Welcome to Page to Picture, where we take a look at newly adapted movies and see how they stack up against their literary counterparts. In this installment, we’re looking at J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and it’s three-part epic fantasy adaptation.
WARNING: There will be spoilers.
Let’s start with the book …
a book that took me about a decade to actually weave my way through.
This will probably lose me a lot of geek points, but I have a lot of trouble with Tolkien’s style of writing. For someone like myself who appreciates character over setting and history, his books can be tedious slogs through the intricately woven tales of Middle Earth.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the complexity of his storytelling. Those intricately woven tales are what makes reading about Middle Earth a fully immersive experience. That world feels like it has centuries of history behind it. Those races feel alive with their culture and their stories. But I’ve always felt his characters suffer for it. Instead of becoming fully formed people, they become more of a product of their history and lore, essentially acting as highly glorified museum docents you follow around as they reveal to you the stories of the places you visit.
Character motivations, meanwhile, are simplified, and many times feel petty. The dwarves want to return to their ancient mountain to reclaim their treasure, not their homeland. War breaks out over whose to claim that treasure, and part of it is used as a bargaining tool. Then the battles themselves are largely footnotes, happening in quick summary as our main character loses consciousness, only to regain it once the fighting has stopped.
While reading the book I never actually cared about any of the characters, except maybe Bilbo to a small degree. What little I did care was motivated more by the fact that I had attached myself to the characters in the first film than anything they did in the book itself.
Which brings me to the movies …
and the difficulty I have in justifying their length, despite the fact that they fix all the problems I had with the book.
Honestly, Peter Jackson’s take on the epic fantasies of Middle Earth are the reason I love Tolkien’s world. They’ve managed to take the giant scope of Tolkien’s descriptions and render them in beautiful images, rather than walls of text, and due to the heavily drawn out structure of the trilogy of Hobbit films, they’ve alleviated all of the concerns I had while reading the novel.
Gone is my distaste for the petty pursuits of the band of Dwarves. Instead of traveling months and losing many only to reclaim their gold and horde it from those who have a rightful claim, Thorin and his kin seek the noble quest of reclaiming a long lost homeland, and restoring their battered people to their long lost position of prominence and power.
The wood-elves and men of Lake-Town are similarly expanded, though the elves do not come out looking better for it. The expanded story and enhanced characterizations actually work out best for Bard, who is given, among other things, a name. He also gets a family history, a noble cause of his own, and becomes one of the few truly heroic and sympathetic characters throughout his time on screen.
But there are just as many places where the expanded story flounders as it does succeed. At the same time that the films work to create more interesting characters, they also attempt to pull the story full circle, bringing it back so those films in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy can be watched immediately following those in The Hobbit trilogy, and those without a complete knowledge of the history of Sauron, Mordor, and the rise Orcs won’t be lost. While this added story was initially interesting (it was nice to actually see Gandalf investigate the rise of the necromancer, rather than mention it in an off-hand comment to Bilbo), these pieces, and others, were ultimately what made the story seem bloated. Nowhere was this bloating more apparent than in the final installment.
The Battle of the Five Armies is aptly named. The battle itself lasts nearly 90 minutes of the film’s 2 and a half hours. Though I enjoyed watching the formations of the elvish battalions, and the heart of the weary men defending their right to live, and even the dwarvish armies and their fight to defend their homeland — it gets exhausting. Though I went into this film excited to actually see the epic scope of five massive armies fighting in a battle over something larger than even they understood, I started to get bored pretty quickly, finding myself checking my watch at least 4 times.
And then, there was my biggest pet-peeve: Tauriel. Though initially I was glad the filmmakers decided that Tolkien’s original cast of all male characters had a little too much testosterone and not enough ladies, her character did little to nothing to enhance the film’s story. When you add a character, especially when you’re adding for diversity, you’ve really got to give that character something interesting to do. Tauriel serves little more purpose than being female and injecting a love story into an epic adventure about loyalty, brotherhood, and honor.
At the end of the day, I’m right there with those who say this story could have been told just as well in a single installment as it was in three, but I won’t fault Peter Jackson and his team for trying to inject a little more heart into an otherwise tedious history lesson.