Probably everyone’s seen the trailer for the Hobbit: The Desolation of (yes that is how it’s pronounced) Smaug. And all the interviews with everyone from the main cast to the second gaffer’s assistant’s cousin who made sandwiches for tourists in Auckland once. Or something. But still, it’s all very exciting and epic and exciting. Especially since I recently reread the book for the first time since I was a teenager. And I both loved it and saw it for what it was.
What strikes me now is that it is even more obviously a children’s novel than I remembered, with a heavy-handed and somewhat condescending narration. The first movie fixed this by not including it. And it wasn’t missed. As the all-wise character with the most in the know, Gandalf can stand in for the narrator.
The main thing though, is that it feels very much like a First Novel. It wasn’t his firstattempt at writing but it feels First. There is a strong start, vivid descriptions and endearing goings on in the world-building department. As a reader I identify with Bilbo, while becoming interested in Thorin and Balin, intrigued by Fili and Kili, and enchanted with Beorn, Gandalf and Smaug and the bird characters, while being annoyed and/or only mildly entertained by most of the rest of the characters. This is in part, a problem of the rookie mistake of too many characters, but the premise was unlucky 13 so I understand it. And then not giving them enough time, or action.
As a first book another give away was the quick wrap up of the battle sequences and in fact most of the final third part of the book feels rushed. The fates of all round action heroes Fili and Kili are given a one line description! One freaking line. I was appalled and also given no time to register it because I was still getting over the fate of Thorin, whose arc is probably the most developed yet whose actions in the battle etc, are again, too rushed. Neither is the reader really privy to what Bilbo is thinking throughout this. So while Bilbo is the central character the Dwarves deserve more attention in this bit – after it was their quest, their mountain and their war.
Another point: Bombur. Making the ‘joker’ character fat is so, I don’t want to say immature or juvenile, because kids can better than that, but basically nowadays – no. But it shouldn’t have been no when the book was written. It’s a tired trope, which was clichéd then as it is now. There are other ways either a joker could have been depicted, or again, other ways different physiques are portrayed. Did Tolkien really think to himself: I know what lil children like…mocking fat people? For a creative dude with a vocabulary across many languages and knowledge of literature across centuries…it wasn’t good enough. Each of the characters had flaws or something about them that made the quest difficult, highlighting this is fine, but to then also make Bombur the clown? Then I remember sometimes he had a singular lack of imagination: Mt Doom? Or was he entirely crafty?
Plot holes: Eagles. We all know this. And yet we don’t care, because EAGLES man!
When I think about the plot decisions I feel it was a cop-out that Bilbo was unconscious for most of the action, but I understand it more in terms of a children’s book. It saved on the gruesome, but the result is I cared a little less. I was actively distanced by the employment of a second-hand account. And it gets Bilbo treated like a child when he was crucial in negotiations and mostly pretty wily.
I found the book’s tone a little odd. It starts out an adventure, but it’s really about saving a world, identity, brotherhood through adversity and difference and how small decisions and simple words can divide or unite people and change the course of the world. And all that is awesome. I mean Tolkien was an old soldier and I think these themes are important and shine through. But it takes a while for the book to realise what it’s about.
Having said all that, mostly the novel lacks the gravitas of the Lord of the Rings, mainly because Tolkien himself hadn’t written them yet, and things only became significant, as it were, after the fact (like the Necromancer). Although he had written bits or most of the Silmarillion. That and the audience of LoTR is somewhat different to the audience of The Hobbit. Again, the film/s fix the tone by having the luxury of all the books sitting in front of the scriptwriters who are, according to IMDb: Fran Walsh, Philppa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro and all these people can make the tone of all the stories congruent and offer things like flashbacks to the Silmarillion to explain stuff if they want.
As a writer reading The Hobbit I can see what the story achieves and what it strives for. It’s a towering testament to imagination and his knowledge of folklore and ancient myth. The spiders of Mirkwood, the wargs and speaking birds are magnificent as inventions, while Tolkien’s world building and detail inspired an entire genre. So what I’m hoping for, though, is that the film will correct omissions and the first-time novel-like author blunders of the text.
So what are the other problems?
– there are no female characters. Except for Belladonna Took – and she’s only a background example to explain why Bilbo would go on an adventure. She’s not actually present. It looks like this particular film fixes this through Tauriel, an Elf, but if they go all romancy with her, it will fail that pesky Bechdel test. Please, blessed Peter Jackson, don’t just Tauriel be a love interest!
– Action. We will get to see what Bilbo doesn’t in the Battle of the Five Armies. Because this is what film is good at now. Conveying epic.
– More Smaug. On a big screen. Hopefully with more of the history of his arrival at Erebor and of the provenance of dragons. Also he is supposed to be seductive, he enchants his treasure and dragons have the ability to mesmerise Elves (see the Silmarillion) as well as ordinary human folk.
– More Beorn. Yay for shape shifting bear people! Lil question though where, again are the women? It’s indicated in the book on Bilbo’s return that Beorn eventually has heirs but how? Pathogenesis?
– The Necromancer. The book goes out of its way to not really include what Gandalf gets up to regarding the Necromancer, which frankly, is a cop-out. Why include a shadowy figure at the edge of the story at all? Anyway the film has the space and ability to go into more depth, and hopefully will more fully flesh out the import of the Necromancer, and Gandalf’s deeds in relation to him, without being too reveally.
– The Elves. Thorin and his cohort are imprisoned and refuse to explain their quest to the Elves of Mirkwood/Greenwood. It looks like the film changes this. And the king is named properly and yay Legolas!
– All the telescopes. As a way of reassuring young readers, or I don’t know, diffusing tension, the narrator keeps butting in to indicate what happens later. Again, yet another reason for the film/s not to have a narrator. We don’t need it. In fact we wants it precioussss, yes, tension is good in a story.
– More Gollum? We know from LoTR where Gollum ends up, but The Hobbit skips over him after his meeting with Bilbo. If the films at all follow Gandalf”s goings on then it’s possible to have more Gollum without foreshadowing too much his role in LoTR (for those who are waiting to watch all the films in chronological order or something – PS you maybe waiting a while if he makes The Silmarillion/s).
– The films can knit the entire arc of the stories together because it is all set out ahead. These storytellers know where the films are taking them in a way Tolkien didn’t as a writer – because he hadn’t written it all yet. So they can be more creative with how the story is chopped up.
In the end the book and the films are different things. And to me that’s mostly ok. Not sure what Tolkien would think, except I’m certain he would’ve never have thought film could’ve come so close to capturing the scale of the world’s he made and conveyed them so vividly.
As for the book? It was definitely worth the reread. No story or novel is perfect, but our imperfect memories makes them powerful in our imaginations. So while the book now is different to what I read and understood when I first read it, to my mind what Tolkien created was magical and hopefully, will forever be so.