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A long-expected failure

December 20, 2012

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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Matthew Harris permalink
    December 20, 2012 2:18 pm

    It is interesting that we agree on so much, but view it such different ways. Before I started reading your review, I thought “Well, the Hobbit is meant to be a romance, Lord of the Rings is meant to be an epic…”, which is exactly what you wrote.

    And I have thought that the movie tries to remove The Hobbit from its position as a funny little episodic story where even in its grimmer moments, there was a kind of domestic comedy about it (I remember the dwarves introducing themselves to The Goblin King by saying “At your service”, which seemed an absurd thing to say), and replaced it as being just more episodes in the epic story of the great conflict of Middle Earth.

    I think it is a big change in tone. I think it takes away some of the charm of The Hobbit. I think it certainly makes the story harder to get into for the casual movie-goer.

    But I don’t think it is a betrayal of Tolkien’s ideas. I think it is a refocusing, bringing attention to aspects that Tolkien had put into The Hobbit, but had been in the background. Originally, Tolkien wrote the Hobbit separate from his main mythology, but he then bridged it over into the main mythology, and edited it in places to make it more “serious”. And wrote additional material, such as “The Quest of Erebor” to add that it was part of a larger mythology. Which you know.

    I think this goes back to The Silmarillion, and Tolkien’s stated conception of it: a mixture of levels of mythology, from the cosmological, to the epic, to the romantic. The three levels of mythology are present in all of Tolkien’s work, just with a different level of focus. All that the films do, I think, are bring what was background in The Hobbit into sharper focus. In some ways it is unwieldy (less charm, more confusion, less Bilbo), but I don’t think it is a betrayal of the source material, and I don’t think it is a bad film.

  2. December 20, 2012 2:59 pm

    Interesting point. You’re right that the mixing of levels isn’t a betrayal of the source material. I think it’s a mistake because it makes for a clunky film, and because it slightly distorts Bilbo’s character (less burglar, more warrior). The second issue maybe could have been avoided, but I see it as a consequence of the first: in an attempt to make the film less clunky, they forced Bilbo’s story arc in directions it shouldn’t go.

    But my main argument is that it’s a bad film. The difference between its mixing of levels and Tolkien’s mixing is this: for Tolkien the mixing is present on the level of mythopoeia, but not on the level of storytelling. For Tolkien the mixing is present in the world: every person, place, thing, event already has a literal, romantic, epic, and cosmic significance even before having a story told about it. But not every story can be told with the emphasis on every level. Some events are better told as romances, some as epics, some as cosmologies. Some events can’t be made into a story at all, they’re just things that happened.

    Incidentally these levels of meaning be compared to the medieval exegetical levels of literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical; but those levels were used for interpreting <em?histories, not stories. That Tolkien cared so much about all four maybe helps us understand why the Silmarillion reads more like the Bible than like Homer. But Tolkien always knew that the Silmarillion wasn’t an act of storytelling, wasn’t even a collection of acts of storytelling, but was rather a collection of story summaries. Telling a stories requires a dramatic unity in a way reporting a history doesn’t. Cf. Aristotle’s Poetics, ch. 8.

    I do think the Hobbit movie is enjoyable for those familiar with the source material, and I plan on seeing the rest. But the enjoyment is less that of being led on from crisis to complication to catastrophe to eucatastrophe, and more that of recognizing familiar events and seeing them as connected. Like I said, it’s more like a series of History Channel reenactments than a dramatic unity.

  3. Matthew Harris permalink
    December 20, 2012 4:26 pm

    I guess one of the things I should mention is that I am not really comparing The Hobbit as a movie against the perfect adaptation that could have been made. Of course, there are things about it that I think don’t quite work, and there were points that I thought it dragged a little or where it depended on violence too much (The Dwarven flight through the Rube Goldberg like dungeon was great cinematography and effects, but long and violent).

    But I am comparing this movie against what I might also see on a theater on a Friday night. How does it stack up against “Adam Sandler in Wacky Fish Out of Water Gets Kicked in the Balls”? Or, for that matter, how does it stack up against other fantasy/science-fiction movies? I can’t really say, because I haven’t seen many movies lately, but I probably get more of a feeling of wonder and meaning from The Hobbit than I would from say, “Cowboys and Aliens”. Or “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”. I think the movie still communicates the feeling of The Hobbit, the feeling of Middle Earth. So I would say that the missteps don’t distract from the overall quality of the film.

    Also, Radagast has a sled pulled by RABBITS.

  4. December 20, 2012 6:02 pm

    It’s true that I don’t watch that many movies and it probably is better than most of what’s out there. And you’re right, it did, after all, have Ragadast with a rabbit sled.

  5. December 21, 2012 5:20 pm

    I don’t think that’s fair to Tolkien – arguing that this is a better movie than some of the other drivel out there doesn’t negate the fact that Jackson had some amazing, long lasting (a classic for nearly a century!) source material to work with, and once again turned into a film that barely scratches the surface of theme and character development.
    The stilted dialogue is one aspect of this – in Tolkien’s work, the characters are real, and true to themselves, and talk according to their beliefs of what’s going on in the world around them. In both LOTR and The Hobbit films, they all talk the same – in slow, stilted, halting, self-important sentences. They might as well be reading for the first time off a tele-prompter. Where’s the passion?
    By contrast, one of the aspects that bothers me most about the films is how badly they portray the “lightness” also inherent in Tolkien’s work, especially among the hobbits. Warmth and closeness and domesticity in the books come across as twee silliness, *when* they’re bothered to be included in the movies. Perhaps it’s a very good thing they left out Bombadil completely.
    Some of might be personal preference – I’d rather have dialogue and character growth any day over constant action scene after fight scene after escape scene.
    One more thing – one of the complaints I’ve heard from people who haven’t read the books is that Gandalf always seems to be there to save the day. And from their point of view, they’re right. I mean, Gandalf gets a butterfly to summon the eagles? (not to mention, how the heck did the eagles get there so quickly?) Why not simply show Thorondor keeping an eye on the world?
    And why suppress the fact that Gandalf and the White Council *knew* who was in Dol Guldur? I could go on… This was the same problem I had with the LOTR films – sometimes I really don’t understand why they bother to change certain things. I mean, why not just have Bolg chasing Thorin and co.? Why bother with a maimed Azog?
    And so on.

  6. December 28, 2012 9:53 pm

    This is why I never comment. Either I haven’t read or seen it yet and so have nothing intelligent to say, or (as now) I have and mostly I just want to say, “Yup.”

    I would however like to add a comment of general distaste for the CGI, Azog, and the vague sensation that I was watching a video game. See. There. I contributed.

    • December 29, 2012 1:18 am

      Incidentally, I’m convinced that part of the reason CGI Azog & goblins were so awful was: lack of reasonable equipment. When you have to costume a real person you have to give them real gear, and the LotR movies did a great job making the orcs look like serious business. When you just do CGI it’s easy to give them exaggerated gear and to leave out a lot of the stuff that you need for a normal costume. The result maybe looks “cool” in a video-game kind of way but it doesn’t make any sense.

  7. CJ Wolfe permalink
    January 3, 2013 1:24 am

    Very insightful review Joseph, I like your allusions and especially your main point about dramatic structure. I’m of the opinion that Jackson screwed up the “Return of the King” movie by forcing an improper dramatic structure on it too. The dramatic structure that Tolkien wrote includes the scouring of the Shire after the ring is destroyed, where Sam and Frodo have to deal with their hometown being taken over by Sauroman. I think it’s an important part of the narrative because it shows that Middle Earth still has evil present in it even AFTER the ring and Sauron are destroyed, and therefore an earthly paradise cannot be achieved through the characters’ human (and hobbitish, dwarfish, elvish) efforts. Jackson instead gives us a much more abrupt end to the action and then 45 minutes of Sam and Frodo gazing into each others’ eyes like fairies. There seems to be absolutely no point in sailing west on the basis of Jackson’s storyline, since things seem pretty perfect in middle earth.

    Your point about parallelism is well taken; there’s way too much in this movie. At the end of this movie Jackson even has Bilbo looking out at the Lonely mountain just like Frodo saw Mount Doom in the movie version of “The Fellowship.” I can only predict that Peter Jackson’s changes to the dramatic structure in Part II of “the Hobbit” will be more strained and off pace with the book. Where is the cut off between Part II and Part III going to be? And will he force another crazy battle royale in there to match the pattern of EVERY other Tolkien movie so far?

  8. January 4, 2013 9:42 am

    When you read a book you imagine what the people look like. When you watch a movie the director and writer decide that for you. I think that we can appropriate something from both the movie and the book. Each has something different to offer.


  1. A review of The Hobbit worth reading
  2. The dislocation of CGI | Ironical Coincidings
  3. The rattle of false allusions | Ironical Coincidings
  4. A retrospective catalog | Ironical Coincidings

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