Adapting the Hobbit

So. Let’s talk about the Hobbit movies. And yes, if you haven’t seen the movies or read the book, there will be some mild spoilers.

The big issue is, of course, the fact that while Lord of the Rings was three long books that required a whole trilogy to adapt, the Hobbit is one short book. One short children’s book. Turning it into a three-film follow-up to Lord of the Rings requires some… acrobatics. They need to add plotlines that were just hinted at in the appendices, add action beats where before there was just “and then the dwarves floated down the river in barrels,” and generally try to make the whole tale feel a bit more epic than it was.

And this riles some Tolkien purists. They don’t care for all these extra scenes of dwarf daring-do, all these added subplots, and would rather they had stuck to a more faithful adaptation of the book, even if it meant there would only be one Hobbit movie and not three. Actually especially if it meant that. Stretching the book into to three movies was the source of the complaints.

Now in a few paragraphs I expect there will be Tolkien fans prepping to lynch me. Or so I was led to believe from that time after an advance screening of Fellowship of the Rings when I was nearly assaulted for saying “Of course they cut out Tom Bombadil, why wouldn’t they.” But believe me when I say I get it. Remember V For Vendetta? People tell me that movie’s actually pretty good. And I guess I can see their point. But I used to read that graphic novel once per year, and there were some changes I just hated. V’s not out to kill the Leader, he’s out to bring down the Leader’s whole society! Crash the system! And he didn’t fall in love with Evey, he chose her as his successor! Because once the fascist order of Norsefire was reduced to rubble and anarchy there was no place in whatever world came next for him! Sorry. Got distracted. Anyway, I get it. Just as I’d rather have had a miniseries that didn’t have to cut out so much of the full V For Vendetta story, you think that instead of this trilogy that stretches out a simple story and fluffs it full of extra subplots and fight scenes, you’d rather have had one movie that was faithful to the book.

There are just a couple of problems there.

First, and this one’s not a reason I expect you or anyone to see as valid, the studio didn’t want one Hobbit movie. They wanted a new Lord of the Rings trilogy. Studios spent years trying and failing to find the next Lord of the Rings before moving on and trying to find the new Twilight. Chronicles of Narnia was a qualified success at best, Golden Compass bombed, going back to Tolkien seemed the best strategy (other than realizing that people are drawn to stories, not genres, but the studio system is rigged against that sort of rational observation), and the Hobbit is the other famous book set in Middle Earth. Certainly the one that’s in any way filmable. So, yeah, feel free to complain about corporate greed stomping all over artistic validity if you like.

But second, and more problematic… A faithful adaptation with no extra stuff added? That movie would have had some flaws. Big, big flaws. Allow me to explain.

Gandalf was a lazy deus ex machina

Everyone loves Gandalf, right? And everyone super loves Ian McKellen as Gandalf. Balrog-fightin’, staff-swingin’, army-rallyin’, “You shall not pass” Gandalf. We love that guy. Excited to have him back.

But in an accurate adaptation of the book? Well. How to put this.

Imagine if in the first Avengers movie, Iron Man had shown up at the beginning, said to the other Avengers “We have to stop that Loki guy! But I gotta bounce. Iron Man stuff. I’ll catch up with you,” and then vanished. Maybe he shoots a few Chitauri somewhere around the middle, but otherwise you don’t see him until the last five minutes, when he turns up and says “Hey guys! Turns out Loki was working for this super-powerful alien named Thanos! Don’t worry, though, I took care of it.” People would have complained endlessly.

But that’s Gandalf in the Hobbit. He’s a deus ex machina. He gets the expedition to the lonely mountain going, then wanders off to do wizard stuff. Turns up when the dwarves are in enough trouble that Bilbo can’t luck their way out of it, then leaves again because he’s off dealing with the Necromancer.

The Necromancer, by the way, is freaking SAURON. The big flaming eye guy. Forger of the one ring. Biggest bad in all of Middle Earth. That is what Gandalf is doing while Bilbo and the dwarves are hanging out at Beorn’s house eating honey snacks. And if we stuck to the book, he’d be doing it off camera. That is the weakest of weak sauce.

So, yeah, we want to see that. Catch us up on what Gandalf and Radagast are doing. Go for it. Cutting away from Bilbo and the dwarves ain’t gonna hurt anything. Which brings me to my next point.

The dwarves suck. Seriously.

The whole story of the Hobbit hinges on this band of dwarves making it to the Lonely Mountain so that they can take back their homeland from Smaug the dragon. These 13 dwarves are our heroes, the people we’re here to root for.

But in the book, they suck. They suck so hard.

Here’s what the dwarves manage over the course of the book. They get captured by three trolls, until they’re saved by Gandalf, who employs a cunning tactic that’s one step away from throwing a bucket over their heads and telling them it’s night time. Not the most cunning foes. Then they get caught by goblins in the Misty Mountains, and have to be saved by Gandalf. They get to Mirkwood, walk down the road until they run out provisions (because Tolkien was convinced that being hungry or thirsty was riveting adventure narrative), wander into the woods, and get caught by spiders. Once Bilbo saves them, they immediately get captured by elves. Bilbo springs them again, they finally reach the mountain, only to wait outside while Bilbo checks things out and accidentally convinces Smaug to go torch Laketown. And while Bard the archer handles the dragon, Thorin saunters in and claims the throne and all the treasure.

Now, as a simple children’s story, that can work. You have to downplay the Battle of Five Armies a bit, but you can make a child-orientated adaptation of Bilbo and the dwarves constantly stumbling into danger then lucking their way out. But what you cannot make is a follow-up to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Because you are following in the footsteps of Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the greatest of them all, Samwise motherfuckin’ Gamgee, and that Rocky and Bullwinkle nonsense isn’t going to cut it.

Now, two films in, it’s all basically still happening. They got caught by the trolls, and the goblins, and the spiders, and the elves. But at least they put up a fight. They go down swinging half the time. They take a stab at killing Smaug, and they do some spectacular damage on their way out of the Misty Mountains. And good for them. I, for one, preferred the “fighting orcs from floating barrels” action beat more than I would have enjoyed “And then they float to Laketown, having done nothing of note since the Misty Mountains.”

And yes, Mirkwood is made quicker and creepier. Because the two things Lord of the Rings gets mocked for the most are the 20 minutes worth of endings in Return of the King and being nine hours of hobbits walking to Mordor, so the last thing the Hobbit movies needed was multiple days of walking down a path with nothing happening.

No girls allowed

I took a fantasy literature course in University. Twice, actually, because the first time the professor was lame and the reading list made other professors wince and apologize. The second time I took it, with the good prof, he would always note how early 20th century fantasy authors portrayed women. He was not impressed with C.S. Lewis, for one. But then one day he wrapped the lecture by saying “Next week we’ll look at J.R.R. Tolkien, who answered the question of women in fantasy by saying ‘Well, we just won’t have any.'”

Ain’t no women in the Hobbit book. The movies correct that by bringing Galadriel back for Unexpected Journey, then introducing a new character in Tauriel, captain of the guard of the elves of Mirkwood. Here’s what Evangeline Lily, who plays Tauriel, had to say about her:

“And in his defense, Tolkien was writing in 1937. The world is a different place today, and I keep repeatedly telling people that in this day and age, to put nine hours of cinema entertainment in theaters for young girls to go and watch, and not have one female character for them to watch is subliminally telling them, ‘you don’t count.’ You’re not important, and you’re not pivotal to story. And I just think they were very brave and very bright in saying, ‘We won’t do that to the young female audience who come and watch our film.’ And not just the young female audience, but even a woman of my own age, I think it’s time we stop making stories that are only about men – especially only about heroic men. And I love that they made Tauriel a hero.”

Tauriel kicks ass. She’s clever, she’s as good a fighter as Legolas (also, I like that they weren’t afraid to have fan-favourite Legolas be a tool in his pre-Fellowship days), and for those complaining about the love triangle with Kili and Legolas… the only person who thinks there’s a triangle is Legolas. Tauriel herself doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that her king has forbade her from getting close with his son, she just kind of likes that dwarf kid, and makes her own decisions about what she’s going to do about it. She’s a great character, and Evangeline Lily does a great job with her, and I’m sorry if you don’t agree.

I’ll admit. There was a time when I thought that Tiny Toons Adventures having both Buster AND Babs Bunny was pandering to girls, but in my defense I was 14 and it didn’t take me long to realize that maybe girls getting to have their own Bugs Bunny didn’t ruin anything. By the time Animaniacs came around, I was okay with the Warner Brothers being joined by the Warner Sister Dot. So welcome to the franchise, Tauriel. Hope you don’t die in the Battle of Five Armies. Oh hey. That reminds me.

The Battle of Five Armies just kind of happens

So at the end, Thorin has the throne, thanks to all of that being-rescued-by-Bilbo he did, and is refusing to share the massive piles of treasure with any of the humans or elves outside demanding a cut. Other dwarves turn up to back Thorin, and then Gandalf drags himself back into the story to shout “Hey, idiots, goblins are attacking.”

I guess they were still sore about the Misty Mountain incident? Maybe? That could be it. Anyway, everyone fights the goblins, including Beorn the bear-dude and the eagles, and some of the dwarves don’t make it, but everyone learns the true meaning of friendship and calls it a day.

Not sure that would play well in a movie. “Hooray! We beat the dragon! And by we I mean that Bard guy we met about fifteen minutes ago, not any of the protagonists we’ve been following since the beginning. Oh no! The goblins are back!” It’d be like if at the end of Ghostbusters, once Gozer’s been defeated, the ghost from the library comes back and they have to take her down as well. A weird little bonus climax that would just seem extraneous. So, instead, they gave Thorin a nemesis in Azog the Defiler. He hunts Thorin throughout the trilogy, and ends up running Sauron’s orc army, which I assume is going to be who the other four armies need to team up and fight to learn that friendship is the real Arkenstone. Which is good. Make the Battle of Five Armies something the whole story has clearly been building to. Personify the enemy. Give us a nemesis that needs defeating instead of just yet another endless wave of orcs.

Because seriously, the Lord of the Rings movies are bad for Infinite Respawn. Individual orcs are easy to kill. Legolas, Tauriel, Fili, Kili, Dwalin, even Bombur, they can all tear through individual orcs like tissue paper and look awesome doing it. But they never run out. There are always more, and if you don’t give us one particular badass leader orc, it just gets old. The Chitauri needed Loki, and the orcs need Azog.

Plus he’s played by Arrow’s Manu Bennett, so that endears him to me a little.

I have seen two stage adaptations of the Hobbit, both of which kept the kid-friendly tone and didn’t add anything. They worked fine. But that’s not what I’m looking for from the team that brought me the Lord of the Rings movies. The Hobbit films haven’t been perfect (why spend all that time setting up the pieces for Smaug attacking Laketown if it isn’t happening this movie? You’ll just have to remind us next year. It makes no sense), but I’ve enjoyed them so far. Hope they end well. And maybe less than seven times.

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