In my reviews, I’ve been somewhat harsh towards Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. These films have been some of the most difficult for me to review. Subjectively, I can still enjoy these films for what they are. They work as action-adventure movies set in Middle-earth. At times, they’re visually stimulating, even if occasionally they rely too much on CGI. Some of the acting is excellent. Martin Freemen’s performance will likely be the definitive version of Bilbo Baggins for years. Objectively, the movies are flawed and lack emotional resonance. Moreover, the trilogy is not a faithful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
More important than my subjective impressions of the films, it’s important to understand why the films don’t work as adaptations. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably the most successful adaptation of book to screen and at the same time manages to remain extremely faithful to the book. A few tweaks aside, I cannot imagine a more successful adaptation of those novels – or at least one that manages to remain commercially viable. Importantly, the movies work both as adaptations and as films, as indicated by the many Oscars those films won.
As such, it’s both puzzling and disheartening that Jackson’s Hobbit films have become a lesson in how not to adapt a book to the big screen. If anything, The Hobbit should have been easier to adapt to film. The book has a much more streamlined narrative structure. At one level, it’s a simple quest story – the hero must go on an adventure to recover some lost object. And Hollywood can do quest stories. There are only 2-3 “lead” characters (Bilbo, Thorin, and Gandalf) and no secondary or tertiary plot lines. The Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit actually follows the plot of the book fairly closely in less than two hours. Peter Jackson had over 7 hours of film time.
In general, I’m quite forgiving of films that depart from the novel, when the writers have clearly considered the consequences of those changes on the rest of the story. My favorite movie, Blade Runner, bears little resemblance to the book, at least in terms of its basic plot. Changing the source material is fine if a writer wants to tell a new story tied to the source material. Part of the problem with the Hobbit films is that Jackson tries to have it both ways. He selectively adheres to the plot of the The Hobbit, but doesn’t seem interested in telling the story of The Hobbit. The movie includes many of the same characters and plot points as the book, but in a totally different context and tone. Sometimes, being faithful to the book prevents Jackson from telling his story. At other times, departing from the book opens up a plot hole that the films do not resolve.
Unlike The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is a tight narrative, so nearly every part of the book plays some role in the story. Changing one scene can have an effect on the rest of the story. For example, the stopovers at Rivendell and Beorn’s house serve as points for the readers to catch their breath after the excitement of the Trolls and Goblin tunnels, respectively. The Rivendell scene also shows the essential goodness of Elves, which helps the reader understand and forgive the Mirkwood Elves after they imprison the Dwarves. The movie includes these scenes, but drastically alters their context or tone. When the Dwarves’ first meet with the Rivendell Elves and Beorn, the mood is tense. Beorn tries to eat the Dwarves and Elrond and Thorin nearly come to blows. Thus, these scenes don’t actually provide viewers with a mental relief from the tension. This is part of the reason why the films seem like such an onslaught of action – there’s no break.
Changing the tone of a story in turn alters the story and alters our perception of the story, even if the plot is the same. For example, most people would probably view a video of a young girl running through a field of flowers with Bruno Mars music playing in the background would likely evoke a sense of happiness. But that same scene played to the Jaws theme would likely evoke a sense of dread. Likewise, The Hobbit novel is a lighthearted adventure story. The Hobbit film trilogy tries to be an epic tale. But the events of the book simply do not justify that tone. This leads to incongruous storytelling.
For example, in both book and movies, Bilbo does not behave as if he had experienced an epic; he behaves as if he’d experienced an adventure. This makes sense for the book. Remember, in the book, at best Bilbo fights large animals like Spiders, not skilled warriors. He passes out near the beginning of the Battle of Five Armies and presumably does not see much bloodshed. He went on a fairly sanitized adventure. However, given the events of the Hobbit movies, Bilbo should have PTSD. He’s gone through a real war and killed several Orcs. Yet, Bilbo’s character growth in the films does not indicate an acceptance or even acknowledgement of this violence. Unlike Pippin or Merry, he does not learn to become a soldier. Unlike Frodo or Sam, he does not become heavy of heart. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo proclaims that he’s ready for another adventure, making him seem callous.
Notice that I have not even mentioned Tauriel, Dol Guldur, or any of the other major changes to the plot. As much as I did not like those changes, I don’t think that they represent the core problem with the trilogy but rather are indicative of the deeper problems outlined above. A Dwarf-Elf romance might not be a horrible idea, but it has nothing to do with the primary story as told by the film. It plays no part in the primary quest story. Kili never even discusses his feelings with the other dwarves. What does it mean for the other Dwarves that Kili loves an Elf? Would Kili blindly support Thorin at the gates of Erebor if he was about to declare war on his girlfriend’s people? Kili simply cheers along with the rest of the Dwarves.
I think the Hobbit trilogy teaches us several things about adapting a story to another medium. To future directors: if you are going to adapt a book to film, take note:
- Plot is not the same as story. The plot of a novel is simply the sequence of events and character interactions. The story is the combination of the plot, characters, tone, themes, etc. You can read about a book’s plot on Wikipedia, but not get the complete story. In an adaptation, it’s usually more important to focus on the story than the plot.
- Tone and style are critical parts of a story. A novel that’s a historic epic might not work well on screen as a comedy. If you are going to change the tone of the story, ask if it is really the same story and what else might need to be changed.
- Make sure to tell a story. Either try to reproduce the story in the book as best you can or create your own story based loosely on the source material.
- If you alter the plot or tone, consider how such alterations to the source material will affect the story and the characters. You cannot get to the same endpoint if the journey is different.
- Remain consistent within your own story. Don’t contradict plot elements from earlier in the story. Tie up loose ends.
Ultimately, if a filmmaker likes elements of a novel but doesn’t want to tell the story contained in a book, it might be best to simply create a new franchise. There are several wonderful books and movies inspired by Tolkien’s works, including Star Wars and Dune. Creating a new franchise not only affords the storyteller more freedom, but also requires the storyteller to be more deliberate in crafting the story. Of course, given Hollywood’s current obsession with franchises, that might prove difficult for filmmakers nowadays.
I conclude my look at The Hobbit trilogy by suggesting how I might have changed the book’s story in adapting it to film…