in contrast, was never seen as equal to The Lord of the Rings in terms of storytelling. It is a much simpler and shorter tale. “It is about a hobbit, a wizard and 13 dwarfs who go on this journey,” said James Nesbitt, who plays the dwarf Bofur, succinctly.

Under the encouragement of Gandalf (played by Sir Ian McKellen), comfort-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who has no desire to leave the security of his home in the Shire, is forced to confront his destiny and join a group of adventurous, ale-loving dwarves on a mission to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, taken over by the ruthless dragon Smaug. En route, they must outwit hungry trolls, fight evil orcs, and overcome masses of goblins.

The story deals with themes of personal growth, bravery and battle, likely influenced by Tolkien’s experiences of fighting during the First World War. It champions the local and individual over the nameless and faceless, peace-lovers over warmongers, individual freedom over the lust for power.

There is something poetic in why Gandalf chooses Bilbo to lead the quest. “I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid, and he gives me courage,” says the wizard.

Ian McKellen is the wizard Gandalf, who chooses Bilbo to lead the quest

But despite the hype, and its huge popularity since it opened in cinemas on 14 December (it is expected to rake in $330 million at the box office this winter), criticism isn’t far from the fanfare.

Many complained that Jackson and the studios are cashing in by stretching a triple box office bonanza out of the book’s slim volume (roughly 95,000 words, in contrast to the meatier 450,000 in the Lord of the Rings). What’s more, each film is set to run to around three hours, with the first instalment topping a yawn-inducing (for all but the most fervent of fans) 169 minutes.

The length isn’t the only problem: An Unexpected Journey was filmed at a controversial 48 frames per second (as opposed to the traditional 24) – a format introduced for higher definition and smoother movement effects. Some viewers complained it causes nausea or dizziness.

But Jackson last week defended his use of new technology. “It is a time when cinema audiences are dwindling. As an industry, we have to look at what we can do to increase and enhance the experience of going to a cinema.

“We shouldn’t think that the technology created for theatrical presentation in 1927 should be what we need to be using in 2012. We should be looking at the technology we have available and how we can make the experience more immersive, more magical, more spectacular.”

Another question being asked: is Tolkien sexist? With its killer cast, including McKellen, Freeman, Nesbitt, Andy Serkis as Gollum, Richard Armitage as Thorin and Christopher Lee as Saruman, among several other male characters, the film is a total boy-fest. Women in Tolkien’s books are largely absent and, when they do appear, are creatures of beauty that hardly participate in the events that surround them. In An Unexpected Journey, we briefly see one woman: Cate Blanchett as Galadriel.

Cate Blanchett is Galadriel, the film’s only main female part

There are however, a couple of strong female influences behind the scenes, in the form of Philipa Boyens, who co-wrote the film alongside Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh. Boyens spoke about what Tolkien might have made of their interpretation of his stories. “Tolkien did say when he wrote this great mythology, of which The Hobbit is but a part, that he did hope it would have a life of its own, and other minds would be brought to it, bringing drama and music.”

She imagines that there is “a lot [Tolkien] would have had huge issues with. But I also suspect there’d be a lot he’d rather enjoy, because you can tell he had a great sense of humour. I think he would have particularly enjoyed Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf. For me, Gandalf is the coming together of a beautiful piece of writing by a great English author, delivered by one of England’s great actors.”

Another of England’s great actors, Serkis returned to The Hobbit, playing perfectly the dark animal paranoia of Gollum (with the help of motion capture technology), in what is the most tense and electrifying part of the film. Bilbo and he battle it out in a duel of wits in the riddle sequence in the cave. Bilbo is bargaining for his freedom but, if he loses, will be eaten. It is at this point that Bilbo, unbeknown to Gollum, finds the One Ring and discovers its powers.

Gollum – or Sméagol before the Ring corrupted him – is a truly unnerving and complicated character, and Serkis admits that the key to being able to play him convincingly was to channel a darker side. As Gollum, there was an opportunity “to run riot”, he said, adding: “I play him as if he was an addict. One of the great things about this role is you feel sorry for him, pity him, hate him.”

Serkis says: “Gollum has a weak personality. He isn’t able to cope with the power of the Ring. It was important that I find something very real, something that it could mean in this day and age. And for me, it was always about addiction.”

Andy Serkis plays Gollum as caught in the depths of addiction

He adds that the character of Gollum is “entirely based on the notion of addiction, the way that the Ring possesses him, makes him craven, lustful, depletes him physically and psychologically and mentally”. Not only does Serkis touch on addiction, he convincingly portrays Gollum’s schizophrenia, paranoia and pathological lying. “It is such a psychologically complex role. Vocally and emotionally it is racking,” he said.

Many have debated whether Tolkien’s Yorkshire connections influenced his descriptions of Middle-earth

Another star of the show is the New Zealand landscape – as breath-taking and epic as the plot. Over the years, many have debated whether Tolkien’s Yorkshire connections influenced his descriptions of Middle-earth and in particular the hobbit Shires. Tolkien’s familiarity with Yorkshire began in 1916 when he went on a course in Otley, and he later lived at 2 Darnley Road, West Park in Leeds, while working at Leeds University from 1920-25.

Dr Lynn Forest-Hill of the Tolkien Society says Tolkien’s “awareness of the evidence of Anglo-Saxon history in the Yorkshire landscape may have contributed to the inclusion of many references in The Lord of the Rings to ruins and decaying evidence of a previously flourishing civilisation”.

Will the Tolkien bubble, so flourishing and prosperous, avoid decay and the ruin of its own reputation? Only fans and critics can say. Twitter is divided: “excruciatingly slow” said @Seensome, while @vulture asked if “#thehobbit is exciting, or a tedious exercise in walking and dwarf meals?”; @moviegoblin said watching the film was like “visiting a clever but boring uncle. Every now and again he’ll say something interesting but it’s a chore to listen”.

But @elzolowe95 thought it was “one of the best films ever to come out of Peter Jackson’s beautiful mind”. ?And @real_locodante summed it up with “#thehobbit was brilliant but what do you expect? Hope you all love it too.”

The Tolkien bubble may not be bursting just yet, but let’s see how much more the public can take with parts two and three.

All photos: Warner Bros Pictures

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