The Hobbit: An Unexpected Disappointment
Rewind eleven years to the 76th Academy Awards, and The Return of the King – the final part of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy – sealed its place in movie history. With eleven wins from eleven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, it equalled the record set by Ben-Hur in 1959 and Titanic in 1997, and thereby proved itself one of the greatest films of all time. Return to 2015, and the concluding chapter of Jackson’s prequel trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, earned just one Oscar nomination… for Best Sound Editing. Which it didn’t win.
So what went wrong? There’s certainly no doubt that after the heady heights reached by The Lord of the Rings, by comparison The Hobbit films were a let-down. Despite some promising elements – a good cast, a healthy dose of Tolkien charm, and one seriously stupendous dragon – they were outweighed by a host of problems too numerous to name. If you really want to know what went wrong with The Hobbit trilogy, however, you have to go back to the source material, to study Tolkien’s original intent and how Jackson fundamentally misunderstood it.
When adapting The Lord of the Rings, Jackson knew for certain what he was dealing with. The novel is the very definition of epic fantasy, a sprawling work so large and lengthy that it was split into three volumes on its original release. Tolkien’s inspirations for the book were many and various, but largely revolved around his interest in legends, fairy tales, and epic poems such as Beowulf. Nevertheless, it’s doubtless with the sagas of Norse mythology that The Lord of the Rings shares the most parallels, given its scope, story, and themes.
So what of The Hobbit? Well, given that it is bound to its bigger brother, and is set in the same world, it is unsurprising that most of the inspirations are the same. With their shared mythos, and with one of them being a sequel to the other, it would make sense to think that they are essentially the same in tone. Yet this clearly isn’t the case. After all, when Jackson tried to give The Hobbit the same sort of treatment he gave to The Lord of the Rings, the result was a vastly over-bloated mess.
Part of the problem – and it’s an obvious one to start things off – is that a single, rather slim novel was adapted into three extremely long films. Yet that is only the beginning of the story. For you see, ultimately, The Hobbit is simply not so rooted in the epic genre. Despite featuring a dragon and a quest and several battles, not to mention a vast and lavish setting, it is really with the smaller scale fairy tales that this work has most in common – not in terms of content, but tonally. It owes plenty to the epic sagas which influenced it – indeed, you can see the influence of Beowulf in it more clearly than you can in The Lord of the Rings – but it lacks the same voice.
To say The Hobbit has more in common with fairy tales isn’t because it’s a children’s book; Tolkien himself wrote an essay titled “On Fairy Stories” which repudiated equating the two. Instead, you have to look at the more casual style in which the novel was written, giving it the feel of a story told by a fire between friends rather than recited in a grand old hall. That alone should be a warning sign, but it doesn’t stop there. A certain Mr Bilbo Baggins provides plenty of additional evidence, and so does his sword, Sting.
It’s an interesting fact that although Sting plays an important part in Bilbo’s story, and possibly an even more important one in his cousin Frodo’s, he actually only uses it against the spiders of Mirkwood. Every other situation, in true fairy tale style, he solves with the use of cunning and guile, choosing trickery over force. Gollum is beaten through a game of riddles; it is by using the One Ring to hide that he smuggles the dwarves away from the elves of the woodland kingdom. Even Smaug, the mighty dragon himself, is fooled by Bilbo’s flattery and wordplay – or, as Tolkien himself called it, “riddling talk”.
It is worth remembering, also, that The Lord of the Rings was written long after The Hobbit, and thus represents a much more mature style of writing. Its complexities are much greater, the lore so much more complete. In fact, the mythology of the One Ring didn’t even exist at the time The Hobbit was written and, in the original version, Gollum was much less antagonistic about the loss of his “Precious” – a fact which was later retconned, and explained away by stating that Bilbo, eager to establish himself as the rightful owner of the Ring, lied about how he obtained it. Resultantly, these two works, despite being linked so inextricably, are also undeniably different.
Of course, it’s therefore a bad idea to try shoehorning one of them into the shape of the other, and since Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings first, it was The Hobbit that ended up suffering for it. As a result, even the ridiculous runtime of the prequel trilogy can be viewed as a result of this mistake. Stuck in epic fantasy mode, and thinking too much of the overall legendarium that Tolkien created, he forgot that the two works are fundamentally distinct of one another. At heart, this is the main problem which scuppered these three films, and most other problems originated out of it.
Look also at the material which was added to The Hobbit to pad out the story and make the project of multiple films viable. Largely detailing Gandalf and the White Council’s attempts to defeat the Necromancer in Mirkwood, it was taken from the Appendices to… which novel? That’s right, you guessed it. It’s The Lord of the Rings. Unsurprisingly, you therefore get a jumble of content which is tonally different. Indeed, at one point in The Hobbit, Tolkien writes that Gandalf’s business “does not come into this tale”, deliberately separating out the events – though of course, one might still question whether Tolkien himself had yet decided what Gandalf’s business was.
In Jackson’s defence, there are good reasons for trying to include this additional material. In the book, saying that Gandalf’s work doesn’t come into the tale works quite neatly, but it’s doubtful it would be accepted in film – and you can’t just have a major character disappear for a while with no explanation. By linking in the Necromancer with the Battle of the Five Armies, and also with Azog the Defiler and Thorin’s past, you get a more coherent story as a whole. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, it also has its drawbacks.
Ultimately, The Hobbit suffers because it tries too hard to be The Lord of the Rings, and it just isn’t. Consider how closely An Unexpected Journey mirrors The Fellowship of the Ring. In both, you get a long prologue, a section in Hobbiton, the initial journey, the flight to Rivendell, the council at Rivendell, the journey through the Misty Mountains, the journey under the Misty Mountains, and then the fight at the end. For An Unexpected Journey, a lot of this is unnecessary. For example, the prologue is designed to fill in the backstory, but it turns out to be useless given that immediately afterwards the dwarves arrive at Bilbo’s house and, guess what? They fill in the backstory!
All in all, The Hobbit trilogy isn’t just overstuffed and unwieldy; it is also pitched in completely the wrong tone and style. Peter Jackson, in attempting to create a film legendarium to match Tolkien’s literary one, winds up with something which doesn’t actually fit. Perhaps part of the problem involves tackling the two works the wrong way around, meaning that the maturation of Tolkien’s writing wasn’t matched on the screen. Whatever the reason for the mistake, there’s certainly no doubting that The Hobbit films were a disappointing misstep for a brilliant director.