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Which is why The Hobbit was such a dreadful disappointment. Oh, it's making money – Peter Jackson does know how to use New Zealand scenery to good effect. (Though, to tell the truth, the special effects are often surprisingly shoddy.)
In Lord of the Rings, Jackson proved his absolute noncomprehension of story, as he fiddled with one of the greatest works of literature of all time, adding his own childish and stupid story elements while cutting out the very heart (and the primary valediction) of the original.
But with The Hobbit, a slighter work to begin with, Jackson's contempt for Tolkien and his incompetence as an inventor of stories is laid bare. There is no legitimate way to stretch this picaresque tale into three films.
But Jackson is that tragic creation of Hollywood: a filmmaker who believes the stupidest things he was taught in film school. Thus every new element he introduces is straight from the best-thumbed volumes of the Collected Cliches of Hollywood, and his use of them is astonishingly uninspired.
You know you're in the hands of incompetents when a movie resorts to that ubiquitous line of dialogue in an action sequence: "Go go go!"
When, in real life, has anyone every spoken like that? Maybe now they do, because the line has been so grossly overused in movies; but let's face it, this is straight out of the Dick and Jane primers. "Run, Spot, run!" "Go, Dick, go!"
Every change that Jackson makes from Tolkien's original makes it worse. In the novel, Gandalf overcomes the trolls by cleverness. In Jackson's movie, nobody is clever – Gandalf simply splits a boulder apart to allow sunlight to shine through. Brute force. Who can read Tolkien and think that brute force is how victories are achieved by the good guys?
Peter Jackson filming Tolkien is like putting Saruman in charge of writing the history of Middle Earth. He thinks he's being subtle and clever, but he never understands what's really going on at all.
The Hobbit is not a great book, but it's a good one. Tolkien was very careful to keep the use of magic to a minimum, and to put strict limitations on what magic could do. In Tolkien's work, the power to heal is in few people's hands – Elrond and Aragorn – and it's a slow process even so.
But Jackson, perhaps too schooled in the usages of videogames, has people healing the sick and injured with the alacrity of picking up health points. Tolkien makes sure that Gandalf is wise more than powerful, and that he intervenes rarely; Jackson uses Gandalf as the secret weapon in all situations.
Nowhere is Jackson's reliance on videogames more obvious than in the battle inside the orc caves, where audiences have a right to groan over a long, utterly absurd sequence of miraculous stunts that make it impossible to believe – all of them designed like a videogame level, complete with the boss at the end.
All the cliches of bad filmmaking are present: The bad guys who are 50 feet away and on horseback, yet somehow, a moment later, manage to be 300 yards behind the heroes. The bad guys who always miss, while the good guys make incredibly lucky moves when the story needs them to.
Did we really need to have a revenge plot involving Thorin and an orc chieftain?
And couldn't somebody have tried to write dialogue at the level of diction, cleverness and care that Tolkien invariably applied to his work?
Despite all of Peter Jackson's destructive and arrogant changes, however, two actors emerge from the mess with his dignity intact: Ian McKellen, who makes Gandalf seem smart even when the writing makes him dumb; and, above all, Martin Freeman as Bilbo.
The dwarves, alas, are dwarf soup – the film tries to distinguish some of them, but Tolkien gave us too many of them to work with and Jackson hasn't the talent to overcome their sheer numbers. I've heard people say that Thorin emerges from the pack, but only because he's given lots of dialogue and the most obvious of motivations.
But Freeman, who plays Watson in the new BBC series Sherlock and had a wonderful, if naked, part in Love Actually, is the entire reason why the movie is watchable. His good-natured earnestness transcends the stupidity of the writing, so that we like him and care about him and admire him. As so often in Hollywood, casting trumps all.