Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, like all novels, is a work of imagination. One reads it and creates within one’spersonal imagination a series of images that represent characters and places and events it contains. Often these images may not connect with those provided by the writer, if indeed he has provided them (Tolkien did not, except in some maps of Middle Earth and surroundings). I first read Tolkien in college. On the wall of the places where I lived I kept a colorful and overactive map of Middle Earth, loosely based on Tolkien’s writings and his maps. I no longer have the map, but it still colors my imagination when I read the books.
The appearance of the Peter Jackson films based on The Lord of the Rings and on The Hobbit, for those readers who were serious admirers of these works as novels, created a challenge. Do we give up our personal images in favor of the film versions, or do we hold to our own vision and avoid the films entirely? I was unwilling to miss the films, so I attempted a middle ground. In many cases this was easy because of the inferiority of some of the films’ images, particularly of the orcs and trolls (who seemed cast-off monsters from Lost in Space or The Outer Limits television series). But the powerfully evocative images of the hobbits and of the elves overrode whatever images I had developed of them. In the case of the hobbits, I think Tolkien’s books and the films were fairly much in accord.
If we’re going to be purists, we have to be purists and hew entirely to the books or to the films. I’m no purist. I need both.
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films have the disadvantage of coming out after the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first. It was a much simpler, more elementary, even more juvenile venture than the trilogy that followed it. Moreover, the events that it narrated precede and lead up to the events in the trilogy. It was thus natural that one would first read The Hobbit and then move on to The Lord of the Rings. The case is reversed for the films of these works. Jackson’s trilogy preceded his Hobbit films. And, of course, he decided to make The Hobbit a trilogy as well. We will have to see what difference this makes. It’s certainly clear from the first installment in the Hobbit trilogy that he has inserted a lot of extra story, much of it from The Silmarillion, some of his own creation. The film is much darker than the book, and part of the reason may be that the LOR trilogy itself was so dark—it’s difficult put aside that darkness and go back to the relative light and innocence of The Hobbit.
So it’s unfortunate that the Hobbit films were made after the Lord of the Rings films. It would have been better if the Hobbit films had been made first. It would have been better to move forward from innocence and light to darkness and evil. The finding of the ring, and Bilbo’s decision to hold on to it, is the Fall that makes the latter three novels inevitable.
Yet it’s fortunate the films were made, and we have to live with the order of their creation. I’ve noted the many reviewer comments about the slowness of the first Hobbit installment (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012; dir. Peter Jackson). Yes, it is a bit slow. Yes, it departs considerably from the monolithic plot of Tolkien’s novel. But it many ways it preserves the basic events and spirit of the novel and embellishes and adds to them. I look forward to the second installment.