By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Peter Jackson’s third Hobbit film has been in theaters for a month now, and people are making up their minds about whether or not the trilogy as a whole is any good. I’m going on record here to say these movies are bad . . . and good.
As I write this, I haven’t seen the third Hobbit film yet, but I’ve been thinking about the other two movies for three years now. I am perplexed by several points.
First let’s talk about adaptation. Whenever a book is adapted into a movie, the book is going to have to be changed. Movies aren’t books, but people judge them like they are. For example, they often complain because so much has to be cut from a book. But think about it: the only way to get everything from a book into a movie would be to turn the book into a TV miniseries, not a big screen film. So we could’ve had a TV version of The Hobbit, but many scenes from the book still would’ve been lost for being too expensive to make. When we realize that book-to-film is an act of adaptation, we have a better understanding from which to judge movie versions.
This takes us to the next question: was the adaptation a good one? Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation was successful. There may be some problems with the movies, but there is much right about them too. When the first Hobbit film came out, however, it was clear that Jackson was moving beyond adaptation. He intended to remake The Hobbit so that it fit with The Lord of the Rings. He took a children’s journey tale and converted it into an epic.
At the end of the first film, I was OK with the choice because Tolkien himself had once considered doing that very thing. In 1960, Tolkien started rewriting The Hobbit so that it came more in line with The Lord of the Rings. He wrote several chapters and sent them to a friend who said they were very good but weren’t The Hobbit. So Tolkien abandoned the project. Peter Jackson took it up again.
When I saw the second movie, I knew that these films had failed as adaptations. When a movie gets so far away from the book that the book can’t be recognized, it’s no longer an adaptation but a resemblance. When a film fails as an adaptation, one question still remains: is it still a good film?
People who haven’t read The Hobbit love the movies so far. But a bad adaptation is usually an indication that those who love the book will hate the movie. Generally speaking, Jackson knows how to make a movie, and these films are good popcorn fare. But the second movie has serious problems other than adaptation (a handful of dwarves fighting a dragon when an entire mountain full could not, and a pace that allows no room for a thoughtful breath), so I don’t give it a “bad adaptation but good movie” review as I did, for example, the second Narnia movie, Prince Caspian.
Still something keeps grabbing me. Why, if I think the movies are bad adaptations and even have flaws as films, do I keep going back to watch them? That’s been the biggest puzzle in my head. I came across the answer last year when I was rereading The Lord of the Rings for a Tolkien class I teach. What I found was that Tolkien spends dozens of pages throughout the book describing his world of Middle-earth. His obsession with detailing every feature of his world, especially the geography, is . . . well . . . obsessive. But this is all part of an aesthetic and theological choice Tolkien made years before.
He believed that when artists create, they are doing on a finite level what God did on an infinite one. In acting as what Tolkien called “sub-creators,” we are mimicking in our imaginations one of the great qualities of God—creativity—and fulfilling a role he intended for us. Tolkien therefore argued that, when we create we should try to do so as completely as possible; we should try to make an entire world for our stories to exist in.
This is something Peter Jackson does well, and this is why I keep forgiving the Hobbit movies for being bad adaptations and maybe even bad films. Jackson still gives us Tolkien’s world, even when the events and characters in the story aren’t Tolkien’s or don’t do what he said they did. Middle-earth is a magical, wonderful, sub-created place, created in the mind of a Christian who believed his thorough work was an honor to God. It’s a world I want to spend time in, even in some films I don’t think are good enough.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky. www.charliewstarr.com