When I don’t like how a story ends, I rewrite it in my head. Sometimes I rewrite minor points in the middle. Always, my goal is to preserve the story as authentically as possible, but tweak it until it makes sense to me. In my head, Harry Potter becomes a professional quidditch player, finally getting to live out the childhood he was denied, rather than becoming an auror, Izzy Stevens of Grey’s Anatomy dies of cancer instead of leaving Alex inexplicably, and Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit plays out very, very differently.
Note 1: This review contains a lot of spoilers from the book, and it also assumes that you’ve seen the first two films.
Note 2: I love Peter Jackson, and his vision for The Lord of the Rings was nothing short of masterful. I’ve seen them countless times, and I’ve memorized every inch of the behind the scenes commentary and footage. I think he’s brilliant, and those movies were truly works of art.
Note 3: This is not just the rant of a book purist. While I think Tolkien’s original text for LotR is perfect, I like a lot of the changes Jackson et al made for the film and I’m well convinced that there are some things that work in print that will not work on film. In this vein, I’ll be evaluating the movies qua movies, and not just grumbling at deviations from the book without good reason.
But all that being said, so far, The Hobbit movies are just not working for me. I get what Peter Jackson’s trying to do and I respect it – he wants to retell The Hobbit as a prequel to the Lord of the Rings and build a consistent world, and not just the narrative of Bilbo’s experience. To do this, he takes up the dwarves story and adds in what Gandalf was doing with the Necromancer. I like this too, actually – these are stories with similar arcs (journeys of discovery and recovery) that could blend well to create a rich, deep world to match the grand scale of the trilogy without undermining the central point of Tolkien’s vision of The Hobbit.
But then he goes overboard, creating characters and plot lines that don’t serve that central narrative. He leaves the different story lines separate and unconnected, and the result is that the viewer is popped around, taken through various emotions without build up or transition, and denied a clear path through all the added complexity. The LotR films started with a single sprout and grew into a tree with many branches, and had the depth of unseen roots. The Hobbit films were a group of fallen branches and bits of bark thrown at you in a confused bundle.
In frustration (because I so want these movies to be great), I’ve attempted to reconstruct them in my head around the original goal of growing a single narrative into a tripartite one. In a twist, I’ve used lessons I’ve learned about adapting stories from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film commentary and DVD special features to do it.
The first thing I would change is to make it two movies, rather than three. Even with two additional story lines, the thing that matters is the central arc around which all three narratives cohere. In my fantasy re-edit, I can opt out of of the obvious money grab.
Part 1: Discovery (or rather, “There”)
I’d start in the obvious place – with Bilbo, in a hole in the ground, just like in the book.
What makes the LotR films such an effective adaptation of an incredibly complex story is how they start with a single through line and blossom out into multiple strains. Where the Hobbit films fail is that they start with the complexity, so there’s no way to get drawn into the story. It’s not that I need an element of surprise (I mean, I know how it ends), but a huge part of what makes Tolkien such a great storyteller is how he lets you experience the adventure. The film should be like a ride-along adventure, not a visual report of the events.
And so, with Bilbo as our vehicle, things would start with a whimsical air. Bilbo would meet Gandalf, who would seem mysterious and strange through his eyes, and then the dwarves who would seem ridiculous and uncouth. As the evening would progress, we’d learn more about the dwarves through the jokes they tell, and then the mood would change as they told their stories, and then finally I’d let the dimming of the candles darken the tone until we reached that most incredible version of the dwarves song in Bilbo’s home. That song was perfect, and I’d leave it just as it was, letting it stew in Bilbo’s mind as he tries to sleep, provoking his curiosity and his sense of adventure.
Then the adventure would begin, and with the light of day, we could return to a mood that’s lighter, though still a little unsettled.
Through Bilbo’s eyes, the sense of “epic”ness would gradually escalate alongside Bilbo’s sense of adventure and fear. He tests the waters, tries things out, fails, and longs for comfort and home, in each scene stretching his courage a little bit further as he learns his own potential and his own limitations, following his progress from his first attempts at being an adventurer with the trolls all the way through his triumph in the game of riddles.
That’s about where I’d hit the three-quarters mark of the first film, because that’s the turning point for Bilbo, the event that really makes him see things differently – not just himself, but the world around him. It’s also a great point to let things turn a bit darker, hinting at the cohesion around their misadventures. The ring introduces a silent darkness that none of the characters – not even Gandalf – can yet explain.
It’s great point to start escalating the dwarves stories and conversations about their quest for Erebor, showing them to be something more than a band of silly dwarves, and for Gandalf to start more visibly contemplating his split from the party. Now would be a good time for some hints of Gandalf’s role in masterminding this quest, and for Thorin to start to show himself as heroic. The action can increase in tension and grow in scope as the story literally zooms out on the wings of eagles and darkens at the door of Beorn. As get more depth in the story, we can start to feel more of Bilbo’s fear also, stretching his emotional range along with his knowledge and his confidence.
A fitting ending to the first movie would be Gandalf splitting off from the quest, sending Bilbo and the dwarves into Mirkwood on their own.
Part 2: Resolution (or “And Back Again”)
Now is when you should hit heavy with the dwarves’ back story. After hinting all through the first movie of the grander, darker quest for Erebor, the audience is now ready for the opening sequence Peter Jackson put at the beginning of the first movie. At this point, it would feel like a reveal, rather than a heavy handed attempt to focus the drama around the dwarves quest for home.
When we meet back up with our company, we’d just be starting the trek through Mirkwood. In this set up, I’m very obviously mimicking the introductory sequences of Jackson’s The Two Towers, cutting from high levels of action to the dark stillness of the forest. We’d get an introduction of their situation, and as soon as they start running into things they fear, we switch to Gandalf, and introduce his new storyline – one that, again, we’ve been hinting at all through the first movie. From there, the two story lines can build up together, growing the fear and the conflicts until they culminate with Bilbo’s biggest moment of courage and transition: defeating the spiders and giving his sword its name. It could be a great action sequence, especially if combined with Gandalf’s business with the necromancer. This is the halfway point, because we now have three solid storylines: Gandalf’s new trajectory to uncover the coming of the orcs and the wargs, the Dwarves new sense of urgency, and Bilbo’s new role as hero.
After that, the time spent in the halls of the elves could be put to good use cutting back and forth between developing Gandalf’s fears of the coming war, showing the animosity between the elves (even developing some of the elves in the name of making a role for Legolas and Evangeline Lilly without introducing weird new plot lines that come across like bad fan fiction) and the dwarves, the relationship between the elves and Laketown. Bilbo’s role would be to move the action along, now that he’s a clever solution-finder.
Note 4: The barrel scene would be so much scarier if they did it the way Tolkien described. Reading that scene fills me with terror – it’s sneaky, risky, and the dwarves could drown. You can feel the claustrophobia as Bilbo shuts the barrels. It doesn’t need to look like a video game in order to be thrilling. The way the film plays it out is so nonsensical – Peter Jackson seems to be looking for real grit and darkness at every turn, and then when he’s got a scene that’s already got some, he turns it into a silly romp that looks like a setup for video games and amusement park rides.
Then it’s time to return to the source-material for an action packed, tightly woven chain of events that heighten the complexity while also starting to weave the various threads together. I like the idea of developing Laketown and Bard’s family (another chance to add female characters without completely making things up) and building up to what should really be the big beginning of the climax – the slaying of the dragon, about three-quarters of the way through the film. This makes a great false climax because it feels like it should be the end – things seem like they could resolve here, but for the rumble of the underlying darkness that’s been building as we follow Gandalf, who is now on his way back.
This rumble provides a strong foundation for viewers to experience the dwarves digging in their heels and inciting a volatile situation in the main theatre of action. There’s so much built in darkness here, with the dwarves army on its way, the orcs on their way, the betrayal of the dwarves by Bilbo, the anger of the elves, and the complete loss of reason by Thorin.
The true climax moment of the film should be when the dwarves show up to declare war on the elves and the men of Laketown. The scariest moment of the book, for me, is the moment that the army of dwarves rushes forward, ready to kill the elves and men. They were going to do it. They didn’t change their minds on their own. They were bent on bloodshed. I can’t for the life of me think why Peter Jackson thinks he needed to work so hard to add darkness with made up plot-lines when in this moment, the supposed protagonists of our story become the antagonists. The good guys are literally about to kill each other when Gandalf shows up to pull all of the threads of the story together and warn of the coming orcs and wargs.
This moment is HUGE, and should be well earned. Everything should be leading to this point, especially if we’re trying to build a strong prequel to the LotR, develop the theme of returning home, and pull the threads of a complex story back together. When everyone comes together on the same side against the orcs, that’s a triumphant moment – let the music swell and the battle be epic. Earning this moment emotionally would give the eagles and Beorn their due, allow Thorin to redeem himself before the end, and make it possible for the Battle of the Five Armies to have the impact Jackson clearly wants it to have.
That’s how this film adaption should have played out, in my mind. Visually, these movies are striking and richly detailed. In execution, they feel lost. It’s not that I think Peter Jackson is wrong to change the story into something more fitting his version of LotR – I’m actually a huge fan of rethinking stories in different contexts, as I believe that stories should be treating as living things (like myths – Fionn mac Cumhaill of the Irish Finn cycle has several death stories), not concretized into indisputable canon – but the problem is that he doesn’t accomplish his own goals. The movies need a lot more restraint and a much tighter structure.
At least, that’s how I’d like to see them.