Tolkien and Jackson: My Thoughts On The Hobbit Franchise

Front and center confession: while I don’t claim to be a full-tilt Tolkien purist – I have not read The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales and it’s been awhile since I’ve wound my way through the Appendices of the Rings Trilogy – The Hobbit is my favorite of the material I have read by Tolkien.  I adore The Lord of the Rings, but Bilbo’s story holds a very special place in my heart and, as such, it would be impossible for me to be objective regarding the adaptation of the book…especially when the 300-odd page children’s book is being adapted into not one, not two, but three films to be a companion series to the Rings franchise.

The Hobbit was my first foray into Middle-Earth.  I know I’m not alone in that; it is, after all, the chronological first chapter in the story regarding the Baggins family and the predecessor to The Lord of the RingsImageI usually consider myself one of the kids who transformed from non-reader to bookworm with the meeting of one Harry James Potter, but reading The Hobbit actually came first and embodies a personal literary landmark in my life.  Fantasy is my favorite genre, very closely followed by Historical Fiction and Tolkien is largely to blame for that.  I have a significantly greater appreciation for Rings than I would have if I hadn’t read The Hobbit first.  I even remember feeling bitterly disappointed that Fellowship of the Ring shifted focus away from Bilbo so early in the story.  I complained – quite colorfully – that I didn’t really care to get to know a whole new protagonist; why should I care about this Frodo kid?  Why couldn’t we follow Bilbo to Rivendell instead?

Of course, Fellowship of the Ring is, ironically, my favorite of the Rings installments, both in the literature and cinematically.  However, The Hobbit is still my favorite of the Middle-Earth stories.  I like it precisely because it is NOT the sprawling, war-of-wars fantasy epic that the subsequent trilogy is; Bilbo is not, by most accounts, the traditional protagonist.  He isn’t strictly the everyman in the same way that Frodo is.  Bilbo has a very noticeable split between Took and Baggins, whereas Frodo is very distinctly all Baggins and is perfectly happy that way.  Bilbo deciding to go off on the adventure was completely his decision and one that I, personally, do not think Frodo would have made.  The circumstances of their motivation to leave the Shire are entirely different.  Frodo must leave.  Bilbo could have very easily stayed behind and not thought about the Dwarves ever again.  All of this is to say that they are very different characters and Tolkien distinguished them from one another beautifully.

But I digress.  The point is that Bilbo’s adventure is just that; an adventure.  Yes, there is a battle at the end of the novel and, yes, there is a fairly impressive dragon, but, on the whole, the story presides mostly over their travel and side-stories and misadventures that occur during their journey to the Lonely Mountain.  It does not have the lingering, approaching sense of dread and darkness that is ever-present in Lord of the Rings, and that is why I like it so much.  The point of The Hobbit was world-building, essentially, by sending Bilbo out on a quest that doesn’t even compare to the scope and scale of Frodo’s journey.

All of that being said, let us look at the two cinematic franchises: The Lord of the Rings and the new, Hobbit films.

ImageLet me be very clear: I like the Rings films.  Genuinely like them.  They are, of course, not without their flaws and, undoubtedly, there are things that I didn’t personally care for, but what film is perfect?  Especially an adaptation of one of the most beloved stories of all time?  On the whole, I believe they are masterfully done.  Jackson and his team took Tolkien’s work and adapted it in a way that I think few others could have.  Three installments were not only necessary but perfect.  The irony is that they had to fight to get those three films at all; Miramax wanted the creative team to condense the story into one film.  Again: irony, when one looks at the way films are being marketed now, with the trend being to take just about any wildly- to semi-popular book series and transform it into multi-film franchises that now split the final installment into TWO films.

I watched Nostalgia Chick’s Review of the Rings trilogy and it was here that this point first became clear to me.  I was really struck by what she said; that the market in which The Hobbit was/is being produced is completely different from the one in which the Rings trilogy was made, and this, I feel, is ultimately the source of a lot of the problems with the Hobbit movies.  With Rings, every frame of screen time mattered.  There was no luxury to spread the story out into multiple films; this was not a given yet.  With today’s mindset, Rings would have probably been extended to six or eight films.  All right, maybe not, but I think it would have been discussed as an actual option.  The Hobbit, frankly, does NOT need three films.  Even with the additional two installments, the added material, created by Jackson and his team, was not only unnecessary but insulting.  Rings created new material also, but primarily not at the expense of the book.  The best example is probably the characterization of Faramir, about which I refuse to go into detail, but suffice it to say that even in that horrendous case, the theory behind it was good; but failed –  miserably – in execution.  With The Hobbit, the same argument could be made; the “good theory” being that they wanted to unite it with the Rings franchise and to make the two stories seem more connected.

And that, to me, is the fundamental problem.  From my perspective, based on what I have already said, The Hobbit was not and should not be merged with Rings.  That was the whole point; that they were, in structure and tone, two entirely different tales.  While I even enjoyed the prospect of seeing what Gandalf was up to once he left the Dwarves at Mirkwood, I still took some issue with that because it changes the very foundation of the story.  It becomes significantly less about Bilbo and changes the tone, overall.  Now, the films have taken it WAY beyond Gandalf’s sub-plot and have turned it into the same style of ensemble cast of characters that Rings was.  It starts with Bilbo, but, very quickly, everybody else has just as important a voice as he does by the end of the series, changing the point of view and making it a very different story than the one Tolkien wrote.

Is that a bad thing, though?  I can’t answer that.  No one can, definitively.  It’s a matter of personal preference.  Being as objective as I possibly can on this subject, all of these things do not make the film franchise inherently bad, in and of itself, but I would argue that it makes it a bad adaptation, and, yes, there is a difference.  Jurassic Park, for example, is an amazing film in its own right; I think very few people could argue that point.  However, it is a severely bad adaptation of Michael Crichton’s original novel.  Does that make the film bad?  Not hardly; in fact, I’m part of the very small percentage of audiences who actually prefers Jurassic Park the film to Jurassic Park the book.  Shocking, huh?  The film was groundbreaking with its effects and cinematography and still addressed the Frankenstein-esque themes of the novel, though in a different way.

As most people know, the original plan for the Hobbit franchise was to produce two films; one to encapsulate the novel as we know it and a second film to bridge the gap between the end of The Hobbit and the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.  I stand by this strategy as the smarter move.  It would have been considerably more concise, effective and exciting for audiences; there is no tangible, straightforward narrative for the time gap between the two books.  The material is there, between the appendices and the Silmarillion and so on, but no actual novel exists.  It would have been a way to create a new story and maybe even incorporate new material into the world of Middle-Earth that would not have been as conspicuous and would not have brutally altered material that is so familiar to so many readers.  It would have been an organic way to connect the two franchises that would not have come off as, at best, a bit obvious and, at worst, dreadfully contrived.

Given the franchise that exists, however, again, it’s impossible for me to be objective.  I think my stance on the subject is fairly clear by now.  I don’t hate the films; in fact, there are many things I liked about the first installment, particularly the opening prologue.  It effectively conveyed WHY we should care about Thorin and his company, because, otherwise, you might think he’s just a tightly wound jerk for the whole of the series.  That was how I felt about him most of the time I read the book.  While I didn’t care much for the council meeting in Rivendell, which came off as staged and repetitive after awhile, I did, surprisingly, like the interaction between Gandalf and Galadriel.  I also liked the theme that was added to the story at large, being that Bilbo wants to help them reclaim their home because he understands how important home is.  That concept is so fitting to me that it seems almost surreal that it’s not actually in the original text and I am glad it was integrated into the film(s).

In conclusion, I feel that the whole of the Hobbit franchise is a bit of a wasted opportunity.  Three films with which to explore Tolkien’s universe; a fictional world so massive that it is still considered to be the father of modern fantasy and one of the largest fantasy universes in the lexicon…and new material is swapped in its place.  I’m biased in favor of Tolkien’s original work and I admit that.  The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings and it is my personal opinion that this franchise was trying to contradict that idea at its very base.

But given that this is the franchise that’s been produced, I suppose I might as well enjoy what’s there, because, as I said, the film(s) are not without value and even I have to admit that they are beautiful and are far from lazy.  So even though I am highly predisposed to dislike them, I want to find the good in the series, even if it means seeing them as a cinematic work that is a vast departure from the source material.  It might take me awhile, but I’ll get there.

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