Stephen McGinty: Hobbit ushers in new era of cinema

Martin Freeman is one of the stars of The Hobbit
Martin Freeman is one of the stars of The Hobbit
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THE HOBBIT, a perennial favourite, ushers in a new era for cinema-goers, while stirring nostalgic thoughts as traditional film-making begins to pass into history, writes Stephen McGinty

WE DON’T think of JRR Tolkien as an enthusiastic rugby player, hunched in the scrum and anxious to make the next try. We perceive him through a thick fog of pipe smoke as a wizened old man, a clean-shaven, tweed-suited version of his fictitious character, Gandalf the Grey, and, yet, on 16 December, 1913, some 99 years ago next week, he was charging up the line on the playing fields of his old school, King Edward’s in Birmingham, leading a team consisting of former pupils now proud undergraduates at Oxford. In the mind of this young man, a rich new world was already beginning to form, a new earth inspired by ancient poems, an earth populated by lush pastures and blasted heaths, of elves and orcs, of hobbits and a talking dragon, where one ring was forged to rule them all. A Middle-Earth.

Yet, as millions of us prepare to flock to the cinema next week to see The Hobbit, the crucible in which Tolkien turned base metal into literary gold, is largely forgotten. When his epic saga The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954, reviewers sought to fit the battle against Sauron into a template of the Second World War. Tolkien put them straight, however, when he wrote in a foreword: “To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than in 1939… by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

On leaving King Edward’s in 1911, Tolkien wrote in the school Chronicle: “Twas a good road, a little rough, it may be, in places, but they say it is rougher further on …” They, whomever they may be, were correct. By the summer of 1916, the muddy playing field of his old school was replaced by the fetid mud and duckboards of a British trench, and the dreaming spires of Oxford, where Tolkien and his friends immersed themselves in old Norse, replaced by the grim toil of a second lieutenant in charge of signals for a bloodied battalion of 400 men in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers.

Tolkien fought through the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War in which on the first day alone 58,000 men became casualties, a third killed. While he survived and was fortunate in October to succumb to a fever that led to him being discharged back to hospital in Birmingham, his school friends, with whom he had competed on that muddy playing field, were not so fortunate.

In late November, Geoffrey Bache Smith had just finished organising a football game for his men and was walking along when a howitzer shell struck and two fragments lodged in his right arm and buttock. He walked to the field hospital, where he smoked a cigarette and wrote a letter to his mother telling her his wounds were slight. Two days later, the wounds developed gas gangrene and he died at 3:30am on 3 December, 1916.

That summer, he had written to Tolkien: “May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.”

Both men – along with Rob Gilson, who would also fall during the war – were members of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society or “TCBS”, a group of like-minded young scholars who saw beauty and wisdom in old texts such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and who wished, as Tolkien later wrote: “To rekindle an old light in the world.”

The first new embers were written in a Birmingham hospital as Tolkien began creating a new mythology about an ancient civilisation under siege by the denizens of nightmares that would later be published as The Silmarillion and out of which would spring The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Years later, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher, then serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War: “I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some ways: to rationalise it, and prevent it just festering. In my case, it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes.”

As John Garth writes in his book Tolkien and the Great War: “It would be misleading to suggest that The Hobbit is Tolkien’s wartime experience in disguise; yet it is easy to see how some of his memories must have invigorated this tale of an ennobling rite of passage past the fearful jaws of death. The middle-class hero is thrown in with proud but stolid companions who have been forced to sink ‘as low as blacksmith-work or even coalmining.”

Tolkien later said a major character in The Lord of the Rings was based on the men with whom he served: “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself.”

In The Hobbit, written in 1937, there are many echoes of the war he was lucky to have survived. Of the goblins, he wrote: “It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them … but in those days … they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.” Meanwhile, the desolation of the land generated by the dragon Smaug recalls a First World War battlefield: “Neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished.”

I loved the book as a child and adored the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, so my current dilemma is not whether to go and see the new film, but in which format. Peter Jackson has shot the film using a special red epic digital camera, which records a detailed image of 5,120 by 2,700 pixels. This is the equivalent of watching a film at 48 frames per second, rather than the usual 24. It is a huge leap forward, but as Tolkien always believed – and as was proven during the First World War – not all progress is necessarily for the best and the latest “infernal machine” can make you pine for the past.

The reason that – for 85 years – film has run through a projector at a steady rate of 24 frames per second is cost. As film was expensive to produce and develop, the slower it ran through the projector, the cheaper for all concerned.

In the silent era, films were projected at rates in their teens, but in 1927 – when sound was introduced – it was discovered that the lowest rate that allowed image and sound to run in synch was 24 frames per second. A standard that has remained unchanged until now. We have all been raised on cinema whose images still unspool in the dark of our minds at 24 frames per second: Gene Kelly swinging on a lamp post in Singing in the Rain, Omar Sharif emerging from a desert heat haze in Lawrence of Arabia and Ewan McGregor pelting down Princes Street in Trainspotting. They all have a texture and quality that comes from filming and projecting at such a rate.

Yet film, the physical spools of negative that whirr through cameras and is later copied, laced up and runs through a projector is closer to death than news print. Only a few directors, such as Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, continue to shoot using film cameras and all film production and projection is expected to cease by 2017 at the very latest. Digital cameras are capable of capturing so much more. As Jackson argued: “Now in the digital age, there’s no reason whatsoever to stick to 24fps. We didn’t get it perfect in 1927. Science tells us that the human eye stops seeing individual pictures at about 55fps. Therefore, shooting at 48fps gives you much more of an illusion of real life. One of the biggest advantages is the fact that your eye is seeing twice the number of images each second, giving the movie a wonderful immersive quality.”

Jackson has Thomas Edison, the inventor of the motion picture camera, on his side as he believed that film should run at 46fps, as “anything less will strain the eye”. The problem is that many critics say the new 48fps is just too life-like, as if the behind-the-scenes footage for “the making-of documentary” is being projected instead. I’m exceptionally wary, as I remember being unable to concentrate on Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s film about John Dillinger, because of the hyper-real quality of the digital footage. But as I’m also conscious of that apt phrase “contempt prior to investigation”, I feel it’s my duty to at least check it out.

Yet, it’s difficult to explain the lush texture of film at 24fps and how it just feels right on the eye, although I’m aware this slots me into the same old worn seats populated by those who believed sound couldn’t replace a live orchestra or that Technicolor would hurt eyes only accustomed to black and white. If the history of cinema – and warfare – has taught us anything, it is that eventually everyone accepts or endures change.