The Disappointment of Smaug

I’m sorry, but this post will have spoilers. If you haven’t read Lord of the Rings by now, I can’t be held accountable. They are public domain now, metaphorically, and I will talk about them freely. We all know Darth Vader is Luke’s father, we all know King Kong dies at the end, and we all know Frodo takes the ring to Mordor.

I haven’t been able to put my finger on it for a long time, but there’s something that has disappointed me about The Hobbit’s movie interpretation, under Peter Jackson. This isn’t the “it’s not the book, so I don’t like it” mindset. I know what that’s like. Tolkien and his work were defining, both to the genre and to my young mind. When Lord of the Rings came out, everything about it disappointed me: the exception of Tom Bombadil and Saruman’s scenes in the Shire, the changes to the gates of Moria scene, and so on. Even when the  movie perfectly mirrored the book for the first 10 minutes, I held it up only as a sign that I was about to be disappointed.

But I enjoyed the movies. I never once was at any threat of falling asleep. When Legolas stabbed an orc with an arrow, sure, part of my brain said “you can’t stab an orc with an arrow”, but most of it said “DUDE, DID YOU SEE LEGOLAS STAB THAT ORC WITH AN ARROW?” When Gandalf stood up to confront the Balrog, my heart rose up into my throat with suspense: would he survive? When Frodo was seemingly killed by a troll, my pulse jumped, even though I knew the mithril reveal was coming. When Boromir was shot full of arrows, my internal monologue screamed: no Boromir! Get up! You can do it! I could literally do this all day, because Lord of the Rings was a well designed movie. It had drama, it had pacing, it had a tone, and it was real. Did I like everything about it? No. Was I disappointed with my vision of the book as a rubric? Yes. But it was good.

The Hobbit has none of these.  The Hobbit is a different book than Lord of the Rings. While The Lord of the Rings was inspired by Tolkien’s experience in World War I, and you can see it everywhere. Ultimately, Lord of the Rings is about the suffering that war brings on all people, but especially on those who are not the heroes. The commonfolk, the hobbits, have to simply soldier on in the face of insurmountable forces. It is epic and serious and grim. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is a children’s adventure book, with a lighter tone, more whimsical enemies, and a very fantastic, simplistic quest: find the dragon’s treasure. There are no earthshaking consequences, just an adventure.

In the very first chapter of The Hobbit, Bilbo begins worrying about the dwarves in his house: not why they are there, not about his potential adventure, not even about the dragon, but whether or not they will chip his plates. To one who is familiar with fantasy, this may seem a silly worry, but this is the tone of The Hobbit. Bilbo literally cannot comprehend the idea of his adventure, and so he focuses on what is real to him, the plates. Many viewers have fixed on this particular scene from The Hobbit as something they particularly hate:

But it is exactly this scene which sets the tone for his adventure. Bilbo is a reluctant adventurer, and what he brings to the adventure — the very reason why Gandalf wants him on the adventure — is his sense of quiet responsibility and attention to details and consequences. On the other hand, the dwarves are basically mocking him for focusing on something so unimportant given the context.

A scene later and we have the famous troll scene, with dwarves tied up and who has to save them? Why, who else could keep the trolls distracted until sunrise but Gand — Bilbo? It is here where we first see Peter Jackson’s inability to understand the themes of The Hobbit — although it’s not the first time he’s committed this crime of stealing Gandalf’s credit and giving it to a hobbit; he had Frodo solve the gate of Moria riddle as well — Bilbo at this point is not an agent in his own adventure, but rather an experiencer.

After their capture by and escape from the goblins, when Bilbo emerges from the Misty Mountains with the ring, the dwarves — in the book — are considering leaving him, whilst in the movie they are mourning him. Yet again, this sets the tone difference. Bilbo is not a protagonist, at least not yet. They continue running — as a group — from the goblins until the giant Eagles rescue them.

And there you have it: that’s the whole of movie #1 of The Hobbit. No need for Ratagast scenes to sec the background, no need to actually foreshadow Sauron, no need for any of the epic backdrop that Peter Jackson attempts to instill upon The Hobbit. This is precisely the cause of the 3-part nature of The Hobbit movies: the attempt to make something epic out of something that is simply put, just an adventure. The dwarves cannot simply float into Laketown, they must be brought in by the descendant of the archer who is destined to kill Smaug, while simultaneously being oppressed by an evil king. The Dwarves can’t be looking for gold, but instead, just the Arkenstone (although it should be noted in the book that Thorin is fixated on the Arkenstone in a way that the three Hobbits are fixated on The Ring, a clear sign for Tolkien’s belief that power corrupts).

It is all this that made The Hobbit so much more interesting than other fantasy novels: it was never about destiny, or only one person. It was about small, unimportant people making brave choices. Thorin is not the hero because he is the descendant of the king, but instead, Bilbo is the hero by his choices. Bard doesn’t need to be the descendant of a legendary archer, he is just simple captain of the guard, and so on. Peter Jackon’s rendition loses this low-born, everyman’s quality to The Hobbit, and replaces it with an overly epic interpretation.

But the overly epic also overcomes the very tone of the novel. The Hobbit is a children’s book, with bad jokes, silly villains, and is essentially a kid’s adventure. There are moments where this childlike comedy pops through, such as the video above, the barrel scene, the trolls and goblin’s nature, and so on, but then it is immediately replaced with an epic and serious scene that leaves you wondering which tone is out of place.

Overall, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit fails to deliver a coherent movie in tone, and imposes themes onto the book that were never present, leaving an all-around awkward patchwork. This, combined with his penchant for drawing every scene out 30 minutes longer than it ever need to be, makes The Hobbit a movie to be slogged through, not enjoyed.

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