With the recent release of The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson’s second instalment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the argument “I don’t see why it needs to be three films when it’s such a small book?” is echoing around cinemas and internet forums like riddles in Gollum’s cave. Well, let me explain why…
Although originally intended to be a one-film adaptation followed by an original ‘bridging’ film connecting the events of The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, the project turned into a two-movie adaptation when initial director Guillermo Del Toro realised it couldn’t be done, stating that the book contains “so many events … It really is barely containable into two movies.” When he left due to delays caused by MGM’s financial problems, Peter Jackson settled into the director’s chair and, in July 2012 during the editing of An Unexpected Journey, realised that there was so much material he could easily make a trilogy.
And so there were three.
This may seem like milking the franchise for financial gain, but as anyone familiar with the special features and commentaries from The Lord of the Rings will know, Jackson and his team are passionate about Tolkien and his works and create these films with such love and reverence for the source material that greed never enters the equation; and it was them, not a studio, which pushed for three films.
But three films for one short book?
First, it’s not one book.
Although released as The Hobbit trilogy, the films aren’t adapted from the single text but instead include copious material derived from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Although the book came first, Jackson’s new trilogy is following his LotR films, one of the most successful, critically-acclaimed and much-loved trilogies of all time. It would therefore be a missed opportunity not to show the elements that link the two tales; links Tolkien himself made through subplots including the Necromancer. They also bridge the gap between the two texts which differ markedly in tone, and Jackson’s team have excelled at using this material to unite them; after all, why should The Hobbit be a standalone story when Tolkien didn’t intend it to be?
Second, it’s not a short story.
Yes, it may not have as many pages as LotR, but The Hobbit is not a short story. It covers an extended period of time and new events, characters, worlds and races in almost every chapter. Everyone has a favourite section they will bemoan the loss of if Jackson excluded it, and to realise the whole text requires a lot of time – three movies to be exact.
Third, the book isn’t flawless.
Don’t get me wrong, I love The Hobbit. Many of us read it as children, and our younger-selves identified with Bilbo, a small figure in a large world full of fear and adventure. But in it Tolkien’s writing style is simplistic – like a grandfather making up a bedtime story – and is riddled with problems; one of the principal figures, Gandalf, disappears for much of the text when his friends are in mortal danger with no full explanation as to why, and the characterisations of the dwarves can be summed-up as a collection of different coloured cloaks and hoods. Would we really accept that our magical hero from the LotR films was once so negligent or cowardly, or that after the well-rounded characters of the Fellowship this company should lack any personality? Jackson has worked wonders filling in the narrative gaps – including the Necromancer subplot which explains Gandalf’s disappearance – and fleshing out the characters; something he can do thanks to the three-film structure.
Developing characters and subplots over time is a luxury commonly associated with television; indeed, The Hobbit trilogy will ultimately run around the same length as a season of Game of Thrones. In a world when many people binge-watch DVD box-sets of high quality TV, why not just accept the length The Hobbit films and see them the way Del Toro and Jackson see them; as one narrative delivered in separate episodes. People keep praising TV today for using its length to develop a wide ensemble of characters; why can’t film do the same? As early as the 1910s, cinema regularly used this format to tell multi-episode stories that offered the grandeur of cinema but the depth of character and sequence of events we associate with television today. After all, we rarely hear people complain the Star Wars saga took six films to tell one story; combined, The Hobbit and LotR trilogies will have done the same.
And The Hobbit, despite its literary differences, is ultimately part of the same narrative as the LotR. That’s why Tolkien added so much information into the appendices and spent the early chapters of LotR repeating key information from The Hobbit. While writing the LotR, he even went back and rewrote sections of The Hobbit so it would fit with his later work. Most famously, the Riddles in the Dark chapter from the 1937 first edition of The Hobbit is radically different from all subsequent editions when Tolkien changed elements of Gollum’s character and Bilbo’s discovery of the One Ring. If Tolkien can change his vision of Middle Earth, why can’t Jackson bring back Legolas or add a new character like Tauriel into his own cinematic vision of Middle Earth, even if it adds to the total running time?
Jackson isn’t simply trying to remake his version of the LotR with The Hobbit trilogy; narrative features, characters and visual designs link these tales as part of one narrative, but based on the first two instalments The Hobbit has a feel all its own. Jackson is making these films with a mischievous, adventurous confidence absent from the more mature LotR trilogy, including talking creatures, multiple songs, and action sequences overflowing with complex visual gags. Despite their lukewarm reception from some critics, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug are still awe-inspiring pieces of cinema that stand head and shoulders above other blockbuster fair and show Jackson for an ambitious filmmaker of true vision.
And what vision. No other filmmaker has visualised such richly designed, beautiful and engrossing fantasy worlds as Jackson and his team. With him we have flown over mountains on the backs of eagles and charged into the thick of battle, stood on the walls of great fortresses and looked into the fires of a volcano. His adaptations of the works of Tolkien have a transcendent power like no other and its fans worldwide are legion.
And I’m one of them.
If turning The Hobbit into a trilogy buys me one more year of excited anticipation, one more film to enjoy again and again, and one more walk into Middle Earth with the characters I love, then I will take it, gladly.
Are you happy following Bilbo on a three-film journey, or would you prefer it short like…a Hobbit? Or would you rather just sit in a Hobbit hole and read the book? Let us know below…