UPDATE on 1/12/17
It had been awhile since I published this and read through the comments. One thing that has since become apparent is that the fault of this largely belongs at the feet of Del Toro and the film studio. In a nutshell, the story was built by Del Toro’s team, and when Jackson jumped in at the last moment, he didn’t get time to adjust anything. I still believe he could have made changes and fixed things, but he was in a very difficult situation.
I’ve also tried to clean this up a bit and shorten it.
Regardless, the films ares still a tragedy. This short 6-minute video explains the issues.
As a lifelong devoted fan of Tolkien’s writings, I was intensely disappointed after viewing “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug.” I felt compelled to blog about it, because I feel like it’s important for one simple reason: to help people understand that the large screen adaptation of Tolkien’s work is not Tolkien’s story.
I’ve provided some background and detail on the list, below. If you don’t care about my reasoning or the issues that I feel are important to the movie’s failure, you can cut to the chase and just read the list at the end.
I understand that a movie based on a book is an adaptation because cinema is a different medium from the written word. While many would consider me a purist, I’m not such a purist that I can’t understand that changes must be made in order to make a movie watchable and engaging.
No, this is not some throw-a-fit session because the movie doesn’t match the book. It’s all about what is the story, and what isn’t. When I complain about things being in the movie that are not in the book, the problem is that’s it’s a worse than being a departure from the real story – it’s generally an addition/fabrication that makes the story worse, or causes us to lose out on wonderful things that were originally there.
A Quick Note on the LOTR Films
Let’s briefly touch on the Lord of the Rings trilogy movies. I think they are amazing pieces of work. They are stirring on both a visual and emotional level, and on many occasions completely exceeded my expectations. As for the adaptation, I can understand and agree with the omission of Tom Bombadil. The changing of Glorfindel to Arwen during the flight to the fords makes perfect sense – especially to bring a more feminine tone to the movies.
Even the extended scenes with Arwen that were written were written faithfully based on Tolkien’s own work in the appendices – and they fit into the narrative of the LOTR stories as a whole. The story of Arwen and Aragorn is a compelling one, and it reaches back to the story of Beren and Luthien in Tolkien’s historical works. How stirring is the scene with Arwen wearing her funeral garb, mourning over Aragorn’s death?
While I would take issue with a small handful of things in the movies, on balance they are a wonder. It seems the only times there’s a bit of trouble is when Peter Jackson puts his writer hat on.
The Heart of the Matter
We are dealing with the most famous work of high fantasy ever written. It was written by a man whose works in worldbuilding are unparalleled, and by a man who frankly created the genre of high fantasy. If you doubt me in this, you might take a moment to read this commentary by a reader on Reddit.
It will help you appreciate the magnitude of what kind of writer Tolkien was – what kind of scholar he was – and what went into the writing of his works. It’s certainly fair to say that Tolkien is one of the greatest writers of fiction of all time. The Hobbit and LOTR are some of the best selling books EVER. The LOTR has sold over 150 million copies, The Hobbit over 100 million.
So the point becomes this: what is the reason for rewriting a major portion of Tolkien’s story – one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written? And when I’m talking about “rewriting” I mean creating things that are not present in the book, and would have no basis for being there. I’m talking about directly changing events, people, and themes when such changes were not necessary to adapt the book to film.
The DOS goes far beyond adaptation, and that is the crux of its failure. Why would Jackson and his team think that they could write a better version of The Hobbit? Because it is clear that they cannot.
The Hobbit is not a true Prequel to the LOTR
Many of the film’s problems result from trying to force The Hobbit to be much more of a prequel than it really is. Yes, Bilbo finds the One Ring and escapes Gollum, and yes, Gandalf and the White Council force Sauron out of Dol Guldor. But it must be understood that The Hobbit was written as a children’s book for Tolkien’s own children. When it was complete, he had no original intention of writing LOTR. It was only with the success of The Hobbit and his publisher asking for “more stories about Hobbits” that led to LOTR.
When Tolkien wrote LOTR, it went through many, many revisions and it was not written as a children’s book. Yes, it has hobbits, but it’s much, much more than that. To quote Das_Mine, the author of the essay I linked to above:
“Tolkien believed the world suffered from disenchantment: that along with the modernization of the Industrial and Victorian eras had come a reduced sense of wonder at the world, and a diminished willingness to believe in the fantastic and the terrible. In his essay, On Faery-Stories, he explained his views on faery-stories and the importance of fantasy and mythology. He felt that they had been tamed, that the connotation of “fairy” (the spelling was important to him, as a discriminating philologist) had become tamed, something you would meet in your garden rather than a dark forest, something adorable rather than something which should make you tremble. He felt that such stories described the world on a spiritual plane in a way that mundane stories about the real world could not.”
The LOTR is much more than a children’s story. Much of what transpires in LOTR was developed as he wrote it. In The Hobbit, the ring is little more than a magic ring, but in LOTR, it’s the One Ring. There are many more examples one could give, but to avoid writing a novel here, suffice to say that to try and take The Hobbit and make the darker tone of it match LOTR is to create something that isn’t there.
Tolkien Tells Us What the Story is About
The Hobbit is a tale of adventure, and it is primarily concerned with Bilbo. And we know this because Tolkien tells us. The very subtitle is “or There and Back Again.” It’s about Bilbo’s journey and how it changed him. At the end of only the third paragraph Tolkien tells us:
“He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained — well you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”
This is the guiding principle that Tolkien sets out at the beginning of the book. It is this principle which is utterly lost in the second movie. The Hobbit is full of wonderful moments of adventure, Bilbo’s self discovery and a sense of longing for home. These things are nowhere to be seen in the movie – even though at times Jackson tries to fabricate them out of his new writings.
My feeling when I left the theater was this: I had seen a movie that contained characters in the book The Hobbit, but the movie I saw was not The Hobbit. It was some other story entirely.
1) The Arkenstone is not a catalyst for a gathering of Dwarven kingdoms to reclaim their home.
The Arkenstone was a treasure very specific to Thorin’s heart, but no more than that. Because of this idea that was written into the screenplay, Bilbo’s whole interaction with the Arkenstone has been changed for the worse – beginning with the nonsensical encounter with Smaug (more on that down the list). This mistake will further come home to roost in the third movie.
The concept creates a host of problems. Never in The Hobbit do we read of a gathering of seven Dwarven kingdoms. (Again, I can only imagine what this means for the third movie.) The idea that Thorin was being hunted by men is flat out ridiculous. (Edit: True, Gandalf had met Thorin previously as outlined in Unfinished Tales.) The reason for Gandalf seeking out Thorin was to somehow get Smaug out of the picture so that Sauron could not use the dragon as a weapon (this is revealed in LOTR.)
He knew Thorin would desire a chance to return to the mountain, and Gandalf had met Thrain in the dungeons of the Necromancer, where Thrain had given him the map and the key to the secret door. While Gandalf felt it was a long shot, it was his only idea for getting rid of the dragon.
In Tolkien’s story, Bilbo finding the Arkenstone and keeping it a secret from Thorin is the catalyst that helps avert a war between the Dwarves, Men and Elves right before the Battle of Five Armies. Thorin saw Bilbo as a traitor for it, and they only reconcile at the end. Another vital part of the story that is lost.
2) The attempts to shoehorn The Hobbit into a strict prequel to LOTR.
There are many instances of this, but I think the worst is when Bilbo takes off the ring when confronting Smaug because he sees the Eye of Sauron! The whole concept of the ring as a part of Sauron is completely absent from The Hobbit. The ring had not “awoken” and began to “seek its master” like Gandalf explains to Frodo in “A Shadow of the Past.” in FOTR. Remember also that in FOTR, Bilbo states that he never felt there was anything wrong with the ring itself, only that there was something wrong with himself. Bilbo never once attributed any evil to the ring.
Yet suddenly, in his early use of the ring, he sees the eye and takes it off in fear. This is also an excellent example of losing out on the wonder and sense of adventure of The Hobbit and replacing it with the darker themes of LOTR.
Just as bad are the many scenes with Gandalf and Radigast in Dol Guldor. Gandalf is taken prisoner?! Such a thing never happened (not until Saruman gets him!) We’re not aware of any armies massing at Dol Guldor ready to strike a moment’s notice. We only know that goblins have been multiplying in the mountains. The White Council (mainly Gandalf) only suspected that something was wrong there, and that this necromancer could be more than he seemed. But there was no battle between Sauron and Gandalf – and there’s really no writing of Tolkien’s from which you could extrapolate such a thing.
The whole idea of a direct confrontation between them is ridiculous, especially because we are told in Tolkien’s writings that at the time, “the Necromancer” (who was Sauron) had not fully gained his powers back yet. Because of this, the White Council was able to drive him out fairly easily – something we learn later was only a feint by Sauron to bide time.
3) Beorn’s character lost all it’s charm, danger and delight.
I was very much looking forward to the scenes with Beorn. In the book, we see Gandalf use his wisdom to trick Beorn into allowing 14 people into his home, when Beorn would prefer to have none! Gandalf tells the exploits of the company as they arrive two by two. The whole scene is funny and interesting, and frankly would have been a nice way to recap the happenings of the first movie.
At night, Beorn checks out the story and finds that it is true, and becomes an ally of the company – especially because he loved the fact that they killed the Great Goblin. It would have been wonderful to see this, instead of the wild, nonsensical chase from the Carrock with the made up “magical barrier” around the house. As for Gandalf breaking into Beorn’s house – it’s again ridiculous. Beorn would never stand for such a thing and Gandalf knew it.
Worse, the Company had just escaped the goblins of the Misty Mountains by flying over the mountains on eagles! There could be nobody chasing them so quickly – and indeed, there wasn’t. Speaking of which…
4) Azog is dead. There are no armies of orcs until the Battle of Five Armies. Also, Azog – DEAD.
The mishandling of Azog is disappointing because Azog has been dead for a long time when this story takes place. While he was a powerful enemy of the Dwarves, he was killed by Dain at the Battle of Azanulbizar (which we see in the beginning of the first movie). There was never a massive army of orcs following the Dwarves and Bilbo.
The company had trouble with the goblins of the Misty Mountains, but once they escaped them (via the eagles), they saw no orcs (or goblins) until the Battle of Five Armies. All this fighting and chasing between Azog and his group could have been left out – there is simply no reason for it. And that would have left plenty of time for the wonderful things that are in the book – like the scene with Beorn, for example.
(As for Bilbo fighting Azog in the first movie with Sting, that’s preposterous – Bilbo would have been killed instantly. )
It was at one of these chase/fight scenes that I realized that Christopher Tolkien’s fears about the movies had come true. He said that they would become simple action/hack and slash movies and destroy his father’s work. In this case, he is exactly right – that is precisely what happened in this movie. And it only gets worse as the movie goes on.
5) Mirkwood Mishandled
The chapters that involve the company’s adventures in Mirkwood are some of the most fun and exciting in all the book, and there are some really great moments there – and all are lost in the movie.
While Gandalf does warn them about the path in the movie – he doesn’t warn them enough, and the company doesn’t really heed him. Yet this is a critical issue in Mirkwood. The forest is so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of your face. To leave the path is to die. Yet the company leaves the path almost immediately, with no real reason.
We lost the fun of Bombur falling into the magic river and falling asleep – making the dwarves carry him! The dwarves using the last of their arrows shooting after the white stag for food. Their despair at the dark and the feeling they would never get out, and again Bilbo’s longing for home (something we never get in the movie.)
When Bilbo climbs the tree and looks out, he cannot see the end of the forest (Causing him to despair). He does not see the mountain! (That first glimpse comes later, and is another important moment). And when he goes down to the grumbling dwarves, they are in even further despair – they have run out of food.
When they finally leave the path and meet the spiders, it is a momentous moment in the book for Bilbo. Because it is there he finds his real courage, it is there he leads the dwarves and they begin to change their mind about him. We lost all the fun of Bilbo singing insulting rhymes to the spiders to enrage them, and then their desperate fight to escape the spiders for good – and Bilbo makes it all happen. And he makes it happen using the ring! He even tells them he will disappear!
And it was leaving the path and stumbling upon the elves making merry that led to their capture. That is how Thorin gets separated from the company. All these wonderful moments that could have been in the movie were replaced by fabrications – changing the story and making it worse, not better. Taking out the special and putting in the mundane.
6) The Wood Elves, Legolas and Tauriel, Bard
I actually had hopes that Tauriel might be a good character. I understood the reason to try and add her, but what she ended up being is a disaster. While it might have been fun to see Legolas again (and it even made sense) seeing him as an invincible war machine was disappointing. Action for action’s sake, I guess. When he stood on the heads of the dwarves in the river and continued killing orcs, I could only shake my head.
While in captivity, Thorin is losing heart. He’s about to give in to the Elven King’s demands and tell him about the quest, when Bilbo finds out where Thorin is being kept. Keep in mind Bilbo kept his ring on nearly the whole time he was with the Elves. He did not fear his ring. This is one of those moments when Thorin takes heart and his esteem for Bilbo grows – once again lost in the movie.
But the worst is the insinuated romance between Tauriel and Kili. This is about as unfortunate as it gets. Was Jackson that desperate for a romantic story? There isn’t an Arwen/Aragorn story in The Hobbit, and furthermore, there is no need for one.
As for the idea that a romance would ever blossom between an elf and a dwarf, it’s frankly a joke. Any Tolkien fan can tell you this. Many times in the history of Middle Earth, the elves and dwarves were bitter enemies. Rarely were they on good terms (the friendship of Legolas and Gimli was a rare, rare thing – part of what made it so special!) In addition, they are physically very different, and they see the world from two completely opposite sides of view.
It was at that point in the movie that I knew it had all gone astray.
The escape in the barrels was laughable. I can grant that the dwarves need to be seen instead of hidden in the barrels since it’s a movie, but the crazy battle with the orcs was so unfortunate, and so fake. There was no “Morgul arrow” shot into Kili’s leg. One wonders how there could even be a morgul arrow when the Morgul vale at this time was abandoned – and far, far away from Mirkwood. If such a thing existed (which is never mentioned by Tolkien) it would hardly be used by a common orc of the Misty Mountains. The Morgul blade that Frodo was stabbed with was wielded by the Morgul King himself.
The whole scene looked like a video game. I think the worst part was when Bombur did his spinning dance, destroyed his barrel, then leaped back into a barrel in the river – even though there were no extra barrels. What?!
What we really lost was Bilbo’s first sight of the Mountain as the barrels came around a bend. It was a time where Bilbo wasn’t sure if the dwarves were even alive or what would happen to them, and the mountain looked menacing – another moment lost.
7) Bard the Bowman and Lake Town
So much that went on in Lake Town was boring and unnecessary, and this part of the movie dragged on, and was filled with eye-rolling moments. Yes, Bard is a descendant of Girion of Dale. Because of that, he was no common river smuggler. The idea of the dwarves paying money for passage cheapens their journey. Bard was a doomsayer, and maybe a bit crabby, but he was an honorable man – a captain of the guard. An expert bowman.
The black arrow was an actual arrow that had been handed down to him for generations – not some huge metal monstrosity that the dwarves built. All the nonsense with his kids and running around the town and getting in prison – none of those things happened, and none of them were necessary.
What was important was that Bard was smart enough to realize that the dwarves were probably stirring up trouble for Lake Town. And it was Bard that got the people to fight when Smaug finally does come. Bard is a noble man that eventually kills Smaug, and later becomes Lord of Dale. Not some common thief.
8) Characters out of Character
I’ve already mentioned the wounding of Kili (which never happens). But suddenly dwarves know what Athelas is! An herb that only elves and the Dunedain (the Rangers) truly knew about (which is where Aragorn learned of it). Yet somehow they find it at Lake Town! Again we get Sam’s line “it’s a weed.” Just to have the nonsense with Tauriel healing Kili. The whole thing with Kili seeing her glowing in a nimbus of white light was laughable.
Thorin would never have left his kin, Kili, behind, or any of the company of dwarves for that matter. Yet we are sold a bill of goods that somehow Thorin is being affected by a treasure horde he hasn’t even seen yet! It’s like they want Thorin to have his own version of the evil of the One Ring. Thorin has enough problems in the book without creating new ones for him. While one could stretch and believe it would be possible for Thorin to act that way if he held one of the seven dwarven rings, Thorin has no such ring.
Meanwhile, Thorin has become the star of the movie. A surly, unlikeable character has been brought to the forefront. And Bilbo’s figurative and literal journey has been utterly lost.
9) The Arrival at the Mountain
The dwarves arrival at the Mountain is such an emotional moment in Tolkien’s story, for many, many reasons. They had gone through so much to get there, and yet there was still so much more to do, including finding the secret door.
Yet what do we get? Instead of their search, their fear at being so close to Smaug (things we could have had instead of “Bard the Smuggler”) we have them arrive exactly on Durin’s day (what luck!) Worse, they find the door right away because Bilbo sees something in plain sight! The dwarves make a big deal out of his “wonderful eyesight” or whatever, meanwhile, they all see it immediately too!
We lose Bilbo showing his usefulness by finding the doorstep (and that connection with what he said about sitting on the doorstep at the start of the book). We lose all the tension with them trying to get in the secret door when Smaug flies out. They are nearly killed on the doorstep!
Worse, suddenly, the dwarves just give up right away after spending all that time getting there when the keyhole does not appear! They begin leaving – after all that they had been through?! Not just the adventures, but years of toiling in the mines as common workers, struggling to live for this moment. Nah, we give up.
Meanwhile, it’s not moonlight that reveals the keyhole, it’s – as the secret riddle stated – the last LIGHT of Durin’s day. These scenes were some of the worst in the movie, and all the more so because so much of the original story is so wonderful – so many meaningful moments that we never get to see.
10) The Encounter With Smaug
What could have been the best, was the worst. The encounter between Bilbo and Smaug was worse than terrible, and again I would say that here, all of Christopher Tolkien’s fears were realized.
Bilbo is never is visible before the dragon – he would never take the chance of allowing a dragon to look directly at him! And he never senses the eye of Sauron, as I talked about earlier. There is never any connection between Bilbo and Sauron in The Hobbit, no matter how much Jackson wants one. (And yes, you could have made a compelling scene with Bilbo invisible).
Smaug could have eaten Bilbo 20 times over – if not more. Bilbo meeting Smaug face to face and running from him? In a pile of coins? Yet somehow, like a magical fairy, Bilbo evades a raging, powerful dragon. It’s sad, it’s ludicrous, it takes you out of the story completely.
We lost all the fun with Bilbo playing to Smaug’s ego and tricking him to show him weakness. We lost him taking the cup back and realizing the desperate nature of the quest. Of Smaug implanting doubt into Bilbo’s mind about the dwarves. We lost Bilbo’s finding of the Arkenstone and keeping it before he fully realized how much Thorin desired it.
The whole battle with the dragon was awful – the forges heating up so fast (I would imagine it would take a whole day – even if they did work) the running around impossibly like a superhero in a video game. The things that the dwarves and Bilbo did during those scenes were laughable. And there was never any fear they would be caught. Never any real trepidation about Smaug. Smaug became nothing more than a neat CGI creation, and not the devious, terrible creature that he was.
In the end, we almost have the dwarves victorious, but this is nothing like they were feeling. They were exploring an empty cavern, wondering where the dread Smaug could be (fearing he might arrive at any moment at first) and then preparing for his return.
These are the key reasons for my disappointment. Others have listed some of the same, and many other reasons, too. I guess I’m really sad for people who don’t know the story of The Hobbit – people who will think that this movie adaptation is the real story. Real Tolkien fans know better. But the sad truth is that a new generation will be introduced to a diluted and twisted version of one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written.
I have little to no hope for the final film, and I expect the story to stray even further from the original, becoming less and less of what it was.
If the movie was your introduction to the story, I urge you to pick up a copy of the book and sit down and read it for yourself. You will not be disappointed – on the contrary, you will be absolutely delighted!