When I was a wee lad, probably the first fantasy book I ever read was The Hobbit, kindling within me the fires of nerddom that would continue to burn into my adult life with no sign of being extinguished. The story has everything: magic, dwarves, elves, an epic quest, and a big-ass dragon! It’s no wonder that Tolkien is credited with essentially inventing the fantasy genre.
For some reason that I don’t quite remember (maybe I just never got round to it), I didn’t actually read The Lord of the Rings until after all three of the movies had been released. After being awed by the incredible scale and feel of the trilogy I wanted to experience the world through my own imagination, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I then realised that Peter Jackson had managed to bring the world to life in a way that a lot of book-to-film adaptations just can’t seem to quite get right, with incredible locations and a cast that really brought their characters to life. In short, it felt like The Lord of the Rings.
After noticing what was cut or changed during adaptation, I could see it was for logical reasons. For example, if they had gone through the rigmarole of Frodo moving house to Brandybuck then it would have added unnecessary content to the Fellowship of the Ring, and cutting out the chapters with Tom Bombadil was probably best for everyone involved.
Even the decision to have the Elves reinforce the Rohirrim at Helms Deep was rooted in logic. In the books it was Eomer who provided the reinforcements and Erkenbrand who arrived at dawn with Gandalf to charge the Uruk-Hai. This change meant removing the need to introduce another character (Erkenbrand wouldn’t really appear again and we already knew Haldir), and expanding the role of the Elves from merely passive observers.
Much of the decisions made to cut minor characters were done in favour of expanding the roles of the main cast, such as Arwen rescuing Frodo instead of the shining elf Glorfindel, and the complete removal of the Grey Company (and with it Eldrond’s sons, Elladan and Elrohir) to keep the focus on the Rohirrim.
But I’m not here to talk about why I like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I’m here to discuss the massive let-down which was The Hobbit’s unnecessary trilogy.
The whole thing started off so promisingly and I was positively giddy with excitement at the prospect of the book being brought to life, especially as earlier that year I had completed a tour of New Zealand, naturally visiting plenty of site where the movies were made (obviously I went to Hobbiton), including a visit to Weta Workshops where I managed to get a peek of a bit of set.
Opening the Hobbit with a scene taken from the Fellowship of the Ring was a nice touch, inextricably tying the two films together, and it felt like Peter had managed to bring back some of the magic when it came to once again showing the Shire and its hairy-footed denizens. The casting of Martin Freeman as the grumpier, younger Bilbo was a good choice, and the return of Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf was brilliant to see.
The introduction of the dwarves was wonderful, as was their characterisation, and the way they brought the songs to life took me straight back to my childhood then and there. As far as appearances go, the majority of the dwarves are spot on, with some exaggerated characteristics really helping them to stand out. The only real problems I have are with the beards.
You see, in Tolkien lore, dwarves are supposed to be proud of the beards to Viking levels of obsession, letting them grow so they can braid them etc, which something you can really see with Gloin and Balin. But, though they managed to capture Thorin’s regal bearing, his beard is rather un-kingly, and Fili’s male model face is a little bit out of place. He looks more like Aragorn than Gimli.
Why they wanted to add a bit of sex appeal like that to a race that where even the women famously have beards, I will never really understand, but I suppose we can chalk it down to differentiating between them.
I’m going to try and avoid going into detail about every little thing or even my five regular readers will get bored. From here on in I’ll focus mainly on the biggest issues; ones that likely span all three of the films.
Alarm bells first started ringing during the first of the Hobbit movies (I hate that it’s plural, but more on that later) during the scenes involving the three trolls. It was immediately obvious to me that all of it was just a set, not even a brilliantly disguised one at that, and I just got this sinking feeling that we would be seeing a lot more of that kind of thing.
If you compare that to the Lord of the Rings, you find extensive use of locations shoots, even on a small scale. For example, when Sam, Frodo, and Smeagol are discussing rabbits and potatoes (boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew) the framing is so tight it really only encloses the three of them, a patch of dirt, and a few straggly bushes. This would be fairly easy to achieve for a skilled team of setbuilders but they actually went out into the world to find their patch of dirt. It’s near Queenstown, NZ, and is quite a nice spot.
I think my biggest gripe is going to undoubtedly be regarding the overuse of CGI. I’m not saying that LotR used no CGI at all, because of course it did, but it really only used it to supplement the reality of what was there. They used it to make the reality just a tad more fantastical.
Probably the most obvious example will have to be the depictions of orcs in both trilogies. In LotR you can find some of the best examples of prosthetics, makeup, and costuming of any fantasy movie ever made, whereas in the Hobbit they seemed to all be made out of play-doh. LotR brought the monsters to life with startling, smelly, dirty realism and thus made them a tangible threat. The Hobbit made them into cartoon villains.
The worst example of this frankly lazy over-reliance of CGI is during the final conflict of the eponymous Battle of the Five Armies, where the dwarves are so obviously CGI that it completely ruined any sort of enjoyment I could have had, and I’m a sucker for big fantasy battles! They weren’t even subtle about it, constantly throwing Dain Ironfoot and his pudgy plastic head in the audience’s face at every opportunity.
You may try and counter that with the claim that they can’t do the big battles with so many participants because of the unreasonable cost of extras, but you cannot quench my nerdrage so easily.
During the Siege of Minis Tirith in the Return of the King, the huge numbers of Orcs, Haradrim, and then Rohirrim, were achieved by getting a certain number of actors all properly dressed up and then copy and pasting them until the desired horde was achieved. In fact, they used a program that the clever people at Weta actually invented just to do that. Simple, but highly effective, so why they couldn’t replicate that effect in the Battle of the Five Armies is beyond me. Sheer laziness.
I am angry. Angry about Elves.
Maybe that’s a bit of a strong word, but a lot of what they did with certain pointy-eared folk in the Hobbit movies really flustered my filberts to the point of being a genuine grievance.
At first the insinuation of Legolas into the story was merely an odd one, likely to capitalise on his popularity from the previous films, so was the complete fabrication of Tauriel, but I just chalked that down to wanting a female character in a male-saturated story, which is fine by me.
Legolas’ interactions with the company in Mirkwood made sense, and Gloin showing him a picture of young Gimli was a really great addition, but as he featured more and more it just became irritatingly obvious he was just there to cash in on the aforementioned popularity. Tauriel was perhaps even worse, because instead of do anything really useful, it felt like she was created just to have that weird cross-species relationship with Fili. So much for strong female characters.
Probably the only feature of Unnecessary Elves that I could get behind was the expansion of the role of Thranduil and his wonderful depiction by Lee Pace. I thought that it brought the complexity of the character to life in a brilliant way, and emphasises the tortured past of most of elvenkind in a manner that Elrond’s aggressive eyebrows never could.
Seeing as we’re on the subject of expanded roles we may as well discuss Radagast the Brown. He never really appeared in the book, and only had a minor role in the Lord of the Rings, so I can’t account for his inclusion in the movies, but it was good to see one of the wizards beyond the duality of Gandalf and Saruman. I didn’t really like the way they depicted him as a massive goofball (he always struck me as slightly dour in the book), but the Hobbit was supposed to be a kids’ book, so I suppose he was just a misguided attempt to put in a bit of comic relief for the children.
Oh Valar no… Radagast is the Jar Jar Binks of the Hobbit movies…
I felt that the inclusion of the whole White Council fighting the Necromancer thing was a beyond just a little bit unnecessary, though it was fun to see Elrond and Galadriel in battle mode. The whole escapade was already summed up in a brief bit of dialogue in the Lord of the Rings so playing it out in its entirety parallel to the main story was just a distraction an a waste of runtime and another Legolas-style attempt to cash-in on the already well-known characters.
Want me to talk about dragons? Just try and stop me.
Actually, I don’t have too much to gripe about on the subject of Smaug. Can’t fault the use of CGI (because big-ass dragon), and the great wyrm was voiced well by everyone’s favourite lizard person, Benedict Cumberbatch. The only gripe I really have is just an extension of the odd trend of movies depicting dragons as Wyverns (two legs, bat-like wings) rather than the traditional design of European dragons (four legs, wings on back), but that’s more pedantry than anything constructive.
There’s a lot more I could say about travesty that was the Battle of the Five armies, but I may end up doubling the word count. I already mentioned the lazy CGI (causing it to be the only Middle Earth film not to earn an academy award), and I think it would be fairly repetitive to complain about Legolas a bit more at this point, even with that stupid, stupid scene of him hopping up the falling rubble faster than goddamn Quicksilver.
I think I can summarise the complete uselessness of the film by telling you that the titular battle, which takes up just about half of the total running time, was contained in only a single chapter of the book, and even then it was mostly described after the fact. It’s not just me that has a problem with the movie, judging by the fact it is the only film of the series (including the whole LotR trilogy) to never hold a spot on the IMDb Top 250 listing.
The only redeeming feature of that movie was when Bilbo returns to Hobbiton to find his possessions being auctioned off, because it brought us back into the realm of realistic sets and locations and managed to not deviate too much from the book in a massive pointless tangent.
If we take a not-at-all neat diversion back into the realms of pointless additions and then flip-turn it upside down I can then tell you about one of the most frustrating things about the trilogy.
“What’s that?” you ask. The goddamn Eagles, that’s what.
In the book, the Eagles of the Misty Mountains are shown to be a sentient and noble race capable of speaking the common tongue. The reason they rescue Gandalf and the rest of the company in the first place is because their king, Gwaihir the Windlord, owed Gandalf a favour, and he has no qualms about telling them such. Perhaps he wanted to turn the tables and have Gandalf owe him a favour, because it was Gwaihir who rescued him when he was imprisoned at the top of Orthanc after Saruman turned traitor.
This inclusion would have portrayed the eagles as civilised, intelligent beings (not to mention basically demigods) rather than the unspeaking animals they have hitherto appeared as, and go some way to dispelling the eternally stupid “why didn’t they fly the eagles to Mount Doom/Erebor?” myths (I could write a whole article about that by itself and may actually do so one of these days).
In summary, the bulk of The Hobbit series was entirely unnecessary and much of what was meant to be there was so lazily done it looked like Syfy channel original movie rather than a huge-budget production of one of the greatest fantasy stories of the age.
Now I’m going to curse the name of Peter Jackson and cry myself to sleep to the accompaniment of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Excuse me…