When asked what “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” offers that “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy didn’t, actor Sir Ian McKellan pauses before answering.
“It offers enough that is new to please the fans and draw younger audiences … and enough that is similar to please the fans and impress many a cynic.” He then adds a qualifier to this statement, “In years to come, ‘The Hobbit’ may be remembered less as a companion series to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and more as a technological pioneer.”
The pioneering technology McKellen is referring to in “The Hobbit” is it having been filmed at 48 frames per second — twice the standard rate of 24 frames per second, which has been used for nearly 90 years. Warner Bros. will be the first studio to release a major Hollywood film at 48 frames per second when “The Hobbit” premieres in North America on Dec. 14 [the Japan releases will not feature this technology].
The new technology results in a picture that’s visually sharper, but may be jarring to many viewers. The result has been tested on audiences worldwide to see how the human eye will react to it and to ensure cinemas are technologically ready.
However, Warner, which also introduced sound into motion pictures (via “The Jazz Singer” in 1927), is playing it fiscally safe. The high-frame-rate version of “The Hobbit” will only be shown on some 450 (of about 4,000) screens in the United States and Canada. Other cinemas will screen the movie in either the regular or 3-D formats, and some will feature all options.
McKellan, who has viewed the faster-rate reel, admits, “It’s quite different at first. It can take getting used to, perhaps more so for adults. Of course, if you read the literature of the period, many filmgoers in the 1920s found it disorienting or even distasteful to hear words coming out of actors’ mouths. Personally, I don’t think this is of the order of earlier cinema fads. It’s not going to go away.”
Director Sir Peter Jackson agrees with McKellan’s sentiment in spades.
“We’re in the digital age,” he says. “There’s simply no reason to stick to 24 frames per second.” Fellow filmmaker James Cameron, the man behind “Avatar,” intends on releasing a sequel to that movie using a rate of 60 frames per second (the film is reported to start filming next year).
Jackson says the advantage of the new technology is “more detailed details.” He says there is an extreme sharpness to the picture that immerses the viewer in the experience of watching the movie. Proponents say that seeing more images per second is more natural and is closer to what the human eye actually sees. They also say the more lifelike picture reduces eyestrain when watching 3-D films.
This “you are there” feeling sounds great, but it’s another question whether you really want to be around when Smaug, the great dragon of “The Hobbit,” starts breathing a fire that can fatally roast humans and dwarves alike. Such realism may be too intense for children, or even some teens and adults. There have also been complaints that when the film looks too real, it becomes jarring and a bit unbelievable.
“The Hobbit” will be a trilogy of films and there’s no doubt that the second installment, which is set for 2014, will see a higher proportion of releases at the higher-frame rate — particularly if the coveted under-20 demographic flocks to see it in the same (or greater) numbers as it did with Warner’s now-concluded “Harry Potter” franchise. Of course, attracting that audience will mostly rely on the film’s story.
The novel “The Hobbit,” written by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and published in 1937, was not originally a trilogy like “The Lord of the Rings” (1954-55) was, and thus is about one-fifth its length. However, the new film’s story will still be told over three motion pictures.
“These popular novels have cult followings,” Jackson says. “Lengthy as they are, many readers have read them each more than once. When we filmed ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ amid the showers of praise were grumbles and even outraged complaints about, ‘You left out that’ and ‘You didn’t give enough time to this’ and so on. But no film can compete with the detailed density and richness of a long novel. Film must condense things.
Jackson says that by filming “The Hobbit” as a trilogy, he can do more justice to the original story.
“We can delve further into Middle-earth and Tolkien’s wonderful characters and their grand adventure,” he says. “Tell the story more fully, satisfy more devoted readers.”
He can also earn three times the profits via the sure-to-be-a-smash franchise (even without the huge amount of merchandising opportunities).
McKellen, who plays the majestic wizard Gandalf — featured in all four books — observes that, “As a trilogy, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is more sweeping. It offered an epic scope for three separate films. Even so, it was a considerable gamble. Remember that bestsellers don’t automatically make popular movies,” something Jackson may have discovered with his 2009 screen adaptation of Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones.”
Many people who have never read “The Hobbit” still know that it was created to entertain Tolkien’s children. It came about while the author was grading exam papers and took a brief break, writing on a blank space, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” He later explained that he then had to find out what a hobbit was.
The screenplay was written by Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, who also collaborated on the script for “The Lord of the Rings.” Philippa Boyens and Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro also get writing credits for the screenplay.
The plot centers on home-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who is tapped to try and part the dragon Smaug from the mountain of stolen treasures upon which he sleeps. Freeman, perhaps best known for the film “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (2005) and British television series “The Office” (2001-03), feels Bilbo’s story resonates with people of all ages.
“He goes in search of a material something — treasure,” Freeman says. “He finds something more valuable. Because the search is, it turns out, for his higher self — to encounter his courage and destiny, to learn what he can achieve and what he can do for others — after, of course, he returns home and marvels at what’s happened to him and what he helped cause to happen.”
Tolkien was ahead of his time when it came to ecological concerns, and that appealed to Freeman, 41, a vegetarian who has, until now, been mostly familiar to British audiences.
“Tolkien didn’t set his stories primarily in castles, like most fairy tales and quest stories,” he says. “He stuck closer to the ground, literally — to Middle-earth. His characters meshed with forests and mountains. In their world, nature was heightened. It was preternatural, with talking animals and assorted beings like humans, hobbits and goblins and communicative birds like the ravens and the thrush. Even one-of-a-kinds like Gollum, (a nasty creature indelible to anyone familiar with ‘The Lord of the Rings’).”
Although Tolkien sticks to the convention in which good triumphs over evil, his heroes still fall prey to greed and the lust for power, and they make war with each other (Tolkien served as a soldier in the British Army in World War I). A major theme of his stories is the importance of change and of people — and creatures — facing and overcoming their fears.
“One thing that struck me from the book (“The Hobbit”) is that after Bilbo returns home a hero, neighbors still think he’s odd or undesirable because he’s different from them,” McKellan says. “Tolkien was making a point about narrow-minded people who will conserve an opinion and refuse to change it. But the important thing is, Bilbo is now happier and is at peace with himself. He appreciates his life and home and what he has done.”
Jackson’s own interest in Tolkien was piqued by the 1978 animated film “The Lord of the Rings” by Ralph Bakshi.
“I found out that when ‘The Hobbit’ was published, it was considered strictly children’s material,” Jackson says. “I think a generation of adults has since allowed themselves to become more childlike — in a positive way, the inner-child syndrome.”
Jackson says that despite the story being geared toward children, there are elements that seem intended for adults, and that’s what helps the film succeed.
“What I think is quite adult about (Tolkien’s) stories is the mixture of happiness and bitterness,” Jackson says. “His fantasy is grounded by reality. Of course movies do downplay some of the negatives in books, but I think we’ve all managed to stay true to the spirit in which Tolkien wrote his works.”
“The Hobbit” opens Dec. 14. For a review, please turn to this issue’s Film Page. For more information, visit www.thehobbit.com.