I first read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit 42 years ago and immediately went on to read and re-read everything by Tolkien that I could get my hands on. Around the year 2000, I was excited to hear that a movie version of The Fellowship of the Rings would be premiering soon. I was not disappointed. Certainly, there was much to criticize in Peter Jackson's cinematic treatment of Tolkien's epic story. The battle scenes loomed far too large in the movies, orcs looked dangerous, but fell like grass before a reaper, and the screen play included, from time to time, some rather juvenile dialogue. Perhaps most disturbing, though was the characterization of Frodo. In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Frodo starts out as a rather feisty character, an aggressive leader of the band of hobbits making their way to Rivendell. Only after he is stabbed by the morgul blade on Weathertop does he becomes progressively more passive, even pacific. In contrast, Elijah Wood's Frodo is timid and frightened from the beginning.
Jackson misses one of Tolkien's most significant sensibilities: that violence and war, though necessary at times, are extreme horrors and that the wisest among us will not glorify them. For a revealing treatment of this, see The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son in The Tolkien Reader. For these, and many other reasons, Tolkien purists have dismissed Jackson's films. In the words of Tolkien's son Christopher, "There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away," but the lush cinematography and the chance to see the story unfolding on a film screen led me to look past the deficiencies of Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and simply enjoy the films for what they were.
It is more difficult to adopt this tolerant attitude toward Jackson's new film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. In contrast to The Lord of Rings, The Hobbit is a small story -- a children's story -- but presumably in an effort to make it accord with the style of his previous films, Jackson tries to turn it into another epic. Worse, he loads it with grand, action-film violence that is uncharacteristic of the early chapters of Tolkien's The Hobbit. As before, our heroes face and defeat hundreds of foes as though they were cutting their way through a light back-country brush. This leaves the battle scenes devoid of any tension or sense of danger and is an insult to the fearsome race of orcs and goblins. Characters that were only briefly mentioned in passing play significant roles in Jackson's film. Azog the Goblin who Tolkien only mentions having killed Thorin Oakenshield's grandfather, becomes "the White Orc" and is "hunting" Thorin and company. Unfortunately, we can expect to see the White Orc in the subsequent hobbit movies, but hopefully not until the Battle of the Five Armies. Radagast the Brown, who also is mentioned only briefly in The Hobbit, is featured in an extended sequence in the film. He is aptly used to depict the decline of Greenwood into Mirkwood, but his main role is to divert attacking wargs from Thorin and company by driving a sled drawn by rabbits. This is completely Jackson's invention and is simply silly.
Even more than the film version of Frodo, the film version of Bilbo is unrecognizable. In the early stages of his adventure, Tolkien's Bilbo is an extremely reluctant member of the expedition, quaking at every danger and frequently wishing he was home in Hobbiton. Jackson's Bilbo does start out this way, but much too quickly becomes a clever and courageous member of the party. In the encounter with the trolls, it is not Tolkien's Gandalf who defeats them, it is Jackson's Bilbo; and when the party is treed by wolves (wargs in the film), Bilbo leaps to rescue Thorin from the White Orc's minions, standing over his fallen leader. By this time in Tolkien's story, Bilbo had gained only the slightest confidence and did nothing so rash. The overly quick development of Bilbo's character robs the story of one of its most interesting features: Bilbo's transformation from a quiet homebody into a resourceful hero. We seldom see the mixture of anxiety and excitement that would come to a comfortable, middle aged, middle class man suddenly thrown into a life and death adventure, full of great historical figures.
Tolkien himself had mixed feelings about The Hobbit. He was pleased, of course, that it was a literary (and financial) success, but he was more attached to his grander work that became The Silmarillion. (The Lord of the Rings occupies a middle ground between these poles.) Jackson seeks to integrate the story of The Hobbit into the larger epic. Unfortunately, Jackson is not Tolkien and has done a ham-handed job of transforming The Hobbit. A more cynical analysis would hold that he has intentionally turned the story into a Hollywood action film extravaganza to please a popular audience -- an audience that has no real appreciation for Tolkien's oeuvre, but simply enjoys modern special effects and video game-like violence.
Still, there are some very good aspects of the film. The New Zealand scenery is as striking and beautiful as ever. The sets, particularly Bilbo's home -- Bag End -- and Elrond's Rivendell are still faithful to a Tolkien sensibility, at least as interpreted by Alan Lee, and Bilbo's opening encounter with the dwarves is consistent with Tolkien's own whimsical tone. I take Jackson at his word that he tells us that he has serious respect for Tolkien, loves the stories, and does not wish to do them any harm. At the same time, he is a film artist himself, feeling justified in bringing his own vision of the story to the screen. I cannot fault him for this, but I do question the evolution of his artistic judgement. Tolkien's stories certainly could have fallen into worse hands, but I can't help wishing that Jackson had made a more mature film -- one which captured the deeper themes of Tolkien's visions and which presented Middle Earth in Tolkien's mysterious, enchanting light. Jackson appears to have set his eyes less on faerie and more on making a Hollywood blockbuster.