While on holiday recently I rewatched the first two Hobbit films back to back. Well, as back to back as one can watch two meandering, overstuffed movies that, together, fill up about six hours of precious holiday time. Which is to say, over about two and a half days.
On the one hand, it was much more fun to watch them together than it has been to wait for their individual releases.
On the other hand: long; meandering; overstuffed.
My response to the films upon rewatching was, I was interested to note, about the same as it was when I first watched them. And, I think, can be boiled down to a single sentence. The ultimate problem with the trilogy is that it’s not about Bilbo.
What makes The Hobbit (the book; I’ll refer to the two films as Journey and Smaug) work? Bilbo Baggins. He’s middle-aged, overweight, comfortable and content. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s got a nice clean hole in the ground to live in, lots of good food, a pretty garden, and apparently doesn’t have to worry about money at all, since he never does.
Bilbo’s an appealing character in part because, despite all this, there’s still some part of him – long-suppressed but unquestionably present – that wants more. It’s in this restlessness that Gandalf sees Bilbo’s untapped potential and it’s this restlessness that inspires him to send Bilbo off on his journey.
And it’s the conflict between those two aspects of Bilbo’s personality – his hobbitiness versus his restlessness – that drives his character through the novel. And therein lies his character development; Bilbo begins the novel well-fed and comfortable and completely unable to understand the dwarven urges for money and revenge. By the book’s end, however, he’s discovered an unexpected love of gold and adventure (a love that, with his discovery of the Arkenstone, strays uncomfortably into single-minded lust, which is not a feeling our Bilbo is familiar with!). And by the end of the novel he’s learned to hate, which too is terra incognita for him.
His character’s journey, of course, is balanced by his relationship with Thorin, and Thorin’s own journey. We only really see Thorin through Bilbo’s eyes in The Hobbit, and we see the two tear at each other because they fundamentally do not and believe they can never truly understand each other. By the end of the book, Bilbo's come to understand and value the things that drive Thorin... and Thorin has learned the value of Bilbo’s gentleness.
The book’s Bilbo/Thorin balancing act isn’t particularly complicated but it is effective. And, moreover, Bilbo is a more interesting (and less overdone) character to use as a point of audience-identification than Thorin. Grandson of overthrown king leads scrappy group to reclaim throne on an adventure for which they’re hilariously unprepared… sound familiar? We’ve seen and read and heard that story a thousand times before. (Sorry, Thorin, but really.) With the character of Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit provides the audience with an outsider’s perspective on this hoary old story. It’s an epic adventure… as experienced by the least epic character this side of my pet cat.
The Hobbit films are baggy in part because they expand on the dwarves’ stories, particularly Thorin’s. But they do so at Bilbo’s expense. The more we learn about Thorin’s backstory, the bigger his quest grows… and the less meaningful Bilbo’s personal journey becomes. When kingdoms and thrones and seriously massive piles of gold coins are on the line, it’s hard to care about a middle-aged guy’s battle with a spider… or, more importantly, a very small person finding the courage to face down – and insult – a dragon.
The Desolation of Smaug requires a giant battle to end the film, because that’s how these movies roll, but that battle was invented at the cost of Bilbo’s character development. What was a big moment for him became a footnote to a climactic battle between the dragon and the dwarves.
Perhaps if Jackson were content only to expand upon Thorin’s story, Journey and Smaug wouldn’t be such a muddle. But he’s not; he’s also jamming in long, boring, pointless conversation after long, boring, pointless conversation about how Middle Earth is doomed, and introducing tertiary character after tertiary character to have those conversations.
If creating a stronger foil for Bilbo requires deepening Thorin’s story, then expanding Thranduil’s character (as a foil for the epic half of Thorin’s epic quest) makes sense. But why add in Legolas and (the wholly invented) Tauriel? And a love triangle between Legolas, Taruiel and Kili the dwarf? And the stuff about Thorin’s missing, insane father. And the stuff about his blood-feud with some random orc. And then, to drop a load of bloviating wizards and elves on top of all that… it’s too much. How can poor little Bilbo compete? He can’t.
Someday someone will whittle the three Hobbit films down into a faithful adaptation of the novel – the story of a normal guy on a really interesting adventure. For the time being, however, we’re going to have to be content with what we’ve got – a trilogy that, unfortunately, can’t seem to see the forest for the trees.
Looking for a breakdown of a more faithful adaptation? Look no further! I gave the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit the Monsters & Mullets treatment, and you should totally go read it.