This post is actually about the nature of fairy tales, so keep reading even if you don’t care for my movie critique. Yes, they were fun movies to watch. But since the very first “Tolkien” movie, the Fellowship of the Ring, the series had trended towards more CGI, more deviations from the books, and more unnecessary drama at the expense of character development and plot. Adapting from novel to big screen must be an onerous task – almost as onerous as trying to please Tolkien fans and studio executives at the same time. But there is a really key moment in the Hobbit movie series that betrays the essence of the fairy tale.
You might be wondering if I’m speaking of the completely unnecessary insertion of Legolas and his she-elf comrade (who falls in love with a dwarf!) into the movie. That was strange, but somewhat understandable from a cinematic universe perspective. You might consider the strange backstory of Azog the destroyer to be the bitter component. But in the end it doesn’t really take away anything and Tolkien always hinted that there were other stranger plots brewing in the background. Or perhaps you think I’m speaking of the completely wasted scene with Beorn – a scene that Tolkien fans would have exulted in had it been captured in a way consistent with the book. But no, I’m willing to let that slide.
The Hobbit is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are not at all like modern story-telling. Before Schwarzenegger and Stalone (I’m sure it started before them, but they were my era!) started story-telling on a path where the main character was a hero who dwarfed their circumstances, fairy tales told the journeys of small and insignificant characters into circumstances that dwarfed them. One delight of the fairy tale is that the main character makes mistakes, is at the mercy of the plot, and ends up contributing relatively little to the end results except his own transformation. Bilbo mistakes the first mountain he sees for THE Mountain, only to be informed that THE Mountain is much larger. This is fairy tale.
Consider how Peter Jackson turned one of the last chapters of the Hobbit into a 3+ hour movie in the Battle of the Five Armies. In the book, Bilbo gets knocked unconscious fairly early in the battle and only comes around after the violence has ended. He only has time to bid Thorin farewell (in a scene that still brings tears to my eyes) and hear the tale from others. Apart from yelling, “The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!” he contributes nothing.
Nevertheless, the dwarves do learn to lean on and trust Bilbo as the story unfolds. This is because they learn to appreciate a Hobbit, not because Bilbo becomes less of one. Bilbo does change, but not into a warrior dwarf or even into a decent burglar (conscience leads him to gift the Elf King with jewels to compensate for the meals he had to steal!). Bilbo becomes a better (or at least different) hobbit, as predicted by Gandalf at the very beginning. His betrayal of Thorin in bartering the Arkenstone is a revealing of his true nature. It shows that at the end of the day, Bilbo Baggins has managed to stay Bilbo Baggins despite all the intervening adventures.
So despite the many egregious offences of Peter Jackson, the worst takes place at the end of the first movie, when the party of 15 is stuck atop the burning trees. In the movie, Thorin descends to attack Azog, only to be soundly defeated. Just as Thorin is about to die, Bilbo rushes in with his sword and saves Thorin’s life which, in the movie, is the turning point of Thorin’s attitude toward Bilbo. In my opinion, this is where Jackson ruins the Hobbit because this is where it ceases to be a fairy tale. The moment Bilbo Baggins defeats a hardened orc in one on one combat is where the light fades.
Now I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to ask me about Bilbo’s attack on the giant spiders to save the dwarves. But again, apart from Sting, this is Bilbo using his parochial hobbit skills. In particular, his skill at throwing stones he honed on country walks around the Shire. In the book he kills as many spiders by throwing stones (a little reminiscent of another giant slayer) as with Sting. Not only that, but he drives the spiders mad with his silly rhyming “Attertops!”. If Bilbo is going to become a fighter, he must fight like a Hobbit: with rock and rhyme.
Then there is the ring. One virtue of hobbits is that they are lucky, and finding the Ring was a stroke of great luck. How does this ring of great power affect Bilbo? It only enhances Bilbo’s “ordinary sort of magic”, such as walking quietly to where big folk like you and me can’t hear them. Even his “battle” for the Ring with Gollum does not end in swordplay, but in wordplay. A far more hobbit-like contest. In the end it his hobbit-ness that makes Bilbo so resistant to the power of the One.
If the Hobbit can remain a fairy tale, then Peter Jackson may insert all the new characters, back stories, and CGI action that he desires. But if the Hobbit is going to cease to be a fairy tale, then don’t bother making it into a movie. Bilbo must never be more than a hobbit, and we must love him for nothing less. Which is what Thorin learned in the end:
Bilbo knelt on one knee filled with sorrow. ‘Farewell King under the Mountain!’ he said.
‘This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it. Yet I am
glad that I have shared in your perils – that has been more than any Baggins deserves’.
‘No!’ said Thorin. ‘There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some
courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above
hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!'”