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?
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.
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.