E is for Embellish: Jackson’s Unexpected Hobbit

The_Hobbit-_An_Unexpected_Journey.jpegWhat happens when a stand-alone novel gets turned into a prequel in reverse? You get fighting dwarves, a sword-wielding hobbit, a rabbit-pulled-sled and an albino orc henchman…of course. What? You thought a barely 300 page children’s book was going to be enough to churn out three sprawling cinematic “money-in-the-bank” features? You must have been smoking that half-ling leaf….

Some spoilers to follow….

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey hit theaters this month–an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 masterpiece of children’s literature, and the first of three cinematic installments. Like Tolkien’s novel, the film has all the necessary components: hobbits, dwarves, wizards, orcs, trolls, and plenty of magic. It’s fun. It’s adventurous. It’s action-packed. There is one slight problem however: it’s not The Hobbit.

I’m no purist. I understand that changes will occur when adapting a novel to a film. Sometimes I even welcome them. In Jackson’s version of Fellowship of the Ring, I had no problem with the absence of the mysterious Tom Bombadil; if Tolkien-geeks haven’t been able to exactly put a finger on what he was supposed to be, why burden new viewers with the task? Besides, his exclusion didn’t alter the story in any meaningful way. Neither did I mind the expansion of Arwen’s role in the film version; doesn’t help Fellowship pass the Bechdel Test, but it at least provides a brief respite from the otherwise all-male, all-the-time, flick. Same goes for smoothing out archaic prose that may work beautifully on the page, but poorly in a modern cinematic production. Books aren’t films; we shouldn’t expect them to be. And change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

That being said, films adapted from books can’t be divorced from comparisons to their source. Readers aren’t merely going to forget the original when they see the adaptation. Thus, when any director decides to give his or her interpretation that dramatically veers away from the source, they’re engaging in a bit of high-financed fan-fiction. The question is, do those changes help or harm the original story? Or do they make no difference at all?

Jackson’s Hobbit, like Lord of the Rings, takes cinematic license in translating Tolkien’s works. Some changes, like having the dwarf company show up singly and in groups instead of all-at-once, and in individual dress instead of color-coded hoods, made little difference. Neither did, for instance, Gandalf’s finding and giving of Sting to Bilbo, rather than he (Bilbo) finding it himself. Both scenes had their cinematic purpose–the first, to give the dwarves individual distinctiveness; the second, to allow Gandalf to impart onto Bilbo the lesson of mercy, so important for his meeting with Gollum. Those are minor tweaks that are neither here nor there. The absence of things like the troll’s “talking-purse”–a quirky literary piece that still befuddles Tolkien-geeks–was likely a good move. Other changes however cross-over into gross embellishment, and have become a source of controversy.

Probably some of the most noticeable changes are done to the dwarves. In the book, except maybe for Thorin, they are a funny, proud but often inept bunch. They bungle their way from one crisis to the next as they try to reach the Lonely Mountain, with Bilbo and Gandalf often providing some form of rescue. Jackson’s dwarves may do a bit of bungling, and they’re full of humor, but they also pack a punch–wielding swords, maces, axes, bows and even a slingshot (in the book most just carried knives). In one scene of swashbuckling mayhem, these warrior-dwarves mangle, squish, decapitate and defeat goblin hordes by the seeming hundred–a vast departure from the book, where, with the exception of Thorin, the rest just fled for their lives after Gandalf slew the goblin king (causing the goblins to flee as well). These dwarves don’t channel those of The Hobbit; instead they appear to be crafted in the mold of Gimli, the battle-axe hardened dwarf of LOTR that helped spur the depiction of “fighting dwarves” so common in fantasy depictions like the Forgotten Realms universe. Noah Berlatsky over at the Atlantic points out as much in what he calls “Jackson’s Violent Betrayal of Tolkien:”

I had wondered how Peter Jackson was going to spread the book over three movies. Now I know: He’s simply added extra bonus carnage at every opportunity. The dwarves, who in the novel are mostly hapless, are in the film transformed into super-warriors, battling thousands of goblins or orcs and fearlessly slaughtering giant wolves three-times their size. Given this vision of dwarves-as-ninjas, it’s not entirely clear why the expedition needed Bilbo along in the first place.

It’s not a minor criticism. Where Tolkien’s Hobbit was a children’s fantasy where the only large-scale battle takes place at the end, the movie seems to fly from one fight scene to the next–as if Jackson didn’t believe a 21st century audience would sit still without the requisite rituals of blood-letting. Of course all the baddies are your typical sub-human always chaotic evil types, so it’s killing that can take place without much moral concern.

Doubling-down on this theme, Jackson conjures up a whole new antagonist to trouble Bilbo and the dwarves–a giant albino orc by the name of Azog the Defiler. Now there is an Azog in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but he’s no more than a name and didn’t even survive the mention. Jackson however remakes Azog as a malevolent baddie bent on revenge against Thorin because of a minor amputation incident way-back-when. Part of the intent may be to provide a back story for Thorin (transformed into a Dwarf-sex-symbol), explaining his motivations and allowing him to gain more depth–beyond the stingy curmudgeon of the book. It may also help tie together scenes that will come up in the later movies, in particular the battle between the dwarves and Azog’s son–Bolg.

One thing is certain however, Azog, with his swarthy inhuman henchmen and snarling Wargs, help make sure there’s violence a-plenty in Jackson’s adaptation. When he’s not executing his minions for failure, he’s making life fairly miserable for Thorin, Bilbo and the dwarves–either directly or by proxy. This allows our company to show off their martial skills in a climatic scene, where they are trapped in fir trees by warg-riding orcs. Instead of merely waiting for the arrival of the giant eagles as their saviors, these dwarves jump from the burning trees to get into a battle-royal with Azog and crew–assuring a clash of swords, teeth and fists. And, probably most surprising of all, this ever-present violence gives us a very unexpected hobbit.

In the book, Bilbo isn’t a fighter. He’s far from it. In fact, he manages to survive mostly by his wits. When he does finally use his sword meaningfully, it’s to rescue his companions and save them from a nest of really nasty giant spiders. And even in that case, he does so stealthily. In the movie, Bilbo is still no fighting man–at least not initially. But it seems the violence rubs off. In one scene he somehow holds his own against an experienced goblin by sheer luck. He does it again later on, managing to slay a Warg quite by accident. Then, as if the battle-lust has taken hold, Bilbo the hobbit actually flies headlong against a full-grown orc, sword-drawn. He then, if you can believe it, continues to plunge his sword into the orc, in an act of near disembowelment

For anyone familiar with the book, this was one bizarre scene. A violent hobbit? Bilbo the action-hero? What’s more, it is this battle-rage that eventually endears him to Thorin–who by film’s end hugs and thanks him, declaring the hobbit as brave and battle-hardy as any dwarf.

Stop. Stop. Wait a fool of a Took minute.

One of the enduring points in Tolkien’s Hobbit is actually that violence isn’t always the best option–embodied by none other than Bilbo Baggins. In fact, by the end of the book, in the famed “Battle of Five Armies,” Bilbo has had such his fill of violence he refuses to take part. A mortally wounded Thorin admits at last that his push for war and violence was perhaps not the best path, and says the hobbit had it right and displayed the “true courage.” This key theme in the book, a driving part of the moral lesson, seems to lose credibility–what with Bilbo going all berserker. To Berlatsky this is illustrative of a key problem in Jackson’s interpretation, the seeming contradiction of the book’s theme:

Rather desperately, the film simply falls back on making Bilbo an improbably competent swordsman who somehow, without training, holds his own against whatever infinitely superior antagonist the film decides to throw at him. The dwarves embrace Bilbo not because of his pluck or smarts, but because he turns out to be a great warrior who can stand shoulder to shoulder with them and slaughter their enemies. So much for the true courage of sparing lives.

Not every Tolkien fan sees these embellishments as a problem. Michael Martinez over at Middle-Earth welcomes some of the changes like Azog, and views it as a worthwhile expansion. Martinez reminds us that Tolkien initially wrote The Hobbit for his sons, and hence kept it simple. Certainly he likely never envisioned the story might one day become a major blockbuster produced for a mass cross-cultural audience fed on a lengthy diet of cinematic action-adventures. For Martinez, the newly invented back story of Azog helps tie together loose ends to make a more coherent tale, giving Thorin a larger role by providing an adversary. This helps make the Hobbit a more mature story to fit a more mature and modern audience:

It’s not necessarily a brilliant bit of rearrangement of the materials but it is, to me, a logical one and so far I think it works well enough. I think the story flows better when all these perils share connections with each other rather than if they are just apparently random events…. Peter Jackson’s audience is larger and somewhat more sophisticated in tastes and expectations than Tolkien’s young sons were when he first composed the tale — and even J.R.R. Tolkien himself wanted very much to rewrite The Hobbit so as to be more mature, less condescending, and darker than the original children’s book. Although he might not have approved of Peter’s changes, I think he would have understood them.

There are numerous other embellishments to Jackson’s Hobbit. One of these is the fleshing out of Radagast the Brown, the woodland wizard mentioned in several of Tolkien’s works. Unlike the book, he is a given a primary, mostly childishly comedic, role in the film–complete with a sled pulled by giant rabbits. Yeah. That happens. It is Radagast who learns the Necromancer is loose in Mirkwood, and even encounters a disembodied Ring-wraith. The Necromancer himself makes a minor presence, as a slender dark nebulous figure. Though mentioned in Tolkien’s Hobbit, the Necromancer never actually made an appearance in the book; it’s not until LOTR that we learn he is, in fact, none other than Sauron. Though there’s no description of him in Tolkien’s Hobbit, Jackson appears to draw from a sketching by Tolkien, which depicts Sauron as a burning man with black skin. (Uh huh. You read that right.) This larger plot device eventually leads to a meeting of the famed White Council, causing both Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Kate Blanchett) to make cameos in Jackson’s Hobbit–though both did not at all appear in the book–who gather to discuss the possibility of (the yet unnamed) Sauron’s return.

And here may lie the chief reason for the varied changes and embellishments in Jackson’s adaptation. In 1937 Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s story set in a world he was yet fleshing out. In 1954 he released The Lord of the Rings, a decidedly darker and more complex story set in this more complete world. As a precursor, The Hobbit is odd in that only parts of it fit with the sequel; the main story, dealing with dwarves and a dragon, have little to do with what is to come next. Jackson in contrast, worked in reverse. The film adaptation to LOTR began in 2001, introducing millions who had never read the books to Tolkien’s world. It was a sprawling adventure, with big battles and a larger fleshed out universe.

Now, in 2012, millions are being introduced to The Hobbit not as a standalone movie, but as an intended prequel to the LOTR films. The embellishment with Radagast and the White Council all tie into the rise of Sauron, even if he’s not yet named. Having seen LOTR, the audience is already in on the larger plot, and Jackson seems intent on giving it to them–even if it means expanding the storyline and drawing in a host of new characters.

This push to make The Hobbit a full-fledged prequel also changes the very mood of the film from its literary source. With the dark complicated universe of LOTR already well known to audiences, Jackson seems to have decided that returning to a simple child fantasy story for The Hobbit just won’t do. Bungling dwarves with knives aren’t going to cut it–not after audiences got a taste of an axe-wielding Gimli. So we get dwarves that can take on hordes of goblins fearlessly, and a figure like Azog to menace them. Jackson appears to be rewriting The Hobbit as one seamless story with LOTR, filling in any possible gaps.

So is this a good thing? Poet Seth Abramson over at Huff Post certainly thinks so, arguing that given what we know of Middle-Earth chronology, Peter Jackson’s embellished adaptation is The Hobbit a later and more knowledgeable Tolkien would have wanted to write–not the one set in the original novel of 1937, but one that fit more squarely into the fleshed out literary world he’d created by 1955. Not everyone agrees. Fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed, author of Throne of the Crescent Moon, tweeted out in annoyance, “Saw PETER JACKSON’S LORD OF THE RINGS EPISODE I THE NECRO MENACE last night. Which is weird, since we actually bought tickets for THE HOBBIT.” Andrew O’Hehir at Salon.com, while finding some praise for the film (or at least the attempt), also sees the push to create a full-fledged prequel problematic:

This is a sprawling, shambling, full-length prequel to Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” but not so much to Tolkien’s. What we see here bears only a loose resemblance to the actual 1937 text of “The Hobbit,” a genial adventure yarn whose story would have comfortably fit within an ordinary 100-minute feature film. It’s more like an “inspired by” than a “based on,” introducing numerous episodes that are barely mentioned in Tolkien’s “Hobbit” or occur entirely behind the scenes….

And therein lies my main problem with Jackson’s Hobbit–it’s left me torn. On the one hand I enjoyed it, even with all the embellishing. This is what I’ve long waited for since I was 7 years old after all–to see the world of Middle-Earth depicted on the big screen, brought to life through the magic of modern cinema. I’m already looking forward to the next installment, The Desolation of Smaug–in fact, there is a gangsta scene with our favorite wyrm at the end. At the same time I’m also disappointed, because I know what I saw wasn’t really The Hobbit–not the book I read as a kid, not even the Rankin/Bass animated feature from 1977. It’s something else. And for many who have never read the book, The Hobbit I knew may forever be lost to this alternate cinematic version. Is this what Tolkien would have wanted? Was this his vision? I have no idea. I’m just not so sure it was mine.

8 thoughts on “E is for Embellish: Jackson’s Unexpected Hobbit

  1. Your essay ties in nicely to one of my criticisms of the film: though “The Hobbit” created Middle-Earth, it really doesn’t tie into what Middle-Earth eventually becomes and what we are familiar with.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  3. It’s a movie. You are being overtly critical. Films will not in reality ever fully follow the plots of the book. If it did than the Lord of the Rings films would have as Peter Jackson said, been ‘Un-filmable’. The same can be said for other film adaptations of novels like Harry Potter which have a gigantic sprawling universe involving multiple worlds, and characters, just like the world of Tolkien.

    Peter Jackon, Weta Workshop, and their cast and crew for the Lord of the Rings, and Hobbit films, were one of the few teams willing to undertake the world of Middle Earth, since Tolkien invented, and published his novels 50 to 60 years ago today.

    Peter and his team were also very passionate about the universe, yes there are changes, but at least you can believe in the vision that they created. If you watch the extended editions, the documentaries of the making, and everything else in between including the movies themselves, you would be incredibly impressed.

    Alot of work went into the Hobbit film and the Lord of the Rings. Work that was undertaken with respect to Tolkien’s novels. It is better to have these films made by passionate fans of the original literature, than to have them ripped apart, sewn back together, and spat out by others that would have undercut everything in terms of design, characterisation, and plot.

    Peter set the bar for other fantastical films.

    Just look at Kingdom of Heaven, a film based on historical events, and you can tell that the primary battle scenes are reminiscent of Helm’s Deep in the Two Towers film.

    If you do not agree with how the films for the Lord of the Rings, and the Hobbit have come out than please point to another director that could have done a better job.

    • thanks for your comments. you really put a great deal of thoughts into it, so that’s appreciated. most of what you write upon I touch on in the post, so no need to go over. i just have a different take. I will point out however, I am not arguing that Jackson should just “follow” the plot of the book. as I wrote, I was glad he diverged from the book in LOTR. I simply didn’t care for his divergences in The Hobbit. as for being “unfilmable,” we know The Hobbit is film-able as is because there’s already a long existing cartoon that shows this. Jackson chose to make the story *more complex* with added plot lines that just didn’t work. given the lackluster ratings, audiences didn’t care for it either. sometimes more is less. who do I think would be the best director for the film? Jackson! he showed this with LOTR which was brilliant. he just wasn’t as good this time around. I’ll still be going to see the next Hobbit movie. hope it gets better!

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  6. Pingback: A is for Armies: An End to Hobbits, Quests and Prequels | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

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