Updated: Nov 20, 2019
First off, let’s get something out of the way: the Hobbit film trilogy is flawed, imperfect, and has several unfortunate shortcomings, which ultimately cause it to stumble overall. These flaws stem from the decision to make two films into three, the amount of time Peter Jackson was allotted to make them by the studio execs, and studio intervention with the creative process.
However, at the same time, it’s also filled with truly cathartic and genuinely stirring moments of spectacle and grandeur, features some of the best acting in the business, and is the emissary of a (once again) brilliant musical score by the one and only Howard Shore.
So...with all that said, are these films truly a spectacle or an atrocity?
When Does An Adaptation Cross the Line?
Let's make one thing abundantly clear: The Lord of the Rings films are not the book. The Hobbit films also are not the book. They're adaptations. No matter how many times people may try to justify them in that sense, at the end of the day, they just aren’t.
Now, as many of us are well aware, The Hobbit has been accused on many fronts of doing injustice to the source material. These “injustices” are usually classified as the following: the addition of Azog the Defiler, the creation of an entirely new character, and the extra “padding” to the story main (such as the Dol Guldur subplot & the Laketown politics).
However, apparently, regarding these specific allegations, LoTR gets a free pass. Who doesn’t remember Lurtz from The Fellowship of the Ring? What about the decision to completely change the character of Faramir to the exact opposite of what Tolkien originally intended (and Aragorn for that matter)? Or how about when the Elves showed up out of nowhere to fight at Helm’s Deep?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I will readily agree that the vast majority of these decisions were either necessary or enhanced the screen-story for the better.
The problem that inevitably ensues is when people attempt to “compare” said films to the original work, which tends to fail more often than not. Because of the vast differences between book and film, I am of the opinion that the vast majority of adaptations should be enjoyed on their own merits––not that of their predecessor.
Book and film are two entirely different genres/mediums altogether, and if one were to actually translate every little detail from the book to the film––just to stay loyal to the source material––a whole host of problems would ensue. One good example of this was the decision to cut the character of Tom Bombadil from the Rings trilogy. Taken by themselves, the movies are already massive features, and on-screen, such an addition would make the story seem “unwieldy,” so to speak.
In books, one is allowed to take little rabbit-trails here and there, to build upon the theme and story the author is telling. While some may say that Bombadil was an unnecessary addition to the story, I would argue otherwise––for he serves to describe further and augment the power of the Ring, not to mention the world of Middle-earth.
However, in film the audience is more easily distracted––the longer the film is, the more likely the filmmakers are to lose the attention of the audience. Movies are, more or less, “built,” in a sense, and are designed to keep the audience interested.
The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a massive book, so during the development stage, the filmmakers decided to focus on two-story threads and cut anything that didn't tie in somehow with those two threads. These threads were: Frodo's quest (being the main plot) & Aragorn's journey (the sub-plot). In the end, these decisions allowed the films to stay incredibly focused, when given the (some would say) overlong running times.
That said, let me make something abundantly clear: this is not to say that all adaptations are and should be given free rein. Heavens no!
I will concur that there comes a point when an adaptation crosses a line in regards to the liberties it takes with the source material. But in terms of story, characters, etc. adaptations should be given some breathing room. The sole reason I take such a stance is because film and novel can diverge so greatly (in terms of format, levels of action, expository scenes, dialogue, and in some cases, structure).
I believe that what matters the most is whether or not said adaptation stayed true to the inherent theme(s) of that story. In the case of Hobbit, these were the “loss of innocence” and the “power of greed.”
The Hobbit films (in part to the efforts of one Martin Freeman) largely succeeded in this respect, though this is not to say that these themes were perfectly played out––just that a noticeable effort is made to realize and relay them to the audience.
And for that, they should be commended.
The Unsung Complications
If you take the time to research what exactly went on during the making of Hobbit, you’ll quickly find that the production was plagued from the beginning with many obstacles and difficulties.
For one, Jackson had a lot of outside pressure to complete them on schedule: so much so that at certain points, he was literally shooting without a script. After the trilogy’s completion, he even admitted to “winging it.”
And two, he didn’t even want to have any part of directing! Jackson made it clear multiple times before production on Hobbit even commenced, that he didn’t want to direct because he wished to avoid competing with the major success of Rings. He only jumped on board, when the appointed director, Guillermo Del Toro, decided to step down. At that point the films were in danger of being delayed, or worse, running afoul with someone who didn’t respect the source material.
All in all, I think it’s safe to say that he had a miserable time of it.
Moving on, then.
From the get-go, the creative minds were faced with two disobliging hurdles:
1) They had to appease fans of the original work––which just so happened to be one of the most popular children’s stories ever written––and 2) remain tonally consistent with arguably, the most popular movie trilogy ever produced.
This is a lot more difficult than it sounds.
Additionally, changes had to be made. There was simply no way around that. The Hobbit is, in reality, an assortment of small episodes meant to be told to children on a nightly basis. For the most part, each episode doesn’t do much to advance the plot (Trolls, I’m looking at you)––save to build up Bilbo’s character. They are, more succinctly, their own little adventure where Bilbo reaches the next level in his character arc.
The plotline has a very meandering feel to it and in of itself, doesn’t contain the necessary “drive” needed to propel the story forward on the screen. If the filmmakers had opted to adapt the story directly, the pacing (which happened to be a common criticism) would have been really off, and the character development (with the exception of Bilbo himself) would have felt severely off-kilter. All of these components would have led to a film that would have felt, well, rushed, for lack of a better word.
On one count, while Hobbit is considered “short,” (in regards to page & word count), there is much more going on than in, say, similarly-sized novels such as The Maze Runner or The Hunger Games, among others.
What would take twenty to thirty pages of close, methodical detail in Rings, Tolkien merely spends two to three pages on in Hobbit. Significant and overt particulars are passed over with barely a noticeable allusion. The passing mention of the Necromancer in connection with Gandalf’s abrupt departure works because of the nature of the book presented, and Bard’s timely introduction to kill the dragon works just as well.
However, this is where the mediums of film and book diverge. These are in short, “less cinematic moments.” Bard’s inclusion on the screen would simply feel anti-climactic––because we haven’t yet seen him and do not care for his character as we would for Bilbo. Such moments could not be simply passed over, or else, confusion would follow among the general audience and said character’s intrusion would be subsequently criticized for merely serving the story of the primary character.
At the end of the day, a 90-minute movie would not do the source material the adequate justice it is due, and admittedly, even three-hours would not suffice.
The question one then inevitably asks is this: was it a good storytelling decision to expand a relatively small novel to over 8 hours and 52 minutes of screen time?
TO BE CONTINUED: SPECTACLE OR ATROCITY?: A REVIEW OF "THE HOBBIT TRILOGY" – PART 2