There and Back Again

The Hobbit was one of the first books I read as a kid and probably the first one I re-read. The version I had contained illustrations as well, and my mind filled with the daring of dwarves, the majestic terror of the dragon Smaug, and the relief that came from the last minute save by giant eagles. As a kid, it was difficult for me to make friends, so I devoured books like the Hobbit instead, escaping into fantasy worlds and imagining myself fighting off hordes of goblins. When I lost that initial copy of the Hobbit, I replaced it as soon as I could with the 50th anniversary edition despite how badly the cover wanted me to put it back on the shelf. You know which one I’m talking about. You know.

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Yep. The closest thing that is to a burglar is the Hamburglar, and if by “game of riddles with Gollum” you mean “a horrid demon is about to thumb my rear in a damp cave despite my brandishing of a knife I clearly don’t know how to use”, you’d be right. Still, I broke the spine and wore the pages down and it had it’s own special spot in the center of my bookcase.

When I got a little older, I decided it was far past time to return to Middle Earth. I was skeptical of The Lord of the Rings at first. I wanted clumsy homebody Bilbo back. Who was this Frodo kid? How could he possibly live up to the adventures his uncle had embarked on. But soon I was captivated by the mysterious Strider and the trash-talking between Legolas and Gimli as they each tried to outdo the others in orc murder. I was tense while I read about Frodo’s growing corruption, and I was saddened by Boromir’s sacrifice.

These books meant a lot to me, and though it’s been some years since I’ve had a chance to read them, they mean a lot to me still.

I was thirteen when The Fellowship of the Ring came out and it was everything my young mind could hope for. It was unusual, to me, because I can’t recall there being any genuinely good fantasy films out at that time. I was reading Dragonlance novels and The Sword of Truth, while I found science fiction to be lacking, while in cinema it was the opposite. Alien and Terminator were favorites of mine, but there was a dearth of quality sword and sorcery stories.

Then Fellowship came out of the gates like a cave troll, smashing the competition to pieces. The costumes look worn, the Uruk-hai were terrifying to behold, the action was choreographed brilliantly and the set designs were gorgeous. What better way to illustrate the natural beauty and range of terrain than use the beautiful spots of our own planet? OH MY GOD. A BALROG.

I watched Fellowship multiple times in theaters. I watched The Two Towers and gawked at the Ents and railed at Christopher Lee’s sneering menace as Sarumon revealed his true colors (still white, but…an evil white?). I was transfixed by Andy Serkis’ excellent portrayal of Gollum arguing with himself. I cheered at the flooding of Isengard.

I watched Return of the King multiple times in theaters, and let’s be honest, I didn’t give a shit about Legolas surfing on a titanic elephant because Eowyn declared that she was no man, and I didn’t mind the gazillion endings because I didn’t want the movie to end. I wasn’t ready to leave Middle Earth!

So of course I bought all three extended editions when they came out, and I wish this was a joke, but I watched them my girlfriend at the time over the course of three nights and halfway through Return of the King, I rebuffed her sexual advances because there’s only 90 minutes left, Jesus.

It would be nine years before The Hobbit got the cinematic treatment. If you ask me, it was worth the wait.

Now, let me be clear: The Hobbit films are more CG heavy, which is kind of a bummer, but locations like Rivendell and Erebor and Mirkwood still look absolutely stunning. People complain about the way the dwarves all seem to blend together, with a few notable exceptions (namely Thorin, Kili, Balinese [the old one] and Bombur [the fat one]), but that was the way it went in the books, also, with a handful of character traits being sprinkled amongst them through the course of the book.

Some people also claim that they’re too silly or cartoonish as compared to the Lord of the Rings, which 1. The books are largely considered the same way, and 2. As you get into Desolation of Smaug and Battle of the Five Armies, that’s most definitely not the case. There isn’t anything silly about the deaths of Thorin, Fili and Kili.

Perhaps the biggest complaint, though, is that there films felt unnecessary. Bloated. I thought so, too, at first. But then I thought about the reasons it works.

1. A lot happens in the Hobbit. It’s only a 300 page book, but that’s because it’s designed to be read in brief by younger, more easily distracted minds. Even so, there’s the initial congregation, the troll encounter (which was showcased in the background of the LotR, and added treat for anyone watching the movies chronologically), Rivendell, capture by and escape from the goblins (this Misty Mountain sequence also showcases the stone giants throwing boulders at each other, a nice detail from the book), the Gollum riddle scene, the spiders of Beorn, the spiders of Mirkwood, capture by and escape from the elves of Mirkwood, Bard and Laketown, confronting Smaug, the destruction of Laketown, Thorin’s growing insanity, and of course the climactic final battle of five armies.

Sure, that was all written into 300 pages, but to actually develop them and do them justice takes more time. Oh, so there’s a bowman in Laketown who kills a dragon. Who is he? Why do we care? The time spent in Laketown makes it feel more like a thriving community with real people and real families. In fact, this time and care is shown in the goblin kingdom and Mirkwood, too.

We get movie-stealing sequences with Gollum and Smaug that work because they’re not rushed. They’re paced brilliantly and the performances that go in it are done so with panache. The final battle feels like a war, and it feels desperate. The paired battles feel earned by that point, and while they’re a little over the top, they were fantasy gold and it brought to mind my favorite Dungeons and Dragons sessions.

By taking the time to develop each step of the journey, it made it feel like more than “and then they went here, and then they went there”  but instead like an actual adventure with numerous varied perils.

2. The added stuff develops Middle Earth even more. There are parts of the Silmarillion in the movies. These parts add the extra lore and background into the varying races and conflicts. This is a land with history and blood feuds and fallen kingdoms. And we get just enough of a peek into it as to help us immerse ourselves in this world again. It adds complexity and tragedy to some of our characters.

Tauriel, on the other hand, is a brand-new character. Some purists decry her presence as unnecessary, but without her, the only women in the story would be Galadriel in her brief scenes and random citizenry here and there. Tauriel adds the Eowyn affect, being part of the conflict without disrupting the main story. Her presence excused the appearance of Legolas, but Legolas’ inclusion also added more weight to Thranduil’s involvement and general vindictiveness. We see how far he comes from his absolute racism towards dwarves to his grudging acceptance that banding together can sometimes accomplish a greater good.

Now, these first two things are necessary under a Peter Jackson direction. Jackson’s LotR trilogy and the Hobbit movies have a scope that feels epic when you watch it. The world is big, their journey is long, the battles are energetic. Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to do two Hobbit films, likely could have condensed it. He tells more personal stories, more tightly focused, and between that and his excellent creature designs, I believe they would have been excellent films, but they wouldn’t quite have fit in the same realm as Jackson’s trilogy.

And that works, for the books. The Hobbit is one kind of animal, light in tone and a swift romp for a rainy afternoon where Lord of the Rings is heavier material with deeper consequences and greater stakes. That’s fine.

But on film, we’re talking about two grand adventures, and a legacy that passes from uncle to nephew. When Jackson came back, with his scope and the expansion of the adventures, three films make sense, because…

3. They’re a perfect companion saga to Lord of the Rings. You have Bilbo’s full story and Frodo’s full story and they complement each other well. You see how two little Hobbits each adapted to a large world with very different types of conflicts and experiences. Bilbo is given as much time to grow and endure and adapt as Frodo is, and both films have their perfect beginnings, middles and ends. They bookend nicely. The comparisons are heart-felt while the contrasts set the two apart well enough that you don’t feel bored and you don’t feel like you’re running over the same ground.

At the end of the day, maybe The Hobbit films aren’t a great adaptation, but I don’t think that’s fair or even entirely correct. There is extra material there, but it supplements the Hobbit story which is recreated in pretty stellar detail. I do think that the Hobbit films are top to bottom the best fantasy films I’ve ever seen. The action is tight, the world feels real, the monsters are amazing, the quest feels fun. They’re as well-developed as any science fiction film.

Taken as a whole, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films are full of heart and adventure, and they’re either going to inspire people to read the original books and decide for themselves which they like better, or they’re going to be accessible for people who don’t like the older, drier style of writing Tolkien used. I don’t think that people who read the books should be so purist as to pick the movies apart.

I grew up on the books. They introduced me to fantasy, and fiction like it got me through hard times throughout my life. I was just excited to see these things I love so much translated on film, liberties and all. I was so excited to see these things that as the final credits rolled and Billy Boyd sang The Last Goodbye, I teared up in the theater.

And no matter what you say, this is one of the most perfect music videos ever made.

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One thought on “There and Back Again

  1. I love the books and the movies! I have never felt the need to pick a movie apart just because its based on a book. But I do feel happy when the movie or TV-show are close to the books though 🙂

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