In his celebrated novels of Middle-earth, J.R.R. Tolkien -- author, medievalist, philologist and Oxford don -- was using fantastical myths to reimagine the past. In his adaptations of Tolkien's novels, Peter Jackson -- film director -- is using fantastical technology to reshape the future.
The question is whether Jackson's latest -- "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," which opens Dec. 14, not quite hotly on the heels of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy of 2001, '02 and '03 -- will leave audiences exhilarated. Or simply nostalgic -- not, like Tolkien, for a past that never was. But for a cinema that used to be.
Like its Oscar-winning predecessor, "The Hobbit" will be a trilogy: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is scheduled for next December, "The Hobbit: There and Back Again," for the summer of 2014 (which will also commemorate the centenary of the war in which Tolkien's worldview was forged).
Unlike "The Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit" is based on a single book, the shortest of the oeuvre, and the one Tolkien had specifically intended for children (his own). One might think that Team Tolkien is going to the Rivendell well once too often. But in expanding "The Hobbit's" approximately 300 pages to cover three distinct movies, Jackson and his co-screenwriters -- producing and life partner Fran Walsh (they have two children), creaturist-genius Guillermo del Toro (who was originally going to direct "The Hobbit") and Philippa Boyens (the team's acknowledged "Tolkien geek") -- have gone to supplemental materials.
By doing this, they're giving fans of "The Hobbit," published in 1937 and never out of print, much they probably won't expect -- epic battles between noble Dwarves and hideous Orcs, several of which take place in flashbacks that were never part of the original novel. They might also expect, knowing Jackson's previous trips to Middle-earth, a seamless transition from their world to that of Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit of the title and the viewer's entree to matters incredible.
That may indeed be what they find. But it will certainly be a matter of personal taste. Much of what Jackson is up to in "The Hobbit" may as well be Elvish to most viewers, but one of the more critical technical choices he made was to shoot the film in 48 frames per second -- twice the 24 frames per second that has been the industry standard for about 90 years. It's the frame rate at which we comfortably reach what is commonly referred to as "persistence of vision" -- the illusion that what we're seeing is actually happening, rather than a series of still pictures.
Unlike "The Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit" is in 3-D, an effect that goes hand in hand with the film's heightened frame rate. Many of the problems audiences have with 3-D -- such as headaches -- can be relieved by filming faster.
"3-D perception of something is just a slightly different angle between two views of the same thing," visual-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull said during an interview last year. The man behind the effects in "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Blade Runner" said that if something in a movie is moving across the screen, the frame-to-frame motion can be more than the left eye / right eye displacement.
"So the 3-D effect goes away and your brain is trying to figure out how to put this image together, which is all blurred and strobed," he said. "So there's a lot of eye strain, especially in the action sequences directors want to have. Like in 'Transformers': It's fun to go home, look at your favorite Blu-ray action film and freeze-frame it on the highest action. You'll see that it's all blurred."
Jackson also addressed the issue in an interview last year.
"The image has hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness," he said. "Looking at 24 frames every second may seem OK -- and we've all seen thousands of films like this over the last 90 years -- but there is often quite a lot of blur in each frame, during fast movements, and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can shudder or strobe. Shooting and projecting at 48 fps does a lot to get rid of these issues. It looks much more lifelike and it is much easier to watch, especially in 3-D."
The look of the film
But does being "easier to watch" compensate for the visual grandeur lacking in a movie that cost an estimated $150 million? The potential problem with "The Hobbit" isn't the action sequences or the acting or the spectacular story or any other aspect of what will certainly be a huge success at the box office. It's the look of the film. The scenes in which people interact -- likewise, characters and their surroundings -- is off-puttingly "live" for those accustomed to traditional film, the way video is too live, or a TV soap opera, or maybe a baseball game. Backgrounds are too obviously the work of computer technicians; the actors seem to be performing against a projected backdrop -- not always, but often enough to make everyday moviegoers into connoisseurs, as they try to figure out what's wrong with this picture. And whether they wanted to be part of an experiment in filmmaking theory that hasn't quite achieved what Tolkien would have called an apotheosis.