Adapting well-loved books to the screen is a minefield, but we should expect better

Adapting well-loved books to the screen is a minefield, but we should expect better A scene from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
With fantasy fiction set to dominate television again this Christmas, Niall Gooch regrets that filmmakers often get it so wrong

 

I’ve known some pretty crushing cinematic disappointments. There were the Star Wars prequels; two total disasters and one that occasionally rose to the level of watchable mediocrity (fortunately the series seems to be recovering now that George Lucas has more or less ceased his involvement). Then there was the fourth Indiana Jones film, a leaden, mostly charmless CGI-ridden slog which appeared to have forgotten all the things that made at least two of the earlier films so good.

Nevertheless, on reflection I think the one let-down to rule them all was Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. The curious thing is that Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings films were rather good, both on their own terms and as adaptations of the books. Although flawed, they were attuned to most of Tolkien’s important themes; the dangers of power, the surprising strength of goodness and humility in the face of evil, the mysterious workings of Providence, and the enduring importance of loyalty, beauty and friendship. Nevertheless, by the time that An Unexpected Journey was released in 2012, Peter Jackson’s understanding of Tolkien and his world appeared to have gone backwards.

The Hobbit is basically quite a light-hearted book, with a wry tone – witness the early remark about how the beheading of a goblin chief led to the invention of the game of golf. Much of its comedy and drama arise from the mismatch between the homely, complacent Bilbo, preoccupied with food and pipeweed and other home comforts, and the characters and creatures he encounters in the vast, strange world outside the borders of his home in The Shire.

Comedy

But Jackson swamps this whimsy and charm with an excess of action, noise and broad humour. Some of the ‘funny’ scenes are agonisingly bad, completely out of kilter with the spirit of the book. The addition of a romantic subplot – an understandable attempt to add some female perspective to the story, which actually worked quite well in the Rings trilogy – fails miserably, not least because of the terrible dialogue given to Kili and Tauriel and the poor characterisation of the latter. She doesn’t really exist as a distinctively female character.

Of course, what Jackson was really trying to do was to create prequels to his Lord Of The Rings films, with a similar epic style. This means that many of the little hints and allusions about the wider world of Middle Earth found in The Hobbit are developed and fleshed out. Characters and incidents described briefly in the book are expanded. Radagast the Brown, mentioned once in the book, becomes an important character.

Confrontation

The confrontation between the White Council and the sinister presence in Dol Guldur is shown at some length. The Battle of Five Armies, which in my edition of The Hobbit is described in less than three pages (out of 279), takes up most of the final film.

There are serious problems with this approach. For one thing, much of the above is poorly executed. Radagast is portrayed with cartoonish crudity. The Battle of Five Armies lacks any real excitement, with Jackson’s love of scale and spectacle overwhelming his ability to portray an intelligible battle with dramatic weight. The misadventures of Bilbo and his companions in the goblin caves under the Misty Mountains are stretched into a long, loud, overdone fight sequence that resembles nothing so much as a boring computer game. In addition, Jackson doesn’t quite manage to get a hold of all his various narrative strands, meaning that the films ultimately feel disjointed and chaotic rather than being an organically extended story.

A more fundamental issue is that The Hobbit is in many ways a paean to littleness, a parable about the importance of small folk and the futility of wealth and power. Although Tolkien pokes gentle fun at Bilbo’s bourgeois sensibilities, he also contrasts Bilbo’s lack of worldliness quite favourably with the ambition and scheming of other characters, notably the ultimately self-destructive pride and acquisitiveness of Thorin Oakenshield. Was he perhaps thinking of I Corinthians 1:27, “to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness”? It is through wit rather than force that Bilbo acquires the Ring – indeed, his refusal to strike down Gollum in cold blood is a moment which Tolkien imbues with great moral significance. In The Fellowship Of The Ring, Gandalf suggests to Frodo that Bilbo has proved largely resistant to the evil of the Ring because – unlike so many others – his ownership of it began with pity and mercy, not violence. Similarly, it is thought and reflection that enable Bilbo to open the secret door into the Lonely Mountain, and through quick-wittedness that he holds his own when Smaug the Dragon tries to bewitch him.

To be fair to Jackson, he does make a good fist of portraying some of these incidents. The films are at their best in quieter moments, often when Bilbo and his dilemmas and worries take centre stage (Martin Freeman was an inspired piece of casting). The confrontation with Gollum is well handled, as are Bilbo’s conversations with the dwarves, and their melancholic reminiscences about the lost glories of their civilisation. The first meeting between Smaug and Bilbo is genuinely suspenseful, at least until Jackson turns it into yet another action scene. The various interactions between Bilbo and Thorin, and the latter’s internal struggles, come across well. The problem is that these moments are few and far between, rare exceptions to the films’ overall feel. Jackson refuses to let quiet interludes last long, before the screen is filled with the next interminable set piece battle or fight. This means that the tone of the films is set by the dreary and overlong action scenes – scenes so excessive and so obviously special effects-based that I struggled to care about what was happening, and started worrying about whether I’d fed the cat and locked the front door when I left the house. It’s as if Jackson had partially glimpsed the heart of the story but didn’t trust it to generate its own drama.

Adapting well-loved books to the screen is a minefield. Whatever Jackson had done with The Hobbit, he could not have pleased everyone. And yet the films were still a huge missed opportunity. One need not be too much of a cynic to see the hands of the studio moneymen behind the decision to split quite a short and narratively straightforward novel into three sprawling films. Even this, however, was not the main source of my frustration; what was truly disappointing was that the makers had so signally failed to understand why The Hobbit is such a charming and wise book.

Niall Gooch is a Catholic writer.

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