Posted by: kshayes513 | September 7, 2013

Watching The Hobbit and Debating Realism

The gates of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. Image: Warner/New Line

The gates of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain. Images: Warner/New Line

When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiered last year, fans and critics had a more than usually mixed reaction to a Peter Jackson Tolkien film. While I agree with some of the criticism about length – the chase through Goblin Town could certainly have been half as long, as far as I’m concerned – overall, I found that, once again, Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth is filled with wonderful characters and extraordinary images. It’s a place I’ve always loved to visit, and one that I’m eager to return to, especially with the remarkable Martin Freeman leading the cast.

Now that fans and the media are ramping up for the premiere of The Desolation of Smaug, I want to revisit a specific criticism of the first movie, resulting from PJ’s decision to film at a new, high frame rate of 48 frames per second, instead of the usual 24 (a speed dictated by technology from the earliest days of the film industry). A number of critics complained that the sharp new clarity of 48 fps made the world and the characters look too real, and in doing so, it destroyed the very magic the movie tries to create. As one critic put it, The Hobbit‘s magic works better when it’s not so real and closeup, when it remains slightly obscured by a mist of imagination. (I’m paraphrasing, as I can’t find the exact quote).

As a writer and worldbuilder, I find this an extremely peculiar criticism. If you’re among my regular readers, you know I believe firmly that the way to make an imaginary world believable is to ground it with as many realistic details as you can manage. Tolkien’s world seems real because he anchored it with a mix of real (though invented) languages and myths, and historical languages and cultures. Because he was a professional and a scholar in all those subjects, his use of these details created an authenticity which few other authors have matched.

To me and to countless other Tolkien fans, Middle Earth ought to be a real place, not a dreamland. One of the things I have loved since the first trailers for The Fellowship of the Ring is that the landscapes of New Zealand, the actors, art direction and miniature making, have made this world real and concrete for me in a way that my imagination had never been able to do.

You probably saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as I did, at the slower speed, since projections of it at 48 fps were hard to find. In digital 2D and 3D, and in IMAX at 24 fsp, The Hobbit I had numerous shots whose backgrounds were distractingly blurry. This was especially noticeable in the wide shots of the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which were fuzzy everywhere except where the camera was actually pointed. Not until I was able to watch the movie on Blu-ray did I see these scenes the way they are supposed to look.

The once and future King Under the MountainPlayed back at the proper frame rate on an HD TV, the magnificence of Erebor springs out in dazzling detail. With every shot, you might actually be standing on one of those high stone bridges, looking down into the depths of the Mountain, or before the throne of the Dwarf King, taking in the delicate workmanship of the gold ornaments in his beard.

Once again, the detail of the film’s character, costume and set design is exquisite. And being able to see this film craftsmanship in sharp, minute detail only enhances our belief that all this visual richness could actually exist. The Dwarves of Erebor, the most skilled miners, metalworkers and stonebuilders of the most fabulously wealthy kingdom of that age, really would make for themselves ornaments and clothing and a carved stone city every bit as richly crafted.

Movie makers from the earliest days have always tried to make their settings and worlds look as real as possible, to immerse viewers in the illusion that the world they see on screen is a real place inhabited by real people. It’s an illusion that movie audiences willingly embrace, so much that one of the worst criticisms for any movie is that some or all of it wasn’t believable: it failed sustain our illusion of reality.

As far as I can see, there’s only one kind of mind that believes that a “mist of imagination” – an appearance of dreamlike unreality – would make a movie appear more believable. That’s the kind of mind which already believes that the whole thing ought to be nothing more than a hallucination or a fanciful child’s dream. And if you are the type who wants reasons to believe that Middle Earth or any fantastic realm is just a childish dreamland, if you’re the type who goes out of your way to make sure you don’t believe in fairies, then you should shut up about Tolkien and go review a movie about someone’s divorce.



  1. “And if you are the type who wants reasons to believe that Middle Earth or any fantastic realm is just a childish dreamland, if you’re the type who goes out of your way to make sure you don’t believe in fairies, then you should shut up about Tolkien and go review a movie about someone’s divorce.”

    Oh DAMN RIGHT. Thank you for this post. I watch the LotR and Hobbit movies to go *inside* Middle Earth, for it to be as “real” as possible. It’s the *world* I love, even more than the heroic stories. And someone who complains about that is a sad person with a shriveled, cynical heart.

  2. Welcome, Laura, and thanks for commenting. I know people who don’t like Tolkien because his stories are not to their taste. That’s fine. It’s the ones who don’t like Tolkien because he’s telling stories of the fantastic and all fantasy is “for children” – those are indeed the sad ones.

  3. The “mist of imagination” was pretty important when poor SFX techniques and/or budgets meant a papier-mache monster reveal. Now that we can consistently expect a fair degree of quality in movie SFX, said mist is not much needed and we should expect clarity to better explore these new visual worlds. The recent movie Oz, the Great and Powerful, which suffered from indifferent critical reception, most certainly did NOT suffer from the incredibly clear and excellent SFX. It was a pleasure seeing the world of Oz in high-def detail. However, I’ll still embrace the “mist” if a failure of budget, technique or (worse yet!) imagination on the part of the film makers might otherwise create a jarring, unwilling-resumption-of-disbelief situation.

  4. I see where you’re coming from, but I also believe that haziness and lack of detail can stimulate the imagination, that it can be healthy to leave some “gaps” in the world rather than having everything clearly laid out in detail.

    But maybe that’s due to my background/interest in video games rather than movies.

  5. If by “gaps” you mean letting the audience see that the world goes on beyond the edges of the pages or the screen, I agree absolutely. That is, of course, one of the things that has made Tolkien’s world so beloved; he always let us catch glimpses of places and events in the background, stuff that never comes into the main story. Old ruins along the road; references to people who live near the landscapes of the story, but whom we never meet; roads going off into distances that the characters never travel; memories and histories of events long ago.

  6. That is pretty much what I meant. All those things serve as clues that stimulate the reader’s mind and imagination.

    But I guess I don’t think it necessarily matters whether there is a explanation written down somewhere. I think what is created through someone’s imagination will be more real and exciting to them than detailed lists of facts someone wrote down as the official truth.

    A lot of the time people seem to think that the more detailed, rational, and realistic the description of characters, events, and histories is, then the better the quality of the world and story. But in the end, I think you have to admit that recreating reality in all its complexity is impossible, and so any book, game, or movie has to be simpler and more limited than reality.

    So sometimes I think there is an overemphasis on realism and rational descriptions and not enough on intuition and imagination.

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