Whether the criticism is fair or not, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has certainly received its share. I stand by my initial review of the movie yet I can definitely understand where people are coming from. In making three movies, the only thing Peter Jackson has proved so far is that two films would have been enough. There and Back Again will have to prove itself this Christmas. Yet whether that film is good or not, the base criticism will remain: it isn’t the book. At the conclusion of this trilogy there still will be no faithful, live-action adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book. It seems that The Hobbit was just destined to be swallowed up by Lord of the Rings, the epic film trilogy that preceded it.
If only it could have been like that animated version that was created by Rankin/Bass back in 1977. That adaptation was nearly spot on (for those Tolkien fans out there who haven’t seen it – do so). If only Rankin/Bass had continued adapting Tolkien stories, maybe then we’d have a complete set of faithful adaptations. Well, they did do one other – just one other. The Return of the King was released in 1980. Yes… The Return of the King… because nobody has time for beginnings and middles anymore. Actually it had a lot more to do with the fact that there was an animated version of the first part of The Lord of the Rings released around the same time (also check that one out… it is interesting to say the least – more on that later). Anyway, point is they tried their hand at Lord of the Rings… and it felt way too much like the Hobbit.
For starters, examine the cover they went with for the DVD release. Notice anything? Hobbits and dwarves, front and center. Now it’s understandable to put Frodo and Sam on the cover as they are two of the main characters in both the book and the film. Where is Aragorn you may ask? Not important: at least not as important as those two dwarves, neither of whom is Gimli by the way. Also, is that a dragon in the upper corner… what?
In some cases: covers can be misleading. After all, they are the product of marketing campaigns and not the filmmakers. Suffice it to say: the marketing was trying to make this resemble the Hobbit as much as possible. Sound familiar?
So marketing is on the same page. But how is the Return of the King content-wise? It is not an epic. Not by any stretch of the imagination. This version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece is framed as the simple story of two hobbits simply walking into Mordor. Yes, Aragorn is in the film but is barely featured in it. Legolas and Gimli are cut altogether and there is very little focus on the battles. In fairness, for being only 98 minutes long, the film does manage to include an awful lot, it is merely simplified.
In watching Rankin/Bass’ version of Return of the King, the audience really does get the hobbit-sized version. The story is revealed to us by the hobbits after all (with the aid of a minstrel, hired by Gandalf, cause why not) so they naturally take center stage. The more epic parts of the story are barely touched upon because hobbits are not interested in that sort of thing.
Back again from the Hobbit are the musical numbers. I am aware Tolkien included songs in his work but can someone please tell me on what page can “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way” is found? Seriously, I used to love that song as a kid: totally my jam.
My point is this: all of this has happened before and all this will happen again. Tolkien, and books as a platform, enjoy an advantage that films, particularly blockbusters, do not. They can change tone. The Hobbit is nothing like the Lord of the Rings. It was written long before Tolkien ever envisioned Sauron or the Nazgul or anything like that. It didn’t matter because the Hobbit was written first. Peter Jackson never had that luxury.
If he were to make a version of the Hobbit as it was originally created, then non-Tolkien fans would have had a few questions, namely: where is Gandalf throughout most of this movie, it seems kind of convenient that he just vanishes and appears as plot dictates. Why does the all powerful ring have no effect on Bilbo Baggins (who wears it for long stretches of time in the book). What was the dwarves’ plan for dealing with Smaug? Why does no one in Lake Town think it’s a bad idea for thirteen dwarves and a hobbit to go wake up a dragon? Why are the elves such jerks (still a valid question)? Why does Bilbo even care about these dwarves (seriously, if you think Thorin is an ass in the movie…)?
Anyway, I’m not making excuses for Jackson’s epic. “Why is there an elf-dwarf love story” is also a valid question.
There is a weakness in Hollywood that success merits only additional success. The child-friendly version of the Hobbit created by Rankin/Bass was a huge hit, therefore a child-like version of Return of the King is the way to go. An epic version of the Lord of the Rings was a masterpiece so Bilbo better get epic with it. The good news is this: the books still exist and will always exist. People will keep falling in love with the story and maybe one day Hollywood will get it right. If not, you can rest comfortably knowing that, after it’s all done, some rapid fan will edit down Peter Jackson’s trilogy to one movie and release that cut. After all, it didn’t take long for Jar Jar Binks to vanish from Star Wars.