The Hobbit is my favourite book, so I was distressed to see the failure of the movie adaptation. Many critics have given their opinions why the film is a disappointment, but I believe we need to go back to the source material and witness how a new story was created to see what went wrong.
To begin with a bit of background, The Hobbit is undoubtedly J.R.R. Tolkien’s best book. From a literary standpoint, it is much more sophisticated than his other works. The plotting and characterisation are sharp and subtle, respectively. Tolkien also made heavy use of what Ernest Hemingway termed the Iceberg Theory. Here we only see a portion of the story, but we know there is much more below the surface, just like we only see a small bit of an iceberg when the majority of it is underwater. This underwater portion is incalculably important, because it buoys up the bit above the water which we can see.
Unfortunately, the Hobbit doesn’t get much respect. Tolkien geeks reject it for the deeper background material, and the literati feel it is tainted by the longer, clumsier, and more popular Lord of the Rings.
When looking at the book, it is important to note that Bilbo does not choose to go on the adventure willingly. He is forced into it. The only real interest he shows in being a Burglar is when he is ridiculed. He is driven by the opinions of others:
He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce.
Gandalf more-or-less throws Bilbo out the front door, and Bilbo goes along passively. Things happen to him; he does not drive the action.
With the trolls, Bilbo makes his first choice and begins to drive the action. He chooses to be a Burglar, and tries to do some burgling. As an exclamation point to what Bilbo has decided, he almost tells the trolls he is a Burglar, which is how he now identifies himself. At this point one could say the story really begins and everything up to now was simply exposition. Now we have the whole story of the book: Bilbo’s evolution as a Burglar.
His first attempt is a failure. The initial action ends in ignominy, as Bilbo is not only captured by the trolls, he also indirectly causes all his friends to be captured, too.
His first success in ‘burglarious proceedings’ was in the Misty Mountains, first with Gollum and afterwards by escaping the goblins at the door. The Dwarves are impressed, and Bilbo likes the praise.
Here we fall back again on Bilbo’s need for approval from others, just like how he acted during the Unexpected Party. He is an insecure hobbit, and this outside recognition drives him. It is also important to note that Bilbo keeps the existence of the ring of invisibility secret. Tolkien later gave hints why he did this, but if we focus exclusively on the Hobbit we realise that Bilbo didn’t want to be thought less of as a Burglar because he had the crutch of a magic ring. Bilbo’s fears and his continuing insecurity are revealed later:
Knowing the truth about the vanishing did not lessen [the Dwarves’] opinion of Bilbo at all; for they saw that he had some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring – and all three are very useful possessions. In fact they praised him so much that Bilbo began to feel there really was something of a bold adventurer about him after all…
Bilbo has more success in Mirkwood, saving the Dwarves first from the spiders and then from the wood elves. Now the Dwarves are very impressed with him, but the responsibility is beginning to cause tension. He is also still insecure. When the Dwarves doubt his plan on escaping from the wood elves, Bilbo gets upset and aggressive. The new aggressiveness shows character growth. Bilbo is becoming more assertive, and this sets up his moral decision with the Arkenstone.
‘Very well!’ said Bilbo very downcast, and also rather annoyed. ‘Come along back to your nice cells, and I will lock you all in again, and you can sit there comfortably and think of a better plan – but I don’t suppose I shall ever get hold of the keys again, even if I feel inclined to try.’
During all this time we have rising tension – trolls, Gollum, goblins, elves – and Bilbo is beginning to have a string of successes as a Burglar. More come at the Lonely Mountain, when he realises how to open the secret door and talks to Smaug. He discovers the weak spot which will ultimately be the dragon’s doom.
The climax of the story is when Bilbo finally rejects outside approval and does some burgling for his own reasons, damning what anyone else thinks. He wants to stop the upcoming battle between the Dwarves on one side and the Elves and Men on the other. Bilbo betrays his friends, steals the Arkenstone, and gives it to the Dwarves’ enemies. He has made a moral choice and must deal with the consequences. He is no longer insecure.
It is extremely important to realise that this is the climax of the story. It is not the death of Smaug (which Bilbo doesn’t even witness), nor the Battle of Five Armies (in which Bilbo is mostly unconscious). His stealing the Arkenstone and giving it to Bard is the culmination of his development as a Burglar. Everything afterwards is the denouement.
Peter Jackson decided to make the Hobbit into a trilogy, and this is where the problems begin. The first movie only covers the initial six chapters, and Bilbo does not develop as a Burglar during this time frame. The first six chapters are not a full story with a beginning, middle and an end.
To fix this, Jackson moves the true beginning of the story to the morning after the Unexpected Party. Here Bilbo signs the contract and supposedly chooses to be a Burglar. As a side effect, this also downplays what initially drives Bilbo: the opinion of others. This is the first hint that the movie is a completely different story than the book.
Jackson also needs filler. Only two big external conflicts – the trolls and the Misty Mountains – happen during this section of the book. So Jackson takes material from other Tolkien sources to pad it out and add more conflict.
The first problem is how this conflict is portrayed. Tolkien did it masterfully. This book was for children, remember, so Tolkien tempered the conflict by adding humour (with the trolls) or direct address (in the Misty Mountains).
The passages there were crossed and tangled in all directions, but the goblins knew their way, as well as you do to the nearest post-office…
Jackson tried to retain the humour, but he used it simply as humour and not to quell the tension. So we are left with bird poop in Radagast’s beard and burp jokes among the Dwarves. He adds conflict with no mitigating humour, and so the jokes and songs which are retained are now jarringly out of place.
Moreover, adding this material from other Tolkien sources destroys the beautiful Iceberg effect. Now nothing is hidden: the entire iceberg has been hoisted into the air so we can watch as it melts. All the dark mystery, feeling of immense depth, and hazy antiquity has been destroyed.
Most importantly, though, Jackson changes the entire premise of the story. The book, you recall, is about Bilbo’s evolution as a Burglar. This first movie is about Bilbo’s evolution as a Warrior. Bilbo is only accepted by Thorin when he bravely attacks Azog, not when he develops as a Burglar and saves his friends. The Reluctant Warrior motif is a venerable institution, but it does not fit with the story of the Hobbit. This is why it seems so bizarre and odd in the movie. If we think of the steps Tolkien painstakingly created to tell the story of Bilbo’s evolution as a Burglar – why he was chosen, trying to steal from the trolls, emphasis on stealth, the ring, using wits instead of brawn – now make no sense in this new story of the Reluctant Warrior.
So we are left with a completely new story hacked together that only uses the source material as a façade. It works about as well as if I took some characters and situations out of Catch-22 and tried to turn it into a romance. Critics have been pointing to a multitude of problems with the movie, but if you follow all of these errors back to the source we realise what went wrong.