Introduction: “A Tale of Your Own”
A story has always been dependent on who’s telling it. From the beginning of time with the oral tradition, to the present and the Hollywood focus on remakes and reboots, stories grow and change as if they were living, breathing beings. They shift based on the mores of the time, the fascinations of the teller. Even if the major arc remains the same (how many reinterpretations of Romeo and Juliet, for example, have we seen?) the details are filled in differently. Some storytellers cut. Some reimagine. And others expand.
One of the most controversial adaptations of modern filmdom has been Peter Jackson’s expanded version of The Hobbit. Criticized at once for being too beholden to a book, and taking too much liberty, by making an epic out of a children’s adventure book, there can sometimes be a tone of “how dare he?” self-righteousness to these arguments (which, unfortunately, can often overshadow some very real critiques of the films that can be made). Jackson is famous as a filmmaker for being fascinated by filling in the details of the worlds he creates – either timewasting filler or giving his films scope and breadth. And based on Part 1, it was at times difficult to see which would be correct, even if the filler was entertaining or not.
Now that Part 2: The Desolation of Smaug is being released, the fuller scope of what Jackson is attempting is coming into focus. And what’s clear is that Jackson does not lack ambition, nor does he lack understanding of the material he’s working with. For while one often thinks of adaptation as trimming back and cutting down, Jackson instead has chosen to develop, to expand themes and create a fuller world. The Hobbit is a deeply challenging book to tackle – more so than the comparatively straightforward Lord of the Rings, its surface simplicity underlying deep structural and character challenges that almost demand expansion. What’s more, especially in The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson is ruthlessly working to bring out Tolkien’s original themes in The Hobbit. He has tapped into the material, and found what resonated for him in the original work. And isn’t that what adapters are supposed to do?
Part One: The Quest for Erebor – Breaking Down Tolkien’s Hobbit
One day a peace-loving hobbit is gang-pressed by a vagabond wizard and a bunch of dwarves to steal gold for them from a dragon. They have some wacky, deus ex machina-powered random adventures along the way, he proves his worth, and the good guys win, if in a bittersweet fashion. There, I just described The Hobbit for you (or, at least, the very basic conception of The Hobbit which most seem to have) and saved you from reading 300 pages and watching three films. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Hardly.
First, what’s The Hobbit actually about? When you break it down, the answer to that question is a little trickier than one would imagine. The most basic answer is that it’s about a naïve individual learning to open his door to the outside world, proving his own worth, and learning some bitter lessons. Not a bad spine. The problem is, in the actual narrative, this naïve individual is rendered a rather passive observer for at least half the book – both at the beginning and at the end. It’s really only in the midsection that Bilbo Baggins does something – and his last critical-to-the-plot act in the book is not one that can be viewed entirely positively, and happens before the climax. So one has to beef up other elements of the narrative to carry the action onscreen while the Bilbo plot plays out in the background.
Let’s look at the dwarves, then – the logical next step, if one is attempting to come up with a narrative to help carry the film through. And the dwarves do provide it – both as catalyst and as driver. The Quest for Erebor is what pushes Bilbo onto the journey, and what keeps him going. But when one looks more closely at the quest it becomes rather troublesome. What do they want? Is this just a treasure hunt? Are they trying to take back their homeland? Are they so incompetent that they didn’t bring weapons at the beginning when they knew they were going to face a dragon? How about the fact that there are 13 of them? And only four – in the book – are particularly notable, and one of those is only characterized so Tolkien can make fat jokes. Several don’t even have lines after the Unexpected Party in Chapter One. And it’s not until well into the tale that the one who truly takes on considerable depth begins to do so.
What about other characters or plots? For all the personality that Tolkien invests him with, Gandalf functions as a device to get Bilbo on the road and save the dwarves a few times, and then leaves because Tolkien needs him to, because otherwise he’d solve all the problems. The trolls, the Great Goblin, the spiders, and (particularly) Gollum all pop, but have nothing to do with the actual Quest for Erebor. The Elvenking and Bard are more necessary, but Bard in particular lacks the page time a character of his importance ought to have. And yet, because of how the book is structured, it is actually spectacularly difficult to cut any of those scenes, because every one adds an essential puzzle piece to either Bilbo’s arc, the quest, or the finale – often without seeming to at the time.
Look at it this way: The Hobbit – as a book – is filled with incident. It is deeply episodic, with these scenes (the trolls, for instance) not adding a damn thing to the main plot, but without the trolls there’s no good way for Bilbo to get Sting (in the film, Jackson wisely added an element to make this scene more necessary that won’t be portrayed onscreen until the end of There and Back Again). If this were a more tightly-constructed work, the trolls would be trying to stop the dwarves from getting to the Lonely Mountain, instead of being encountered randomly on the road. But they have something necessary for Bilbo’s journey, so they need to remain. Similarly, the moonletters would probably be read right at the beginning, instead of the company going to Rivendell, but the centrality of that place in Lord of the Rings (and remember, Jackson’s task is to connect those dots as well as tell the story of The Hobbit – something Tolkien had no conception of at the time) and in Bilbo’s life makes it reasonable to show (one of the great problems of the theatrical version of An Unexpected Journey was that it did not emphasize that latter element enough, though the extended edition corrects that – and, as a side note, thus makes the film more fluidly feel like it’s all from Bilbo’s point of view). Indeed, if one were truly being ruthless in trying to advance the quest plot and keeping things focused on that, would Gollum appear? He has nothing to do with the quest, after all, except for providing Bilbo with a magic ring (a function he performed in the first release copy of the book with considerably less threat, it must be noted). Bilbo just stumbles into a cave and finds a magic ring? Shouldn’t his first adventure where he proves himself be more focused on the quest, one can picture a development executive saying. But The Hobbit without Gollum is simply unimaginable.
So there is plenty of incident. But there’s not a whole lot of overarching plot (or, at least, movement beyond the purely geographical on the quest plot which drives the whole thing) until the dwarves get caught by the Elvenking. The summary at the top of this section may have been glib, but it’s not inaccurate. Bilbo’s own character arc holds together a fair portion of the story, but simply recreating the book – which renders him far more passive in the quest plot before they reach Mirkwood, and almost entirely passive and acted upon until the Gollum scene – would make him a pretty dull protagonist, to be honest. It’s Bilbo’s thoughts that keep him active in the book to that point, and doing that onscreen wouldn’t match with the world established in Lord of the Rings, and would make the whole thing come off as fairly childish.
And, critically, the apparent nominal goal of the book is achieved two thirds of the way through by a character who appears in that scene (and, according to John Rateliff’s excellent History of the Hobbit, was supposed to die in that scene in Tolkien’s first draft, which would have made for one of the most bizarrely wonderful deus ex machinas of all time). Also, Tolkien did not invest the massive planning and years he would for The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion into The Hobbit. The first two-thirds (until they arrive at the mountain) were written smoothly and simply, and then Tolkien realized he didn’t quite know where the story was going. This accounts for the jarring turn the book takes at that point, but this turn – given that it is the true climax of the tale, putting the rest of the story into deeper moral and character context – is what any adaptation worth its salt must build towards. The book can get away with it through the charm of Tolkien’s authorial voice and the characterization of Bilbo-as-narrator. The dramatic possibilities offered by taking the time to really develop towards that plot, however – even if they seem like filler at the time – ought to be obvious to any filmmaker who truly understands the work.
So bearing all that in mind, one is confronted with a book which is deeply episodic (where each episode is incredibly necessary without apparently bearing on the main plot driver), whose protagonist doesn’t do anything in the main plot until over halfway through, whose main supporting characters are barely characters, whose story veers off the rails in the last third, and which is partially held together by the narrative voice, by the charmingly light tone, and the third-person perspective into the protagonist…why on Earth would one want the challenge of trying to adapt a book like that? It’s madness.
But then, the man who made Brain Dead and Meet the Feebles, not to mention convinced a Hollywood studio to let him make three Lawrence of Arabia-sized films at once before the first was ever released, is at least half-mad. And instead of turning away from those challenges, Jackson has looked deep into the overarching themes of the book, attempted to give each incident more bearing on the quest, and portray in more depth how the quest is shaking up Middle-Earth as the dwarves march on the mountain. He hasn’t always succeeded. But the attempt – not mercenary, and not indulgent – is instead a forthright acknowledgment of the book’s problems and an attempt to build more connectivity throughout, to construct a narrative that holds together as one grand story that does justice to Bilbo’s evolution, and to the Quest for Erebor, and to the wider world that is slowly but surely plunging into darkness. He has done this through narrowing down The Hobbit to three themes and two character arcs, and by and large building the bones of this massive trilogy around those five simple things.
Part Two: “But I Feel That I Must Try” – Bilbo Baggins and the Bedrock of the Trilogy
Bilbo Baggins is, I would argue, one of the two best characters Tolkien created (the other, of course, being his sparring partner in the riddle game). He’s certainly one of the most well-rounded, splendidly developed with both heroic and negative qualities – brave, prideful, a homebody who grows to deeply feel the wonder of the wide world. He’s intelligent, but often gets ahead of himself when trying to be clever. He is deeply devoted to his friends, but sometimes fails to take into account their own feelings. He knows the value of mercy. And, above all, he is perhaps the quintessential fantasy English everyman. There is something innate to Bilbo Baggins that is deeply empathetic, that draws us into his journey and makes us root for him. He’s the ultimate underdog.
So it might be said that Jackson’s job in capturing Bilbo’s essence was half-done when he cast Martin Freeman in the role. Freeman has been fantastic with this prickly yet compassionate bumbler, able to draw out great meaning from just his facial expressions, his reactions. Like Bilbo, he’s naturally sympathetic – a normal man in a high-fantasy world. But Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh have developed Bilbo’s tendencies in some wonderful ways, relying on Freeman’s gifts to bring a darker, more proactive, but still completely true to Tolkien version of Bilbo to the screen.
In the first film, Bilbo was characterized as a talker rather than a doer. This is particularly true before he goes on the quest. He stumbles around points, stammers, impotently rages, grumbles. It’s key, then, that his ultimate moment of decision is allowed to play out entirely on Freeman’s face. Instead of trying to talk his way through a decision, he quiets and chooses to get in touch with what he really wants. And his run down the hill may be the most purely joyous moment in any recent blockbuster. Note that Jackson had shot much of the film to that point in the tight, confined space of Bag End without many wide shots of the external world. And then, we get this big bright green glorious shot of a little hobbit running down the hill – it feels like the release of a prisoner. Howard Shore’s music is soaring, ecstatic. The camera and editing move as quickly as Freeman does, giving a wonderful sense of momentum. He’s going on an adventure indeed.
Throughout the rest of the film, until the very end, Bilbo’s character is, again, mainly portrayed through talking. His desperate attempt to distract the trolls, his extended edition conversation with Elrond, the riddle game with Gollum. And note how often in these scenes he screws up. He nearly gets the dwarves skinned alive in the troll scene, he accidentally insults Elrond (though Elrond, being a good chap, laughs it off), he nearly loses his life in the riddle game. But each time, he becomes more adept at it until he manages to fool Gollum. How Bilbo talks in this film demonstrates his character growth: the adventure is making him become more centered, more mature. And his big speech to the dwarves about why he came back is just a few short well-chosen sentences. This helps build into his final transformation from talker to doer, when he saves Thorin. He just (no pun intended) gets right to the point. When the time is done for talk, he finally steps up to the plate.
The Desolation of Smaug follows up on that. When people say that Bilbo feels more confined to the background in this film, perhaps it’s because he doesn’t talk as much as in An Unexpected Journey. But he’s constantly doing things (he is, in fact, the most proactive character in the entire film and the main driver of its forward action), and the camera is almost always finding his reaction. Bilbo is evolving into someone who can step up to the plate and deliver. He does keep messing up, but every time he takes a critical action, he corrects his error from the last time (making new ones along the way). His first moment in the film involves the company relying on him to be their eyes. When he tries this again in Mirkwood, he succeeds – he figures out where they need to go, but screws up by incautiously luring the spiders to the company. In the spider scene, he takes the proper precaution of putting on the ring, but allows himself to get distracted by it and ends up putting it ahead of the company (which allows them to be captured by the elves). When he pulls off the barrel escape, he properly handles the ring (despite nearly being caught by Thranduil) and puts the company ahead of himself, but does rather too good a job of it and leaves himself behind. With the moon runes riddle of the key, he’s the one who thinks outside the box and figures out how it works, and saves the company. And then, in the Smaug confrontation, he uses every trick in his toolbox (except trying to stab the dragon, which would clearly go nowhere), functions successfully as part of the company, is clever, is properly cautious, figures out the dragon’s physical and emotional weak spot…and yet it isn’t enough.
That’s what is truly effective about the cliffhanger ending to The Desolation of Smaug. Just as in the book, Smaug’s soaring off to Laketown is a result of Bilbo’s mistake. But the film further develops that and places the onus more squarely on Bilbo. After all his evolution, all his heroism…two little words “Barrel-Rider” are enough to condemn (as far as he knows) every innocent person in Laketown to death. Bilbo’s despairing cry, “What have we done?” is more clearly a “What have *I* done?” It’s a bold and risky choice, to shatter your lead character’s growing confidence and heroism so utterly in the last frame of your film. Bilbo has come so far from the timid little hobbit in Bag End, but he’s still just a little hobbit in a world far more dangerous than he.
Much of the above arc in Desolation of Smaug plays out without dialogue. It’s given four signposts: Bilbo’s conversation with Gandalf about finding his courage, his determination before the secret door, his conversation with Balin in Erebor, and his final line. This works because Bilbo has evolved beyond his stammering, bumbling way of talking (and acting) in the first film. He really is a hobbit of action now. Jackson trusts Freeman (with good reason) to let the emotion, and Bilbo’s development, play out on his face. Instead of telling us with dialogue, he shows us, and trusts us to get it. He lets Bilbo be the steady, beating heart of the trilogy, the simple relatable bedrock on which everything else rests. It is still very much his story, at the end of the day. But unlike in the book, he now shares more of it with Thorin Oakenshield.
Part Three: “The King of Carven Stone” – The Evolution of Thorin Oakenshield and the Importance of Family Legacy
Thorin, in the book, is an old, prideful, somewhat pompous and greedy fellow who, like everyone else on the quest, is something of a bumbler. There are traces of nobility there, but his ultimate turn is not as deep a fall as perhaps it could have been.
In the films, Thorin is cast as a much younger individual (Richard Armitage, expertly mixing nobility with increasing darkness). On the commentary for the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey, Philippa Boyens makes an intriguing point as to why: they wanted the audience to think that Thorin could go on to be king for a long time, father sons, and establish a lasting line under the mountain. And, indeed, Thorin’s character arc (both positive and negative) has largely been re-centered around the idea of family legacy, his responsibility to his ancestors, and his fears of falling into the same trap.
Nearly every major action Thorin takes is driven by looking back to the past and trying to right the wrongs done to his family. Note, for example, in Bag End that he emphasizes to Balin that the key and map are from his father. His injuring of Azog is direct revenge for Azog’s killing of his grandfather. When we see him in the prologue for The Desolation of Smaug, he’s looking for his father. His hatred of the elves (and Thranduil in particular) derives from the fact that they did not come to his family’s aid at either Erebor or Moria. And yet he is also highly aware of his grandfather’s madness (Jackson significantly shoots his disturbed reaction to Thror’s enjoyment of the treasure room in the AUJ prologue, and adds in scenes with both Elrond and Thranduil where this madness is emphasized). As far as Thorin’s concerned, there’s his family, then there’s the dwarves, and then there’s everyone else. And there’s the great wrong done his people – and everything can be sacrificed for righting that wrong (he even chooses to leave Kili – his nephew and one of his two heirs – behind in Laketown when Kili’s injury would slow them down. This may seem like compassion, but his subsequent conversation with his other heir Fili – who also chooses to stay behind as a result – reveals a real coldness lurking there. Thorin will throw whoever he needs to under the bus to succeed). Thorin is constantly looking back to provide himself motivation to move forward.
Contrast this with how Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh have chosen to portray Bard. In the book, Bard is something of a blank slate, so it’s very interesting that in contrast to Thorin who is concerned with his ancestors, Bard is a family man concerned with his children. His forefather fell to Smaug and lost his own city, but Bard does not feel the need to go out of his way to avenge that wrong (though, as readers of the book know, he will have to step up to the plate very shortly). Bard looks forward, Thorin looks back. And in the middle is Bilbo, who Gandalf tries to encourage with heroic tales of his ancestors, but those ultimately fail to move him. At the same time, Bilbo is also a childless middle-aged bachelor stewing alone in his home. Bilbo lives for today, rather than living for the past or future. Family is key here, and it’s the most forward-looking characters who tend to be in the right. Thorin’s looking to the past should be the first sign that, despite many people’s assertions otherwise, he is not this trilogy’s Aragorn.
Part Four: “The World Is Not In Your Books and Maps” – Looking Outside Oneself
One of the most controversial elements of this Hobbit trilogy is the new character of Tauriel (played with wonderful sincerity and energy by Evangeline Lilly). This was particularly heightened by the fact that she is involved in a pseudo-love triangle with Legolas (Orlando Bloom, woodenly racist instead of plain wooden) and Kili (Aidan Turner, charming). Pseudo, because Legolas is more a third wheel than an actual interest on her part, and her relationship with Kili seems more like deep friendship and understanding rather than romance.
However, her relationship with Kili serves as a critical thematic anchor for one of the primary Tolkien concepts that Jackson has been developing since Fellowship of the Ring: the idea of looking outside oneself, one’s home, one’s race, the idea that we are all part of this larger world. The idea that we should empathize with each other, that we’re not particularly different when you get down to it. This, in both Tolkien and Jackson’s world, is one of the critical signs even among the heroes of whether one is a good person or not. It is this argument (quoted above in the section heading) that is the first to break through with Bilbo when Gandalf is trying to convince him to join the quest, along with listening to the dwarves’ song (again, listening to someone other than his own hobbit-sense, which is screaming at him to not do this). Later, it is Bilbo’s wonder at Rivendell that establishes, with Elrond, a friendship that will last all of Bilbo’s life, allowing him refuge in his waning days and eventual passage to Valinor himself. It is Bilbo’s awful accusation that the dwarves don’t belong anywhere that lets him realize why he is so fortunate, and why he should come back and help them. And it is Bilbo’s mercy – his ability to look outside the danger to himself and see life from Gollum’s point of view – that persuades him not to murder Gollum, the single critical act that will save Bilbo’s soul, and with it, all of Middle-Earth.
Gandalf, too, has the ability to see the world this way. His first act in The Desolation of Smaug is nothing more than sitting down with Thorin at an inn (they are strangers to each other at this point), but that act arguably saves Thorin’s life. Gandalf sticks up for the little guy. It’s what he does. His speech in the first film to Galadriel is all about this theme. It’s why he is the only one who can see the gathering darkness – because he’s not bound to one realm like Elrond or Galadriel, he’s not obsessed with his own cleverness like Saruman. This is Gandalf’s great gift – not his magic powers, not his sword-fighting ability, but his compassion and ability to put on the other person’s shoes. And this gift brings him, Thorin, and Bilbo together, thus beginning the ultimate downfall of the darkness in Middle-Earth.
In the second film, it is Tauriel who serves as the primary mouthpiece for this concept. Her bond with Kili allows her to see that they are “part of this world,” in contrast to Legolas and Thranduil. Legolas viciously taunts and threatens the dwarves after he rescues them from the spiders. Thranduil rejects them when they’re refugees for fear of the dragon. But Tauriel’s insistence on saving the dwarves paints her as a step above them, and, indeed, begins cracking open the Woodland Realm to become a legitimate part of Middle-Earth (which will pay off in Film 3, when Thranduil decides not to abandon the destitute Laketowners, and even more so when Legolas eventually joins the Fellowship).
It’s amusing to note, too, that the film’s most lauded action sequence is all about this inclusiveness. The barrel escape may begin with the dwarves fleeing the elves, but when the orcs appear, Tauriel saves Kili’s life, and Thorin even saves Legolas (not that Legolas knows or would thank him if he did). The dwarves and elves may hate each other, but Jackson uses the barrel sequence to emphasize that they keep ending up on the same side, and that they really ought to try working together once in a while. Despite what Thranduil and Legolas say, or what Thorin says, Tauriel is right that they are all part of the same world. Eventually, the world’s going to break down your door whether you like it or not. One cannot shut oneself off from it. If you do, you might as well be a dragon.
Part Five: “The Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities” – Greed as the Ultimate Foe
In The Lord of the Rings, every member of the Fellowship was there by choice, sworn by nothing more than honor and friendship to attempt to save Middle-Earth. In The Hobbit, Bilbo is hired help.
There are few differences between the works more distinctive than that. And it crucially emphasizes the primary theme of Jackson’s take on The Hobbit: the danger of greed.
Smaug, the dragon who sleeps in a bed of gold so deeply that the coins embed themselves in his scales, is the primary visual symbol of this, but the two films are rife with images of money and sale. There is the contract for Bilbo. There is Thror’s gold-greed which brought the dragon in the first place. There is the fact that Thorin has a price on his head (an invention by Jackson/Boyens/Walsh, which we’re reminded of rather bluntly at the beginning of Desolation of Smaug – the mighty heir of Durin reduced to a commodity). The adaptation emphasizes the fact that the dispute between Thranduil and the dwarves came from a question of payment over treasure – re-upped in Desolation of Smaug when Thranduil (An elf! The pure, incorruptible bastions of good in these films!) basically asks Thorin for a bribe in exchange for aiding the dwarves on their quest. Look at how corrupt the world of Laketown is. Everything, Bard says, is tolls and bribes. And that’s how Thorin gets them on his side as well (throwing the noble Bard under the bus to do so): emphasizing all the gold from Erebor that will come through the town. Look at how often he’s directing this at the Master (Stephen Fry, tapping into his Blackadder roots) – a man Bard has been vehement about not trusting due to his greed. If friendship and love are what drive the world in Lord of the Rings, it’s commerce that drives the world of The Hobbit.
Indeed, it drives it so deeply that the noble Quest for Erebor – an epic journey to regain the dwarves’ homeland – is fully revealed in this film as Thorin’s attempt to get his hands on a jewel. Admittedly, this is a jewel that will allow him to marshal the armies of the dwarves and give them a chance to kill the dragon, but the Arkenstone is a curious thing, easily given to driving the minds of its possessors mad. Is the power it would grant him what Thorin truly wants? Or does he want the jewel itself? Even before he has it, it’s beginning to work its dreadful magic on him: witness his abandonment of Bard and the dwarves he leaves behind at Laketown (including his own nephews). Look at the chilling moment when he won’t let Bilbo flee Smaug without getting a straight answer on the Arkenstone. These, it must be emphasized, are not moments from the book. The Arkenstone granting him claim to power is not in the book. This is adaptation of the purest kind: the kind that takes what was in the book and develops it out further, taking the themes the adapter responded to and conveying them to the audience. This is especially critical given the massive turn The Hobbit takes in its third act, and this series will take in There and Back Again.
Even the more noble characters have their own prices. Bard has to be paid – at twice his normal rate – to smuggle the dwarves into Laketown. Even Bilbo himself is not immune. In parallel to Thorin and the Arkenstone, Bilbo has the Ring. And even though he does not go full Gollum with it, note the terrifying violence he unleashes on a spider-thing that wanders too close to where he’s dropped it in Mirkwood (and his guilt-ridden, horrified reaction afterwards). And note his lack of caution when confronted with the vast hoard of Thror. He’s so overwhelmed, it’s a wonder he didn’t wake up Smaug earlier.
And then, of course, there’s the dragon. A dragon, after all, is nothing but fire and greed. And Smaug is THE dragon, the archetype from which all modern fantasy dragons are drawn. He seals himself off from the world, lying content in his bed of gold. He lives for nothing but his greed and his ego. He is the ultimate negative manifestation of every theme in this trilogy. But even he can be betrayed by his own greed. One disappointment of this adaptation is that Smaug does not boast of his diamond waistcoat (nor is it nearly as luxurious) – that was Tolkien blatantly showing that greed would leave you vulnerable to destruction, and would have been a strong thematic emphasis of what Jackson is building here. Not hitting that note is, I think, a thematic misstep – especially because that’s where his weakness lay in the book (in the film, it’s slightly different). Instead, the dwarves try to use Smaug’s own greed against him. In the added sequence where the dwarves attempt to take back the mountain from Smaug, they use the old melted gold in the dwarven forges to try to trap Smaug – luring him in with it, then pouring it over him. And it nearly works: Smaug’s lust for gold causes him to lack caution when he should have smelled a trap, and the image of the gold pouring over him is a potent one. But just like Smaug, the dwarves too were betrayed by it: they fail, and all of Middle-Earth must now reap the consequences of Smaug’s rage. Greed cannot be trusted, and it will always destroy you in the end.
Epilogue: “I’m Going on an Adventure!” – Looking Ahead to There and Back Again
Qualitatively, The Hobbit is not on the level of The Lord of the Rings – neither book nor film series. The first film’s action beats (especially the actual physical fight with the trolls, and the stone giants) tend to get off the various thematic spines, and the Dol Guldur subplot isn’t as thematically integrated as perhaps it could be, nor does it quite provide the character depth it should (though I understand the impulse behind showing it, both as explanation for what the heck Gandalf is off doing, and as prelude to Lord of the Rings). And aside from one critical line that speaks to a powerful change in the resolution of Bilbo’s character arc as compared to the book, there’s really no need for the extended Old Bilbo/Frodo sequence in An Unexpected Journey.
That said, the events of the main plot are given the appropriate weight – expanded as they are. Jackson is not just bloating this for the sake of bloating; there are specific artistic reasons for each decision made here. One can disagree with them (I certainly disagree with some), but this is, I think, a very valid reading of the text of The Hobbit.
This is especially true considering how all of these arcs and themes look to culminate in There and Back Again. The big question of why Jackson has constructed his adaptation this way has a fairly simple answer and it’s not mere directorial overindulgence (though that certainly plays a part): it’s the Battle of Five Armies. That left-turn plot development (which caught even Tolkien off-guard when he was writing it) is what changes The Hobbit from a simple quest to something profound. This is not the World War II glory of The Lord of the Rings. This is fantasy’s World War I. It is an ugly, bleak muddle of a battle – and by and large, it’s caused by the choices of Bilbo and Thorin. Much of the power and all of the tragedy of The Hobbit spill from that sequence, and what prompts it. Every one of those themes discussed above, every decision Bilbo and Thorin make – and, as a result, every response the world around them is forced to make – are leading them inexorably down that road. And Jackson’s development of these themes and plot arcs will make the bittersweet ending of the book even more bitter on film. It is an enormous gamble on Jackson’s part. I can’t wait to see if it pays off.
I often feel, reading responses to this trilogy, that minds were made up the instant it was announced there would be more than one movie. But I prefer to give storytellers – especially ones like Jackson, who has shown such ability in the past – a chance. And I’m glad I did, because this series is infinitely more fascinating than the average epic being churned out by Hollywood these days. He has dug deep and distilled what The Hobbit is really about. Perhaps, like the dwarves of Moria, he has dug too deep. But one of the joys I find in this series is the expansiveness of the world he portrays. Too often, An Unexpected Journey was hamstrung by revisiting (and often replaying for comic effect) the places of Lord of the Rings. In The Desolation of Smaug, he is freed from this, and able to bring what makes The Hobbit its own unique creation more fully to bear. It’s amazing that, five films deep, Jackson’s sense of wonder at Middle-Earth has not died. It’s still there, alive and beating, an uncynical pleasure in this dark but wondrous world. I think there’s a lesson there for us all.