Value in the Difference of Media: The Hobbit

Hello everyone! Dr. Williams’ excellent post (and repost) regarding The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as movie adaptations have highlighted a few broader issues that have been on my mind for some time now. Since the first of these Tolkien movies was released, I have wondered just why people respond so differently to them. Why does it bother people so much that Jackson created a film so different from Tolkien’s vision? More recently, this question has lead me to another, possibly more direct question:

Why do critics’ opinions of The Hobbit differ so significantly from those of the public?

While I certainly recognize that these movies have been marketed and generally understood as being adaptations (to adapt: to make fit [as for a new use] often by modification – Merriam-Webster.com), I think this word may not serve well for its intended

The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey poster image

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

purpose. We would assume, for instance, that the ideal state of an adaptation from novel to movie is as an exact replica of the tone, setting, story, plot, characters, and spirit of a text to film, giving us a faithful rendering of every aspect of a book like The Lord of the Rings. I say “ideal” because everyone intuitively knows that every aspect cannot be rendered for the simply restriction of time. However, I believe we have become very wrongheaded about how we approach adaptations (and indeed, how directors approach adaptations), and this has created an irreconcilable tension between those who can enjoy the movie as a movie and those of us whose enjoyment is hindered by the pain of seeing our favorite book blasphemed. It strikes me that perhaps, industry-borne pretension aside, the critics may hold the answer.

At Least They Didn’t Whistle While They Worked

David OConnell 13 Dwarves the hobbit Pixelsmithstudios

This is pretty close to what I imagine those singing dwarves from the audio book would look like. – Credit: David O’Connel

I have a story I like to tell about a family road trip where I convinced everyone to rent a dramatized audio version of The Hobbit to listen to as we drove. After enjoying the story at first, it wasn’t long until we came to the first song of the dwarves. This audio version was in no way abridged, and the actors playing the roles of the twelve dwarves rendered the songs with as much fidelity as possible. The result was nauseatingly silly and my family had a hard time believing this story was as good as I had told them it was. Luckily, I convinced them not to change to the local radio stations and we got past the awful singing to the rest of the story, which they enjoyed.

With this memory in mind, I was apprehensive when I heard about Jackson making The Hobbit (in three parts, no less). What could he possibly do with this charming story that Tolkien wrote to read to his children that would match the tone of the Lord of the Rings films? The Hobbit has a distinctly whimsical tone, focusing on Bilbo exclusively and rendering the other characters, even Gandalf, in very shallow terms in favor of simplicity. What were the motivations for each of the dwarves to join Thorin’s company? It doesn’t matter. Why did the goblins come out to fight in the Battle of Five Armies? It doesn’t matter. What is the place of dragons like Smaug in the broader world of Middle Earth? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is Bilbo’s adventure, being a small person completely out of his comfort zone, doing grand things and learning that even he can change the world.

The Hobbit Dwarves Cheat Sheet LOTR An Unexpected Journey Flowchart

I am not pointing to any weakness in Tolkien’s writing of The Hobbit by making it accessible to children. It’s not even very hard to justify its place with the other books because Tolkien cleverly made Bilbo himself the author. The whimsy and child-like qualities of the narrative can easily be interpreted as a hobbit’s version of the adventure, whereas if Balin or Gandalf had written it, we could imagine the story being told in a completely different manner more like the rest of the stories. The problem is this: how do you make a movie about Bilbo’s adventure that meshes with the gritty tone of the trilogy?

Like Translating Koine Greek to English

For starters, with the example of The Hobbit in mind, there seem to me a lot of things you can do in a novel that you can’t do very well (or in some cases, at all) in film:

  • Omniscience – While it’s not very hard to show what a character sees from his perspective, it is next to impossible to show a character’s thoughts, especially multiple characters’, effectively in film. It quickly becomes very confusing to hear thoughts aloud, and there is no natural way to get inside the viewpoint character’s head.
  • Transcending Time and Place – Novels can easily work at whatever pace the author sets, and he can take as long as he wants to describe landscapes, people, and events while truncating and stretching time intervals to fit whatever pace he wants through summaries. Films can skip time periods fairly easily (“Two years later…”) but there is no way to summarize events without narration, which rarely works in most films.
  • Timelessness – There is no CGI in novels. Writers have very few technological hurdles to confront, whereas movie makers have to be very careful about how they handle special effects so that they don’t endanger the effectiveness of their story.

Likewise, there are many things that can be easily done in the medium of film that can’t be pulled off well in novels most of the time:

  • Spectacle – There are entire movie franchises that are successful for the shear spectacular nature of the visuals they use. Add this attribute to a compelling story and you can leverage well-crafted imagery to augment every other aspect of your film. Complicated scenes can be absorbed in one mind-blowing glance, rather than taking page after page of description to fully sink in.
  • Visually Implicit Meaning – How many times have we seen a vaguely cross-shaped object in a film and recognized its connection to a character or act as describing a Christ Figure? Now imagine trying to describe that as effectively in text without becoming either too vague or too heavy handed. This is the advantage of an expressly visual medium: subtlety of action, body language, and imagery can be taken instantly through visuals rather than description.
  • Subconscious Cues – While this is possibly the most often abused tool of film-making, the use of musical or other audible cues to affect the emotions and perception of events is a basic example of how a film can affect its audience subconsciously. A text can of course also work on its reader on a subconscious level, but there are many more direct methods of doing so in film than in a novel.

In Conclusion…

All of this is simply intended to point out some ways in which reading a novel and watching a film can be different, which is important to remember when we attempt to dissect our reactions to these films. Critics, I would argue, are not only “not fans,” as Dr. Williams pointed out, but are intentionally looking for different things than we are when they see these films. What did they criticize in these films? What did they praise? Rottentomatos.com‘s critic aggregator, for example, puts The Hobbit at a passable 65%, whereas its audience rating sits at a very good 85%. That’s a pretty big difference.

While it is easy to write off negative reviews by criticising the critics (“Ooh, look who’s the artiste telling us pedestrians what to think about art”), I think the real issue is that movie critics are looking at where The Hobbit fails as a film, whereas we (myself and Dr. Williams included) are looking at where The Hobbit fails as an adaptation of a novel.

The problem amounts to a difference of value systems between differing media. We are attempting (especially in the case of adaptations of novels) to apply our value system for novels to a different medium, in this case, film. This is not to say that these value systems cannot accommodate different media, however, we must first examine what elements transcend books and film before we can accurately evaluate whether an adaptation is successful based on these values we find in books. Simply, we cannot expect to see something we value in a novel translate to film if film does not have an adequate analog. We will always, unfairly, find it lacking.

But, this is far more than enough for one week. Next week I’ll start breaking down what elements transcend media and attempt to define how I believe we should approach different media as writers as well as audience. Until then, what parts of The Hobbit do you think didn’t translate well in Jackson’s adaptation? How would you have done it differently? Let me know in the comments below!

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About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on February 13, 2013, in Authors, Books, Erik Marsh, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Literary Criticism, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Good discussion Erik. I mostly agree. That’s why in my reviews I point out that some changes were justified by the transition to the different medium. A few were even improvements. (Anyone who has ever done any backpacking knows there is no way Aragorn would be carrying the dead weight of a useless sword around with him rather than leaving it back at Rivendell.) Mere purists should just refrain from watching movie adaptations.

    But here’s the question: Is, for example, changing the very personality and motivation of characters to the point we do not recognize them (Faramir) one of those justifiable changes? Is altering the meaning of a scene to make it more dramatic really necessary to doing a good adaptation? Is it possible to do a faithful adaptation that honors more of both values–good adaptation and faithfulness–and ought Jackson have tried harder to actually understand what he was adapting? When a book has been as life-changing as LOTR is for many people, are they not justified in caring about both, rather than merely asking if it was a good movie? Are the differing values in this case, in other words, just a matter of different media, or is there not more to it than that?

    • Jackson comes from an entirely different world from Tolkien, having few things philosophically in common. I maintain (and I’m going to get to this in my next few posts) that the only person who could have successfully “adapted” The Lord of the Rings to film was Tolkien, and he wouldn’t have been very good at making a movie. So, no one could. The number of factors that would have to align are far too many. Sadly, there was only one Tolkien, and we’re never going to see the full of his work in any different format, only different people’s imaginings based on his work. The sooner we can cope with this, the sooner we can fairly evaluate movies based on novels.

      Essentially, I’m arguing that “adaptation” is a misnomer and we should try to move on from expecting fidelity from people who are not the originator of the primary work. Tolkien spoke to an “internal consistency of reality,” and I believe that this is what we should be looking for, as well as judging film based on its being a good film, and novels being good novels. Doing anything else, in my opinion, leaves far too much subjectivity for any of us to agree on anything.

  2. Any time you have adaptation between any two media, it is very likely that the original expression will be superior. It is certain that fans of the foundational work will think so at least, even if new fans of the adaptation do not.
    To my mind, the most important thing about Peter Jackson`s Middle Earth adaptations is and always was that the original message, or allegorical content, is not distorted or contradicted, even if it can`t be reproduced on film directly.
    So far the only three things that have seriously annoyed me and jarred me out of the illusion are firstly the scene at Rauros, where movie-Frodo is given movie-Aragorn`s permission to leave on his own. As if that wasn`t bad enough, even Merry and Pippin know he`s leaving and bait the orcs in the opposite direction. Of course, in the book Frodo left entirely by his own decision, and nobody saw it coming except Sam who knew him best. This change usurped Frodo`s Big Moment in LotR and made him inferior to Aragorn, which he most certainly was not.
    The second was movie-Faramir`s kidnapping of movie-Frodo, which was of course entirely out of character, and just an excuse to show off Osgiliath apparently.
    And the third was movie- Frodo`s dismissal of movie-Sam below Cirith Ungol. This is such a glaring blunder I hardly need comment further.
    The reason these three annoyed me so much, and the first one in particular, is that they almost entirely changed the characters in question or their motivations and loyalties. And not only that, but it seems to have had little or no narrative purpose. I am very tempted to think that Jackson here has not understood what he was reading at all, and by making these changes he is gouging into the heart of the story in a pointless way.
    But that`s it really, unless I count the entirely fabricated elf-dwarf love thing in DoS, which is very silly indeed.. And if you can ignore or skip all this mild to demented stupidity then the movie is an excellent visualization of Middle Earth, filled with the sort of detail I would have been hard pressed to imagine myself while reading the book. Everything from hair styles and weaponry to cities, scenery, characters and architecture can be and is presented in a moment, bringing to life things I have relied on fan art to visualize for two decades.

    Some things, of which you had a clear image in your mind already, may grate a bit, or at least take some getting used to. My orcs, for example, were much scarier than the movie orcs and, as good as McKellen is, my Gandalf was way cooler. And because of the added detail, some thing are quite overstated in movie form, such as Gollum`s schizophrenia, the Eye of Sauron and a few other things. But I don`t really see how it can be avoided. Sauron was entirely different in DoS and still people complained about him.
    Mostly though, the visual strength of film provides much detail which is often almost entirely lacking in the books, being long enough as they are without any further elaboration really. For example, try to read the Hobbit and form a coherent picture of all 13 dwarves. About half of them do nothing at all the entire book long, and the only description you get is of their hats and beards at the very start. So any movie adaptation has to try and provide some character to these non-entities. I for one liked the movie dwarves a lot more than the book dwarves.
    Who can honestly say he hasn`t tried to find fan art of certain things from Tolkien`s books, to get some handle on what things might have looked like, whether it`s the 13 dwarves, Sauron or precisely what Hornburg looked like? I know I did, and particularly orcs were very ill described in the books, and were very annoying to me because of it.
    And I think Jackson has successfully minimized the damage of some of the very embarrassing and tedious details in The Hobbit especially, like dogs serving food while walking on their hind legs, talking purses and the songs. Oh the endless singing… I`m absolutely euphoric that I can watch these movies without listening to all the songs.
    So with the exception of some of the more serious mistakes, who cares if Azog was already dead before the events of The Hobbit, or if the hobbits actually escaped from The Shire through the Old Forest? It has no major impact on the story anyway, and you can see the narrative motives for making the changes easily enough.

    I would be interested in understanding why some people, and movie critics in particular, seem to think that Jackson`s Middle Earth movies don`t work as movies. I have watched movies for years and years and I thought they all worked fine. Granted, things might be less confusing for someone who has already read the books a few times. But apparently many newcomers, who had never read the books, and presumably still haven`t many of them, love the movies as well. Obviously then they can`t be very confused. And if they are not confused and they are entertained, does that not mean that the movies work precisely as a movie should? Or am I missing something?

  1. Pingback: Value in the Difference of Media: A Primer on Poetics | Lantern Hollow Press

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