Let me (proudly) confess: I am a J.R.R. Tolkien über-nerd. I’ve read The Hobbit half a dozen times, The Lord of the Rings at least ten times. I’ve conquered dozens of his other, lesser-known books. I have friends who declare themselves to be Tolkien fans, and I sit quietly and nod, smirking only slightly, as they discuss the appendices to Lord of the Rings. “I should read the Silmarillion,” they sigh. I nod. Yes. Yes, they should.
But, though Tolkien’s words are in my blood, I won’t be seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. No way. Part two of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s original Middle-Earth novel opened last night in American theaters, but you won’t find me lining up for a ticket this holiday season, or purchasing the DVD, or streaming it on Netflix.
When Peter Jackson made his Lord of the Rings movie trilogy in the early 2000s, I was entering teenage-boy-hood, and nothing delighted me more than watching bright swords hack Orcs into nasty little pieces for hours at a time. I was already a Tolkien aficionado, and I thought Jackson did a fine job adapting the wandering, epic tale to the screen — probably one of the trickiest book-to-film translations possible. I still enjoy the movies today, and admire Jackson’s work on them.
So, when news surfaced that The Hobbit would be made into a movie as well, I was delighted. I waited, year after year, with millions of other fans as the films passed from director to director, studio to studio, and finally took shape under (thank goodness!) Peter Jackson’s skilled eye. My hopes were high.
But early this year, I saw part one of the Hobbit trilogy: An Unexpected Journey. (Warning: Here be spoilers.) “Well, Bag End looks lovely, and Martin Freeman makes a splendid Bilbo,” I thought, “although the dwarves really need to find a different hairdresser.” Then it … devolved. A crazed albino Orc with a serious grudge against dwarves showed up, and turned out to be Azog — who (according to my Tolkienology) was supposed to be long dead. He had been killed in a very permanent manner (decapitation by axe) a century and a half before the dwarves crashed Bilbo’s tea-party, so why was he around to cause trouble now? Then another wizard appeared, high on ’shrooms and driving a sledge pulled by rabbits, and the film disintegrated in a frenzy of gulley-hopping, troll-dodging, cave-plunging camera moves whose main message was: “Wheee! We’re shooting this in 3D, so I’m gonna spin you around until you throw up.”
And, to be honest, I felt a bit sick when the movie was over, as if, instead of having an entertaining cinema experience, I had stumbled upon the mauled carcass of a once-elegant animal.
What happened? Why did the Lord of the Rings movies turn out so impressively, and The Hobbit flop disastrously for me? The problem lies not with acting (which is excellent), nor with design (which is impressive), nor with the amount of walking in the movie (which I didn’t mind), but wholly with Peter Jackson’s vision for the story.
Tolkien’s Hobbit is a children’s book, written in a familiar, economical, and wonder-infused manner. It is a simple, straightforward fantasy narrative that sticks closely to its plot and only mentions things beyond it in passing. The Lord of the Rings is a vastly different work. Not strictly a novel, not written for any age group specifically, it weaves and winds among the manifold currents of a wholly-envisioned world, whose depth and history colors every page. When Peter Jackson chose to adapt it to film, he had to try to portray the epic within the tightly-wrought bounds of a medium it did not fit very well. He cut, tweaked, and shortened, in ways that I don’t always agree with but do understand, but at the core he stayed true to the substance of Tolkien’s story. That respect for the original work was evident in the finished film.
But Jackson’s approach to The Hobbit was different. Instead of bringing its own nature to the screen, he attempted to translate it into the vaster idiom of his Lord of the Rings movies and establish it as a coherent prequel to the original trilogy, with multiple plot lines, complex groupings of characters, and an epic scale. To do so, he raided Tolkien’s other writings for characters and events to blend into The Hobbit.
The result is a fragile, cobbled-together artifice of plots that sprawls far beyond Tolkien’s well-executed vision of “Bilbo and a bunch of dwarves journey to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim it from the dragon Smaug”. To fasten it together, characters like Azog have been brought back from the dead (because more villains were needed), others like the wizard Gandalf have been turned into major players, requiring further expansion of the plot, and still others have been pulled from the Lord of the Rings or invented from scratch to pad out the cast.
This contraption looks and feels nothing like The Hobbit. Nor does it feel like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, since he tried to include some of the Hobbit‘s lightheartedness in the newer films, with awkward results. It is a mediocre work of film-making, but more importantly, it is a vast departure from the book it is “based on”. And that, in my opinion, shows disrespect on Jackson’s part, where before he had great admiration for Tolkien’s story.
I think he could have done differently. The Hobbit did not need to be three three-hour movies. Two films — perhaps even one — could have contained Tolkien’s book nicely, and reflected its simplicity. Instead of taking a flamboyant, tangled, story-hopping approach, Jackson could have held his camera steady, showing only what needed to be shown, and focusing more on the childlike wonder with which Tolkien filled The Hobbit. The end result would have been more satisfying to fans of the book, less tiresome for moviegoers, and, ironically, may well have matched Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films far better than his Hobbit ever will.
So, Peter Jackson, I liked your first Middle-Earth trilogy, but you’ve messed up the second. I won’t be seeing the rest. Fans do not easily forgive those who mistreat the things they love.