Tolkien’s “There and Back Again” Versus Jackson’s “Unexpected Journey”: A Hobbit’s Holiday, or Horror?

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With as many books as I’ve read by and about J.R.R.Tolkien, I’d still hardly pass muster as a Tolkien scholar, yet I do feel qualified to summarily remark upon Peter Jackson’s film adaptations.  Among all the universal praise, there were aspects of Jackson’s LOTR trilogy that some of us noticed were lacking.  Most conspicuous among these was that the director chose not to film the final five percent of Tolkien’s epic (the return of Frodo and hobbit companions to the Shire, occupied by Saruman during the War of the Ring.)  During this original conclusion, two crucial events transpired: the War of the Ring was brought home to the previously sheltered (thus indifferent) Shire community, and Frodo , Sam, Merry, and Pippin proved themselves worthy of that community by rising to protect it–even in the ruins it was reduced to–without the aid of wizards, elves, and dwarf allies.  But alternatively, by disposing of Saruman in an early and convenient way, and focusing on the events of the war itself, and then dragging out to sentimental proportions the departure of the elves with Bilbo from Middle Earth, Jackson redirected our attention from the aftermath and consequences of the war, to the grandeur of the battles themselves.

It’s a truism, among film critics, that our cultural values are reflected in the artifacts we choose to patronize, consume, and revere by imitation.  Jackson’s 2012 dilation, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, upon certain characters/events beyond the simple need of Tolkien’s 75-year-old novel, and the projected expansion of the battle scenes in the remaining 2/3 of this second trilogy–which it will portray even “better” than the book, one assumes–do more than simply add content for hungry fans.  They add up to something, thematically, thus altering the messages of the novel.

My point here, then, is not to pinpoint exactly the sources in and beyond Tolkien mythology Jackson is drawing his eclectic version from,1 but to examine the results.

Among Jackson’s specific revisions to Tolkien’s text, are the visit of Galadriel to Elrond at just the right time, the also coincidental visit of Saruman to the Last Homely House, even the importation of Gandalf’s associate wizard Radagast (all characters present only in the LOTR novel,) as well as the introduction of a new nemesis for Thorin, the Pale Orc, Azog–reanimated from a long-dead “goblin” in the author’s original (interestingly, for Jackson and Tolkien, the most threatening enemies do not speak English, and their words are subtitled in the films, translated in the books,) the much-expanded discussion of the Necromancer (Sauron,) and the ominous direct allusions to the rising threat of Sauron.  Again, none of these are really present in Tolkien’s 1937 book.

One could easily propose that the purpose of these alterations was to make the story more interesting to adults, older fans of the franchise and/or Tolkien (drawing some material from Unfinished Tales, for example, like Gandalf’s concern that Sauron might weaponize the dragon Smaug,) by interlocking the entire mythology together.  Or, a more cynical moviegoer might wonder why a 300-page novel takes three movies to adapt, when an 1100-page novel also took three movies—Heavens, might the studio be banking on success, stretching it all out to sell more tickets?  Fair enough.  However, this stretching could have been accomplished in any number of ways (where have the bulk of Tolkien’s Hobbit songs disappeared to?,) so it is useful to analyze the specific route Jackson takes to do it.

I can’t account for how this film will reflect on, say, Japanese culture, or British, or Australia and New Zealand (where Jackson films his stuff.)  But speaking as an American viewer, one can hardly escape the subtextual implication that we must trust those in the know (the government,) because everything’s part of a bigger picture we citizens are too small to see.  The Generals (White Council), the analysts and pundits and military advisors, from the vantage of their towers, in their wisdom, perceive (even if, like Saruman, they choose to downplay their insights for their own purposes,) the threat looming beyond the horizon, not we.  It looks to me as though the War on Terror was being almost systematically reinforced here, not coincidentally for an audience including many children and teenagers—tomorrow’s soldiers.  But all this anxious suggestiveness pales in comparison to the plain old endorsement of War that such an expansion entails, with its onscreen battle glorification and spotlighting of individual heroism–while thousands die in the obscure background, to a martial soundtrack.  Not unlike the Audie Murphy and John Wayne WWII flicks that lured starry-eyed kids like Ron Kovic into the military to fight in Vietnam, two generations ago.

The one minute of screen time that it takes for the compassionate Bilbo to spare the helpless Gollum at his mercy, is preceded and counterbalanced by 10X that time in the dwarves’ spectacular cleaving of hundreds of sub-human goblins.  And then, his leaving Gollum alive is directly followed by Bilbo not only impaling a ferocious Warg on his sword Sting, but then, unaccountably–in that it’s completely out of character–savagely killing an Orc executioner, in defense of fallen Thorin Oakenshield.Neither act is Tolkien’s creation.

This episode unfolds quite differently in the book.  The eagles are only interested in spoiling the mischief of the goblins, and do not respond as cavalry-like allies to a summons from Gandalf (whom Tolkien tells us twice was very afraid, “wizard though he was.”3)  Beyond the fiery pine-cone throwing, there is no battle between the dwarves and the goblin/wargs at all–the company barely escapes the trees by the grace of the Lord of the Eagles (whom the wizard had long ago healed of an arrow wound.)  Meanwhile, the goblins taunt the treed company with one of the many songs omitted from the film.  Can you appreciate the shift in tone here that these details support?  It is not simply from an intermediary episode in a children’s book, to the climax of a PG-13 movie.  Coupled with earlier scenes, like the military-style council at Rivendell, the transformation of small, individual concerns to epic-scale conflicts invests the entirety of Jackson’s adaptation.

With a projected 5+ hours remaining in the trilogy of Hobbit films, and having so far gotten ahead, by about 10%, of Tolkien’s written material even WITH all his additions to it, one can only speculate how Jackson plans to manage his remaining screen-time.  But I think it’s safe to say, on the evidence so far (much of which I extrapolate from the LOTR films,) that we can expect more battles, more added, individual heroics, and more relatively bloodless killing of enemies (recall that the climax of The Hobbit is the “Battle of the Five Armies.”)  Tolkien himself, having survived the trenches in World War I but losing almost all of his friends, knew better than to portray the scourge of war minus its substantial sacrifice and death (I’ll refrain from a spoiler here.)  Jackson will have to follow suit, of course, but I can’t help feeling this all adds up, at least subconsciously/subtextually, in the films, to glorification, if not justification, of war and the culture of violence our children are growing up in.

None of this is to say its not great filmmaking, especially the visuals.  So. . .why not see it with your children–however, before rushing to purchase the Blu-ray, why not first do what four previous generations of Tolkien fans have done: Why not read the book to/with your children first, so that they are not only not deprived of the use of their own imaginations, but can also can absorb the language, the craft, and above all the thematic humanism of the creator of the Middle-Earth mythology?

  1. For more specifics on the origins of some of the added material, see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Tolkien-Nerds-Guide-to-The-Hobbit–185546102.html, and this graphic:  http://media.smithsonianmag.com/documents/The-Hobbit-Graphic-FINAL.pdf
  2. To be fair, Jackson seems often to deplore war, as in the fine overlaying of Pippin’s song “Edge of Night” in Return of the King with the montage of Faramir’s suicidal return to Osgiliath, juxtaposed with Denethor’s indifferent eating.  However, he also seems far more often to visually eroticize—with special effects and other magic at his command–the violence.
  3. In Unfinished Tales, Frodo recalls Gandalf as far less omniscient or omnipotent  than the wizard-warrior of the Jackson films ever could be, and indeed often self-deprecating:  “I did no more than follow the lead of ‘chance,’ and made many mistakes on the way.”  (“The Quest of Erebor”).ImageImage
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5 thoughts on “Tolkien’s “There and Back Again” Versus Jackson’s “Unexpected Journey”: A Hobbit’s Holiday, or Horror?

  1. Alana Woods says:

    I read Lord of the Rings many years ago and, yes, enjoyed the written version much more than the films — although to be fair I also enjoyed them. I have The Hobbit on my bookshelf but have never read it. I’ll make sure I do, Shawn, before seeing the film.

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  2. There were parts of LOTR that were cut for the movie, which I would have loved to have seen, such as Tom Bombadil. I hoped The Hobbit would include more, considering the stretch to 3 movies. It’s been so many years since I read the book, I didn’t realize how much Jackson had added.
    Interesting analysis. I’ll have to think about it for a while and maybe I’ll come back with some thoughts.

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  3. shawnst says:

    Please do, Rachel. I’ve often puzzled over Bombadil (Tolkien published separate material on him.) Morally and physically beyond all harm, as I recall.

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  4. […] a year ago, I posted some cultural criticism comparing Peter Jackson’s adaptation to J. R. R. Tolkien&#821…  My analysis arrived at the conclusion that the film, from the perspective of an American viewer […]

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