Read It, Scene It: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien vs The Hobbit by Peter Jackson, Part 1

You know those super annoying people who obsess over the differences between books and movies? The ones who say, “Of course, I read the book first, back before there was supposed to be a movie,” just to make sure you know they’re way too literate to take orders on what to read from Hollywood? The ones who will gladly compare book and movie, scene by scene, excruciating detail by excruciating detail, mainly for the dual purposes of a) demonstrating that they know everything in the world about the book and b) running down the producers and directors for daring to make the author’s precious, unimpeachable vision into a movie? The ones who, if not 100%, then 99.998% of the time, begin, sprinkle, and finish their diatribe with, “The book was SO much better.”

Hi! That’s me! And now I’m basing a new blog feature on it! Welcome to Read It, Scene It, in which I’m going to compare beloved (or not-s0-beloved) books with their theatrical renditions.

I’m kicking off this new adventure with my childhood favorite, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Oh my gosh. The Hobbit and LOTR represent childhood to me. They’re the first “real” books I read in my life, and I read them over and over, especially The Hobbit. I can quote entire passages cold, I read it so many times. Here’s the edition I own:

The Hobbit

The Hobbit

by J.R.R. Tolkien

Houghton Mifflin, ISBN-13 9780618002214, September 1999

Since I love it so much, of course I feel a little proprietary toward it. I think all readers feel that way about beloved reads. While I was excited when the first movie went into production, I had some hand-wringing, dithering concerns:

  • It’s not LOTR. It’s a children’s story. What if it doesn’t measure up on-screen to the LOTR trilogy?
  • Peter Jackson occasionally took some big honking liberties with LOTR in the second and third movies. What if he changes everything?
  • THREE movies? The book is under 300 pages! How much adding-in are they doing to stretch it that far?
  • Will the add-ins be pure Tolkien, or will they be plucked from the thin air of Hollywood?
  • What am I going to wear to the theater?

My boyfriend and I trooped off to see it, my concerns not withstanding (and I wore my Frodo-shirtfront T-shirt). Here’s my rundown.

The Rundown: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey covers the story from the beginning up to the chapter “Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire.” Rather than go with the original version of the book, also known as the one I read eleventy-seven times as a child, Peter Jackson makes this a true LOTR prequel by basing it off the 1966 revised edition, in which Tolkien made a few eensy-weensy tweaks to better integrate Bilbo’s journey, especially Gandalf’s absences, into the greater mythology of the history of Middle Earth. When Tolkien first wrote The Hobbit, he didn’t know that he was going to use that world so extensively in his later work, so it needed some minor dusting-off to fit in with the broader narrative. In the same spirit, Jackson uses the 1966 text and other writings to expand the storyline in the movie.

Common Critic Complaints:

  • Slow start
  • Too episodic
  • Too many side-plots and digressions

My Take:

OH MY GOSH, YOU GUYS, THEY MADE A MOVIE OUT OF THE HOBBIT. No, I know you know that, but really, THEY MADE A MOVIE OUT OF THE HOBBIT. As in, they didn’t just take the most exciting parts, slap them together, add in a tougher story for the grown-ups, and wrap that baby. No. We are talking a scene-for-scene dramatization aimed straight at the hearts of fanboys and fangirls the world over. Acting? Spot on. Special effects? Beautiful, and we didn’t even see the 3D. Correctness? Oh, so faithful!

The script not only relies heavily on dialogue from the book, it even takes lines from Tolkien’s narration and puts them in the mouths of the characters to great effect. The humorous spirit of the book shines through even while heavier plotlines are woven in. Sure, the book was originally for children, but so was Harry Potter, and that’s some heavy material, too.

I agree with critics who say the beginning is a little slow in that the prologue seemed unnecessary, just a heavy-handed way to tie this series to the LOTR film trilogy. However, I think those critics include the meeting with the Dwarves as part of the slow start. To that, and to the complaint that it’s too episodic and just follows the group from one harrowing escape to the next, I say: Go read the book, you whiny film nerds, and quit letting Hollywood do all your imagining for you.

As for the side-plots and digressions, they’re terrific. You will get a completely different understanding of Thorin Oakenshield due to the backstory Jackson spells out. In the book, he’s a grouchy, pompous ass who deserves every scrap of indignity ever heaped upon him. The movie paints him differently, as a proud and skilled warrior prince whose longing for his kingdom and shame at the fall of his people has festered into anger and compensatory hubris. I never understood why anyone wanted to follow him in the book. In the movie, I completely get it, and yet he’s not made out to be Aragorn, either. He’s a hero, but he isn’t a perfect hero, which makes him more interesting.

And no wonder they’re making three movies! I didn’t think about it this way, but three movies allows them to put every scrap of the story into film. Even with the new trend of breaking longer stories into two parts, as with the final Harry Potter book-to-movie project, the details and nuances of story we all love get sacrificed to run-time. If he continues at the same rate, Jackson is going to give us The Hobbit, all of it, not a good-parts version, and then some.

Of course, I’m not saying the movie is without flaws. As my friend Matthew said, “I can understand why they might have had to run across 20 orc-infested rope bridges to get out of the goblin king’s lair, but did they have to run across 25?” It’s true. At that point, I felt like I was watching a preview of a Lego video game version. I also wish they would close up the distinction made between Goblins and Orcs, which are the same freaking thing. To quote from the front matter of my copy of The Hobbit, “Orc is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (orhobgoblin for the larger kinds). Orc is the hobbits’ form of the name given at that time to these creatures, and it is not connected at all with our orc, ork, applied to sea-animals of the dolphin kind.” So, goblin and orc are just two names for the same species, like saying kitty instead of cat or killer whale instead of orca. Got that? Goblins are orcs. Orcs are goblins. Neither are dolphins. Thank you.

Also, what is UP with Galadriel’s dress? It looked like a Greek goddess costume she bought off a Halloween clearance rack, not the gown of a great Elfin lady and owner of a Ring of Power.

However, weighing the flaws against the faithful representation, the humor, the backstory, and the so-much-fun inclusion of Radagast the Brown, these are extremely minor quibbles.

Book versus Movie Verdict: No losers here. This film is made to coexist with the book, not supplant it. I love it.

But in the next movie, Beorn should show up, and they better get him right, because he is my FAVORITE.