It is impossible to look at The Hobbit movies without taking into consideration The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films as well as the books themselves. For so many things that the Rings movies had, The Hobbit lacked, and for much of what the The Hobbit novel represented, the movies missed.
With that, let’s even take a look at the animated versions of The Hobbit (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978) and The Return of the King (1980).
I loved the books. All of them. Needless to say, I had high expectations.
The greatest error in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the The Hobbit is that he tried to make it The Lord of the Rings.
The Hobbit was written (and intended) as a light-hearted adventure that would be highly relatable to children. The story was interesting enough to where it had an immense appeal to adults as well. The novel, itself, though, is a short and easy read — shorter than any one of the LOTR novels, which was an intended trilogy.
Just to add some further perspective, I re-read the novels prior to writing this review. The Lord of the Rings novels truly are great works of literature, telling an impactful and emotional story, outlining the horrors of war, and following the archetypal journey of an unsuspecting hero. The novels took me about two weeks to read, significantly longer than it would take to watch the extended cuts of all three of the movies. The more I read these novels, the more I appreciate the depth and breadth of them as well as the themes that still relate to the world today.
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The Hobbit, on the other hand, is literature light. It is a fine work of art that has an important literary canonical place. It is a book that I loved as a child and have enjoyed as an adult.
I re-read the novel in less than half of the time it took me to watch Peter Jackson’s trilogy. That is a problem.
Let’s get started.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
First, let’s just say this about all three of the Hobbit movies — they look absolutely beautiful. They are well acted and they are highly entertaining. And, each of them is far too long, strays far too drastically from the book, greatly miss the point and joy found in the novel. The novel is fun and entertaining and meant for a young audience to enjoy. The movies are dark and violent, not for children at all, and they are aimed at LOTR movie fans, not actually true Tolkien fans. Where Jackson sought to extend the LOTR movies to better tell Tolkien’s story, The Hobbit movies stretch and stray far too much for the purpose of making box office cash by stretching a relatively short novel into three movies.
This first movie in the trilogy is the best. It follows the Tolkien novel more closely than the two movies that follow. It makes a long-winded and unnecessary effort to tie the film to LOTR when, really, The Hobbit should have been able to stand on its own. Yes, I am aware that Tolkien went back and made changes to better connect The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings but he never did anything to detract from the tone of the story nor did he alter the original storyline. The scenes with the trolls and Gollum are well done and the lead into Smaug is promising. The movie suffers from trying to be something much grander than it should be or was meant to be.
In the novel, the life of Hobbits is happy-go-lucky and unsuspecting of the world beyond. Bilbo is threatened in the story, but we also get the impression that he never fully understands the danger in the same way that Frodo does — and that is part of his appeal, and a major difference in Tolkien’s stories. Jackson tries to inflict the burden of being Frodo upon Bilbo in this movie and it greatly detracts from the overall tale.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
An entertaining movie, for the most part, but it is long and drawn out and deviates from the original story drastically without purpose. The primary purpose for the deviations of The Hobbit films seems to be to make them more like The Lord of the Rings films, something they should not and were not meant to be. The Desolation of Smaug suffers from a common problem with adaptations — it ventures too greatly from an already great storyline — stick to the original story, the audience will love you more for it. As a lover of literature, nothing is more frustrating than a filmmaker who twists a wonderful story into their own vision, rather than an interpretation. Many filmmakers take great pride in sticking to the text of Shakespeare — I wish Jackson had done the same with Tolkien. While still a pretty decent movie, it is the most disappointing of all of the Tolkien adaptations thus far. As a vast and epic, slow-moving fantasy film, it succeeds. As an interpretation and version of The Hobbit, it is a grand disappointment. GRADE: C+
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
This movie just doesn’t end. It keeps going and going and going. It’s primary fault is that is so badly wants to be The Return of the King. It falls short of Return in many ways, but fails Tolkien in even more ways. Much of the movie, I liked, but the longer it stretched out, the longer it kept going, the more I disliked it and simply wanted it to end. None of The Hobbit movies capture the emotional impact of The Lord of the Rings movies, nor should Jackson have tried to do so. The emotional impact was never there in Tolkien’s story, and frankly, I would have to believe Tolkien would have been greatly disappointed by Jackson’s Hobbit efforts.
However, I do believe Tolkien would have been highly honored by Jackson’s LOTR movies. Where The Hobbit fails, Jackson succeeds in every way with LOTR. The movies, like the three novels, are massive in scope, have a deep and emotional impact on the viewer, capture the underlying parallels of war and society and the common man, and so much more. GRADE: B-
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
This is arguably the best of the three Lord of the Rings movies from Jackson. It probably only failed in the eyes of the Academy because it was the first of the trilogy. Yes, there are differences from the novel, but these differences are for the purpose of accommodating the medium of film, rather than trying to appease film-going audiences. The story follows, what is, the prototype for a hero on an archetypal journey. It introduces the ideas that event the smallest voice can be heard and that the horrors of war can have an impact on the most innocent of victims. GRADE: A+
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
This film is the middle child, excellent on its own, but sandwiched between two others that demand more attention. Towers has an epic battle scene that carries on (again) far too long but it is, nevertheless, magnificent. Jackson’s greatest flaw in these movies is his unwillingness to cut them short. He makes a standout effort in all three of the LOTR movies to maintain the story and themes of the original works, but he often drags sections out and over dramatizes elements that are underplayed by Tolkien. Towers does leave viewers with a great sense of incompletion, but that really only had an impact on movie going audiences who had to wait a full year to seen the trilogy close. GRADE: B+
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Jackson’s efforts were rewarded with an Oscar for Best Picture, shutting down Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, a film that would have been the run away winner any other year. This movie is so good in so many ways. It captures the essence of Tolkien and takes full advantage of the medium of film. The conclusion is a bit elongated, but appropriately so, as Tolkien’s final novel ends long after the climax in a dark and depressing fashion — showing the true and final impact of those who have been to war. When the LOTR movies expand on a scene, it is due to the thought that Jackson is trying to fulfill the themes and ideas of Tolkien. In the more recent Hobbit movies, it really feels like the story is dragged out and changed for the sole purpose of meeting box office expectations rather than trying to tell the story written by Tolkien. The Return of the King is a masterwork of filmmaking, storytelling, and adaptation. It is the finest of all Tolkien adaptations. GRADE: A+
I will watch Jackson’s LOTR trilogy again and again. I will likely never watch his Hobbit trilogy ever again (I can read the novel in a much shorter time).
The Hobbit (1977)
“Do you not mean to share a grand adventure?” asks Gandalf to Bilbo toward the beginning of this made for TV movie. And so they do, share a grand adventure that is. Steeped in 1970’s style animation, this version of The Hobbit wonderfully captures the fun and adventure of the novel, elements so lacking from Jackson’s epic. It never takes itself too seriously and it succeeds in interpreting Tolkien’s tale on a much smaller scale than Jackson was able to do for hundred’s of millions of dollars. Yes, it is a bit low budget, but it makes a valiant attempt to be very true to the nature and character of Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins. It is much more of a move for children than any of the Jackson films, but it is meant to be, as Tolkien meant it to be. After all, The Hobbit, is seventh grade reading. The Lord of the Rings is not. Co-directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., it features cinema godfather John Huston as the voice of Gandalf. GRADE: A
The Return of the King (1980)
Bass and Rankin return to close out the trilogy following Bakshi’s version of Lord of the Rings (reviewed below). However, they suffer much from the same dilemma as Peter Jackson with his Hobbit movies. Where Jackson tried to make his Hobbit films like his Lord of the Rings Movies, Bass and Rankin try to make their LOTR movie too much like their Hobbit movie. In every way that The Hobbit is meant to be fun and lighthearted, LOTR is not, and the serious themes and tones of LOTR are lost in this made for TV version of Return of the King. The movie itself does a fine, but all too brief, job of closing the story, but it lacks the substance so wonderfully captured by Bakshi and Jackson. The story picks up the story where Bakshi ended it, but it changes the tone and overall leaves true Tolkien fans weighed down in disappointment. GRADE: B-
The Lord of the Rings (1978)
I saved Ralph Bakshi’s adaption for the last. It may not be the best, but it is far, my favorite. Perhaps an article on Bakshi is best served for a later date, for his impact as a filmmaker and animator have long been lost and underplayed. This version combines the first two LOTR novels, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. However at only two hours and twenty minutes (did I say only?), it has to cut short many of the story lines and streamline the tale as much as possible. Regardless, the story remains true to Tolkien.
Much of the movie uses rotoscoping rather than traditional animation — this is the art of filming live action, then drawing the animation over the top of it. In 1978, quite unique. Bakshi had planned a two-part series and the movie was a financial success. It reportedly cost around 4 million to make and made over 30 million. That is a success by any standards, especially in 1978. Even with the financial success, Bakshi was never given the opportunity to complete the tale, instead that went to Bass and Rankin.
I still recall seeing the 1980 TV version of the Return of the King when I was a kid, and I remember the utter disappointment that in no way did it keep the style or tone of the Bakshi version.
By Brian Barsuglia
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