We’re nearly a year removed from the release of the final Hobbit movie. While the rest of geekery is moving on to the excitement of the newest Star Wars film, I want to look back and reflect on the films that used to occupy that huge mid-December release slot. The Hobbit films were a massive commercial success, as expected, but they did not receive the critical praise of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Looking back at an article I wrote nearly three years ago about the first Hobbit film, I can definitively say that I have mellowed a bit with age. And with that comes perhaps a more reasonable approach to evaluating these films, which I still love.
My primary concern in the original article was the tonal difficulty of adapting a children’s book into the world of an epic adult saga. While I recognize the challenge, and do think that Peter Jackson made The Hobbit feel like it belonged in the same world as LOTR, there are several aspects where Peter Jackson got it wrong.
By nature, The Hobbit was a whimsical tale with more footing in fairy tales than in the realm of high fantasy. Talking animals and such descriptions were the lifeblood of the quirky story. They provided the kind of charms that would probably not be appreciated in a movie nowadays – especially one supposed to fit into the continuity of LOTR. But here is where Jackson strays. While certain moments approach Tolkien’s original quirky tone – like Radagast’s bumbling and the opening scenes in Bilbo’s home – Jackson’s main response was to make the action way over the top. From the dwarves dropping a thousand feet before being crushed and then surviving (Dwalin’s line here, “You’ve got to be joking”, is the second worst line of the entire film, directly preceded both in time and horrendousness by the goblin king’s death knell: “That’ll do it”), to Legolas running on falling rocks, to the dwarves building a giant ineffective golden statue, the main storytelling change between The Hobbit and LOTR seems to be a ramping up of implausibility. That is something entirely different than embracing the silly, goofy humor of the source material.
Aside from tonal issues, it is worth considering how restructuring the story causes the emphasis to shift off of Bilbo. Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo is one of the highlights of the films, yet he finds himself an increasingly marginal character as the series progresses. He has some moments to shine, most of which involve rescuing the dwarves from their own stupidity, but the greatest part of the narrative falls toward Thorin’s quest to reclaim Erebor. The narrative thrust of the story comes from the dwarves’ insatiable drive. While this is theoretically the case in the source material – at least in that the dwarves’ quest is the reason Bilbo does anything in the first place – lengthening the story turns the focus more toward the dwarves. A single or two-part film of the Hobbit would have filtered the action through Bilbo’s limited perspective, leaving out a fair amount of the surrounding action – particularly in the second and third movies. But instead we have constant scenes of the White Council, elvish drama, the Master of Lake Town, and other diversions aimed at expanding the world to the proportions familiar to fans of LOTR.
Some of these additions, like the White Council, provide a valuable insight into the background of the story, and connect the films in a positive way to LOTR. But, unlike the members of the White Council, Thranduil and the Master of Lake Town are not important characters going forward. Thranduil is interesting only for his relationship to Thorin, and the drama with Legolas and Tauriel is unnecessary and uninteresting in terms of not only the overall story of the ring, but even within The Hobbit itself. The Master of Lake Town and his obnoxious lieutenant, Alfred, is another instance in which Peter Jackson’s perception of the source material’s humor is oddly tone-deaf. The characters’ crude humor is not in line with Tolkien’s, and the caricatured portraits don’t fit into the continuity of the longer series. In fact, I find the scenes involving the two characters to be the most anomalous and out of place in the entire set of six films, much more so than Azog, one of the most maligned characters in The Hobbit. The corrupt and conniving Master of the books would have been a nice complement to the story unfolding with the dragon. However, despite my admiration for Stephen Fry, the Master and his sidekick should have been handled differently.
There’s another problem inherently tied to the three-movie structure. The dragon. Oh, Smaug, the great and terrible! Where the hell did you go? The three best performances in the films, in my opinion, go to Martin Freeman for Bilbo, Andy Serkis and the visual effects department for Gollum, and Benedict Cumberbatch and the visual effects department for Smaug. When Smaug is on screen, the combination of the dragon’s physicality and Cumberbatch’s excellent voice work make him a truly commanding presence. I consider him to be one of the best screen villains ever created. That said, the way he was utilized deprived him of the attention he deserved. Bilbo’s initial conversation with him is remarkable, and flawless (as tends to happen when Bilbo has one-on-one conversations anywhere in the films – it’s not a coincidence). The action that follows with the dwarves, however, is overplayed and relies too much on Smaug’s physical abilities rather than his intelligence. Smaug is supposed to be scary not only because he can crush you under his scaly foot, but also because he can trick you into standing there while he does it. Deconstructing him into a sort of embodied natural disaster cuts down on the true greatness of the character. That said, the action scenes with him (minus the exploding golden statue) are well-crafted and tight. His assault on Lake Town at the beginning of the third film redeems him greatly, as we are able to see how his pride gets the best of him.
But Smaug’s utilization reveals some soft spots in the construction of the stories. Having Smaug simply fly off after their initial encounter in the halls of Erebor is not a strong ending for the second film. Likewise, his death feels out of place as essentially a prologue for the third movie. The death of the dragon is the emotional climax of the book, with the battle of the five armies serving mostly as an afterthought. With the trilogy structure, Smaug’s death finds itself in an unfortunate no-man’s land.
Does Peter Jackson deserve some flak for some of his choices in The Hobbit? Probably. Should it have been three films? Definitely not. But do these movies deserve the unfortunate – if inevitable – comparison with the Star Wars prequel trilogy? Trick question. Read this (lengthy) essay to see why the prequels are secretly brilliant. But overall, as I essentially said in my original review, these are good movies. They’re not amazing works of cinematic genius, but there’s enough of Tolkien’s charm and Peter Jackson’s devotion to the material to redeem them. It was an impossible dream from the beginning. Just choose to remember Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and to forget Legolas running up falling stairs.