I am a Tolkien addict. I love anything that starts with J.R.R. Ever since I first read The Hobbit in 7th grade, I fell in love with the world of Tolkien. Between reading and imagination, I probably spent more of my adolescent years in Middle Earth than I did in the real world. Something about Tolkien’s intense love for beauty and simplicity spoke to me a in a profound way.
So in high school, when I heard the books were finally becoming movies, I politely lost my mind. To be able to see Tolkien’s world portrayed on the big screen was something for which I could hardly wait. And to be honest, I was not disappointed. The look and feel of Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth was nothing short of breath-taking. Of course, like most big fans of Tolkien, I struggled with some of the story choices made by Jackson, but overall, I thought the films did enough to preserve the original story.
Then I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Okay, to be fair, my struggle began with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but it wasn’t until the second film that I realized how much Jackson had deviated from the original book. I was nothing short of mortified. Without going into much detail (spoilers!), the choices made my Jackson from plot line to character development had, in my opinion, old John Ronald Ruel turning over in his grave. This wasn’t a retelling of a classic story, it was a new story except the ONLY things that had not been changed were the names and places. Sort of a bizzaro world Dragnet.
This post is not about all the differences between the book and movie, so don’t’ worry. I am not going to go on a prolonged tirade as only the most avid fans can muster (not that I’m tempted, of course). What I am really interested here is the asking the question of what responsibility does a filmmaker have when retelling an existing story?
It happens all the time. We Americans love our movies and many of us would rather spend a couple of hours in a movie theater than read a book cover to cover. My own fingers weep as they typed the former sentence, but it is true. So that means a lot of books have been and will be made into movies. And, as in any case of going from one medium to another, changes need to be made to fit the medium. I think most of us can agree with that.
But how far does one go? Where is the line from massaging the story for the big screen to changing the purpose and meaning behind the story? Here are my thoughts. The line exists when the moral of the story changes. All stories have morals, or in other words, what is being taught by the story? It may be that there is nothing to learn. That can be a moral in itself. Or it may be very overt. For instance, the story of King Midas teaches us about the dangers of greed. However, I believe every fictionalized story has some sort of moral and when one retells the same story, in all the massaging and changing from page to picture, that moral should translate, otherwise it is not the same story.
In my opinion, the retelling of the Hobbit loses the intended moral. Tolkien’s original story is about a young Hobbit who doesn’t know his own potential and ends up finding it the most unlikely of places. First, it is found in the dangerous goblin caves. Then it is found in the eerie Mirkwood, fending off giant spiders. Finally, it is found deep in the dragon’s lair. This climaxes in a beautiful prose by Tolkien, in which he describes Bilbo, about to take the first step down into the unknown dark leading to Smaug’s residence, as being the most difficult he had ever done. Tolkien teaches us that courage is not about being a hardened warrior or brave champion. True courage is found in the simple, yet terrifying task of taking the first step into the unknown.
This moment, what I would argue is the moral of whole story, is simply glossed over in the film. Jackson seems too excited to get to the “exciting” stuff: The dragon, the gold, the fighting, and the fire. But in doing so, the point is missed in my opinion.
Movies are not books. Profound, I know. I get that changes need to be implemented when going from the written word to the silver screen. Sometimes these changes are subtle, other times they are huge. However, when the all the changes leave out the moral, I argue then the story’s identity has been changed. It is like switching out the engine of a muscle car. If you take the V8 out of a Mustang and replace with a 4 cylinder, is really still a mustang?