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Why Tolkien Would Be Proud: Peter Jackson's <em>The Hobbit</em> Is a Better Book Adaptation (and Film) Than Any of the <em>Lord of the Rings</em> Films

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[Warning: The following article contains significant spoilers for all of the above-mentioned movies. For an additional article on this topic by this author, see here.]

In Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf face nine hours' worth of Great Battles and never once look frightened. They spend each battle supernaturally weaving their way through hordes of enemies and loudly counting their kills; if the lengthy and bloody battles of Helm's Deep (The Two Towers) and Pelennor Fields (The Return of the King) offer theater-goers any comic relief whatsoever, it's to be found in the antics and mile-wide/inch-deep friendship of these two bruisers, whose battle prowess is never explained in the films except to the extent it's evident to viewers of all ages and levels of perceptiveness that neither character will be seriously injured. In contrast, the tragically killed-off Gondorian Boromir (The Fellowship of the Ring) is, from the start of the trilogy, to be accounted among the Fellowship's precious-few doomed by virtue of the fact that, unlike Gimli and Legolas, he sweats, exhibits fear, rarely jests in the midst of a Middle Earth-saving quest, has doubts, gets confused, and can't fight endless enemies without dying of multiple lacerations, incisions, abrasions, punctures, or penetrations. Also, he speaks in a parlance more or less recognizable as humanoid, whereas Legolas doesn't so much chat or make observations as recite appallingly bad poetry while Gimli, for his part, makes the prospect of Billy Connolly in drag look tasteful with a persistently cringe-worthy archetyping of the Scots (each "laddie" is another nail in the coffin of movie magic). And then there's Aragorn; a more woodenly heroic lead one would be hard-pressed to find in any film of the last quarter-century. If the Lord of the Rings movies are wildly enjoyable--and, despite all of foregoing, they are--it's not for their characterization of the hero class or their deployment of what can only generously be called "dialogue." No theater-goer will miss the absence, from The Hobbit, of lines like this characteristic Legolas exclusive: "A red sun rises. Blood has been spilled this night!"

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo and his dwarven compatriots run away from, well, just about everyone. Kili and Fili send Bilbo ahead to retrieve the Company's mounts from three trolls in a manner suggesting they'd rather be back in their bedrolls spilling soup on their stubble; when warg scouts appear outside the deceased trolls' treasure-cave, Gandalf's exhortation to the Company to flee is executed with such gusto that the next five minutes largely feature the entire cast of the film running from rocky outcropping to rocky outcropping on a large rolling plain; what goblins are killed by the Company in Goblin Town are only killed in desperate mid-flight, and the fiercest of the Company's fighters (after Thorin) tells Gandalf in no uncertain terms that the Company can't win the battle; and the Company runs headlong from Azog's warg riders (indeed, the dwarves climb up trees to escape, the most comic and cowardly way to avoid physical confrontation in all cinema and literature). It would not be unfair to say that, other than in self-defense, Thorin's Company only fights when it absolutely must: To save necessary members of the Company (e.g., Bilbo and the horses, when they are grabbed by trolls, who the dwarves outnumber four-to-one); for the honor of a member of the Company (e.g., Thorin, when he attacks Azog solus to avenge his father and grandfather); or when exhorted to do so by Gandalf and no other options are presented (e.g., in Goblin Town).

The greatness of The Hobbit lies in part in its ability to render its heroes in human rather than superhuman terms. As Northrop Frye might have put it, The Hobbit is low mimesis, The Lord of the Rings high mimesis; we learn from the events and characters of the former because they are, to some degree, familiar to us and thus relatable; we learn from the latter for the opposite reason. The dwarves of The Hobbit are decidedly not the Fellowship's Gimli--thirteen of them together are unable to bring down even a single, unarmored, caught-unawares cave troll--and far from fleeing an enemy up a tree, the worst indignity Gimli permits himself to suffer is being thrown by Aragorn into a horde of onrushing enemies which he then valiantly slaughters. Nor is Gandalf the Grey (from The Hobbit) anything like Gandalf the White (from the later scenes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy), as the former, unlike the latter, is mischievous (he outwits Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman in almost puerile fashion; he lies to Elrond, needlessly, about the nature of the dwarves' quest); drug-addled (he can't remember the names of half the other Wizards on Middle Earth, and there are only four to remember); jocular (he tells Bilbo that his hobbit ancestor Bandobras Took invented the game of golf by clubbing a goblin-head down a rabbit-hole); modest (he demurs when asked by Dori to change the weather, uses flaming pine-cones to fight off a detachment of warg-riding orcs, runs away from his enemies whenever feasible, and sheepishly faces correction by the other great minds of his time); indeed, now and again in The Hobbit he seems downright ragged (he is even the butt of a joke on this score made by--of all people--Elrond).

There are more relatable characters in a single scene of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit than in the entire Lord of the Rings film trilogy--an admittedly superlative trilogy whose final installment, The Return of the King, won an Oscar for Best Picture. (That Return of the King was the first and thus far only fantasy film ever to win one of the highest honors in the world's most popular artform explains why debates over Jackson's Tolkien adaptations matter; not only is the filmmaker working with some of the most celebrated texts of the Print Era, he is also carrying the hopes, expectations, and pedigree of an entire literary genre upon his shoulders. Should Jackson and his life's work be publicly discredited, as critics of The Hobbit have vigorously sought to do, there is, arguably, an irretrievable collateral damage effected upon an entire swath of creative endeavor in the United States and elsewhere.) Amongst Thorin's Company (The Hobbit) one finds the gluttonous and dull-witted (Bombur); the grandfatherly and resigned (Balin); the prideful and prejudiced (Thorin); the simple and well-intentioned (Bofur); the young and naive (Kili, Ori); and the (perhaps upper-) middle-class everyman (Bilbo). One expects additional members of the Company to be brought to the fore in subsequent Hobbit films (it is in some respects unfair, after all, to compare three films to one, as The Lord of the Rings presently has six hours more of screen-time to work with, character-wise). But already we can see in these thirteen dwarves and their hobbit "burglar" the same sort of whimsical dignity observable in any person called to play a much greater part in the tale of their Age than they're actually prepared for; the laughter of the Company is the laughter of beings who know that sometimes there's simply nothing for it--one must cast caution to the wind and aim for the horizon. For all their bluster about the difficulty of their task, nine-tenths of the characters in The Lord of the Rings seem, finally, perfectly suited to it--the stalwart Sam perhaps (oddly) most of all.

While the hobbits of Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy are, like those of The Hobbit, eminently relatable, they're also substantially less credulous than Bilbo the Burglar. From the moment Gandalf urges Frodo (The Lord of the Rings) to leave the Shire, the innocence of the latter seems lost; while it's never entirely clear why Merry and Pippin join Frodo in such a dangerous endeavor--the films suggest it was merely coincidence--aside from Pippin's unaccountable and irritatingly persistent stupidity, which is no replacement for more subtle characterization, the two take fairly quickly to the adventuring life. (They charge orcs several times without Bilbo's evident hesitation, for instance, and soon enough are to be spotted coaxing the somnambulant Ents into open warfare. Bilbo, by contrast, swings his "sword" almost as wildly and hesitantly at the end of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as he did at the beginning.) There is much talk of homesickness among the four hobbit members of the Fellowship, certainly, but apart from Samwise Gamgee none of the four wear their homesickness entirely naturally. Sam misses the Shire because it is part and parcel of his temperamental composition, his value and belief systems, his grade of intellectual sophistication, and his instincts as a sentient lifeform; Sam and the Bilbo of The Hobbit are alike in that their "humanity" (using the term generically here) is alive in every facial expression, every movement of limb, every decision made in the roiling heat of a danger. Frodo comes closest to this sort of subtlety, but he is, alas, no Bilbo or Sam: The peculiar, almost gauche frankness with which Martin Freeman's Bilbo addresses his own shortcomings would be false in the mouth of any actor in The Lord of the Rings but Sean Astin. And this matters; besides Sam, the only low mimesis to be found in The Lord of the Rings is that inconstant brand offered by Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Gollum (in his own indirect way), and Boromir. For their parts, Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond, Arwen, Galadriel, Eomer, Eowyn, Theoden, Faramir, Denethor, and Saruman offer virtually unrelenting high mimesis for the entirety of their respective appearances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And this ultimately wears on viewers. Certainly, it does not bear much rewatching. One returns to and rewatches The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King for their CGI and their epic atmospherics, surely, not to revel in Christopher Lee's indifferently-acted villainous smarm.

One sign of the relatability of Thorin's Company is the degree of demotic diction and frank expression evident in their scenes in The Hobbit; such plainspeak is harrowingly absent from The Lord of the Rings, even among the latter film's nominally low-mimetic figures. Attempts to explain this disparity that rely, wholly or in part, on the claim that the latter tale is "about" the ending of the world and the former merely a "caper" simply won't do. They won't do because the comparison isn't an accurate or a fair one and the presumptions it depends upon are fraudulent. The task of the Company in The Hobbit--to permanently retake, with thirteen tinkers, miners, toymakers, and a warrior or two what thousands upon thousands of heavily-armored dwarven infantrymen couldn't hold for more than two seconds of on-screen military tactics--is, on paper, more of a suicide mission than the task of the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings. (This is especially true given that, with all of Middle Earth in peril and at stake, rather than "merely" one mountain redoubt, the Fellowship could probably have enlisted the heroic, Nazgul-decimating Eagles to fly its members all the way to Mordor; this was a plot-hole Tolkien never entirely filled.) These ill-prepared dwarves face their almost certain deaths with a quiet courage and humor seemingly absent in the Fellowship, whose superhumanesque members are, it appears, built to fight valiantly and tirelessly and with extreme professionalism until they are killed or crowned King of Gondor in an over-long epilogue, whichever comes second. Nearly any whimsy Peter Jackson filmed for the Lord of the Rings trilogy (for instance, Gimli trying to avoid stepping on human skulls while treading the Paths of the Dead; Aragon trying not to offend Eowyn on the subject of her cooking; Pippin and Faramir chatting about the former wearing the latter's clothes) was ruthlessly culled from the wide-release cut; by contrast, at each of the two showings of The Hobbit this reviewer saw, a sizable percentage of the audience laughed genuinely and spontaneously during at least ten different scenes. Even Elrond, whose plastically grim demeanor in The Lord of the Rings seemed absurdly garish even under the apocalyptic circumstances of his time, cracks a smile not once or twice but five times in The Hobbit. The ethereal Galadriel smiles, too, and not merely because she knows something others do not, or because she's in the midst effortlessly creeping out some lesser being via telepathy; when she realizes Gandalf has deceived her regarding the dwarves' travel plans, she grins self-deprecatingly. As to the baddies of Middle Earth, it ought be noted that The Goblin King offers a feistier personality--one in which sarcasm, mischievous grinning, real fear and self-deprecation, and winsome (if sadistic) glee play a starring role--than any villain in The Lord of the Rings. If Azog is humorless, well, so is Sauron; and Saruman's tight-lipped poker face in The Hobbit is more appropriate to the circumstances and the source material (as the White Wizard is keeping a dark secret whilst trying to retain his role as ostensible do-gooder) than is his inexplicable second-story mugging during the fall of Isengard or his unbearable comic-book-villain monologing at all other times. And those who find the several-minute Stone Giant dust-up in The Hobbit intolerable ought explain to the rest of us why much longer interludes in The Lord of the Rings involving the less visually interesting (and more cartoonishly vapid) Ents are somehow acceptable and aesthetically restrained.

There are those who argue that the "scope" of The Hobbit is more intimate than that of The Lord of the Rings. It's not clear why one would think or argue so. The plot of The Lord of the Rings is so clearly-delineated it's readily paraphraseable--the good guys must destroy an evil artifact that could end the world; in the meantime, other good guys have to fight off the bad guy's massing armies--and little that occurs in the film trilogy offers any deviation from this impenetrably dour mission. The plot of The Hobbit is similarly station-to-station--the good guys must win back something a bad guy took from them, but they must travel a distance to do it--but because the quest is less time-sensitive and (dare we say it) much more of a long-shot on paper, there's ample room for side-plots that both expand the audience's understanding of Middle Earth geography and demographics and subtly characterize its heroes. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that Azog, the villain of the first entry in The Hobbit trilogy, has no real relevance whatsoever to Erebor; nor do the Goblin King, the Stone Giants, or the trolls--the other major baddies in The Hobbit. Yet it's precisely these head-scratching entrants (in some cases. these surprising additions) to the rogues' gallery of The Hobbit that suggest there is, paradoxically, something more rather than less epic to Tolkien's children's tale.

On Middle Earth, a world in which capitalism and trade between peoples is minimal, one only leaves home for one of two reasons: adventure or duty. Bilbo (The Hobbit) leaves home for adventure; Frodo (The Lord of the Rings) leaves for duty. Which motivation for courage is more conducive to epic storytelling? Which more believable? Which more "human"? It's hard to say. Certainly, the former narrative structure is more organic, and it's for this reason that The Hobbit can and should accommodate a much more expansive, more languid, and less utilitarian view of Middle Earth. This vision can and should be one that includes, beyond living and ghostly Men, not merely (as is the case in The Lord of the Rings) one dwarf, one spider, two wizards, and a gaggle of elves (with occasional silent cameos by trolls and eagles), but (as we will discover in The Hobbit trilogy) multiple dwarven societies, multiple elven societies, a goblin society, a warg society, a spider society, an eagle society, three wizards, trolls who actually speak and interact with others, and much, much more. The unaccountable call for The Hobbit to be a smaller tale than The Lord of the Rings is largely due to a) equating page-count with complexity, something literary scholars never do (as anyone who has read a Derrida essay will understand), and b) the implicit contempt for children's literature exhibited by most professional film critics--though to hide this contempt they speak warmly, even nostalgically, of the genre. Certainly, it owes but little debt to a clear-eyed consideration of what it actually takes to produce a film adaptation of Tolkien's 310-page microcosm of Middle Earth adventuring.

The themes of The Hobbit may well be as or more complex than those of The Lord of the Rings; certainly, the characters charged with carrying those themes are (at least in view of the cinematic limitations of time and screen-space). Boromir, perhaps the most interesting non-Hobbit character in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, is characterized entirely by his circumstances: He is interesting, that is, because the One Ring makes him weak. Yet this weakness is only relative; his sole defining trait in Jackson's widely-lauded The Fellowship of the Ring is a heroic desire to save his homeland. It's pretty thin gruel as far as characterization goes. ("It's so interesting, isn't it, the way Boromir wants to do what on the face of it is exactly the right thing?" one might expect to hear from, well, no theater-goer ever.) Boromir is not, that is, being at all unreasonable: Any objective assessment of T.A. 3018 and 3019 (the years in Tolkien's fictional timeline of Arda covered by The Lord of the Rings) would seem to suggest that the One Ring could, in theory, save Gondor from destruction in the short- and/or middle-term. By way of contrast, Thorin is no less tragic but substantially more human than Boromir because (staying for a moment with the events of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) his prejudice against the elves is emotional rather than rational, his dismissal of Bilbo hasty rather than empirically sound, his willingness (twice) to die for Bilbo a belying of his apparent belief that the hobbit is an outsider unworthy of his society, and his lack of faith in Gandalf entirely the product of his own personal peccadilloes. Even his applaudable traits--for instance, his restless but unwavering faith in his Company--are in fact the product of vanity and stubbornness rather than wisdom (he tells Balin he would take the thirteen dwarves willing to answer their liege's call without delay over entire, well-equipped armies of dwarves unwilling to do so).

In The Lord of the Rings, a relatively well-behaved Gandalf first seeks guidance from the head of his order, and then makes the not-so-difficult decision, thereafter, to do whatever helps Frodo destroy the One Ring. In The Hobbit, a rogue Gandalf hides his true purposes from his peers among the Wise for as long as possible, has eccentric ideas about what's happening in the world, and generally acts as unsponsored and unencouraged Adult Supervision for a mission no one else believes prudent, possible, or even particularly important. He seeks advice from those scorned by others (Radagast), leaves the mission whenever piqued or of the erroneous belief he can do more as an advance scout, and seems regularly caught unawares by events rather than preternaturally ahead of them. Elrond, who is said to be able to see the future in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, can't see the forest for the trees in The Hobbit, thereby displaying, like Gandalf, a most "human" weakness. The Saruman of The Hobbit is sly rather than defiant or delusional; Bilbo is bracingly humble rather than (as his nephew-like cousin Frodo) modestly heroic. Even the Company's war-leader, Dwalin, is more believable in being grumpily rueful than is that annoyingly monotonic yet stalwart friend of the Fellowship, Eomer. There's more warmth in Dwalin's "You've got to be joking!" or "That would be the door..." than in any Alpha Male dribble stuffily performed by the Third Marshal of the Riddermark.

But what the Hobbit achieves, most of all, is a feat few other films even contemplate: Making another movie, separately filmed and casted, better than it already is. Those who regard allusions to The Lord of the Rings in The Hobbit as mere fan service--or, worse, who accuse Jackson of anachronistically trying to remake the events of The Lord of the Rings via scenarios that unquestionably preceded them in Tolkien's lore--are failing to see that it is the cyclical nature of courage, duty, and myth that such citations reveal. That Gandalf hits his head on the same light fixture in The Hobbit he later does in The Lord of the Rings (and uses time-space magic to intimidate smaller folk in that same hobbit-hole in both films: the quarreling dwarves in the former, an aging and recalcitrant Bilbo in the latter); that Bilbo appears to run past the same pumpkin-growing hobbit in The Hobbit that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are upstaged by upon their return to The Shire decades later; that Bilbo sits a pony just as humorously as Gimli does; that Thorin's Company gets stuck in a mountain pass due to Stone Giants the same way the Fellowship later will due to Saruman's magic; that the Company will spill out of a mountainside gate pursued by goblins in a shot reminiscent of the Fellowship escaping from the orcs of Moria; that Gandalf escapes from a tree using the same technique he will later use to escape from Isengard; that the eagles send wargs to their death in The Hobbit using the same tactics the Nazgul use to send Gondorians to theirs in The Lord of the Rings; all of these are visual and narrative and thematic confirmations of what we all suspected when Sam spoke of "the great stories" in The Lord of the Rings: namely, that Joseph Campbell was right, and that all myth takes part in the same monomythic structure, and that if one lives long enough (as at least some on Middle Earth do) one can spot the repetitions.

More than that, Peter Jackson seems to argue, in his Tolkien screenplays, that to be convincingly alive we must spot the repetitions. In a meta-narrative entirely appropriate to Tolkien's arch writing-style in The Hobbit, Jackson implies that one can, indeed, live long enough to remark openly and wisely on the cycles that define one's times. Which is exactly what Jackson himself does by making the linkages between his two film-cycles absolutely unmistakable. And such linkages--such cyclical goings-on--are critical to understanding the only form of allegory J.R.R. Tolkien did intend to write, which is that purer form of allegory that confirms for us that all good stories contain within them the kernel of our self-knowing, and that it is the repetitive nature of such stories that makes our self-knowing easier to accommodate than would otherwise be the case.

It would have been far easier for Peter Jackson to write and direct The Hobbit artificially blind to the fact that he had already made its sequel; instead, the mercurial director generously reveals for us that the distance between a so-called children's tale (The Hobbit) and a story of the world's near-ending and rebirth (The Lord of the Rings) is not so great after all, and that whether one leaves one's chosen path for adventure or for duty, it is the courage to deviate in the first instance that charts one's course, not one's geopolitical circumstances.

Critics who would have Jackson re-entrench the purported distinction between different tales and types of courage are not only not sympathetic to Tolkien's original cause--whatever their claims to the contrary--they are, far worse, diminishing the fantasy genre's primary contribution to our collective moral understanding. They are willfully cheapening, too, cinema's power to delight us with wonders even as it reminds us of old sorrows, old successes, and old glories. Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, being a film, is of course not a book J.R.R. Tolkien would--or did--write; it is, however, the film J.R.R. Tolkien would have made had his capacities as a filmmaker and his knowledge of the cinematic medium equaled his prowess as a novelist and his knowledge of the rhetoric of fiction. And it is this, finally, that we ask for from a movie director--that he be the Tolkien of his unique medium, by way of bringing to his preferred artform a rare glory already well-captured in another. We are wrongheaded when we insist, instead, that a film director or screenwriter diminish his medium or his medium-specific artistic vision by treating his source material as something other than a portable wonder. The Hobbit is a better film than any of the films of The Lord of the Rings trilogy because it is, ultimately, the work of two artists, not one. Indeed, if there is a near-fatal flaw in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is that those early-aughts films too faithfully juxtapose their hard-copy stories upon an entirely different and singular medium. We may be thankful that Jackson has spared us from that mistake being made twice; and we may be hopeful that, in the future, he'll get the credit for his discretion--and his creative vision--that he deserves.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry: Thievery (University of Akron Press, forthcoming 2013), winner of the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize; Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose; and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). A contributing author to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2008), he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose first edition will be published by Omnidawn in 2014. Presently a doctoral candidate (ABD) in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press, 2008), Poetry of the Law (University of Iowa Press, 2010), Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Harvard Review, AGNI, jubilat, and Colorado Review. In 2008, he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry.