Forty years ago I read for the first time a true classic of world literature, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This weekend I took my children to see a motion picture called The Hobbit. What do these two things have in common? Apparently, very little.
Book-to-movie is not something new. It’s been happening ever since cinema was first created. Sometimes, the adaptation is decent, even excellent. Unfortunately, all too often, the result is less than desirable. Whether it be the choice of actors, the final script, the production values, or one of many other factors, the result is a terrible mess.
I have read and re-read The Hobbit times innumerable over the past forty years. Quite often I and others would wonder about the possibility of ever bringing such an intricate and beloved story to the big screen. Certainly, it could not be done within the constraints of a single movie, even at a length approaching 3 hours. Wisely, Peter Jackson chose to adapt the book into a three-part epic. The total length would encompass such an epic adventure which The Hobbit is. Surely, the rest would be easy. Apparently, it wasn’t.
Somewhere, I heard an interview with one of the writers associated with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings/Hobbit films. (I’ll not mention a name, just in case I have it wrong.) This person, one of the primary scriptwriters for Lord of the Rings, was talking about bringing Tolkien’s work to the screen. While acknowledging Tolkien’s genius with how he envisioned and brought to life his fantasy world, this writer then went on to claim that there was still room for improvement and they, the scriptwriters, were the team to make Tolkien’s work better. Better. Really.
Have you ever heard someone speaking and what they were saying was so off-the-wall, so bizarre, that all you could do was look at them and say “Seriously…?”. Yeah, that was my reaction. Keep in mind, this occurred after The Return of the King. All three Lord of the Rings films were done and shown and time to reflect on them had passed. While I admired his ambition and his filmmaking skills, I could not admire the writing, especially how they “re-interpreted” the story’s characters. Too many primary characters had been so completely re-written as to be unrecognizable when compared to the original. Despite this, though, I was holding out hope that The Hobbit might be different. After all, three films for one book. Plenty of time to tell the story as written. No need to overly dramatize or condense. Plenty of time to reveal the true natures of Tolkien’s characters without meddling with their integrity. Silly me.
Thorin needing to “prove” to the other dwarves that he was fit to be King Under the Mountain; the Master of Lake-town as a Machiavellian tyrant, presiding over an impoverished population kept under control by a medieval secret police; Thranduil the Greedy, turning his back on the world but willing to help Thorin and Company for a piece of the action; and, worst of all, Bard the Bargeman. No, that was not a mistype or an autocorrect gone wild. Bard the Bargeman. Sigh.
In reflecting back over the first two installments of The Hobbit, I cannot think of a single character who still retains the integrity of their persona as written by Tolkien. And not a single change was for the better. Except for the names, the characters retain little or nothing of their original form as written by Tolkien, and that is not a good thing. Which all leads me back to the title of this piece and the first paragraph: The Hobbit (the novel) and The Hobbit (the film) have very little to do with one another. In attempting to bring this classic to life, Peter Jackson has created a cracking-good adventure film, well-acted, well-produced, and well-directed. As a representation, though, of one of the world’s greatest and best-loved literary masterpieces, he has created his own personal “Desolation of Smaug”: The Desolation of Peter Jackson.