The Hobbit: An Unfortunate Journey
If The Hobbit existed as its own entity, separate from The Lord of the Rings, it might be hard not to sing its praises. If The Lord of the Rings had never been made, The Hobbit might feel like a fresh and bold piece of filmmaking, much as The Lord of the Rings did when it was first released. Unfortunately, The Hobbit calls attention to the fact that it exists merely in the shadow of its predecessor at every available moment. Comparison to The Lord of the Rings then becomes not only fair, but an unfortunate inevitability. This was a major mistake on Peter Jackson’s part.
Peter Jackson has, for all intents and purposes, made clear he sees his Hobbit films as being merely an extension of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, rather than an adventure all its own. The score employed is not only reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, but rips a number of cues straight out of it. This is no more clear than near the beginning of the film, when audiences are (re-)introduced to The Shire. Coupled with the blatant visual references to the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, it comes across as a hollow copy more so than an exciting introduction to a new world, as was the case with Fellowship.
While one could fairly argue that doing this makes sense as a way to bring audiences back into the world of Middle-Earth, such blatant references to Jackson’s earlier films do not stop there. Take, for example, the majority of the scenes in the Goblin King’s lair. From lighting to camera movement to the staging of the actors, it is impossible not to think of the scenes in the Mines of Moria in Fellowship. This is clearly intentional, and it is frustratingly dull.
Regardless of the explanation as to why Jackson did this – was it hubris? Arrogance? A genuine attempt to reclaim the magic of his original trilogy? – what really matters is that it simply does not work. This is a two-fold problem. First, it fails to work as a means to create a uniquely exciting film as The Fellowship of the Ring did in 2001. Second, it fails most profoundly in the context of adaptation. In other words, whatever Jackson’s reasons for continually referencing his earlier films, he does so by sacrificing artistic loyalty to the source.
One of the reasons The Fellowship of the Ring worked so well, especially at the time of its original release, was how unique it felt as a work of cinema. Fantasy was not an unheard of genre, but Fellowship arguably elevated it to new heights. It did so partly by not treating itself as simple genre fare. It also did so by brilliantly transporting audiences to a strange and exciting world they had not seen before. From the opening scenes introducing The Shire, it was clear this was a new, fascinating world. The Fellowship of the Ring was not the first film to do this. Star Wars is a notable example that did this as well, to great effect. To this day, people are still extremely interested in its unique universe. Rather than try to etch out its own place, The Hobbit purposefully – and confusingly – chooses to live in the shadow of its much superior predecessor.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, while existing in the same literary universe, feel in many ways separate. Both the books of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have clearly pronounced flourishes from Tolkien that connect them not only by the world the characters inhabit, but also by the actual literary conventions Tolkien himself employs. In the same way, Peter Jackson applies his own artistic flourishes – and excesses – to his adaptation. But rather than employ and take a similar stylistic approach (see his 2005 King Kong for how Jackson does this with a film outside of his Lord of the Rings trilogy), he simply recycles his own work. It feels lazy and uninspired. Like a writer quoting his previous work at length and telling his readers they are reading something new.
All of this connects back to the way The Hobbit betrays its literary source. One of the main ways that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings feel like entirely separate entities, as much as they exist within the same literary universe, is the tone of the writing as well as the characters and story. Tone, while somewhat an elusive and ephemeral concept, must be considered in a case like this. While The Lord of the Rings is a decidedly dark and mature adventure tale, The Hobbit is a lighthearted and whimsical one. Peter Jackson would have done well to not simply consider this difference, but to actually apply it wholeheartedly. Instead, while there are glimpses of the innocence of the book within Jackson’s film, it also takes on that darker and more serious tone at numerous junctures, and does so in a jarring and at times awkward manner.
The overall effect this has is one of disappointment, despite the fact that The Hobbit is certainly not a bad movie on its own merits. However, judging it solely on those merits is impossibly difficult given how shamelessly it copies its predecessors and fails to carve out a place truly its own. As a result, The Hobbit will most likely always be judged on the basis of how it compares to Peter Jackson’s original fantasy epics, and it is hard to argue that judgment as unfair.