J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel was written in 1937, and expresses the antiwar sentiments prevalent at the time, which were informed by memories of World War I. In the book, a bunch of petty and short-sighted kings want to gobble up as many resources as possible, until the moment that all of their fragile truces fall apart. At that point, our Hobbit hero nobly betrays his side to the others in the name of peace, but he’s unable to stop the oncoming war, so he hides from the pointless fighting until it’s all over, shaking his head at the folly of it all.
The novel was quite successful and highly acclaimed, but then World War II came and went, and Tolkien, along with many of his antiwar contemporaries, began to see things very differently. All of a sudden, war had been ennobled again. The world had finally met a villain powerful and evil enough to justify total war, with no regrets afterward. (In fact, after the war was over, they discovered the bad guy was even worse than they had assumed, which is not what usually happens!)
Tolkien decided that it was time for a very different follow-up story. In “The Lord of the Rings”, the rise of a huge new evil causes those squabbling kingdoms to finally unite in a righteous cause, and our Hobbits gravely shed their pacifism and march to the front.
There were other pointed contrasts: In both stories, a Hobbit joins the cause of a long-exiled king and helps restore him to his throne, but in the first, the exile lies, cheats and steals his way back to power, and our Hobbit comes to regret his role in restoring the kingdom, while in the follow-up, the exiled king retakes his throne only reluctantly, and proves to a paragon of honesty, wisdom and valor.
Not surprisingly, the two stories, with their contrasting morals, tend to attract different sets of fans, despite being two parts of one huge epic. Fans of the first find the second to be too long and dark, fans of the second find the first to be too light and frivolous.
Director Peter Jackson has never hidden the fact that he is squarely within the latter camp. While making his original screen epic, he happily skipped over the first book, and frequently spoke dismissively of it. When he had run out of later books, and the fans demanded more, he tried for years to find someone else to direct The Hobbit so that he could retreat to a producer role, but that didn’t work out.
In the end, Jackson decided that, if he had to adapt that damned book, he would do it the way it should have been done: He would turn it into another long, dark slog with pure good on one side and pure evil on the other. In other words, the opposite of what it was intended to be.
(This is the exact same thing that happened with Man of Steel: Christopher Nolan ran out of Batman movies, so he reluctantly came back around to DC’s original superhero on the condition that he could inject the bleakness and misanthropy of the latter into the former, even though that would totally betray the source material. In this case, however, he did manage to hand off the directing duties and restrict himself to producing.)
Of course, as anyone who’s ever read the internet knows, the one sure-fire argument against non-violence (or de-escalation of any kind) is always: “Oh yeah? Well what about Hitler??” Hitler is the best thing that ever happened to violence fans, the trump card they always have up their sleeves to win every hand.
So what happens when you inject Sauron into The Hobbit, but still have the same people doing the same stuff? The whole thing now seems disturbingly frivolous, which is exactly Jackson’s point. “Why are you people having adventures and singing?? Don’t you know that the worst evil ever is rising??” This version of The Hobbit is an argument against the existence of “The Hobbit”.
But what really kills the story is Jackson’s determination to transform bad exile-king Thorin into a carbon copy of good exile-king Aragorn. Thorin’s quest to claim that mountain of gold has been transformed from a greedy folly into a righteous restoration, and all of the other squabbling kings who stand in his way have become monstrous villains. In this version, our Hobbit forms a deep bond with this noble dwarf-king as they share the burden of his crusade against evil.
In theory, this might have worked, but there’s just one problem: none of the events of the novel make sense in this context. In the book, the dwarves are assholes, who keep attempting to send Bilbo to his death while they keep themselves safe, and he only puts up with it because he’s being paid for his time.
In the movie, they’re treated like a band of brothers, but they still send Bilbo off alone to fight the humongous trolls and, later, the dragon! They do all this after they already fought valiantly side-by-side against Jackson’s orcs! It’s utterly bizarre. Here is how Tolkien, as omniscient narrator, describes the moment when the dwarves send Bilbo in alone to face the dragon:
- “There it is. Dwarves are not heroes, but a calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.”
Jackson could have solved these problems easily. If he was going to take away original motivation (greed and cowardice on the part of the dwarves, salary and a resulting desire to be a good burglar on the part of Bilbo) then he would have to rewrite those scenes only slightly…
Instead of having the dwarves send their good friend off to fight those trolls alone, Bilbo could have simply run into those Trolls accidentally. As for the dragon, by that point in the book, the dwarves know Bilbo has the ring so that’s an easy fix: send him alone because he’s the only one who can do it invisibly. How hard is that? Just fix it!
But here we run into something I call the Wikipedia problem. I’m a huge Wikipedia fan, but I’ll be the first to admit it has a big flaw. None of the writers want their stuff to be edited, and they get an instant notification every time somebody tries, so second-guessers have settled on a different method, resulting in many sentences like this one (which I made up): “In 1921 he became the first man to reach the summit except for this other man who had reached the summit the previous year except he wasn’t the first one either because someone else had done it the year before that.” Nobody tries to delete each other’s facts anymore, they just tack something on afterwards that contradicts it. That way, the original writer never gets an email notification that they’ve been edited, and they never start an edit war.
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit plays out like an extremely-contested Wikipedia page. He feels that he has no right to rewrite Tolkien’s scenes, so he just intercuts them with scenes that totally contradict them in terms of motivation, tone and theme. The result is an incoherent, unpleasant mess.
I do have some morbid interest in seeing how he handles the third movie. Will he finally switch over to the book’s point of view and portray Thorin as foolish for hording the gold and starting the war? I doubt it. After all, the orcs have now been introduced into the equation, so I suspect that the war will be seen as righteous from start to finish, which will be the ultimate slap in the face to Tolkien and his fans.
ONE YEAR LATER UPDATE: As you might have guessed from reading the above, I was pleasantly surprised by the third movie, which did mostly revert to the book’s morality, finally portraying Thorin as a greedy dick, and presenting Bilbo’s betrayal of him as totally justified. This doesn’t fix most of the problems in the previous two movies, and the third movie is still way too bloated and tonally inconsistent, but it’s definitely the best of the three and I’m glad to be proven wrong about Thorin.