How Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ Trilogy Misses The Point Of Tolkien’s Novel

While not a perfect adaptation, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings captures the spirit of the novels and creates a genuinely magical trilogy, even if Sam’s abandonment of Frodo at the Morgul steps, the character assassination of Faramir (and, to a lesser degree, Aragorn), and the sanitation of the ending rankle purists. As this is Tolkien Week, it’s the perfect time to revisit these classics; maybe even the extended editions, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious.

Then there’s Jackson’s other, more recent Tolkien adaptations. When it was announced that Jackson would be continue his time in Middle-earth by adapting The Hobbit into a feature film, fans looked forward to returning to a world of elves and orcs. With the ideal casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, Jackson seemed to be heading in the right direction. However, as the project grew from a single film to a trilogy, unease filled Tolkien fandom. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey hit theaters in 2012 to a collective shrug, and fan frustration grew with each film release. Instead of a smaller tale based in moments of quiet courage and character development, the trilogy had grown into a bloated and overly-slick version of Tolkien’s novel, its cleverness replaced by bombastic, video game-like special effects.

The Hobbit, a book written for children, has a simple message: Anyone, no matter how small, can do great things. The Bilbo who first leaves on the quest is cowardly, petty, and selfish, but by experiencing the wider world, he finds his courage and compassion. This is not necessarily the stuff of over-the-top epics, but makes for a pleasant, simple story. No one in the novel starts out particularly heroic: The dwarves are mostly miners, craftsmen, and toymakers who are not looking to fight a war, but simply reclaim a homeland. While the novel is a classic tale of an underdog beating the odds, Jackson’s version is that same narrative on a bad batch of steroids. The films have no interest in small stories about small people, and no place for characters who don’t look and behave like a typical action heroes.

Let’s start with the character of Bilbo. While clever, Tolkien’s Bilbo is innately ordinary. Hobbits aren’t much for adventure or derring-do, and Bilbo is no exception. Over the course of 300 or so pages, he throws off his old selfish ways and becomes a true hero, but not in the traditional sense. He remains a humble hobbit, and his successes are almost entirely due to cleverness and eventually sacrifice instead of brute strength. Jackson clearly didn’t think that that would put asses in the seats, because his Bilbo is sidelined for most of his story. While Bilbo does stab the occasional spider and outwit Gollum, Jackson shifts the focus to the the more stereotypically macho Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), warlord and dwarf king without a kingdom. The though films remain The Hobbit in name, they really tell Thorin’s story.

Additionally, Bilbo’s character development suffers by being spread across three films. For at least the first half of the book, Bilbo is kind of a little crap weasel, but you aren’t going to have a successful franchise with a cheeky but unlikeable protagonist for almost two films. Instead, things get tied up into an easy bow after the end of film one, which largely ends Bilbo’s emotional journey. Bilbo runs around, waits for Gandalf, and does have some nice moments involving the Arkenstone in the final film, but the film’s largely waste Freeman. Instead undergoing a moving emotional evolution, Bilbo learns his lesson quickly and remains static for the rest of the series. It’s this unwillingness to have a flawed protagonist that ultimately lessens a central theme of the novel: You can become a hero, even if you are kind of a dick when you start out.

The John McClane-ing of the dwarves is another issue. While the first film has them singing songs and smashing plates in Bilbo’s home, most of the dwarves are streamlined into one unstoppable fighting unit. While the sons of Durin may have had warrior’s blood, in Tolkien’s novel the others were more interested in returning to their homeland and their gold. No one would have considered them a mighty bunch.

The films nonetheless make all the dwarves’ action sequences bigger, faster, and bloodier. From a ridiculous scene with the goblins, the Super Mario version of the escape from the Mirkwood Elves, to whatever the Battle of Five Armies became, Jackson may have thought he was ramping up the action, but he was really just erasing the stakes. If all the dwarves become nigh on superhuman, bouncing around in gravity-defying barrels while cutting heads off of goblins like hot knives through butter, it’s hard to be all that concerned for their safety. Who cares if they keep getting attacked by orcs, elves, and Stephen Colbert? They’ll probably be fine. While nearly all of their escapes in the novel are due to their craftiness, Jackson opts for brute strength.

Finally, there is the issue of Bard the Bowman, hero of Lake Town. Tolkien himself served in World War I and witnessed first hand the aftermath and the toll that it took. He saw his friends cut down in their primes, young men from all walks of life, called from ordinary circumstances and asked to be extraordinary. In the novel, Bard is the captain of a small company of bowman, and the Black Arrow, while forged in the fires of Thrór and with a tendency to be unscathed after use, is just an arrow. While Smaug rains down fire from the sky and sees to the ruin of Lake Town, Bard is one of the last standing. Using the information about Smaug’s weak spot that Bilbo has passed along via thrush, Bard fires the Black Arrow to strike him down. As the long bow has been a traditionally English symbol throughout history, the usage here isn’t an accident. As ordinary Englishman had stood on the front lines against the Kaiser, so had these bowmen in the face of the seemingly unquenchable fire of Smaug.

In Jackson’s version, Bard the Bowman (played by Luke Evans) is a badass freedom fighter, seeking to overthrow the corrupt Lake Town leadership, mourn his beloved dead wife, and keep his children safe. While it isn’t a bad move to flesh out Bard’s character to accommodate the running time, it plays like just another square-jawed hottie pulling focus from our titular hobbit. Additionally, the Black Arrow gets the traditional action movie upgrade. A simple ancient arrow won’t do! A giant harpoon that requires a sort of massive ballistic weapon (or, most ridiculously, Bard’s son) to be launched, the film’s Black Arrow looks like it would be more at home in a medieval Michael Bay film than Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

It’s been almost a year since the release of The Battle of Five Armies, but the sting still feels fresh. Obviously, a director has the right to put their own creative stamp on a story, but somewhere between Frodo leaving for the Grey Havens and the dwarves showing up at the door of Bag End, Jackson lost his way.