Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A review of 'The Hobbit', and a new theory of narrative art

Stepping into The Hobbit amidst the weird haze of bad words and cold commentary, I was expecting an elongated, excessively padded BBC TV movie illumined by epileptic and nauseating frame rate detail. Fate, however, led me away from the controversial 3D version, and into simple cinema 2D. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

This, then, is a review of the easy version that most people will watch, avoiding in turn the distracting presentational conflict dominating the chatter elsewhere. I speak as a sometime Tolkien apologist, but never a massive connoisseur of this children's story, finding it a bit schizophrenic in tone and with too many characters. Although in reality I may simply have tackled it too old.

As with the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson does a great job of combining the twin strata of homely English shire-land and Norse-inflected grandeur that forms Middle Earth, a tough task to execute well. The problem of introducing 14 dwarves was handled well, with a humorous generic personality quickly affixed to each in order to avoid confusion - a proven strategy.

And Bilbo, oh Bilbo. Skeptical at first of Martin Freeman, due to the disappointment of Hitchhikers Guide, I was happy to find that he plays the little Hobbit with perfect self-depreciation and simplicity, grounding in turn the whole story.

The longevity of the thing (170 minutes), has annoyed some, but each scene added more than enough value to keep me engaged, and never tired or bored. This is quite unlike a number of other extremely long movies. The trick, I am coming to see, is in the ratio.

For long movies, or indeed any form of narrative art, interest can be sustained if the reward one gets for paying attention and engaging are greater than the effort required to keep up. But it is even more precise than that, because the ratio is in operation moment to moment, and can act cumulatively to heighten the bliss or boredom.

The Hobbit had a high reward ratio, with each scene offing a nice and self-contained level of enjoyment. I am aware that part of my appreciation drew from not having to follow the narrative too closely, because I knew it already, and thus could savour each scene in and of itself without worrying about the greater whole. But that is an achievement on its own.

In my new method of judgment, therefore:

Reward Ratio = Reward per moment / Effort per moment.

The Hobbit had a reward ratio of around 4. Very low effort per moment, high reward per moment.

(Note that this method does not automatically discount 'difficult' movies - but only highlights that they need to provide a high reward for the effort invested to be worth it.)


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