The Hobbit – how to turn a kid’s book into a block buster movie
I watched The Hobbit the other day. It’s old history, I know, but that’s how it is at my place. Anyway, having watched the movie (part 1) I re-read the book for the first time in many years. It was an interesting exercise in seeing how a children’s book was adapted to be a fitting precursor to The Lord of the Rings.
Make no mistake, The Hobbit was written for children. In fact, I can imagine Prof Tolkien reading the book to a bunch of kids. The style is narration, the narrator writes himself into the words on the page. The songs are simple verse with lots of onomatopoeic words. See the kids marching around the room, banging and thumping? The dwarves are not portrayed as particularly brave or fierce. We are given an image of little people with different coloured hoods and belts appearing at Bilbo’s door. It puts one to mind of Noddy, more than Gimli. Later in the book, Bilbo becomes something of a leader and Tolkien has some rather patronising and hardly flattering things to say about the dwarves. The elves, too, don’t come out of this book in a very auspicious light. They run away from a small group of travellers in what they know is a dangerous place, and Thranduil’s main motivation seems to have been greed. Of them all, the behaviour of the Lake people is the most convincingly drawn.
The dragon is the real villain; old and smart and dangerous and in that respect, cleverly depicted. The goblins and their wolf companions are certainly nasty but they are cartoon villains for kids. And Gollum is scary in the same way that a monster in the dark is scary.
So how DO you turn a kid’s book into
a block buster movie three block buster movies?
Well, for a start you show people the odds. Jackson’s portrayal of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and the city of Dale is truly magnificent, and its ruination by the dragon very well done. This is the purpose of the dwarves’ quest, and the enemy they must defeat.
Then you make your characters much more robust. I loved Jackson’s dwarves. Each one has character and is unique, but it’s possible to see the similarity in brothers like Kili and Fili, and Dori and Nori. Much has been said about the ‘humanness’ of Thorin. (A dwarf as a sex object??) But his nephews, Fili and Kili, are also more human in appearance. Personally, I could have done without. But I suppose Jackson had no Aragorn, or Legolas to appeal to the ladies.
The villains are much, much darker. The introduction of a vengeful Orc leader in Bolg was smart. Suddenly the odds are greater and at the same time the dwarves are lifted from selfish miners into a fighting force to be reckoned with, doughty warriors all. Here, Jackson has used LOTR and its appendices to provide backstory. This change allowed him to add more action and conflict to the plot. Instead of aiming to go to Rivendell, Jackson shows Thorin as anti-Elf. Pursuit by the Orcs and Wargs forces the party into Rivendell after much hard fighting. Here we learn a little more about Gandalf and his role in Middle Earth, as shown in LOTR. Again, this gives depth to the story.
Gollum is depicted as truly nasty. Instead of Bilbo happening across the ring in a dark passage, the ring falls from Gollum’s person as he murders an Orc (to eat). What’s nice about that is Bilbo actually sees Gollum doing the killing. (We’ll ignore the fact that he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing down there – phosphorescence in the rocks?) The ring leaves Gollum because it realises it can trap a new bearer. Nice. And Gollum is suddenly elevated from a horrid person into a killer to be reckoned with. Yes, I know the book talks about Gollum eating Bilbo – but this shows the issue so much more clearly, and emphasises the inherent courage of Bilbo’s decision not to kill Gollum to escape. I also liked the dual Gollum personality – Smeagol/Gollum.
Jackson used minor elements in the book as whole scenes in the movie. The stone giants are tossed-off words in the crossing of the mountains in the book. But in the movie, they come to life, throwing boulders at each other – and giving an opportunity for an over-the-top action scene. Then the dwarves find themselves in Goblin town. In the book, Gandalf arrives in secret, waves a magic wand and they all escape. That’s the kid’s version. In the adult version, the dwarves fight their way out in spectacular fashion, underlining their legitimate claim to be warriors.
Not all of the changes worked to improve the story, though. Maybe the encounter with the trolls was not quite as silly in the movie as it is in the book. It’s hard to imagine the dwarves being quite so stupid. But never mind. It’s early in the story and adds a bit of humour, I suppose. I should imagine the scene, as it is in the book, read out to children, would be hilarious. But this isn’t a kid’s movie. In the same vein, I felt starting the story with the first words of Tolkien’s book was a mistake. By then we knew what a hobbit hole was – we were in one. Further, the tie-in with the opening scene in LOTR (the preparations for the eleventy-first party) was an unnecessary distraction.
My biggest “say-what” was Radagast. Not so much the depiction of character, as the out of sequence events. Certainly, dealing with the Necromancer turns out to be why Gandalf is elsewhere as the dwarves make their journey into Mirkwood. I suppose Jackson aims to show the audience what has been happening in the world. But the way it is presented is as if the darkness spreading from Dol Guldur has only just started. Yet there is no doubt Gandalf knew about a growing evil when he spoke with Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond at Rivendell, and thereby justified the dwarves’ quest to defeat Smaug. That said, showing the leader of the Ringwraiths manifesting itself at the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur was pretty cool. Showing Radagast dashing through the grass drawn by a team of bunnies with Wargs in hot pursuit – not so much.
Sure, I could probably name a few inconsistencies in continuity, but I could do that for the movie and the book. So I won’t.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Just seeing New Zealand’s spectacular scenery is a joy in itself. I think Jackson had a very, very difficult task in coming up to everyone’s expectations from LOTR. I expect that was why it took him so long to commence this series of films. Because it is a kid’s book. As an aside, as a writer I think much can be learned from Jackson’s achievement. He has added conflict, action and much more character to the story, as well as giving it extra depth through back story so that the audience can see how the ring became what it was in LOTR. It might be a different medium, but the rules are the same.
I’m looking forward to the next part of the Hobbit. How about you?