A long-expected failure
A few days ago I went and saw Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a projected trilogy adapting Tolkien’s 300-page book. As with the adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, each movie is going to be around three hours. So if you read a page every 1.5 minutes, reading The Hobbit will take you about as long as watching it. The Lord of the Rings, by way of contrast, is about 1500 pages. You’d have to read a page about every 20 seconds to finish the books in nine hours.
The LotR adaptation, long as it is, still cuts a lot out. With The Hobbit, they’re adding a lot of stuff in instead. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. For many reasons, but mostly because the basic concept is absurd.
[Note: what follows involves vague spoilers, but not many and not specific ones; and if you've read The Hobbit they're not really spoilers, and if you haven't, why not?]
First, a bit on the book The Hobbit, and how it differs from LotR. For LotR, the situation is: “Sauron is going to destroy us, and we must stop him.” In The Hobbit, situation is rather: “The dwarves have lost their home, and now they can reclaim it.” They want to do something, and various difficulties crop up–the trolls, Rivendell, the goblins, Gollum, the wargs, the eagles, Beorn, the spiders, the elves, the barrels–but these are just a string of episodic events connected, rather loosely, by certain common themes. There’s certainly no central force behind all of them, no villain trying to prevent the protagonists’ goal from being achieved.
While the tone of LotR is epic, that of The Hobbit is medieval Romance with an infusion of dry English wit. It’s serious, rarely solemn; playful, rarely ironic; tense, rarely intense. The villains can be scary, but always amuse; the trolls are halfwits, the goblins pranksters, Gollum a riddler, Smaug a trickster. The good guys are funny too; Gandalf makes fireworks, the elves sing carols. The dialogue treads a fine line between melodramatic and absurd. The Hobbit feels less like LotR and more like The Lion King and Doctor Who, though The Lion King is too serious (Simba is more Thorin than Bilbo) and Doctor Who is too self-aware (the Companions are more modern Englishmen than the idealized English folk the hobbits represent).
Finally, while LotR is about confronting evil, The Hobbit is about leaving home. The motifs uniting the disparate adventures include things like doors, food, hospitality, barter, burglary. There’s fighting, yes, lots of it, but the story isn’t about Bilbo learning to fight, meaning, learning to resist things that threaten his world, it’s about him learning to steal, meaning, learning to get what he needs from his world when his world doesn’t just give it to him; and, learning to want things from his world that he doesn’t already have. When Bilbo gets back he’s still happy in the Shire, but now knows that part of him belongs somewhere else, in Rivendell.
What goes wrong in bringing this over to the film? Everything.
Note that this isn’t a complaint about “hey they took something out!” or “hey they added things that weren’t in the book!” Most of what Peter Jackson added was written by Tolkien: in an appendix to LotR and in material unpublished during his lifetime he wrote a short version of The Hobbit from Gandalf’s point of view, making clear its relation to LotR and why Gandalf cared about helping the dwarves reclaim Erebor at all. Though most of the dialogue wasn’t taken from what Tolkien wrote, and often sounds clunky and self-serious rather than elevated, more fantasy video game than literary epic. And the one plot that they did completely make up, the white orc Azog’s personal quest to kill Thorin, is perhaps the worst part of the film.
Rather, it’s a complaint about dramatic structure, tone, and theme. The movie gets these all wrong. Not just untrue to the book, but wrong. They get the book half-way right, which is worse than not getting it right at all.
The film tries to parallel LotR’s complex dramatic unity by incorporating the White Council’s struggle against the Necromancer and inventing Azog’s vendetta against Thorin. There has two problems. (1) The unity achieved is available only to the audience, not to the main character. While Frodo chooses to fight against Sauron, Bilbo doesn’t even know he’s doing so. This leads to the same structural problems as Star Wars Ep. I: The Phantom Menace: the geopolitical conflict (defeat of Trade Federation, return of Sauron) has nothing to do with the main character’s story arc (Anakin becoming a Jedi, Bilbo leaving home). (2) The events surrounding The Hobbit have only a historical unity. Yes, the retaking of Erebor and the defeat of the Necromancer are related–but they’re not parts of the same action. Yes, the trolls, goblins, and spiders pose the threat they do because Sauron has returned, but they’re still just random episodes involving trolls, goblins, and spiders. Their episodic nature works in the book only because the book is unashamedly episodic. The movie tries to make the links between them stronger than they are, and in doing so achieves the feel of a History Channel special.
The tone of the film is likewise a bizarre mishmash of the witty adventure of The Hobbit and the somber epic of LotR. I’m not just referring to the clunky invented dialogue, though there is that. I’m also referring to the fact that that dialogue is juxtaposed with the language of the buffoonish trolls and the jesting Goblin King. And to the fact that those trolls and goblins are presented in the same ultra-realistic CGI used to animate the one-dimensional bloodthirsty Azog thus highlighting the incongruity. And to the fact that the cinematography and score, making the most of the New Zealand landscape and the constant echoes of the LotR soundtrack, elevate the main characters’ travels across Middle Earth from the “walk out my front door” it is in the book to the “walk through the whole world we’re trying to save” it is in LotR. These all work, to a certain extent, but you can’t strip all of the playfulness out of The Hobbit without changing everything about it–and they weren’t so bold as to do that.
Finally, while Peter Jackson clearly knew that The Hobbit is about leaving home and coming home, about doors, food, hospitality, barter, burglary, etc, he made too many changes and additions to convey this clearly. By striving so much for dramatic unity he changes the situation from can to must. He changes the subject of the story from home to war, from Odyssey to Iliad. Of course this doesn’t take entirely–there’s still a good deal of focus on the home–but it takes enough to have two unfortunate consequences. First, it forces them to make the theme explicit, with Bilbo actually saying, at one point, something like “Yes, I want to go home, I want everyone to be able to go home, that’s why I’m going to help you reclaim yours.” Of course Bilbo does think that on some level, but having him say it is bad writing. Second, and in a more subtle but perhaps more important way, the change distorts what kind of hero Bilbo becomes. In the book, after Bilbo has his Gollum adventure alone and then rejoins the others, he gains the dwarves’ respect by sneaking up on them, by proving himself a burglar. In the film, little is made of his sneaking up on them; he proves himself, instead, by leaping into battle to save Thorin’s life. The Bilbo of the book could have done that if it were necessary, of course, but Tolkien would never have been so clumsy as to make him.
So the movie fails (and how). But here’s the thing: Peter Jackson did exactly what he was trying to do. For the most part, these aren’t problems of execution (though the execution isn’t perfect; the movie drags considerably, and some of the invented dialogue really is terrible). They’re problems of design. They were always going to be problems, because The Hobbit just isn’t on the same scale as LotR, and trying to treat it as if it is cannot succeed. Most people saw this coming. The mystery, for me, is: why did Peter Jackson think this was a good idea? I can see why people let him do it; the movies will sell no matter what, and a trilogy sells more tickets than a single movie. But surely Jackson has more artistic integrity than that. How could he trick himself into thinking this would work?
The film has good aspects, of course. The Gollum scene is particularly good. But why was it particularly good? Most obviously, because Gollum has always been one of the best parts of Jackson’s Middle Earth films. But on a deeper level, because this is the only actual point of dramatic interaction between The Hobbit and LotR. That meant Jackson didn’t get a chance to invent new dialogue to jar the ear. He didn’t get a chance to transform Bilbo’s heroism from that of the burglar to that of the warrior. One gets the sense that Jackson realized the dramatic potential of this the connection between this scene and LotR and then decided to extend that to the entire story. The problem is this: the connection here isn’t one of parallelism, it’s one of typology. Bilbo precedes Frodo not the way Achilles precedes Odysseus or Anakin precedes Luke, but the way John the Baptist precedes Christ. Bilbo’s sparing of Gollum leads to the recovery of the ring and to Frodo’s possession of it; Frodo’s sparing of him leads to the ring’s destruction and to Sauron’s defeat. These are not on the same scale, any more than are John’s baptism and Christ’s. I get the impression Peter Jackson did not entirely realize this.