Adaptation in Middle Earth

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Get ready to be fully turned off at how serious I am about hobbits.

The second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is being released in the US this Friday. Since I am a champion of time management, I have given a lot of thought to how the internet has reacted to these movies.

An Unexpected Journey was widely panned by critics for being too long for what it is. How could a 200-page book be turned into three movies while 1000 pages and three books (though they weren’t envisioned by Tolkien to be three separate books, but one volume), can be turned into three movies perfectly well?

That notion—that it can’t be what Jackson has made it to be because of the size of the book—is a lazy one. It’s the kind of bullshit, powerpoint, bulleted list of an argument that is our society right now. Low-hanging fruit that can open a late night monologue. There is so much information in the LOTR appendices and events that are glossed over in the book, as well as holes in the story, that there are plenty of things to expand upon.

The movies, including the original trilogy, were also eviscerated by Tolkien “purists” who derided Jackson for changing certain plot points or characters, and even inventing new story lines.

JRR Tolkien was an infamous editor. He was always going back to his works and changing things—names, dates, concepts—to fit together. He changed his mind often. There is a wealth of material written by him that contradicts itself. Tolkien wrote the The Hobbit for his children. Later, after its initial publication, he realized the import of it, changed some of the Gollum scene, released a new edition, ham-fisting it into his mythology. (That is also the reason for the goblin/orc confusion. They were called goblins in The Hobbit and orcs in LOTR. They’re the same thing).

He never made up his mind about the origins of orcs. At first they were created by Melkor, then they were corrupted Elves, then their creation was swept aside as Tolkien got distracted by something else. (Though I could have that timeline completely flipped around somehow). The point is that the man was creating an entire world, mythology, and languages by himself, and often couldn’t make up his mind about things.

This makes a lot of things in Middle Earth up for debate. Who is Tom Bombadil? He’s unaffected by the Ring, and is called “the eldest” by Gandalf. Is he Eru himself? There was a ridiculous theory on Reddit at one point that Bombadil was in fact the Witch King. Tolkien, in his letters, left his origin intentionally vague. It’s good to have mysteries. It’s the reason his books are still debated so long after being published. There is so much unknown about that world that there are theories being presented today, years after the books’ publication. Is it any wonder he was cut from the LOTR films?

Books, more than any other kind of media, allow a gigantic range of interpretation. Your imagination has to work. It’s impossible for an author to perfectly describe everything in a scene. Words are too slippery for that. Therein lies the problem of visually adapting a film from any kind of existing written material. It will never be perfect for everybody. I didn’t imagine Moria like that! Orcs should be shorter! Gandalf had a long hooked nose! Saruman’s robes were supposed to be shimmery like a rainbow! Beorn should be bigger! Elrond looks too old! There is such a childish, whiney aspect to any of those statements. The internet has given everyone a voice, but it’s self-entitled and sounds like Ralphie’s little brother from A Christmas Story.

In addition to the visuals, content has to be adapted. There are cuts. There are things added for clarity. Things that work on page might not on screen. You have to edit and determine what is important to the medium on hand. Peter Jackson doesn’t have the rights to The Silmarillion. He can’t explain to the audience that Dwarves and Elves despise each other because of treachery thousands of years ago involving a precious Silmaril jewel. He can’t show how important Gimli and Legolas’s friendship is because he’s literally not allowed to. He has to rely on the general racism that evolves from his concocted story of Thranduil refusing to help Durin’s Folk after Smaug takes Erebor. Jackson had a clever nudge-nudge-wink-wink to fanboys in An Unexpected Journey when Gandalf couldn’t recall the names of the other two blue wizards in his order. Their names only appear in other writings that Jackson didn’t have the rights to.

PJ is tasked with condensing thousands of years of timeline into a cohesive story that makes sense for a movie. There is already so much flashback exposition that has to happen. Having characters constantly stopping to tell grand stories would completely destroy any flow to the film(s). Reworking those elements into a faster, more present timeline might deviate from the source material, but they make a better movie. It has to stand on its own merits.

I see Peter Jackson not so much making a movie based on the book, The Hobbit, but making a movie that includes the events of The Hobbit and shows their importance in the lead-up to the War of the Ring—much like Tolkien had want to do. (However, I am not suggesting that what Peter Jackson came up with would be what Tolkien would have wrote).

Thematically, you have to connect all the films. You see the light-heartedness of An Unexpected Journey give way to darker tones in The Desolation of Smaug. Jackson has played up the effect of the One Ring on Bilbo and his character arc. It would be strange for Bilbo to use the Ring as he does in the book (that is, it just being a magical trinket) and then all the sudden become possessed by it the way he is in The Fellowship of the Ring.

What better way to segue the Elves’ isolationist policies and attitudes into LOTR’s Council of Elrond’s events than introduce a young she-elf, Tauriel, who sees things in a much broader sense than her peers? I am purely speculating about the third film here, but I believe she will convince Legolas of the error of his and his father’s ways, perhaps by her sacrifice for a certain dwarf.

Azog is long dead in the canon timeline once The Hobbit starts, and it is his son Bolg who leads a goblin army at the end of the book for revenge against the dwarves who killed his father long ago in the Battle of Azanulbizar. Now, Azog is still alive and hunting Thorin at the behest of the Necromancer.

I believe that Jackson is using Azog to tie Thorin and company’s storyline to that of the greater one of Middle Earth and the Ring. Instead of being a nice insulated tale of a bunch of grumpy dwarves getting their gold back from a dragon during which a hobbit finds a magic ring, it is a tale of dwarves reclaiming their homeland from a dragon (who Gandalf is afraid will be recruited by the enemy) and chased by a nightmare from their past who has already been recruited, and in which a hobbit, by chance, discovers the item that determines the fate of Middle Earth. In this version, Gandalf’s side quest to Dol Guldur doesn’t feel like a strange, disconnected thing that panders to the original LOTR trilogy. Because PJ is also not allowed to divulge the Istari’s (wizards) origin and purpose from the Valar—that they were sent to guide and direct men through unforced influence and persuasion in the war against Sauron, while not directly confronting him—why not have a confrontation that sets up the severity of the enemy’s power? Gandalf’s story arc in the movie becomes related and important to the story as a whole.

Bilbo’s character arc is still in tact. He is “finding his courage,” though admittedly at a faster rate than in the book. He is earning the dwarves’ trust and proving to be quite the adventurer. His developing interest in the world at large will be imprinted on his young nephew, Frodo, who goes and does something else marginally important. (Though I understand it being cut, I think the Scouring of the Shire was a very important part of the hobbits’ (especially Frodo’s) character arcs and wish it was included in the LOTR films).

Peter Jackson’s movies have made some changes that I’ve scratched my head about, some of which I imagine just come from PJ’s wish to deliver more action or up the stakes. As much as it pains me to say it, a somber, serious version of LOTR would be laughed out of any film studio. High Fantasy already has a stigma of taking itself too seriously, especially with so much of it being bad, and no studio would make such high budget films without being guaranteed a return on their investment. The original films being made is a small miracle in itself.

Details and reasons for things might have been changed, but all of The Hobbit’s story events are being checked off one by one. There is The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, and then there is The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as adapted by Peter Jackson. They aren’t bad films because they’re different from the source material. They are separate entities. The books will always be there. Nobody is changing them. They are wonderful and some of my favorite things. You have to be able to enjoy things as they are. You can absolutely prefer one over the other. But comparing them and deriding Jackson for not making a page by page remake of the source material is silly and does nothing. Except make me write lengthy essays about how wrong you are.

As a middle schooler reading the books for the first time, I would have been ecstatic to know that there would be six films, flawed as they might be, that bring Middle Earth to life.

1 Comment

  1. Lord of the Rings explained | Steady Clappin' · February 11, 2015

    […] faced with all of the languages and names and places—as well as the prose itself. And as much as I love the movies for what they are, they don’t do a great job at making these things easier to understand. […]

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