[This post contains spoilers. Consider yourself warned.]
I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I read it for the first time when I was six years old and have returned to it many times over the years. I still have a soft spot in my heart for the cheesy cartoon version of the story that Rankin/Bass did when I was a kid. I’ve shoved the book into each of my children’s hands as soon as I thought his reading skills could handle it.
So I can understand it when writers I respect, such as Daniel Larison at the American Conservative, express a sense of horror at Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the beloved book, particularly the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, which is now in theaters. The criticisms abound. Why did Jackson think he could turn a 200-page children’s book into three lengthy films? Why does he have Gandalf wandering around mountain tombs and an old, ruined fortress, settings that appear nowhere in the book? Why did he put Legolas in the film when the elf does not appear in the book? Why does Bard the bowman get a complicated back story that’s absent in the book? Why does Smaug chase the dwarves around the halls of Erebor when they never even confronted each other in the book? (Are you noticing a pattern here?)
What appears to be the common desire of these critics is for Jackson to have made a simpler Hobbit with the story told in one or (at most) two films and with a script that hews closely to the text of the original book. As something of a Tolkien purist myself, I completely understand this wish. However, although I disagree with some of Jackson’s decisions (particularly the elf/dwarf romance in the Desolation of Smaug), I have to come to his defense on his overall approach to these films. In fact, I’m certain that the “faithful film adaptation” of the 1937 Hobbit these critics seem to want would in fact turn out to be awful, or at least fall far short of Tolkien’s ultimate vision. Here are five reasons why:
- It’s not 1937. Don’t get me wrong here; I’m usually the last person who could be reasonably accused of chronological snobbery. What I mean is that if J.R.R. Tolkien were alive today and telling the story of The Hobbit, it would probably sound a lot different from its 1937 incarnation. The Hobbit was Tolkien’s earliest effort to relate events occurring in Middle-Earth’s Third Age (his earlier stories and poems mostly dealt with a remoter period of Middle-Earth’s history), and over the following decades he fleshed out this history to a much greater extent. Some of this Hobbit revisionism appears in the main text of The Lord of the Rings, some of it appears in LotR‘s appendices, and some of it is in posthumous works of Tolkien’s like Unfinished Tales. You can’t make a Hobbit film or films today without taking these later writings into account. This leads me into the next reason . . .
- Most of Jackson’s additions to the story are actually Tolkien’s. Here are a few of the scenes, characters, and plot items that appear nowhere in the original Hobbit, but were added by Tolkien in later years and show up in Jackson’s films: Gandalf’s meeting Thorin in Bree and urging him to retake Erebor, Sauron’s reappearing as the Necromancer in Mirkwood, the character of Radagast the Brown, the One Ring as a malevolent force, Azog the Defiler’s beheading of Thror, the Mirkwood spiders’ designation as “spawn of Ungoliant,” the Battle of Azanulzibar (the dwarf/orc battle outside Moria), and Gandalf’s collaborating with the “White Council” (Radagast, Saruman, Galadriel, and Elrond) to confront the Necromancer, uncover his true identity, and drive him out of Mirkwood. Legolas’s character is also a great example of this phenomenon. Tolkien had not created him at the time of the writing of The Hobbit, but in The Lord of the Rings he is presented as the prince of the elven kingdom where Thorin and Company had been imprisoned. Far from needing to justify Legolas’s presence in the new films, Peter Jackson would have had to justify his absence given Tolkien’s post-Hobbit development of Middle-Earth. Of course Legolas would have been there when Thorin showed up! If you protest these inclusions, it seems to me like you’re criticizing Tolkien as much as Jackson.
- Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films have already been made. Just as Jackson has to take into account Tolkien’s post-1937 writings that have a bearing on the events in The Hobbit, he also has to take into account the fact that he has already presented to the world about eleven hours of Lord of the Rings films. If he now serves up anything inconsistent with that earlier work, or even makes films that pretend the LotR films don’t exist, he’s asking for trouble. So we actually do need “prequel” material to show how these stories are connected. We need a hint of the future friendship between Legolas and Gimli. We need to see similarities between Frodo’s and Bilbo’s experiences of wearing the One Ring. We need to understand why Balin will end up going to Moria after Erebor is reclaimed. We need to know why Gandalf was so interested in getting rid of Smaug. And most importantly, we need to know about the Necromancer.
- Parts of The Hobbit would make no sense on film. You can get away with a lot of stuff in a fairy tale that will absolutely kill you on the big screen. In the book, Thorin and Company get all the way from Hobbiton to the secret door in the side of the Lonely Mountain without any strategy for dealing with the dragon. Tolkien’s narrator simply notes wryly that this was always the weak link in their plan. In a film, this “wrinkle” would completely destroy any suspension of disbelief in the audience and just about ruin everything. Jackson and his team have dealt with this problem ingeniously by setting up the expedition as a burglary job to retrieve the Arkenstone, which will then allow Thorin to raise a dwarvish army. Of course, this alteration demands some screen time to set up, but it makes sense. Similarly, the circumstances that lead to the Battle of Five Armies near the end of the book would come off as being absolutely ridiculous on film. Fortunately, Jackson et al have been careful to set up antagonisms in these first two films that will provide believable reasons for Thranduil, Bard, and either Azog or Bolg to lead armies to Erebor in the third film.
- Parts of The Hobbit would be really boring and/or unsatisfying on film. After hours of setup in which viewers have become emotionally invested in the antagonism between Smaug and the dwarves, Jackson cannot have Smaug simply talk to Bilbo for a few minutes and then fly off to Lake-town to die without coming face to face with the dwarves at all. That would have left the conflict unresolved, not to mention producing the flattest movie ending ever. Yes, the sequence where the dwarves try to kill Smaug is over the top, but give Jackson credit for recognizing that there had to be some kind of confrontation and, yes, at least a momentary victory for the dwarves over the dragon to provide some resolution to the dramatic tension that had been building over two films. Other scenes had to change for similar reasons. Can you imagine Jackson filming An Unexpected Journey’s troll scene as described in the book, where the dwarves come one by one into the clearing and are captured without conflict? BORING!
While An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug are far from perfect, labeling them “The Desolation of Tolkien” is too harsh. If my kids’ reaction to the Desolation of Smaug is anything to go by, they are a successful attempt to translate the excitement and grandeur of Middle-Earth to the big screen.
However, Son #2 was very upset that Bilbo didn’t yell “Attercop!” or sing his taunting song at the spiders.
[As usual, whenever I mention Tolkien on this site, I have to recommend my friend Corey Olsen's Tolkien Professor page. You can find the link in the sidebar to the right. See especially his "Riddles in the Dark" podcast where he treats issues relating to the Jackson films exhaustively.]