Page to Screen: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
One of the more controversial novel adaptations in recent memory must certainly be director Peter Jackson’s film version of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s book The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Purists can be notoriously difficult to please, and many diehard franchise fans seek to view their beloved stories completely unaltered when they make the move onto the big screen. Directors are often criticized for straying from the path of a cherished novel, yet I do not believe that a film must be an exact representation of its source material in order to be successful. Film and literature are two very different mediums and art forms, and what works in one cannot always be effectively translated into the other. In the case of The Hobbit film trilogy, Jackson has made some decisions that have incensed some fans and thrilled others, yet I believe that he made the correct ones in order to represent the novel that he loves as much as we do.
It is common for a director to choose to remove or condense material from a novel in the interest of time; only so much can be represented in a two hour film, whereas novels may take as many pages as necessary in order to convey their stories. The Hobbit trilogy, however, is unique in that it takes the opposite approach and adds material as opposed to eliminating it, a technique especially apparent in the second installment, The Desolation of Smaug (2013). After successfully completing the first part of their expedition in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, plus one hobbit, continue on their quest to reclaim their mountain homeland and slay the greedy dragon hoarding their treasure. On the way, they face many dangers including a skinchanger, giant spiders, hostile wood elves, bumbling humans, and, of course, the terrifying dragon Smaug himself. Although their mentor, the wizard Gandalf, has seemingly abandoned the group, he is busy doing battle of his own against The Necromancer, a foe far more dangerous than any of the dwarves can even imagine.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s adventure story in 1937 to immediate critical and audience acclaim. He followed up this successful debut with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which takes a much more adult approach and features a far wider scope and darker tone. Jackson first adapted The Lord of the Rings novels into a massively successful film trilogy before tackling The Hobbit, and although he did remove quite a bit of the lengthy source material in order to craft his films, the overall fan consensus is that these movies offer a very accurate depiction of the story that Tolkien originally created. Opinions on The Hobbit, however, vary greatly, especially among fans of Middle Earth.
Although the additions made to the story have upset some, I believe that they were well chosen and work to effectively add depth and gravity to what would otherwise be a lighter children’s adventure tale. Jackson uses Tolkien’s own separate yet connected story ‘The Quest of Erebor,” published in his Unfinished Tales, in order to illuminate certain plot elements that remain vague in the novel. For example, the wonderful scenes that show Gandalf doing battle with The Necromancer do not actually appear in The Hobbit novel, yet they did in “The Quest,” and work well in the film to explain Gandalf’s whereabouts when he seemingly abandons the dwarf party; they also offer some exhilarating battle sequences, as the audience is allowed the opportunity to watch the legendary Sir Ian McKellan in action. Through these additional scenes, the stakes have been heightened, and the scope has been widened, since the outcome now affects all of Middle Earth as opposed to simply a band of admittedly loveable dwarves.
In addition, one must remember that The Lord of the Rings was written after the publication of The Hobbit, so characters created in the former novel may not be present in the latter even though it would have made sense for them to be there. The obvious example is the elf Legolas who, although never mentioned in The Hobbit novel, appears in the film. Logistically, this character definitely would have been involved in the events in which Jackson placed him, so his appearance in the film is not all that much of a stretch. A harder pill to swallow may be Jackson’s invented character, the she-elf Tauriel with whom Legolas shares a romantic connection. There are no prominent female characters in Tolkien’s novel, yet he does progress into their inclusion by the time of the writing of The Lord of the Rings; think of the powerful elf queen Galadriel or the brave fighter Eowyn. These women play integral roles in Tolkien’s narrative, so a similar addition to The Hobbit does not seem out of place, but entirely natural and almost as if the great author himself created the character of Tauriel. The love story element also adds a welcome respite from what would otherwise be nonstop action.
Through his adaptation of the slender children’s novel TheHobbit into a grand film trilogy, Jackson crafts a tale that goes far beyond the scope of the work on which it was based. He draws both upon other Tolkien works as well as his own imaginative mind for his additional material, but all seem well placed and natural. Ultimately, the adventures presented allow the high-spirited and lovable hobbit of the title, Bilbo Baggins, the opportunity to show his growing strength, intelligence, and courage. Heightening the stakes of the story results in a darker and weightier tale, which true Tolkien fans should be able to appreciate instead of lament as they are returned to the familiar world of Middle Earth not one but three more times. Although changes are made through this adaptation, the new elements retain the spirit of the original and present a dramatic story better suited for the big screen.