I’ve spent several days reviewing – and often criticizing – Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. In general, I’ve concluded that the films would have worked better if they had stuck closer to the book. Tolkien’s novel is a tight narrative and adapting it piecemeal is perhaps riskier than simply abandoning the text. That said, I can understand the argument that, in telling his own story, Jackson did not deviate enough from the book. The Riddles in the Dark podcast in particular has noted how Jackson sometimes remains faithful to the book even when doing so undermines the film’s narrative. To emphasize the point that I’m not simply criticizing the films for deviating from the book, let me suggest several changes that Jackson could have made that would have improved his story:
Kill some Dwarves. In The Hobbit, none of the main characters die until the very end of the novel. This fits the tone and style of the novel because it is, at its core, a lighthearted quest story. The Dwarves do not actually engage in combat until the Battle of Five Armies. They usually end up fleeing from fights. By contrast, in the films, Jackson wanted to retell The Hobbit as an epic adventure, more in line with the tone and style of The Lord of the Rings. That choice certainly makes sense, but epics are filled with suffering and drama. The Lord of the Rings set the tone early in Boromir’s death, putting readers on notice that our main heroes were not safe from danger. Although the Dwarves partake in heavy combat in Goblin Town, the barrel chase, Laketown, etc., the Hobbit trilogy never had a similar moment. The Dwarves not only survive unscathed – Kili’s poisoning aside – but also seem to joke around during the battles (Bombur’s barrel fight being the most notable example). This contributed to the feeling many viewers had that the films resemble a “video game.”
This is where I think one or two Dwarf deaths earlier in the trilogy would have set the mood more appropriately. After all, there are 13 Dwarves in Thorin’s company. Did the movie really need all 13? In the book, the number of Dwarves doesn’t matter because the extra Dwarves can fade into the background. But in the movies they’re always present on screen. You can’t ignore them. Some of the extra Dwarves, particularly Bofur and Balin, have touching scenes with Bilbo, but most of them just stand around with nothing to do. So why not kill a few off? If Ori or Nori had died in the Goblin Town scene, it would have imbued those scenes with a greater sense of danger. Those CGI Orcs would have become a a real threat. I know I personally would have taken the Barrel chase and Smaug’s attack more seriously if I thought Glóin or Bifur might not make it through. If we’d seen Thorin or Bilbo grieve for their fallen comrades, it would also have given viewers greater reason to invest in the Dwarf characters.
Intra-Dwarf Rivalry. What else could a scriptwriter do with 13 Dwarves? Why not create dissension in Thorin’s company? Conflict is a key element of great drama. One of the best new scenes in The Desolation of Smaug was Glóin’s initial refusal to contribute money to buy passage on Bard’s ship. What worked about this scene is that it established Glóin as an individual with his own motives and interests. He was part of the company, but he also wanted to be a “free rider.” Moreover, the scene foreshadowed the coming “dragon sickness,” as well as the cure (finding common cause before the Lonely Mountain).
There was some potential for this type of conflict when Thorin left four Dwarves behind in Laketown at the end of Desolation of Smaug. One would think that surviving a dragon attack would have had a major impact on these characters. Moreover, they left Thorin’s company on bad terms. When I first saw the film, I thought perhaps this was why the film needed to keep all 13 Dwarves. In the book, all the Dwarves partake in essentially the same adventure, but perhaps the movie was going to show what might happen if some of the Dwarves undergo difference experiences. Perhaps we’d even see some conflict within the company. Yet, when the Dwarves return to Thorin’s company in The Battle of the Five Armies, they again become part of the crowd. Even though they suffered with the people of Laketown, Fili and Kili and Bofur join the others on the gates of Erebor, cheering Thorin on as he spurns Bard’s request for a share of the treasure. They never once argue that Thorin should perhaps share the gold. They apparently feel no ill will towards Thorin for abandoning them in Laketown. Ironically, Dwalin, who remained with the company, is the only Dwarf to confront Thorin. So why exactly did the movie leave them in Laketown in the first place?
Get rid of Beorn. In The Hobbit novel, Beorn played (at least) three roles. First, Beorn’s house was a rest stop after the excitement and danger of Goblin Town. The story slowed down so the characters – and the readers – could catch their collective breaths before the company’s next adventure. Second, Beorn tells Gandalf and the Dwarves important information about the Goblins and Mirkwood. Finally, Beorn played an important role in the Battle of Five Armies, carrying the wounded Thorin out of the battle. Beorn is present in the film trilogy, but he does not play any of these roles in the films. In The Desolation of Smaug, we first meet Beorn as a giant bear who nearly eats the Dwarves. The subsequent scene in his house is rather tense. The Dwarves certainly do not look at ease, and I imagine most audience members felt worried for them. It was another moment of tension after an already hectic chase scene. He certainly doesn’t relate any important information related to the Dwarves’ quest.
In The Battle of the Five Armies, Beorn appears only briefly at the end when the Eagles arrive. I suspect many audience members who were not familiar with the books might have missed him. So was Beorn really necessary for the movies? I suspect not. I understand the inclination to include him in the films. But if the film does not need or want to use him the way that he’s used in the book, then it’s worth asking if his presence helps the film tell its story. As much as the Tolkien fan in me loved seeing Beorn realized on screen, I can’t help but feel that Beorn merely slowed the plot down. Screen time is precious. The time spent on Beorn could have been better spent developing Bilbo, Thorin, or the other main characters.