What Went Wrong With The Hobbit Movie, and How to Discuss it with Smart Kids

An illustration for the book by Greg Hildebrandt and Tim Hildebrandt
A still from the movie. So far, so good.

The Hobbit movie has gotten plenty of press for its shortcomings (and its long-drawn-out-ed-ness). Well, the husband and I saw it over the weekend and . . . most of what you've heard is right. The filmmakers have made drastic and sweeping changes from the original Tolkien book that make a big difference in the
message it sends to those who watch it.

But what do you do if you, after having watched and enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies, assumed that The Hobbit movies would be worthwhile as well? What if THEN maybe you told your kids who also watched and enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies that if they read the book (or you read it to them) they could watch The Hobbit? What then?

As you may have guessed, in my case this situation is not hypothetical.

I'm not the kind of person who demands that movies be exactly the same as their source material. I totally understand that the screen is a different medium than the page and that artists need freedom to work within their medium. As long as a movie is true to the heart of the book I can happily accept changes in characters and action.

But The Lord of the Rings is a Big Important Story involving self-sacrifice and the triumph of good over evil and literally
saving the world
, while The Hobbit is a fun adventure story about a fish-out-of-water hobbit who goes on a quest with some hapless, scaredy-cat, gold-crazy dwarves to get their treasure back from a dragon. Unfortunately, Peter Jackson, who did such an admirable job on his Lord of the Rings movies, has tried to make The Hobbit into the same sort of movie that those are, and in doing so The Hobbit has lost its heart AND its moral center.

The short answer to the above question is that I plan to let my kids see the movie (they can wait until it's on DVD). But before and after (and maybe during) I plan to talk with them about what's different and why it matters.

So, what are these big changes?

  1. The Violence is Hollow

You may have wondered, as I did, how in the world they were going to turn a 300 page book into three movies, when the Lord of the Rings trilogy at over 1000 pages was made into three movies. Well, the answer is that they added a lot of beheadings. A lot. A hour or so's worth of beheadings. Dwarves, orcs, trolls, goblins, wargs, all
beheaded. Also shot with arrows, hit with slingshots, stabbed with swords, and bitten. It was a long movie.

"But wait", you say, "the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was violent, and you said you liked that!" True, true, but in the Lord of the Rings movies the violence was worthwhile and unavoidable. The filmmakers try to give the action of The Hobbit the same heft, but it's not in the source material, and it never rings true. The dwarves come across as warmongering, when they ought to just be greedy. Which brings me to . . .

  1. The Dwarves and Their Motives Are Re-Imagined

I have read The Hobbit probably half-a-dozen times over the course of my life, and I have to admit I had never imagined dwarves as handsome. The bulk of the dwarf party is as I had expected them to look, but Fili and Kili and Thorin are all quite good-looking. Kili gives Flynn Rider a run for his money in the smolder department. Mostly I actually liked the casting. I found it made them seem more real and made it easier to take them seriously, when they weren't all so cartoonish. It made it easier to sympathize with their characterization as a pitiful band of dispossessed warrior refugees fighting to regain their homeland.

But there's where the problem comes in, which is that the dwarves were characterized as a pitiful band of dispossessed warrior refugees fighting to regain their homeland. Where's the fun in that? And what in the world do these guys need Bilbo for?

3. Everything Is on Purpose

In trying to make The Hobbit more Big and Important, Peter Jackson has robbed the story of all of its best happenstance. So many things, good and bad, just happen to Bilbo in The Hobbit book, but in the movie everything is purposeful and the story has lost its feel of providential-ness.

In the book, when Bilbo finds The Ring, he is crawling on his hands and knees down a dark passage, his hand finds the ring (or the ring finds his hand) and he puts it in his pocket. In the movie, Bilbo watches the ring fly out of the pocket of Gollum's loincloth (I know, I was confused too) as he finishes off a goblin. Bilbo then, in full knowledge of the fact that it is Gollum's ring, steals it and puts it in his pocket. Later, during the riddles scene, all of the charm of Bilbo's dawning realization of the ring is lost. In the movie, Bilbo IS a thief, just as Gollum says.

4. Bilbo Isn't Childlike

The image of little Bilbo running back and forth beneath the trees as the wargs approach because he can't reach the lowermost branches has always been one of my favorites from the book. He's rescued by Kili in the nick of time of course, but what a lovely example of the littleness and childlike-ness of Tolkien's hobbits. Well, in the movie, Bilbo has somehow become the kind of guy who would draw his sword and charge a maniacal super-orc with a grudge against Thorin (Don't remember him? That's because the "Pale Orc" is a new addition to the story). The heroism of Tolkien's Bilbo is accidental and therefore, much more relatable.

Miko-M from Deviant Art
From an excellent article in The Atlantic

5. At Least Nobody Took a Walking Stick to the Crotch

I guess to prove that it's a kids' movie they had to throw in some completely unnecessary burping and farting and what appears to be mind-altering-substance smoking. Shame on them for that.

Overall, I still enjoyed watching it. Two words . . . Goblin. Stenographer. Seriously, a goblin stenographer is as awesome as you could possibly imagine it might be. The whole goblin underground world, including the goblin king, was extraordinarily well done. The acting and casting and setting really are all very, very good. The dwarf-singing is haunting and beautiful, and the song over the end-credits is refreshingly non-radio-Disney. But I am left with a feeling of great disappointment over what might have been, an ache over the Christian themes that have gone missing, and a feeling of foreboding over what's to come in the next two installments of The Hobbit.

So what do you think? Have your kids seen The Hobbit? How did you handle the changes?