5 Reasons Why a “Faithful Film Adaptation” of The Hobbit Would Stink

[This post contains spoilers. Consider yourself warned.]

the-hobbit-coverI 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?)

hobbitblurayWhat 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:

  1. 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 . . .
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.]

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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31 Responses to 5 Reasons Why a “Faithful Film Adaptation” of The Hobbit Would Stink

  1. Matt Lee says:

    I liked how bilbo could hear the spiders when he had the ring on. I was wondering if they were going to pull that off and I think it worked well.

    • Dr. J says:

      Yes, that was clever. The only possible problem with it was that he still heard the spider speak after he took the ring off and stabbed it. I guess the ring’s universal translator effect takes a minute to wear off after removal.

  2. Sig says:

    I like it better a few days later than I did coming out of the theater, but I can’t help but think some sort of middle ground (Middle Earth?) could have been found. I felt the problem was one more of tone. The Hobbit was a very different sort of story than The Lord of the Rings, but they seemed to be trying to pouring it into the same mold, and you have to add a lot of filler to make that work.

    The Arkenstone as a point in the plot earlier does make a great deal of sense. Even as a kid, I never understood the point of sending in Bilbo just to steal something random.

  3. In the diegesis of middle earth Bilbo wrote “there and back again” so I see Jackson’s take on it as a truer telling of Bilbo’s war stories without Bilbo’s bragging and embellishments. At least that’s my justification for liking the movie. .

  4. Raina says:

    You mentioned that Tolkien wrote about a lot of the things that were not in the book. Where did he write them? The Lost Tales? The Similarillian?

    • Dr. J says:

      Not a lot in the Silmarillion, which is mostly about the First Age. Check out “The Quest of Erebor” in Unfinished Tales and the appendix in Lord of the Rings that deals with dwarf history. That’s where a lot of it is.

  5. Paul Eaton-Jones says:

    “Parts of The Hobbit would be really boring and/or unsatisfying on film”. Surely that would be ALL of the damned book, ditto LOTR. Truly awful books. I tried reading them 40 years ago and by the time I was halfway through I was most definitely on the side of the ‘bad’ guys. The forces of good are one-dimensional and as boring as any characters could possibly be and wished the Orcs etc had wiped out every last one by page 300. Needless to say I couldn’t finish any of his books. Moorcock was so right in his critique of Tolkien.

    • Dr. J says:

      Paul, I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree. Thanks for commenting.

    • Curtis says:

      “The forces of good are one-dimensional and as boring as any characters could possibly be…”

      Or rather, your analysis is one-dimensional, given your admission of a truncated reading. Each of the characters in the original fellowship has a major flaw that endangers the primary quest, and many of the supporting “good” characters (Elrond, Galadriel, Theoden, Denethor, Eowyn, etc.) also have prominent flaws. Some of those flaws are revealed in other stories (e.g., Galadriel), while others aren’t exhibited until after page 300 in LoTR. And that’s not even getting into the problems with the de facto leader of the “good” side, Saruman.

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  7. Cal says:

    First, I have to say that I haven’t seen the newest addition because of my disenchatment with the first one, but will eventually get around to it.

    Perhaps a majority of people come at the movie attacking it for novelties, inventions and expansions, and are being stuck-up (too harsh?) purists about it. I have no problem with any of these sorts of things, especially in trying to translate a book to film. They’re never quite the same, and that’s the nature of the thing.

    However, I was disappointed that the movie carried a rather different spirit about it than the book. It took another’s analysis to realize it, but it’s not the same Bilbo in the Jackson film. By that I mean that the glory of Bilbo in Tolkein was that he realized who he really was, the clever and sneaky burgler that Gandalf recruited him to be. He wasn’t a sword-swinger, or an action star, but was quick with his wits and fast thinking in crunch time.

    The movie ran over this aspect, along with other more mature and human (realistic) motivations, and blended them into the fantasy epic of sword fights, magic and myth. Not that those don’t have their place, but that wasn’t Bilbo’s story. I was upset that Jackson rewrote the whole story of the trolls, where Bilbo really isn’t that smart, and his consolation, his acceptance, at the end of the film was that he was really just one of the guys, that he could pick up a sword and save the day like any other dwarf.

    Maybe that won’t sell for a lead character, where fearlessness and martial ability tend to be hallmarks, and shrewdness, cunning, and wit don’t get the same praise. Bilbo was never the ‘hero’, but a lead figure in an ‘unlikely story’.

    2 cents,
    Cal

    • Dr. J says:

      Cal, thanks for your comment. It’s true that the arc of Bilbo’s character development is different in the films from what it was in the book. I’m sure at least some of this stems from the decision to make multiple films and the need to have some kind of resolution at the end of Film #1. I disliked the final Bilbo-saves-Thorin scene in Film #1 more so than the rewriting of the troll scene. But I didn’t feel betrayed as a fan or anything like that.

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  9. Christopher LeFay says:

    Anything can be rationalized- and none of these 5 ring true in my ear. Why write the article to begin with? It seems not more than defence of affection for the book- despite enjoying the film. By not sharing in discontent, you feel put upon to qualify your appreciation of the book by discounting objections. “If what they say is true, then I lack taste and discrimination- and that must reflect on the depth of my feelings toward Tolkien’s work. Therefore, the fault must be in the critique”- to which I say, emphatically, “no”.

    • Dr. J says:

      Ad hominem much, Christopher?

      Let me try: Why write your response to my post to begin with? It seems that you feel the need to justify your superiority complex by tearing down these films and anyone who likes them. By not sharing in others’ enjoyment of the film, you feel put upon to defend your grinchiness. “If what they say is true, then I am an anal-retentive jerk and a killjoy, and that must reflect on my tone-deafness toward the worldview that Tolkien espouses. Therefore, the fault must be in anyone who doesn’t hate the film” – to which I say, emphatically, “no”.

      That doesn’t really get us anywhere, does it?

    • To answer your first question, Christopher, why write the article at all: because Dr. J’s many readers and friends want to know his opinion about the film and because it is an interesting question. Tolkien fans, particularly those that run in the Tolkien Professor’s (Corey Olsen’s) circle exercise their love for the books and legendarium by discussing and debating the merits of not ONLY the books but also the various adaptations (films, radio productions, etc.), interpretations and inspired art (Blind Guardian’s “Nightfall in Middle-earth” album, Ted Nasmith’s art, LOTRO, etc.). This is part of how Tolkien’s work lives on, through the the continued sub-creative process. Tolkien himself, in numerous letters, stated emphatically that this was his ultimate goal: for his work to inspire others to sub-creative acts. He didn’t mean for his books and legendarium to be a static monument to a dead author.

  10. MountJourney says:

    Thank you thank you and thank you! Finally someone else realizes that changes HAVE to be made to make a movie 80years after the book was written!
    I agree with all you wrote not to mention the fact that Bilbo tried to steel a speaking purse from the trolls! Many of the books scenes you just CAN’T film. The book is awesome but an exact same film would be a huge disaster!

  11. Dinna says:

    great article! I agree with you on all these reasons and am glad that somebody voiced them..I definitely couldn’t have worded them so eloquently! I really don’t get all that negativism of some people..first off all it’s a movie – and movies always work differently than books(the LOTR movies are very different from the books, a lot was left out or changed – and they’re still great!) and second of all it’s a movie – it’s made to entertain, to make the audience gasp in surprise, to let them cling to their seats in fear, to let them laugh aloud at the witty conversations – and it worked! I went to the cinema to enjoy the movie – and I did! So anybody who knows he’s not going to like it whatever it’s going to be like – why go the cinema in the first place? Stay home and tell your negative “purist” thoughts to someone who cares! I on the other hand am eagerly awaiting December 2014! :)

  12. Curtis says:

    I agree in principle with most of your points. For the first movie, I definitely liked it better after the second watching, probably because at that point I had a buffer and was able to approach the movie as a story of its own rather than as the story from the book.

    I think my biggest issue with the 2nd movie (having seen it only once so far) is that it shouldn’t really be called “The Hobbit.” At least in the first movie we understand the story is about Bilbo joining the company of dwarves, and how he proves his mettle and comes to be accepted by them. The second movie, however, is all about Thorin, and more loosely about the company as a whole — but very little is done to show any sort of growth in Bilbo. In the book, he spends weeks in the Elvish dungeons honing his burgling skills until he finally uses circumstances of a feast to develop a plan to break out the dwarves; the movie compresses the timeframe (understandably), but in doing so also moves the focus from the hobbit to the various relationships between the dwarves and the elves, and Bilbo himself becomes merely a plot device to help the dwarves escape. The scene with Bilbo and Smaug is well done, but it’s somewhat negated by the dwarves’ bursting in and the ensuing protracted chase scene.

    I don’t mean to say that I dislike these aspects of the movie. In fact, I like that Jackson and team pulled in ideas from other sources and showed the story in the broader context of Middle Earth’s political situation than the book does. But these changes do drastically shift the focus from “The Hobbit” to “Thorin and Co.” (with an emphasis on Thorin), to the point where calling the movie “The Hobbit” seems something of a sleight of hand.

    • Dr. J says:

      Curtis, I think that’s a fair criticism. Maybe after seeing the third film we’ll be able to determine whether the entire three-film sequence deserves the title.

  13. MyrtleMartha says:

    An excellent post! Thank you for sharing your insights. My ten-year-old grandson and I have loved both the first two Hobbit movies and are eagerly looking forward to the third.

    I do understand that many people have been disappointed in one or both movies because Jackson hasn’t reproduced the movie in their heads, the one they wanted and expected to see. And it’s been fascinating to notice that while a large percentage of these people think the movie(s) should have been cut, they greatly disagree as to what should have been cut out.

    I’ve read reviews and comments that say the first hour of the first movie is the best part as it preserves many lines and two songs directly from the book, while the action scenes should be dramatically cut – maybe with the whole section on the mountain giants reduced to the dwarves commenting on a few quick long-distance glimpses of the battle. Other condemn the whole first part of the movie (even those claiming they want it to be more like the book), while they praise the action scenes. Some want the whole Tauriel bit thrown out as heresy, while others say there should have been many more women. And so on.

    In the future, though, as young people like my grandson see the double trilogy in order and without having first had years to fine-tune their own separate mental “movies” of the books, I think Jackson’s take on Tolkien will be more and more appreciated. And as new technology is developed, maybe people can just order a special print from a list of scenes they want included. There are already web-based businesses that will print out for you a copy of a book – maybe the next big thing will be edit-your-own-book and edit-your-own-movie services. When that happens, I might order my own “The Hobbit: Bilbo” with just Martin Freeman scenes. But I probably wouldn’t mention that to my grandson. He might ask why.

    • adam strange says:

      Like the one commenter above mentioned, Tolkien’s world will most certainly live on as sub-creations. I’m sure there will be fan-edits of these movies given the breadth of material that has come out and will be released on future Blu-Ray Extended Editions. The Star Wars prequels have gotten the same treatment (Phantom Edit being the most famous example).

  14. I agree with all your points and enjoyed both movies (in fact, I enjoyed the first one even more rewatching it recently). It’s all very epic and operatic in contrast to the novel, but I admire the audacity. On the other hand, I’m not surprised by the backlash against the films for the same reasons.

    I only have two nitpicks–I admit it, I found the whole Tauriel/Kili storyline distractingly bizarre to the point of being laughable. I was also disappointed by the Beorn sequence, which is quite clever in the book and adds a bit of lightness in addition to its strangeness. The movie is so long and intensely grim, staying true to the text in this case would have been nice. To be honest, I’m a little surprised I haven’t heard more criticisms of that scene.

    • Dr. J says:

      David, it’s funny you should mention Beorn. I’ve had several private conversations already where someone has expressed a wish for that scene to have been done differently. I haven’t reread that chapter recently and haven’t made up my mind about it yet.

      Thanks for your comment!

  15. Daniel W. Dole says:

    I just wish Jackson hadn’t bought into the idea of “The hobbit as action film” so thoroughly. The “endlessly extended escapes from certain death scenes” were unbelievable in Indiana Jones movies, and are equally disappointing here. It’s true, Tolkien’s writing was kind of flat, especially by modern standards. But reducing it to being a slapstick parody of an action film is to throw away a awful lot of what Tolkien was trying to do.

  16. Steve Brown says:

    When I first read the title to this blog entry, I was taken aback. ” ‘Stink’ seems like a harsh word to use,” I thought, and skipped right ahead to the five points. Then, I went back and read the introduction, where I noticed that you were referring to the 1937 edition.
    1937? Really? Even Tolkien thought that edition (sort of) stunk. That’s why he revised ‘The Hobbit’ several times*, and might have even revised it further if we were blessed with his presence for another 10 years or so. So, in a sense, using the 1937 edition as the benchmark is kind of a straw man argument. BUT, the fact that there were several editions does support the overall theme of your argument about the adaptability of the story; Tolkien himself adapted it!
    Based on this, I think your first 2 points lend to the conclusion that Jackson’s films ARE faithful to the Hobbit, in the regard to those aspects which are in Tolkien’s other works, because Tolkien might have added those things himself if he got a chance. Furthermore, your latter 3 points are fine arguments for some of the necessities for adapting any book to a film.
    I like the films, to be sure. I wish there were a few things that were different (I missed Bilbo’s ‘Attercrop’ song, for instance). But, overall, I think they stayed faithful to the themes of the book, and what’s more, were entertaining. At the end of the day, what more could we ask for?
    *For those playing at home, check out ‘The Annotated Hobbit’ for information about the different revisions of the book. It has plenty of other neato bits, too; so much it will make any Tolkien fanboy swoon.

  17. Sam Kings says:

    I have to say I really enjoyed the film when first watched it in december, I liked how jackson had tried to connect the Hobbit with Lord of the Rings and that he had taken a somewhat more serious approach than the book did, for people would have complained that it was too childish and wouldn’t have been as enjoyable to see. Other films don’t seem to get the same harsh treatment as the hobbit, or at least from what i can see. So people need to remember that an adaptation is what it is, not the book, and should be enjoyed on its own merits.
    PS. I know this is much later than other comments but I have recently rewatched the film.

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