Friday, September 30, 2022

Green Phoenix - Let's Talk...The Hobbit Trilogy

The Hobbit trilogy dvd cover.jpg

In 2001, Peter Jackson released the first part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to near universal acclaim. Over the next two years, this ambitious project (which had never been done before) would rise to become one of the greatest film franchises of all time, not only helping to popularize the fantasy genre for blockbuster audiences (a trait the Lord of the Rings trilogy shares with the Harry Potter series) but also ensuring that the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, would become a household name.

With an expansive and immersive world, fantastic characters with beautifully realized archetypes and a true sense of focus that George R.R. Martin could only dream of, The Lord of the Rings has long become a cornerstone of the fantasy genre, almost to the genre's detriment if I'm being particularly critical. But it was not the only exploration that Tolkien took into the world of Middle-Earth. Before The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had been working for decades on several projects including works that would eventually become The Silmarillion and, of course, the book that propelled him to popularity in the first place, The Hobbit.

Thus when the fans of The Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy began to express their hunger for more content, The Hobbit was the clear and obvious choice. Despite this obvious recipe for success and profit, the world would not see an adaptation of Tolkien's beloved children's book until 2012, with a brand new trilogy of films: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of Five Armies.

At last after a decade of waiting, a new trilogy within the world of Middle-Earth was available for people to enjoy. And audience's collective response to this trilogy was...lackluster, to say the least. Initially, I couldn't decide if I wanted this article to be a Building Better Backstories or just a general editorial. Because of that, this edition of Let's Talk...will be something of a discussion and consideration. We will look at what worked and what did not about Peter Jackson's second trilogy in the world of Arda. I will naturally discuss my passion for the greater Tolkien mythos and ponder on what alterations might have been made to improve the overall product.

I was immensely excited when I heard that The Hobbit was being released almost a decade after the original trilogy. The Lord of the Rings trilogy remains one of my favorite film franchises and it helped propel my own love of world-building and writing. Tolkien has become one of my personal heroes and the thought of seeing more of his fantastic world filled me with unparalleled joy.

And then I read that the film was going to be released as a three-part trilogy, and I grew a little concerned. To understand why, let's go into the history of Tolkien's writing and publishing. Since childhood, J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed with languages, spending much of his childhood creating his own and imagining the kinds of people that would speak those languages. His passion was so strong that he actually became a philologist (a scientist focused on the study and evolution of language) not a writer. However as he invented many of these languages, he began to craft worlds and histories to explain who would speak such languages and what kind of world they would live in. These languages would eventually become the Elvish languages of Middle-Earth and his early world-building would form the core of what we now know as The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-Earth.

Throughout World War I and the post-War era, Tolkien would continue to craft his legendarium, even as he became a professor of English language and literature at Merton College. One day while grading papers, Tolkien is said to have doodled in the margins of a students paper, "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit." From this simple doodle, Tolkien would be inspired to write The Hobbit, a children's fantasy novel published in 1937. The book was immediately successful, propelling Tolkien to fame (despite the general disregard in the academic community for "fairy tales") and his publisher immediately requested a sequel. Inspired by the response to The Hobbit, Tolkien showed his publisher the many years of world-building that he had crafted prior to The Hobbit. The publisher was impressed but was said to have stated, "It could do with more hobbits".

From this, Tolkien needed to craft a whole new story. A story which would eventually become The Lord of the Rings, published in three parts between the 29th of July, 1954 and the 20th of October, 1955; the trilogy of books became instant classics and did more to legitimize the fantasy genre than any other work. Tolkien instantly became known as the "Father of Modern Fantasy" and would spend the remainder of his life working to integrate the ideas proposed in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings into his Silmarillion, though he would die before seeing his magnum opus completed (his son would publish a version of The Silmarillion in 1977, four years after Tolkien's death).

I explained the history of Tolkien's writing in hopes that you might understand that The Hobbit was initially designed as a stand-alone story, not tied to any of Tolkien's wider mythos. Middle-Earth didn't have hobbits until Tolkien became so popular that his publishers demanded he include them in all future works. This means that The Hobbit ultimately was written to be its own self-contained story, unattached to the rest of Middle-Earth's history. While the publication of The Lord of the Rings would force Tolkien to make alterations to later editions of The Hobbit to better accommodate the new series of books, The Hobbit remained a black sheep among the rest of Tolkien's work.

This is key to the discussion of The Hobbit film trilogy because the original book is not designed or written in the same style as The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy adventure where the main characters undertake a singular quest and come across threats along the way, but it is fairly structured around consistent plot points and can be understood by adult audiences. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is a children's roadtrip book starring fantasy creatures heavily inspired by Beowulf and the Nibelungen. Each chapter details a different part of the adventure to the Lonely Mountain that remains fairly self-contained, enough that you can read a chapter to a child before bed and resolve whatever hardship was in that chapter by its completion.
Structure-wise, it actually resembles a television series to my mind rather than a film, but this leads to the book also being fairly lacking in details and the final Battle of the Five Armies in told to Bilbo since he gets knocked out right at the beginning. In total, The Hobbit took about 310 pages to tell its story. By contrast, The Fellowship of the Ring, the first third of The Lord of the Rings was 423 pages on its own.

This means that Peter Jackson was attempting to stretch a children's book that is shorter than the even the first book in The Lord of the Rings into a three-part epic as long as the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. How does he accomplish this? By adding a shit-ton of additional material. And here is where we run into problems with The Hobbit trilogy.

Now admittedly, adding material is necessary for any adaptation and Tolkien actually did account for this. In the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien expanded on the history of the Dwarves and went into great detail explaining what Gandalf was up to when he wasn't accompanying Bilbo and Thorin's Company. Everything dealing with Necromancer and Dol Guldur actually was rooted in the additional works of the Appendix. This was fine.

But then you had the whole romance between Kili and Tauriel and the expanded Laketown politics that just slowdown everything in the second film, not to mention the fun but ultimately pointless fight with Smaug. In fact, from a logistical standpoint you could almost combine the first and second films together and it might've resulted in a more consistent and satisfying story.

The Hobbit's greatest flaw might actually have been the requirement that it be split into three films, because audiences have come to expect trilogies nowadays. But if you had split the three films into only two films, ending the first film with the death of Smaug and using the second film to expand on the threat of the Necromancer and the Battle of the Five Armies, just rearrange some of the storybeats, you might have actually made a more consistent and thematically fun narrative. This is actually the solution offered up by the Ironfoot Edition, a fan-edit of The Hobbit trilogy that sought to alter what was given to make it more palatable (think of it like a more intensive version of the Machete Order).

This fanedit divides the film into two parts: An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again. It speeds up the prologue, removing most of the elements meant to tie it to The Lord of the Rings and gets to the dwarves and the call to adventure much quicker. The fanedit also removes Azog and leaves the Necromancer shrouded in mystery, heavily implying Sauron but not outright saying so. The first film then ends with the approach to the Lonely Mountain near Laketown, with the second film picking up right as they sneak into Laketown.

The second film shortens up the fight with Smaug, doesn't split the party and diminishes the role of Tauriel, transforming her into a tragic figure that dies trying unsuccessfully to save Kili (turning a bland romance into a tragic one). Ironically, the film also removes the ties to Sauron and is much stronger for it in my opinion. It also removes all mentions of Radagast, since he doesn't contribute much to the actual Lonely Mountain quest.

I've actually considered reviewing the Ironfoot Edition in the past, but if I did, I'd have to review the three films as their own first. And then, I'd want to do The Lord of the Rings just to make it all consistent. I may still do this, but its a lot of work and with the recent release of The Rings of Power on Amazon Prime, I felt motivated to release something regarding The Hobbit films. In the future, I may go into future detail; in which case, we'll use this article as the first part in a larger diatribe on the Tolkien legendarium and its adaptation in film and television.

The Hobbit was a film trilogy that many people wanted, but was doomed by being released after The Lord of the Rings. It was forced to fit into a mold that the source material wasn't built for and the result was a slow, muddled mess that meandered to much and was left a lifeless insult to the vibrant splendor and ancient valor which characterizes so much of Tolkien's world-building. It worked so hard to be just like The Lord of the Rings that it lost that unique spark that first drew people into the book back in 1937.

Sometimes all you need for a great story is a little hero going on an adventure, not to save the world, but just to explore and have a great journey. Bilbo Baggins isn't a character designed for saving the world, like Frodo. He was just a hobbit that loved stories and wanted to live his own little adventure and that should've been enough for any trilogy of films involving him.

Perhaps a future adaptation might capture this again, when the legacy of Peter Jackson's attempt aren't floating above any future adaptation like a Sword of Damocles.

One can only hope.

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