Of Hobbits and Heroes

At some point, any discussion of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films is going to turn to how faithful they are, or not, to the books. (At which point people who’ve not read them roll their eyes and wander off to get something to eat.)

I’m pretty relaxed about the differences.  There is book!Middle Earth and there is film!Middle Earth, and the latter doesn’t threaten the former at all. I can visit there anytime I want.  Granted, a few of the changes Jackson made don’t make sense to me, but many of them do, because film storytelling is different from written storytelling.

Overall, when I step back and say, ‘is the story essentially the same?’ the answer is yes. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy tells the story of the efforts to destroy the ring and defeat Sauron, and includes most of the key plot points of the books, from Frodo’s flight from the Shire, to Shelob and Gollum’s role at the end of all things.

For me, the books are about the relationships (i.e., Frodo and Sam), the richness of Middle Earth’s history and culture, and the effects of the battle between good and evil on individual characters. Most of those things are present in the films, so I’m happy to love them as much as I do the books, if in a different way.

The character aspect is where we tend to see many of the biggest differences, and while I understand most of the changes, I vary in whether I think they were necessary and/or good. (I.e., the changes to Faramir in LOTR are logical, given what the books say about his relationship with Denethor, and I can see why Jackson believed that he needed some tension in that section of the story for Frodo and Sam, but I still prefer book!Faramir over film!Faramir.)

Plus, some of what we see in the characters aren’t changes so much as extrapolations. Tolkien tended to draw his story people in broad strokes: for example, he doesn’t always distinguish between the different dwarves in The Hobbit, simply designating dialog in a generic way (i.e., ‘one of the dwarves said…’)

But I’ve now seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug three times, and I just finished a re-read of the book, and have been struck by something unexpected: while the book is a children’s tale, generally viewed as being much lighter in tone than The Lord of the Rings, I believe the Hobbit films are actually darker than the LOTR trilogy.  In the case of DoS, significantly so.

Some of this is because, to the delight of many Tolkien-geeks, Jackson is expanding the story to tell what was happening in the larger world outside Bilbo’s adventure, specifically Gandalf’s encounters with the Necromancer.

But I believe some of that darkening in tone is also because he’s bringing more detail to those characters Tolkien drew in broad strokes.

I said in my earlier post on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug that I like heroes, and part of why I like The Lord of the Rings so much is that Tolkien gave me lots and lots of heroes, of all shapes and sizes.  But that’s not true in The Hobbit, really.  Or not as true, at least.

Rather than being about a group of people, The Hobbit is about Bilbo’s adventure there and back again; it’s not Thorin’s story (unlike LOTR, which I think is just as much Aragorn’s story as Frodo’s.) And yet, Thorin is a major player in The Hobbit, a driving force in Bilbo’s actions.

More than once, Bilbo places himself in danger because he’s come to view Thorin and the other dwarves as friends.  He cares about them, enough not to simply abandon them, even though, magic ring on his finger, he could do so.

But are the dwarves worthy of that devotion? Is Thorin?

Thorin isn’t a villain, and does some heroic things in the course of the story (including, in the film version, saving the life of Legolas.) But, as a friend observed the other night, ‘the choice isn’t only between hero and villain.’ It’s possible to exist somewhere in the middle on that spectrum and that’s Thorin. He’s more of a non-hero.

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Well, but that’s what Peter Jackson does, right? He changes the book characters, makes them more complex? Darker, even?

Yes and no. The tension between Faramir and Denethor that we see in the films does exist in the book; Faramir just reacted differently to it. But even if film!Faramir strayed into not-a-hero territory when he started towards Minas Tirith with Frodo and Sam, he changed his mind well before the end, reclaiming the title of Hero.

But Thorin? Comparing book!Thorin and film!Thorin, we see the same dwarf. Jackson just fleshed him out. But is he intended to be a hero? Maybe not.

During my re-read of the book, I was struck by something Tolkien says in chapter twelve: “Dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.”

Tolkien didn’t view Thorin as a hero, then, but the effects of that on the overall tone of the story are felt less in the book, because there, all the dwarves are minor characters, despite being the reason for Bilbo’s adventure.

But while LOTR is about heroes overcoming, The Hobbit strikes me as a tale of contrast between one unexpected hero and a number of other failed heroes, or failed could-be heroes, from Thorin, to Thranduil, to the Master of Lake-Town. It’s not that there aren’t other heroes (Bard, Beorn) but their role in the story doesn’t feel as pronounced as that of the non-heroes.

Even Legolas, an unambiguously heroic character from the sequel, isn’t one here.  Since he would have been present in Mirkwood while Bilbo’s adventure was going on, I’m fine with him being in the film, and having decided to include him, they had to give him a story of some kind. (But a love triangle with a dwarf? Really? Er, okay.)

But I was jolted by the fact that Legolas isn’t the clear-cut hero we might have expected him to be, what with having to be cajoled into doing the right thing by Tauriel (“are we not part of this world?”) Upon reflection, I’m okay with that, because he’s younger here, and we’ve not seen the whole story Jackson is telling about the elf, and it seems likely that Jackson is showing us Legolas growing into the hero we meet at the Council of Elrond.

But still…net effect: a lot of non-heroes.

(And yes, I’m aware that there’s yet story to tell for others as well, some of which may involve reversals in terms of character. But the overall tone of Desolation is Smaug is still darker, I think, due in part to the number of main characters who are not unambiguously heroic.)

But there’s more than just the question of heroic characters affecting the tone of DoS. In the last moments of the film, we have Smaug flying off to incinerate Lake Town, while Bilbo asks in horror, ‘what have we done?’

It’s a grimmer ending than either of the first two installments of the LOTR films. Yes, The Fellowship of the Ring ends with the breaking of the fellowship and the death of Boromir, but there are notes of hope there as well, as we see Sam’s devotion to Frodo, and watch Aragorn take another step closer to claiming the throne of Gondor.

The Two Towers, meanwhile, ends with the victory at Helm’s Deep and Frodo and Sam heading off towards Mordor. Yes, it’s clear that Gollum is plotting something, but the overall tone is still not the one of despair that Desolation of Smaug ends with.

The irony of all of this is the concern expressed by some about how well the ‘children’s tale’ of The Hobbit would fit with Jackson’s LOTR trilogy in terms of tone. I’d say that’s been well-answered, and makes me even more interested in the final chapter of the story.

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