Peter Jackson, Hobbit-ual Revisionist


In a couple of ways, there's no point in worrying about spoilers when reviewing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It's adapted from a 75-year-old book that a seemingly high percentage of the English-speaking world is already familiar with, and this is the first part of a trilogy, so nothing here gives away the ending if by some miracle you don't already know what it is. So I can, in good conscience, make this not just a review, but also an analysis of differences between the book and the movie, and that is what I will do. Because if you thought director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy deviated a lot from J.R.R. Tolkien's original books, you ain't seen nothing yet.

In The Lord of the Rings, Jackson took a determinedly serious story and lightened it up with a rather repetitive series of dwarf jokes. Here, the opposite happens: a relatively light-hearted children's story is continually made more serious than its source. He does this in a number of ways.

The visual element vastly heightens the violence in the story, amping up the scariness. Even the encounter with the trolls, which retains much of the original's humor, can't help having more visceral impact given Jackson's highly vivid visual style. And when the story reaches the goblin cave, the scale becomes immense compared to the book, showing us a massive underground city full of bridges and a vast population as opposed to the tunnels and necessarily smaller number of goblins Tolkien had. This makes the dwarves' escape without any casualties, not even injuries, seem spectacularly unrealistic. (Also, Gandalf's rescue comes out of nowhere, whereas in the book it is contextualized sensibly.)

The framing of the story changes, with the destruction of the dwarves' home in the Lonely Mountain shown right away. The book gradually builds up to the more serious parts after a long comic introduction, and even then the back story is related verbally, and retrospectively, whereas here it's an explosion of violence very early. This depiction of the dragon Smaug's triumph also drastically recontextualizes the event, showing an army of potential elf rescuers turning away, something utterly missing from the book. This also leads to the visit to Rivendell being something Gandalf has to trick the dwarves into, as the dwarves' leader, Thorin Oakenshield, thus considers elves to have personally betrayed him (there is also reference to the elves refusing to help the dwarves battling against orcs in Moria, another added bit).

3) Most of all, Jackson adds many elements to the story, which is a major part of why, after his LOTR was three episodes matching the original's number of books, we're getting three episodes of The Hobbit compared to one slim book. A huge subplot barely hinted at in the book -- the Necromancer in Dol Guldur -- is here extrapolated extensively, complete with a major subplot that provides roles for Radagast (which, though fairly comic in tone, includes a pulse-accelerating chase scene with orcs and wargs), Galadriel, and Saruman that weren't in the book. This is done to expand on things that only became clear later on in LOTR, especially in its appendices); one can forgive Jackson for this, as it's a revision Tolkien himself had set to work on over two decades after the original (which had already been revised somewhat to bring it more in line with LOTR, though, tellingly, he abandoned the second revision because it was losing too much of the character of a children's book in the process.

That subplot at least serves a logical purpose. Other changes and additions, however, seem just arbitrary, most of all the scene in the mountains where what the company of dwarves and Bilbo are walking on turns out to be giants made of stone, who then battle, endangering our heroes. Not only is this passage not in the book, it serves no purpose in the plot; it seems to be there merely to show off some special effects and stretch the first film out a little more.

A much bigger addition is another subplot, this one an orcs-dwarves rivalry between the Thorin and a leader of the orcs, Azog the Defiler. While it does give us a dramatic illustration of how Thorin got the Oakenshield part of his name, the way it keeps popping up makes the whole plot a little TOO tightly woven; in the book, events are allowed to be unrelated and random, whereas here, the goblins capture the dwarves to deliver them as captives to Azog, who wants vengeance for Thorin having cut off his arm, and when the wargs (wolves) pursue the dwarves after their escape from the goblins and send them scurrying up trees, those wargs are not acting on their own, they are ridden by orcs. (More on this bit below.) Perhaps the later parts of the trilogy will make sense of this subplot, but so far it seems like more overdetermination of the plot. Speaking of which, in the movie, the eagles don't rescue the company of their own choice after seeing the fire; rather, they are summoned by Gandalf, via a butterfly (echoing a scene in Jackson's LOTR), sent BEFORE the fire, 

Some of the changes seem designed to put Bilbo in a better light. In the book, the trouble with the trolls comes when he attempts to pickpocket a bag of their treasure; here, he is attempting to help two of the dwarves retrieve pack animals the trolls have taken. And, weirdly, rather than the trolls capturing the dwarves one by one or two by two as they come looking for Bilbo, here the dwarves surrender en masse, rather unrealistically, and it's Bilbo who is responsible for delaying the trolls' return to their cave and subsequent turning to stone in sunlight, rather than, as in the book, Gandalf.

And, in a drastic change, during the fight with the wargs, not only does Thorin abandon his tree perch to attack Azog, Bilbo -- after Thorin's gotten his ass thoroughly whupped by Azog and is lying helpless on the ground -- charges to Thorin's rescue, buying him enough time for the eagles to save the day. This is a sort of physical heroism that is totally out of character for Bilbo; it may be here to show the sort of character growth and increasing usefulness that the other changes have sometimes obscured (gone is Bilbo's warning cry in the cave as the goblins are stealing their horses, because a) Gandalf is no longer there to be warned; b) the goblins aren't stealing horses/supplies, they're kidnapping dwarves, etc.). 

So, it's quite clear that Jackson is making The Hobbit into quite a different story, with a thoroughly revised tone, than it was in the book. One could cynically say that by adding so much, he's adding movies and thus profitability, but I give him more credit than that. He is trying to raise The Hobbit to the level of mythic importance that LOTR has, and along the way make it less a string of nearly random events. It's too early to say for sure, but the result could be an improvement, on those terms, over the rather slight and episodic book, which (as much as I and many others love it) can seem so trivial compared to its successor volumes.

By the way, I saw the regular version, not the fancy presentations in 3-D, IMAX 3-D, or 3-D HFR, so I'm not going to be able to weigh in on their merits. But the vast panoramas here are certainly both beautiful and effective, and the special effects seem more natural than in LOTR -- technology kept advancing in the decade since then, and the effects are smoother. The acting's more than good enough for this sort of action, so overall, despite dissatisfaction with a few elements, so far so good. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. He has read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings more times than he can count.