Unlike the Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien wrote the hobbit to be accessible to children, a Grimm-like Fairytale rather than the heavy drama of the earlier trilogy. A young hobbit goes on a merry adventure, bonds with the oddest of characters, and finds bravery he never knew he had. Nice and jolly. And for the most part, Peter Jackson stays surprisingly loyal to the tone of the book. He shies away from the moody lighting of LOTR and creates a warm, light-hearted atmosphere where even the occasional fart joke doesn’t seem out of place. Much of the book’s original humor is kept in place, and in the case of the Trolls, even furthered by wonderful rewrites. But when he takes liberty with the story, boy does he get it wrong.
In an effort to expand the scope of the story, Jackson introduced a huge amount of content from either his imagination or Tolkien’s unpublished notes. Almost entirely, this additional material takes the form of new or expanded action scenes that do little to further the story.
Exhibit One: The Pale Orc
The Pale Orc, Azog, enters the story to build the Dwarf King, Thorin’s backstory. It establishes the Thorin’s desire to retake the Lonely Mountain from Smaug, and explains why he was prevented from finding another home. That’s a logic choice, as a troupe of Dwarves without a home is a key theme. In one artistic swoop, we have conflict, backstory, and swift resolution all tied up with a bow. It’s a clever bit of screenplay and an intriguing addition. If only it had ended there.
But against all odds, Azog survives his role and quickly outlives his usefulness, yet continues to persist throughout the film. It feels like Jackson took the screenplay and made one little note before passing it on to the film crew and CGI artists: “What if Azog survived? Give me another 20 minutes of him and his orcs chasing our heroes”. I thought this Orc died. He was definitely defeated. So why are we doing this again? Will killing the Orc make Thorin even more impressive? Even after we thought it had been done?
Exhibit Two: Rock Giants
When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang. – The Hobbit
One line in the Hobbit describes almost metaphorically a titanic thunderstorm in the Misty Mountains. Tolkien imagines a war-like atmosphere of crashes and noises and flashes and darkness and an overwhelming sense of dread permeates the atmosphere. And that word “atmosphere” is the key. Tension is formed without need for action. The hairs on the back of your neck prick up with excitement, like lightning could strike at any moment.
But a torrential storm without the near-death of at least one protagonist? That won’t do at all. Jackson took a much more…blunt direction. That one vague sentence that holds little value to the plot became ten minutes of dodging boulders and dangling from cliffs and jumping gaps and being buried under avalanches and… *ok, breathe*.
It’s an insult to both the audience and himself that Jackson doesn’t trust the subtlety and tension to hold the moment, and insists on ten minutes of mindless and irrelevant action to transition to the next scene. The scene failed to build characters, introduce any element of danger (we know by this point no protagonist will die), and won’t ever be referenced again. So what does Jackson think he accomplished?
Apparently a band of 14 protagonists wasn’t complex enough, so he repeatedly introduces additional content, interlacing new and weaving subplots connect by the smallest of threads. What we’re left with are two parallel stories. There’s a mindless action flick full of orcs and wargs and 20 minute action sequences where cameras and characters and weapons zoom around at a hundred miles an hour. But there’s also a light-hearted drama where we watch Bilbo grow courageous, and we learn that heroism isn’t all about violence and weapons, it’s about strength of character. The ultimate conflict is that those two messages are mutually exclusive. Half the movie says “When in doubt, hack your way out”, and the other half teaches us that violence doesn’t solve problems. We’re left with complete dissonance.
The reason Tolkien skimmed over the battles in his adventure wasn’t because he can’t write action. We see him create wonderfully vivid fights in the Lord of the Rings. Epic of battles are glossed over in a few pages because to include more would be completely at odds with the character of the book. That’s a lesson that Peter Jackson just hasn’t learned.