I’m a Tolkien fan from way back, and while I loved Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is proving somewhat problematic. I saw The Desolation of Smaug last weekend in the theater—in 3D and high frame rate, as the filmmakers intended. And before I tell you what I’ve found to be wrong with these films, I should point out that I enjoyed this movie, and the first one, as they have much to love. But Tolkien purists and anyone who remembers the book well will likely stumble in their appreciation of Jackson’s adaptation.
I understand that translating a book to a movie is an adaptation. Different mediums require different things. So I’m not particularly put off by the addition of extra action sequences in the movies, although I do think some of them go on a bit long and contain some action that’s just a little too hard to believe. Having the orcs chasing the dwarves all across the land adds tension to the journey that really isn’t there in the book; I get that.
Where I feel Jackson and his crew have failed is in preserving the basic difference between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As many others have pointed out, I’m sure, The Hobbit is a book of completely different tone than LotR and is often considered a children’s book. Essentially, the book recounts a series of loosely related adventures on the way to their destination, the Lonely Mountain. Although Bilbo and the dwarves are repeatedly put in jeopardy, there isn’t the great sense of approaching doom that necessarily pervades LotR. The Hobbit is a fun romp by comparison—a sense which is completely absent from the films.
The bigger problem with the movies, and particularly the second one, is that they stray from actually being about the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Yes, it’s the dwarves’ quest, but the dwarves of the book aren’t warriors and fighters; they’re merchants and miners and craftsmen. They don’t have a plan for defeating the dragon, which perhaps explains the need for a burglar, but the main reason he’s included is so they don’t go with the unlucky number of thirteen in their party. (Gandalf, it’s made clear, is never counted as part of the quest.)
In the book, that sequence of adventures that makes up most of the book serves to develop Bilbo’s character from an extremely reluctant participant in the quest at the beginning to a clever and instrumental member of the group who repeatedly saves the dwarves and the entire quest by the end. It’s when Gandalf leaves them at the entrance to Mirkwood that Bilbo really starts to shine, first by saving the dwarves from the spiders and then by rescuing them from the dungeons of the wood elves, both incidents that were thoroughly engrossing—and fun—in the book.
You can say that he does these things in the movie as well, but the emphasis is entirely different. In the book, Bilbo uses his cunning—and his magic ring—to save his companions each time, and in the movie everything gets turned into a giant action sequence. The cleverness and cunning of the character aren’t nearly as important as improbable CGI battles, apparently.
The long sequence with the dwarves trying to fight the dragon inside the Lonely Mountain was problematic as well. Fantasy author Carrie Vaughn has written a nice post focusing on this part of the movie, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of My Patience.” My feeling is that if you’re going to invent non-textual sequences, they have to do more than just eat up screen time. They need to develop character traits or relationships in some way or advance thematic elements. But this extended sequence doesn’t seem to add anything new. Further, anyone who knows the story is just annoyed by this interruption: There’s no tension because we know this isn’t where and how the dragon dies, nor any of the dwarves.
Of course, if you’re not familiar with the story, perhaps this sequence and others like it are much more enjoyable, and perhaps that’s what Peter Jackson was counting on. After all, everyone out there didn’t read The Hobbit when they were ten years old—and again four or five times since. I’m left wondering if what I see as problems with the movies come out of the troubled story and script development phase, a general failure of Peter’s vision this time, or pressure from the film companies to create another 3-movie cash cow out of what’s essentially a fairly simple story. Or perhaps some combination.
As I said, I understand that different mediums require different things in terms of storytelling, but I would have liked to see an adaptation that relied on Bilbo’s ingenuity more than on special effects—and that kept Bilbo at the center of the story. I did enjoy the move and will undoubtedly watch it again—and will be back in the theater next year for the final installment. I’ll just always wonder how much better it could have been.
Here’s an article I wrote last year in my tech journalist guise:
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins