December 2, 2014

Why The Hobbit Films Could Never Be Like The Lord of the Rings

While I have to wait another (dreadfully long) two weeks to see the final installment in the Middle-earth Saga I'm trying to avoid as much of the online discussion as possible so I don't come across any spoilers.  Yet even in my seclusion I can't help but notice all the debate about The Hobbit vs. The Lord of the Rings...

     It seems like most of the people who are movie-only fans and have a negative impression of The Hobbit films have constantly complained about them not living up to expectations.  "It's just not like LotR" some say while other are a bit more specific in their opinions saying thing like, "There's not enough drama."  But I would argue that The Hobbit films could never be as good as The Lord of the Rings films - at least by the standards of the average movie-goer.

     Why?  Well just look at the history of the source material.  The Hobbit was originally published in 1937 as a children's story.  Because of its commercial and critical success, the publishers asked Tolkien to write a sequel.  This "New Hobbit" would grow over the next decade and a half to become something entirely different, The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien in his letters acknowledged over and over again how this new story was much darker, epic, romantic, and more grown up than its predecessor.  Does that make The Hobbit a bad story?  Of course not!  It's just a different kind of tale. But since The Lord of the Rings was published in the 50s it has thrown a new lens over the eyes of the reader.  This Hobbit story now fits into the much larger picture of the Third Age.  It's a piece of the puzzle, no longer simply a stand alone work.

     May I remind you also that PJ & Co. made The Lord of the Rings films first and established the relatively darker world of Middle-earth portrayed in that tale.  Can you see the predicament?  The Hobbit films from the beginning were stuck between two extremes, the relatively light-hardheartedness of the original book and the dark epic expected and loved by fans of the LotR films.  To go either way would bring disappointment to at least some group of fans.

     Instead, PJ & Co. have done what I think is probably the most logical thing to do.  Because most everybody in the present age looks at The Hobbit in light of The Lord of the Rings they tried to essentially re-tell the story of The Hobbit in a way more similar in the style and tone of The Lord of the Rings (an endeavor attempted by Tolkien in the 60s) while still retaining some of the lightness and humor.  By doing so, PJ thrust himself between two opposing viewpoints.  Of course, some people haven't been happy about it.  Many of the movie-fans hungry for an epic quest have been a bit let down while some book fans have missed the more whimsical spirit of the original.  In this post I'm specifically trying to address those movie-fans by saying this: The Hobbit films could never be like The Lord of the Rings films because The Hobbit book is very different from The Lord of the Rings book.  Even though Peter Jackson has embellished a lot, The Hobbit films were never intended to out-do or match LotR in terms of scope, drama, and breadth.  That alone doesn't make them bad films with no character arcs or gorgeous and varied topography (things which these films have a lot of!). It means that they are different and different does not necessarily mean worse than or not as good as.  While they are part of the same grand story they are two distinct trilogies with different tales to tell.  A direct one on one comparison is ridiculous.

     Instead of constantly bashing The Hobbit for not being like The Lord of the Rings, I think Ringers and Tolkienists alike need to understand where Peter Jackson has been coming from and examine how he has balanced his re-telling between the LotR-esque epic and the whimsical children's tale.  Do the visual gags inter-spliced in action scenes bring the same kind of humor found in the original or do they subtract from the epic, grandiose side of the storytelling?  How does the "cleaner" look of the films visually give it a different tone from LotR?  What are the benefits and disadvantages of this?  How does it reflect the spirit of the original?  We as a fan-base need to move past the LotR vs. Hobbit debates and value and/or criticize each on their own merits.

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