Departing from the novel – does The Hobbit make it work?

Last weekend I re-watched The Hobbit films – I can’t wait for The Battle of the Five Armies to come out in December! One thing that struck me when I watched both films for the first time was how much they departed from the source material. While the Lord of the Rings films simplified and truncated much of the book, they generally attempted to remain true to the novel. The changes to The Hobbit, on the other hand, were immense. And yet, after the chance to digest them, I find I appreciate most of the ways in which the films depart from the novel.

Desolation of Smaug Poster
© New Line Cinema

To an extent, I consider the story being told in the films to be an example of how Tolkien might have told the story had he already written Lord of the Rings. The appearance of Legolas is one example of this; Tolkien most likely hadn’t developed the character when he wrote The Hobbit in the 1930s, but having made a film that features Legolas prominently, and knowing him to be the son of the king who imprisons Bilbo and the Dwarves in Mirkwood, it would only be natural for the filmmakers to consider how he might fit into the story. Indeed, the state of the Woodland Realm is informed by the knowledge that Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring and the shady Necromancer infecting the Greenwood is Sauron. These are things Tolkien hadn’t established when he wrote the novel, but later decided upon when he came to write The Lord of the Rings. Consequently, the Ring takes on a greater prominence, as does the Necromancer’s rise to power. In the novel, these are simply plot devices; the Ring confers invisibility while the Necromancer provides an excuse for Gandalf’s frequent departures, leaving Bilbo and the Dwarves to find their own way out of trouble. I like the way these changes make the film fit more intimately into the history of Middle-earth. In relation to The Lord of the Rings, it’s not simply the tale of how the Ring made it out of the depths of the Misty Mountains and into the Shire, but also the story of how its creator rose to power once again to threaten Middle-earth.

Tauriel
© New Line Cinema

The filmmakers’ greater foreknowledge about future events in Middle-earth accounts for some of the changes to the films, but not all of them. An interesting example is that of the Elf Tauriel. With Legolas’ increased role in the film, and greater focus on Sauron’s effect on the Woodland Realm, it stands to reason to create a captain for Thranduil’s guard. To be perfectly clear, there is no reason why an Elven king would not have a female captain of the guard. Elven women fought alongside men, although female warriors were less common as mothers rarely fought; in Elven culture childbirth and killing are such a closely linked binary that after having carried and nurtured a child few Elven women chose to fight. Given that it is made clear that Tauriel is single (and Elves marry for eternity, so there’s no chance of her being widowed), and Elves have no concept of premarital sex, it is safe to say that she is not a mother. Moreover, any accusation that Tauriel was shoehorned in to appease the feminists crashes down when you realise that her main role is as a love interest for Legolas and Kili. For my part, I like her personality, and I like that the filmmakers were brave enough to do something that many casual Tolkien fans would criticise but that is in keeping with his Legendarium, but I would have far preferred it if she were not there merely to be a love interest for the men.

I find that as I get older, too, I’m more forgiving of films that depart from the source novels. I still think the Scouring of the Shire should have appeared in The Return of the King film, because a key theme in the novel is that the Hobbits are trying to save the Shire, and to have them return home and still have to save the Shire underscores this. On the whole, however, I’m more able to accept that films at times must depart from novels because film and text are two different media, and also that the development of a film adaptation is a creative process in and of itself, and should not be merely trying to replicate a reader’s experience of the novel. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed The Hobbit films as the preteen I was when The Lord of the Rings films came out, but I do enjoy them now, even though I do sometimes feel they’ve departed too much from the source.

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