In Defense of the Hobbit Movies: Purity and the Holy Geek Object

Since it is JRR Tolkien’s 123rd birthday, we thought we’d write a little something about The Hobbit movies since they are finishing up in the next few months (with the release of the extended Battle of the Five Armies Blu-ray!). Among us here at TGA, there is quite a significant division about these movies! Some of us love them, some of us really dislike them! Such is the way of the geek. In any case, I wanted to use this divisive debate and talk a little bit about purity, danger, geekdom, and the living document.

For the past few years, geekdom has been in an uproar over the movie adaptations of the most sacred of geek texts – There and Back Again, otherwise known as The Hobbit. Take a ride around the Internet and you’ll find all manner of tales about how the purity of this holy grail of geekdom has been decimated. These tales could be about walking out of movie theaters, plots to kill Peter Jackson, or how there is now a need to form a support group for Hobbit movie survivors. As geekdom has entered the mainstream, we have begun to see this sort of confrontation all the time. Dilution of pure geekiness seems to be a means through which geekdom itself has been accepted by the wider culture.

Pollution and Taboo

When we talk about the purity of a geek object like The Hobbit, we often discuss it as it was originally conceived. This could be referred to as the cleanest moment in this object’s life. As it gets older, this cleanliness becomes more difficult to maintain. Intrepretations, re-imaginings, and all manner of “influenced by” works pollute our understanding of the original work. I use the word clean as I often think of Mary Douglas and her book Purity an Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) when I consider how important holy/canonical books like The Hobbit are to geek society.

Douglas makes the argument that when things seem out of place, they are dirty, polluted. That dirt is something that that society sees as dangerous, as something that needs to be cleaned or purified. While Douglas spoke to religious purity, through her work we can gain some insight into the conflicts we have seen lately in older geek idols like Spider-Man, The Hobbit, or The Day the Earth Stood Still whereas newer intellectual properties like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games seem to mostly escape that ire since they were created before the increasing production of the era of hyper-production.

Where does the Hobbit fit in here?

I believe that The Hobbit movies are actually pretty faithful reproductions of what Tolkien envisioned the Hobbit to be. Wait! Wait! Just hear me out.

Like most things usually do, let us start at the beginning – The Hobbit was published in 1937 and quickly rose to prominence among children’s tales. In addition to this, The Hobbit is also seen as an important aspect of the birth of what would become “high fantasy” – the world of dungeons, dragons, elves, and all the rest. While we could stop here, it wouldn’t be telling the entire story. More important than The Hobbit is what happens 25 or so years later. Throughout the 1950s, The Hobbit’s “sequel” was published. Originally meant to be one book, the publisher thought it would work better as three. Thus, the three-part sequel to The Hobbit was published and is called: The Lord of the Rings.

What happened to Tolkien between 1937 and the 1950s?

A soldier of Morgoth shows up in the Lord of the Rings. The Balrogs, as they are referred to by Legolas, are also spirit beings like Gandalf.

A soldier of Morgoth shows up in the Lord of the Rings. The Balrogs, as they are referred to by Legolas, are also spirit beings like Gandalf.

What happened during the time between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is of particular interest to the conflict that sits at the center of the movie adaptations. You see, as Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings he was also rewriting The Hobbit to match the tone of the new books he was writing. In The Lord of the Rings we often hear mentions of how Bilbo was a liar in certain circumstances. This opens the passage for what The Hobbit movies are reportedly about: “I never told you what really happened…” However, some unpublished work can help us understand a bit about what Tolkien felt a better, more connected story would have been like. To help ease ourselves into this discussion, we refer to an unadded appendix to the Lord of the Rings called, “The Quest for Erebor.”

This appendix has Gandalf discussing what really happened during the quest to and from Erebor with Frodo, Merry, Samwise, and Pippin. It takes place before the Hobbits head back to the Shire, directly after Aragorn assumes his throne at the city of Minas Tirith.

In this chapter, Gandalf mentions the reasons that he wanted Bilbo to be included on the quest to retake the Dwarven Kingdom or Erebor. He also mentions that he knew Sauron was living in Dul Guldor and how important that fortress was to what Sauron was planning to do. He also goes into why Smaug had to be confronted as he feared that the Dragon would join forces with Sauron. He also mentions that Saruman was blocking his efforts to deal with Sauron even then.

Gandalf fills in a lot of the gaps and mis-communications of Bilbo’s story because, as readers, we only saw from the perspective of Bilbo himself. Bilbo, as we know from the beginning of his adventure, isn’t really that wise about the world and the Ring must have been working on him even then given that in the original Hobbit Gollum bets the ring in the chapter, “Riddles in the Dark.” Tolkien spent much of his later life trying to change The Hobbit to match the tone and circumstance of The Lord of the Rings; however, for Peter Jackson, The Hobbit was a project he was (forced) onto well after The Lord of the Rings.

Jackson was left not only with what Tolkien had wanted to change in the movies, but was also left with a significant number of changes his team made to the Lord of the Rings narrative. This really isn’t too much a problem though as, truth be told, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are nearly the same narrative, so correcting them becomes easier given the inverse sequence of their creation. How similar are they? Well, think of it at its most basic level: both stories begin in the Shire, require the use of a Hobbit being manipulated by an Angel Wizard, in order to destroy a powerful foe in the midst of large-scale battles.

Despite this, fans have taken to the internet to quote the same word count comparisons in order to justify an argument of making more money. However, when you incorporate Unfinished Tales and all manner of notes that have been published in various forms, the amount of content is not that radically different and Jackson really didn’t take as many liberties as you might expect.

Where things get a little dodgy

Where there is something to talk about as far as the movies are concerned is that Lord of the Rings is criticized for what was removed, whereas The Hobbit is criticized for what was added.

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Thrain in a scene in the Extended Edition of The Desolation of Smaug, tells Gandalf that the Necromancer took his ring.

For example, Tom Bombadil is not present in the movies, Glorfindel was replaced with Arwen, and there is no mention of Aragorn’s ability to heal. Most importantly, there is a noticable lack of mention that Gandalf himself is not human and that Gandfalf’s ring is the source of his ability to inspire people.

In The Hobbit, these sorts of things remain – we rarely see any mention of the higher powers. This is fine as any mention of God or the chorus of Angels would be met with a significant amount of furor from the religious right. It does cause a problem though as, to me, the most radical departure from the Hobbit as Tolkien envisioned it before his death can be seen in “The Quest for Erebor” appendix:

“Thrór returned to Moria, after giving to Thráin the last of the Seven Rings of the Dwarves, and was killed there by the Orc Azog, who branded his name on Thrór’s brow. It was this that led to the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs, which ended in the Great Battle of Azanulbizar (Nanduhirion) before the East-gate of Moria in the year 2799. Afterwards Thráin and Thorin Oakenshield dwelt in the Ered Luin, but in the year 2841 Thráin set out from there to return to the Lonely Mountain. While wandering in the lands east of Anduin he was captured and imprisoned in Dol Guldur, where the ring was taken from him. In 2850 Gandalf entered Dol Guldur and discovered that its master was indeed Sauron; and there he came upon Thráin before he died.”

At the beginning of The Hobbit, Azog was dead, Gandalf knew Sauron was in Dul Guldur, and Thrain, along with his ring, already belonged to Sauron. In order to have this make more sense in the movie, however, this series of givens at the beginning of The Hobbit, had to be communicated in a different fashion. The inclusion of Thrain’s scenes in the Desolation of Smaug’s extended edition and the differences in how Sauron was discovered in Dul Guldur, while different from the book, are augmented and changed to give us details that already existed in chronological order, rather than the strange sense of time all of these notes allow us to learn.

Herein is a strange point that began to occur and is one of the strangest consequences of these sorts of changes. As a result of Azog and his family being included as the party leading Sauron’s initial armies to retake Erebor, there are a lot more details included about the society of the Goblins and Orcs. This begins to open up a few things in the essence of what makes The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings so interesting – it gives a face and a set of morals to what was simply a nameless, reckless hate.

This level of conflict could have produced a far more detailed underlying political narrative if the social life of orcs and goblins and trolls were explained via the divinity of the world. For example, given the societal pressures for the goblins and orcs to assume the mantle of leadership on middle earth could have easily been explained via the machinations of Morgoth. However, this would also mean that at some point the movies would have had to address who the Airnur, Eru Illuvatar, or Morgoth were. Or, at some level we would have to learn who or what Sauron and Gandalf were in relation to the rest of the beings living in the 3rd age.

Take this video as an example of how much richer the narrative could have been.

In the end, one thing I wish people to do when they go to post about how much they hate these movies is to consider Mary Douglas’s text. While not specifically speaking of geeks and geekdom, she notes that we cannot interpret ritual unless we are prepared to see those rituals as aspects or symbols of society itself, and society changes constantly.

Like society, The Hobbit was and has been changed many different times over the past 80 years. The author himself grew to understand a much larger picture and felt that it was his duty to bring his two stories into agreement. However, denied by a society just starting to understand what High Fantasy was, we now live in a world super-saturated by it.

The novelty of High Fantasy has – in my opinion – become rather droll. In geekdom we see memes about wizards, and farmboys, and all adventures beginning in a tavern all over the place. Thanks to Peter Jackson, the rest of the world can revel in our inside jokes and perhaps with some new perspective they can help us bring some excitement back to fantasy.

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About Nick LaLone

PhD Student at Penn State in Information Sciences and Technology. Interested in how ideas move through society and how different translations of those ideas manifest.

There are 7 comments

  1. zora

    You make good points here. I was never a hater of the ‘new trilogy’ (not a lover either, just not in death threat territory) so that’s not a difficult point to concede. I quite liked the idea, when I first heard about it, of including things from the appendices to flesh out the back story and attempt to tie it directly into LOTR as a film sexology (I’m not sure I got that word right … I mean six-part series). I also find compelling your points about the passage of time since the books were published, the affective relationship between the original work and its audiences, and even Tolkien’s own evolving understanding of his own story over the course of his life. I even don’t mind Tauriel—realizing that puts me in the tiniest of minorities—though I have a big-time proviso to add to that declaration (see below in my ‘but’ paragraphs).

    The thing I personally could not abide was the insanely over-the-top CGI stunts that dragged out action sequences unnecessarily and made everything too cartoonish. If they’d just exercised a bit of restraint there, that one difference alone would have obviated the need to stretch the two-part movie into a bloated, poorly paced trilogy without extracting (much of) the extra back story that you justifiably defended above.

    As for Tauriel, I thought the character in general and the portrayal by Evangeline Lilly were both basically fine. I would have reduced her storyline. She worked for me as a political foil in discussions with King Thranduil, and I didn’t mind all her contact with Kili. Perhaps that’s the anthropologist in me too, but I’m attracted to stories about the ‘frontier encounter’, so to speak, wherein lives that wouldn’t normally cross prompt both to think harder about their Others. We all need a little of that as a lesson not to reduce our own others to the status of less-than-fully-human two-dimenationsl caricature (*cough* Trump 2016 *cough*). Moreover, showing that such an encounter prompts more than an intellectual reaction of ‘Huh, they’re not as bad as I thought they were’, and that it can also elicit a sincere, unexpected, and visceral emotional reaction (doesn’t have to be love per se) was refreshing to me personally when I saw it. Had it been up to me, I’d have taken the Kili-Tauriel story as far as the prison conversation where Kili talks about his promise to his mom and Tauriel realises ‘Dwarves love their families too’. I might have even taken it as far as the scene where he gives her the stone that symbolized said promise as a token of his affection. And then I would have dropped it. Even if it is the movies, not all on-screen sparkings of affection toward the opposite sex have to lead to true love. In my mind Tauriel would then have gone on with her life in Mirkwood (and not shown up at Lake Town or anywhere else), wiser for the experience, albeit wiser off-camera.

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  2. Let's call me Lily

    The thing is, these things are not what I found objectionable about the films! They are completely valid things to do, especially in the way Jackson was doing – to pay an homage to Tolkien, and although complexity is great, I agree, filmmakers often strip novels of some of their subplots (the Harry Potter franchise did it too). The interpretation of Tolkien’s work is unsullied in this regard, in my opinion, as it is continuing the ongoing creative tradition Tolkien started. I enjoyed the films (still think that they could have made a much sharper two films, and found some of the fight scenes a bit ridiculous, but enjoyed the films nonetheless).

    What I do object to is Tauriel. Might sound a bit odd, considering I am a girl, and look – she is the ONLY female character who is not an extra (unless you count Bard’s daughter and Galadriel, who have a scene each, maybe) in the entire trilogy – who was added by the Jackson writing team. I definitely don’t object to female lead roles; I applaud them, and I don’t object to OCs – I applaud them too. As long as they’re well written. As long as they serve a purpose other than, listen, we’re in the 21st century now, we need to insert a girl here somewhere, come on, we need to give all our female audience someone to identify and empathise with – – oh, look! We’ll just have the ONE female character, no need for more, and, while we’re at it, we’ll make her white and thin and media-approved aesthetically pleasing, and we’ll have her fall in love with a dwarf because “he’s kind of tall for a dwarf, and betray her people after centuries of service as Captain of the Guard primarily because of it, and form an inter-racial love-y-shape! Because we are forward thinking people. I do like some aspects of her character; she stands up for what is right and has her moments. But I don’t see why she is the only one. I don’t see why it feels as though the only reason that the writers felt justified in inserting an original character was by making her the subject of a two pronged love thing. I don’t see why they have to make her the Captain of the Guard in order to depict a ‘strong’ female character – you don’t have to be physically strong in order to have strength.

    Which is possibly not the subject of this post, in which case I apologise and feel free to delete it 🙂

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  3. Manta

    Legolas was a “superhero-type” even in LOTR but strangely nobody cares in those case. I find that people trying too hard to nitpick The Hobbit.

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  4. manchesterflickchick

    I agree that to fit those books into films (especially when The Hobbit book itself had been changed by Tolken) it was a difficult task, where some poetic licence had to be used for them all to make sense. I do think The Desolation of Smaug was taking the mickey when for some reason it featured Logolas as a super hero type creature hopping about on barrels and making impossible shots – ‘That’ll be in the game’ I thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nicklalone

      I think the thing that I loved about Legolas is that if you were an immortal being who didn’t really weigh anything (see: Fellowship of the ring and the snow), I would totally be running around perfecting my wuxia skills as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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