This article contains spoilers for several Hobbit related things.
Peter Jackson’s trilogy of Hobbit films may be the fantasy fan’s equivalent of the old Beatles White Album debate. You know the one, right? Would The White Album actually have been better off as a single instead of a double LP? And which tracks do you cut to get it there?
With the release of the third (!) movie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the debate over the wisdom behind creating a trilogy where perhaps none existed before is going to rage on into the new year. Just as The Battle of the Five Armies won’t make any converts among those who have already written these films off, nor will this article change any minds. But when an era of filmmaking ends, as it clearly has with the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s time in Middle-Earth, I’ve decided to try and make peace with my own misgivings about the entire adventure.
Warner Bros. is suffering from a nasty case of impending franchise withdrawal in the years since Green Lantern failed to ignite a Marvel-style superhero world, Christopher Nolan ended the Dark Knight franchise, and they ran out of Harry Potter books (even allowing that franchise to get a curtain call by splitting the final act in two). Warner Bros. found themselves sitting on the final filmable book in a franchise that had already brought in nearly three billion big ones worldwide. In other words, of course The Hobbit would be more than one movie.
The Hobbit was to be one film, then it would be two, then it was one movie with an additional movie that would serve as a bridge to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then it was two Hobbit movies again, and…well, you get the picture. Even the crucial decision to make a third movie came relatively late in the production, after much filming had already been completed, which may explain why so much of The Desolation of Smaug felt like inconsequential, post-production padding.
There are still moments scattered throughout all three films that hint at the wonder that Jackson has brought to Middle-earth over the last thirteen years. The game of riddles with Gollum, the emergence and subsequent defeat of Smaug, the death of Thorin Oakenshield…all are maddening glimpses of the mythic resonance that seemed to flow effortlessly from the screen in the earlier trilogy. It’s there, but a little harder to spot amidst scenes of dwarves belching in Unexpected Journey or the extended CGI antics in the mines after Smaug awakens in Desolation.
This excerpt from an article at FiveThirtyEight, which refers to a scene in An Unexpected Journey where we witness two stone giants do battle atop a mountain, illustrates a common complaint about trying to extend a relatively short book into multiple not-short films…
Based on my estimation, the scene runs about two minutes, 12 seconds. It’s based on this bit of text:
“Bilbo … saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed along the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang … they could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.”
One sentence! And the stone giants were never heard from again!
The rest of the piece is an examination of page counts in books versus the running time in their respective film adaptations. It’s a fine read, and by the author’s own admission, the criteria aren’t the most exacting, but the stone giant fight might not be the best example to illustrate his point. Yes, it would quite literally take the average reader less time to read the book than sit through all three Hobbit movies. But novels aren’t screenplays, where the ratio of page to screentime is roughly 1:1.
And while Peter Jackson’s latest trilogy has considerably more minutes than its source material has pages, one can also argue The Hobbit doesn’t fit the conventional modern definition of a novel quite the way other examples cited (which include Harry Potter and Bourne books, not to mention the Twilight series and The Great Gatsby). The Hobbit is a fairy tale, almost flirting with styles associated with classical epics– both forms condense the passage of time even further than the above example. My favorite translation of Gilgamesh (the one from Stephen Mitchell if you’re looking) runs 125 large print pages. Anyone want to try and figure out how long that movie would have to be?
Were incidents like this depicted in detail (“and yet another boulder was thrown, narrowly missing his opponent, who replied by picking up an even bigger boulder, and hurling that at his enemy, connecting with a mighty crash, enraging both parties further…”) for however many pages “justifies” two minutes of screen time, we probably wouldn’t even be thinking about any of this, because stripped of its simple and direct charm, The Hobbit might be a used bookstore curiosity. Still, this does raise the question of the difference in style between the source material and the screen version, and it would appear that we almost did get a “lighter” version of the story…
Initially, it wasn’t Peter Jackson, but Guillermo del Toro at the helm, and under his direction, the primary Hobbit film (at this point, the intention was very much to make two: one adapting the book, and one bridging the gap between this and Fellowship) would have adopted a more traditional fairy tale tone. Del Toro had initially promised that his Hobbit would reflect an earlier, more “innocent” version of the Middle-Earth portrayed in Jackson’s films, as well as a commitment to animatronics and practical effects as opposed to CGI.
But had The Hobbit films been closer to the book’s tone than that of its three billion dollar older brothers, would it have been rejected as too light by general audiences who were knocked flat by the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers or the beheading of the Mouth of Sauron at the gates of Mordor in Return of the King? Would people unfamiliar with the source material have seen a more innocent tone as proof that the franchise had “sold out” by trying to explicitly appeal more to children?
We’ll never know, as once del Toro departed Middle-Earth thanks to delays brought on by a legal tangle within the studios, it put Peter Jackson back in the director’s chair. Under Jackson’s direction, The Hobbit became very much a prequel to the cinematic Lord of the Rings saga. This isn’t a bad thing on its surface, but it does tend to leave us splitting hairs over the appropriate way to depict two stone giants throwing rocks at each other, doesn’t it? Guillermo del Toro could have approached Middle-Earth relatively free of baggage. Peter Jackson, on the other hand, had a studio demanding another three Lord of the Rings movies from a story not equipped to be that, and a moviegoing public expecting a similarly adult and violent adventure story from the man who gave them the previous trilogy.
We may not know the true measure of the success or failure of these movies for years (financially, of course, their success is assured). If The Hobbit trilogy ends up as the gateway for your kids and grandkids to pick up the works of Tolkien and explore other fantasy writing, then maybe we’ll know what it all means. Until then, as a fan, I’m willing to have that old White Album debate as it relates to The Hobbit. It’s up to you to decide if sitting through “Wild Honey Pie” is worth it since you also get “Helter Skelter” and “Dear Prudence.”
Mike Cecchini has been known to get into the old Southfarthing after an ale or three. Have a laugh with him on Twitter.