Why I felt let down by The Hobbit movies

As the end credits rolled up on The Hobbit: Battle Of Five Armies, I said ‘well, that’s 144 minutes of my life I won’t get back.’ That followed the 169 minutes I lost with the first one (my wife said ‘it felt like out-takes from The Lord of The Rings’) and the 161 minutes I lost with the second.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

My main problem this time was a fundamental structural failure – the dramatic pacing associated with the big battle, which didn’t build to anything and diverted instead to a one-on-one combat on a skating rink. All of which puzzles me. Jackson is a genius film-maker. He’s nailed the current trend, he can get tremendous performances out of his actors – all of them masters of their craft – and he’s got an awesome team behind him.

But the movies weren’t The Hobbit. Not The Hobbit I grew up with, the delightful kids’ book that Tolkien published in 1937. I’ve been a Tolkien fan since forever. I must have read The Hobbit 20 times, and I hugely enjoyed Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.

I know full well that movies can’t exactly follow books. But this adaptation had, to me, missed the spirit of the original, largely through a mis-match of scale. You see, I am pretty sure that Jackson and his team know what they’re doing. About a decade ago one of the scriptwriters who’s worked on all six movies – Phillipa Boyens – told me that they, themselves, were fans. She also outlined how they’d done The Lord Of The Rings, and why it’d been adapted as it had been – for instance, dropping the Tom Bombadil sequence. All very sound, sensible reasons with which I agreed, princpally flowing from the fact that a movie demands very different structure and pacing from a book.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?
Check out the battering. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

Yet The Hobbit movies came across as disproportionate to the scope and scale of the original story – in effect, as very, very bad fan-fiction – a mishmash of Tolkien’s world with cartoonish bad guys and plots and characters that never existed in anything Tolkien wrote, an Elf-Dwarf romance that was the reverse of Tolkien’s own mythos, and lots of biff-bang-wallop adventuring. All presented with glacial pace and over-long set-piece chase sequences such as the goblin tunnels and the barrel ride, which seemed more designed as entrees for a video game than dramatic film scenes.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'
I had to prone to take this picture at the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012.

I can only speculate as to what happened. But a large part, I think, is the direction film-making has generally taken in the last decade, partly in response to the capabilities of CGI and a new generation’s expectations, partly on the back of an increasingly risk-averse film industry. Films won’t get funded without meeting the market, and studios are increasingly aiming to get best bang-for-buck – capitalising on development costs by spinning multiple franchise movies out of a single investment.

Another issue is the fact that The Hobbit of 1937 is a period piece, these days – a tale framed by 1930s thinking. It lacked female characters. That stands against modern needs and ideals. Hence, I gather, the need to introduce one, Tauriel. All three Hobbit movies were excellent examples of modern film-making. Jackson’s unquestionably nailed that.

Tolkien did epic too – not least in The Lord of The Rings, more so in The Silmarillion, which is packed with tales that absolutely demand the Jackson big-screen treatment. But The Hobbit wasn’t among them. It had its epic moments, but they unfolded against a quieter background, as Bilbo engaged in his journey of self-discovery, and that to me was the spirit of the tale. To turn that into three multi-hour epic movies also meant the original themes and ideas were buried. Obviously a book has to be adapted to film; but to my mind the scripting went well beyond that. Largely, I suspect, to meet that need to make three movies.

And this, I think, is the problem; the fact that huge-and-epic stands against what Tolkien envisaged with The Hobbit, which was a short-ish childrens book with simple plot. Bilbo’s hero journey. Aspects of it were there – and Martin Freeman captured Bilbo’s character arc. But it was well buried amidst a panoply of other plot, characters and story line. As I say, to my mind the spirit of the original had been lost.

Given that, I can only lament the fact that the Tolkien estate hasn’t released the film rights for The Silmarillion and some of Tolkien’s other works. Jackson could certainly do them justice. But as I understand it we’ll have to wait until 2048, when it enters public domain, to see anything more on screen.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


22 thoughts on “Why I felt let down by The Hobbit movies

  1. I agree and disagree with a lot of your points. I did enjoy the hobbit films, but I did not expect a child’s book out of them. I was hoping the scale would be raised, so it wouldn’t be a children’s movie. I was pleased with that.

    I enjoyed the barrel-riding scene most, because it was pulled directly from the book, and I think it turned out to be a lot of fun, as barrel-riding should be.

    I also had my misgivings with the dwarf-elf romance. I like them including the mirkwood elves more and introducing Tauriel. I just didn’t enjoy the shoe-horned romance. PJ can’t write romance. That’s a given, so that was an automatic bad move on his part. Legolas would have been alive during that period, so including him didn’t upset me in the least. I enjoyed the extra elf scenes since Tolkien’s elves were my favorite.

    The point I agree on the most is the whole ice-glacier fight scene. That was a huge let down for me. I wanted the battle sequences to build up and offer payoff. The one-on-one’s wouldn’t have bothered me except for pace and, again, they were supposed to be the end-all fight sequence.

    One thing I think the last movie did well, and I hope you agree, is Thorin’s character. I think his sickness and attempts to overcome it with so much support from Bilbo was an endearing part of the film. I think focusing on that element was a good decision in the last films.

    Sorry you didn’t enjoy the films as much as I did. Valid points. I’m still going to enjoy watching them for years to come:) Great post!

    1. Yes, Thorin’s character and his moral decline was well captured – as was Bilbo’s moral centre, both of which were parts of the book. I also thought the Gollum sequence in the first movie was extremely good. Still, I felt let down by that mismatch of scale. I suspect part of that issue was that the movie was turned from two to three films, by the studio, during production, which must have affected the balance of the scripting.

      1. True, though I liked having 3 films. I think with one film, and the episodic nature of the books, it might have felt rushed. Two movies might have been better, but I wanted this to drag out, personally. Haha. So sad there isn’t going to be any more Tolkien renditions for a while.

          1. That’s what I thought, but seeing how Tolkien’s estate does not approve of the films, it’s very unlikely. Darn it. The Silmarillion would be an amazing series, I think. I think Elrond’s backstory alone could make an awesome film. Don’t you?

            1. It would be a totally awesome film – two brothers having to make fundamental life choices in an epic setting. The stuff of mythology – which, I guess, is exactly what Tolkien intended!

  2. I agree with all your points, and felt the same way. I approached them with an open mind and with the idea that I would be seeing something new. As an open minded viewer, I enjoyed them anyway. As a Tolkien fan it was distracting.

    1. I agree, there was an enjoyable aspect – I think there’s no doubt that Jackson nailed the current style and trend required of blockbuster movies – he was spot on with it. In that sense they were good movies. But that doesn’t fit ‘The Hobbit’…and as you say, that was distracting…

  3. I agree with all of your points – the problem wasn’t that Jackson changed the story from the book, it’s that he did it so poorly this time around. After his genius work with LotR, it was surprising how little emotional resemblance there was to the book this time around.

    1. Absolutely – to me, the core (Bilbo’s hero journey) was missed altogether. I’m at a loss to understand other than to suppose that it reflected the need to expand the scale.

  4. I hadn’t thought about the change of audience. I think you’re right. My kids loved Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They liked the first Jackson movie, too. They lost interest in the second. I’m glad I didn’t take them to see the third. I, too, was disappointed in the movies, especially the last. I told my husband as we left the theater, “I think 15 minutes of that was in the book.” Plus, I laughed aloud in the theater twice by accident because of the over-dramatic acting. It threw me right out of the story!

    I look forward to more parodies on this series because it is prime material. And, yes, I think Jackson was relying on his LotR movie fans instead of Tolkien fans. It’s funny you mentioned Silmarillion because my husband and I talked about how Jackson would be free to fill in the details and storylines, bringing depth to the book, since it’s more of a skeletal timeline of Tolkien’s world.

    1. And what a skeleton! Awesome mythology. I gather Tolkien had contemplated LOTR-style novels associated with some of that timeline. As I understand it, apparently Jackson couldn’t use ANY of the content from it in his expanded Hobbit, because of the licensing issue.

  5. Five Armies was quite slow, and could have been easily combined with the second film… Plus the Dwarf/Elf “romance” was silly at times. Tolkien is probably rolling in his grave.

    1. I agree. To me the Elf-Dwarf romance was nonsensical even taking the films in isolation – but then made especially so given Tolkien’s concept not just of how the two peoples related to each other, but their mythic origins in his imaginarium.

  6. I agree that it was overdone. Making it into three movies was a pretty obvious effort to make as much money as possible. The movies are a reflection of our current society than a visual expression of Tolkien’s vision. That said, I have a major crush on Evangeline Lilly. I could watch her movies all day. I hope my wife didn’t hear me sighing when a scene with her came up.

    1. I agree – it was very much a modern risk-averse, maximise profit enterprise. Jackson was definitely reflecting current trends and social expectations with the specific treatment. Of themselves they were not obviously worse than many current genre flicks. Though I still can’t quite forgive the epic structural fail with the eponymous battle disappearing when it should have been the prime setting for the character arc resolution. Sigh…

  7. Completely agree! It felt like they were just trying to make more money out of Lord of the Rings rather than actually trying to engage with the Hobbit. They were so focused on presenting it as a prequel that they didn’t bother to engage with it in as a story in it’s own right. And you’re right- they also completely misjudged the tone. They were so busy trying to present it as dark and epic that they lost the spirit of the original. Such a shame, because with that cast it could have been brilliant.

    1. I had hoped the Directors cut might pull the excesses back or that even there might be a cut with the original plot excisable from the mess, but I don’t think there is enough of the original story in the movies to make that possible. Sigh…

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