A Review of The Hobbit Film Trilogy

I shared the excitement of many when it was announced that Peter Jackson would be returning to direct a film adaptation of The Hobbit. This excitement was somewhat muted learning it would be split into two films and was further subdued when it later became three. The Hobbit was a shorter work than any one of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings and the writing was also far less dense. That this could be stretched into three films even including further elements found in Tolkien’s canon, was hard to believe. When the first part, An Unexpected Journey was released in the cinema, I went to see it and came away underwhelmed. It covered only a tiny portion of the book and many scenes were overly long or surprisingly underdone. My opinion at the time was that it was being artificially dragged out and I didn’t bother to see the next two in the cinema or home media until this year — almost a decade later.

I had tried to re-watch the first and then watch the sequels a number of times but never got far. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch a fan edit that brought the three films together into one as it should always have been. What brought me to finally sit down and watch them through? An amusing Twitter account. What else would?

Before proceeding, it is worth briefly dwelling on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. One could certainly quibble with omissions and especially with the additions to these films but they were more faithful to the source material than any could have expected. I far from alone in this and have met few people that disliked the trilogy as a whole though many disliked certain parts. Even the artistic license with expanding the role’s of Arwen and Galadriel was understandable and were perfectly defensible for the medium it was being adapted to. The absence of sections of the narrative such as Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire were also defensible. There was still a lot to put on screen that even the later release of the extended editions wasn’t able to cover. If times were different, it would have been much better adapted as a miniseries but even the most honest and genuine effort could never rival what Tolkien wrote.

With all this in mind, what is perhaps most surprising about The Hobbit trilogy is that there are a number of parts missing or underdone as well as a legion of superfluous or laboured scenes put in. One could argue that The Hobbit novel was brief or vague enough in sections and that allowed for more to be expanded upon. The mention of the Necromancer for example was naturally expanded as it connected directly with events to follow and allowed more screen time for Gandalf. The same could also be said for the climatic Battle of the Five Armies which only went for a few pages in the book. So there was definitely room to show more and show more they certainly did. 

The first film, An Unexpected Journey, opens with what the viewing public would be familiar with as both Ian Holm and Elijah Wood return as Bilbo and Frodo to introduces the tale. This was certainly a good way to start as it connects viewing audiences with familiar characters and is consistent with the source material as Bilbo did indeed write down his adventure. Then follows The Unexpected Party where the young Bilbo Baggins (well played by Martin Freeman), becomes a reluctant host to a group of dwarves. This is arguably the most faithful part to the novel in the entire trilogy. The only problem is that by the time Bilbo and the dwarves set out, the better part of an hour has already passed. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to have reduced this to fifteen or twenty minutes at most. The first film is the longest and by the end of the almost three hour running time the audience is only at Chapter 6 of 19. 

An Unexpected Journey also inexplicably changes many notable parts such as the parties capture by orcs in the Misty Mountains and their drawn out CGI-heavy escape where the crowded visuals soon wreck most of the excitement. I don’t think these scenes needed the giants coming within literal stone throws of the dwarves or silly falling bridges as well as countless near-misses. The same follows with the attack by the wargs in the forest when the screenwriters found it necessary to add a cliff and falling trees to once again clutter an already exciting scene that climaxes with the eagles coming to the rescue. Thankfully, Bilbo’s earlier encounter with Gollum was mostly well done and largely faithful to the book. It was also pleasing to see they had him looking younger and paler as he would have aged quite a bit after losing the ring. Watching it again, I can understand why I was so underwhelmed when I originally saw it but there are still some great moments and I can understand why many still enjoy the film.  

The Desolation of Smaug in contrast was watched with completely new eyes. I should mention here that I read through The Hobbit twice last year and am also coming to the end of (I think) my third re-reading of The Lord of the Rings so the source material was fresh in my mind as I watched. The first film ends on Beorn’s Carrock and I was looking forward to seeing Beorn. Unfortunately, the goblin chase from the first film hasn’t let up even after the eagles rescue and the writers thought it would be exciting to have Beorn in bear form join the chase. The introduction of Beorn in the book was much more lighthearted and amusing with the dwarves slowly arriving in pairs to Beorn’s increased discomfort. This is all done away with and they simply run into his home, lock him out and meet him when he is back in his man form and almost just as soon as this, he is out of the film. I am genuinely baffled as to why three films are needed when they still cut out one of the more endearing and memorable moments of the source material. 

The adventure in Mirkwood is also reduced significantly. The dwarves get lost almost immediately, are captured by the spiders and almost as quickly as they escape, they are captured by the elves. The scene where they cross the stream, Bombur’s fall and their repeated attempts to join the feasting elves are completely missing as is most of Bilbo’s mischief with the spiders. It is here that Legolas appears — who despite all the visual trickery, still looks older than he did in The Lord of the Rings. There is also Tauriel a new character created for the film presumably because there are so few female characters. I had heard about her before watching the film but I initially wasn’t bothered despite this. Evangeline Lily certainly looks the part and none of the Wood-elves are named in the novel so once again, there is room for artistic license. The problem is that they have presumably cut some of the more notable parts of the book to introduce unneeded drama from previously absent or non-existent characters. 

This comes in the form of a love triangle that absurdly develops between Legolas, Tauriel and Kili the dwarf. Up until this point, I haven’t really discussed the dwarves in much detail. Most of them look very dwarvish except notably for Kili played by Aidan Turner and to a lesser extent, his brother Fili and Thorin. The rest are very dwarvish and the real actors are largely unrecognisable. I have to assume that the handsome Turner was left more human expressly for this still absurd love triangle to seem realistic. It is worth noting that Turner is really about 5’10 and Lilly around 5’5 if celebrity gossip websites are to be believed. The screenwriters are actually the same as for the Lord of the Rings but clearly the two females (including Jackson’s wife) were given a lot more scope for invention this time and they certainly took advantage of it.

The dwarves make an equally quick escape from the elven halls and end up on the famous barrel ride. I will praise the change made with the barrels being placed on a trapdoor as being more believable than the elves knowingly rolling heavy barrels that were supposed to be empty into the river as in the book. This worked but unfortunately what follows is yet more excess. It isn’t enough for the dwarves to be riding down river in barrels for the film. They are now pursued by both elves and orcs and another cluttered action scene ensues. Arrows fly, axes swing, barrels break and with all these additions I still found the far simpler ride in the novel far more exciting. This sort of excess was present in the original trilogy but from memory, there were far fewer action scenes on the whole. 

Before going on, it might be worth again stopping this time to consider the tone. The Hobbit was a children’s book despite being much better written than most novels written for adults today. It quite consciously includes a lot of comedy and has a light-hearted whimsical tone written to appeal to children. To be sure, it had violence and death but this didn’t effect the tone. The trials the dwarves endured in Mirkwood came because they ignored the instructions to stay on the path much like in Little Red Riding Hood. The themes of fairytale and folklore consciously enriched the story. The films on the other hand, are just as suddenly violent as they are silly but there is rarely any consistency with this. There are constant tonal shifts along with the general excess and directorial overindulgence — especially with visual effects. 

In yet another needless change, they made the dwarves arrival in Lake-town more dramatic through their arriving in secret and have both Legolas and Tauriel following close behind. One thing I liked was the charactersiation of the Master of Lake-town as a petty tyrant with Stephen Fry well suited to playing a fat, pompous drunk. Tolkien merely dropped unsubtle hints that the master lacked principle and was much more a politician than a leader. Of course as a result, Lake-town is a dreary, oppressive slum which I didn’t imagine at all while reading. One could at least imagine a town built on a lake would have serious issues with disposing of waste and having clean drinking water. Rather than have the dwarves welcomed warmly, Bard has to smuggle them into the police state hidden in barrels of fish. They are soon found out and then the Master seeing sudden political and financial advantage on learning their mission, decides to supply them for the last leg of their journey sending them cheerily on their way with the brooding Bard looking skeptically on.

It was around this point that I remembered how delightfully little diversity was found in the original film trilogy. When one considers that even Star Wars in the late 70s had to add more diversity in its sequels due to similar criticism. The cast of the originals were all European and it seemed that The Hobbit had somehow managed to do the same. Then around the time I began thinking this, there were a few cuts to extras as below.

Asians also make appearances later but the main characters are still all European and only the extras provide incongruous cultural enrichment. This is notable because making films with even token additions like this is now impossible with any mainstream studio no matter how absurd diversity would be to the setting.

Up to these events, the novel is getting close to the climax and I was seriously wondering how they could get another film out of what remained. This was soon answered as it had been before — by drawing things out excessively. More orcs, more elves and more drama. The dwarves travel to and make it inside Erabor, The Lonely Mountain and Bilbo is set to his adopted profession as indeed he is in the novel. Interestingly, the film does seek to explain how the dwarves are supposed to deal with the dragon. In the novel they realise they didn’t think much past getting inside and having Bilbo begin his thieving. Thorin’s Arkenstone is given more significance as he desires it in order to prove his kingship and gain support from other dwarves to retake the mountain from Smaug. Though Bilbo’s reasons for hiding it from Thorin don’t make sense as portrayed in the film. In the book he takes and hides it on a whim but is warned and even confronted directly by Thorin in the film after being teased with it by Smaug. 

Once inside, we come to what is probably the most unnecessarily over-the-top scene in the entire trilogy. It should be enough that Smaug rests on vast riches but the film has him living in a medieval money bin like a scaly Scrooge McDuck. It is quite fitting from this perspective that the covetous dwarves are given Scottish accents. There is gold everywhere to the point that it truly stretches credulity. The kind of wealth that would significantly drop the value of gold in all of Middle-earth and certainly encourage well over five armies to seek out the Lonely Mountain in the climax. 

Bilbo also doesn’t go in alone as other dwarves join him though I should mention Kili was injured in the barrel ride but he and two others are really only left behind to help continue the absurd interracial love triangle. The dwarves and Bilbo are then in an overly extended scene running around on hills of gold and somehow contrive to restart long-dormant forges and knock Smaug into liquified gold which sends him furiously towards Lake-town (rather than renewing his attack on them) and brings the film to an abrupt end. 

In the novel, Smaug moves to attack Lake-town when he is satisfied the party is either dead or can cause no further trouble from the side of the mountain they entered. He knows the “barrel-rider” had help from Esgaroth and goes to punish them for daring to do so. In the film, there is no reason for him to leave his treasure while he knows the dwarves remain within the mountain and can escape with at least some of his stolen treasure in his absence. I should also mention that during this time Gandalf has gone to deal with the Necromancer and got himself captured. Both of these are to be dealt with in the final film. 

The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest of the three but also by far the most drawn out and unnecessarily long. It was clear from the beginning that this was split off cynically to add to the gross revenue and this (unlike the film) worked. The total content of the three films could have easily been truncated into two (and as mentioned earlier) — even one feature film. They could have happily later released extended editions if they were so inclined and even included extended scenes of their love triangle. To put this into perspective, the copy of The Hobbit I have in front of me has 307 pages but also many illustrations and the story actually begins on page three. The events of the first film end around page 118, the second between 235 and 247. This leaves little over fifty pages of the book and major events up to this point had been truncated or changed. This does not leave much space to make a feature film out of. Indeed the chapter in which the titular battle takes place is only twelve pages including a full page illustration.  

To be fair, the battle in the book leaves plenty of license for visual adaptation but still not so much as could be reasonably stretched into a film and this shows. Smaug is dead very early in the film by Bard though Bard is the only one fighting. In the book, the men of Esgaroth are putting up a heroic defence of their home and many die doing so. Here, it is just Bard. Still, these changes aren’t so different as to be offensive and the audience does have the added bonus of seeing Stephen Fry getting crushed by the falling dragon.

Bard is worth expanding upon as they have done much the same with him as John C. Wright observed they did with Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings adaptation. That is making him a reluctant hero. Wright notes that if you look up “reluctant hero”:

you will see Rand al-Thor, Bilbo Baggins, Han Solo, Ash “This is my BOOM STICK” Williams, and Neo from the Matrix, as reluctant heroes. Aragorn son of Arathorn in the movie version was also self-doubting and reluctant to fight. Aragorn son of Arathorn the real version was not, no, not in the least.

If that isn’t emphatic enough you could read the novels and see how lacking in reluctance Aragorn truly is. This is a far too common trope in modern cinema as the linked review of John Carter of Mars attests. Aragorn and Bard both knew their birthright and were confident they could live up to it and did. 

“Bard is not lost!” he cried. “He dived from Esgaroth, when the enemy was slain. I am Bard, of the line of Girion; I am the slayer of the dragon!”

“King Bard! King Bard!” they shouted; but the Master ground his chattering teeth.

The Hobbit, Chapter IV – Fire and Water

A simple rule to remember is that nobody who speaks about themselves in the third person lacks confidence. Since I have mentioned Wright, his own much more timely review of The Desolation of Smaug is more entertaining than anything I’ve written thus far and well worth reading if you want confirmation from a a genuinely great fantasy writer with a true love for Tolkien’s works.

Getting back to film three of one, there follows a scene where Galadriel, Saruman, Elrond and Gandalf get in a magic fight with the Necromancer and his nine wraiths. I found it very silly and more akin to something you would see in a short fan film. Then there is a build up to the battle that generally follows as in the novel. Billy Connolly shows up as Thorin’s kin Dain from the Iron Hills but gets pitifully little screen time. The battle itself could have been great but it quickly becomes a visual mess with orcs breaking off all over the place. Legolas and Tauriel do something to suck more screen time. Thorin is sent into madness to build unnecessary drama before running out to fight out of formation into an army of orcs. There is eventually a fight between Thorin and Azog (the orc who was already long-dead in the novel). Thorin, Kili and Fili die.

I really don’t remember all that much more save that it generally ends as in the book with a lot of the repeatedly mentioned excess. Some other general observations was that despite the budget, a lot of the CGI looked really bad. I also thought the tension between Bilbo and Thorin was over played and the latter’s decent into madness took a lot away from the story especially at the end. I didn’t see any reason why Saruman or Galadriel should return. And it was overall just loud, confusing and boring to watch.

I would stop short of calling these films terrible as there are some genuinely good moments and most of the actors did a great job. What I liked is far outweighed by what I disliked and I have no desire to ever watch them again and wouldn’t care if they’d never been made. It still amazes me that with all the screen time they still took away or ruined so many of the most endearing moments in the original novel and yet felt the need to drag out the rest.

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