Riddles In The Dark: 4 Big Story Problems Peter Jackson Must Solve To Make The Hobbit
After The Lord of the Rings trilogy carved out a place for itself in movie history as one of the greatest film series' of all time, it was only natural that eventually someone would be interested in turning J.R.R. Tolkien's other book, The Hobbit, into a feature film. It hasn't been an easy road, but now it's happening with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson in charge and preparing to shoot in New Zealand.
Compared to the challenge of converting Tolkien's massive, three Lord of the Rings books into feature-length films, making The Hobbit into a movie should be easy. The Hobbit was written first and was really intended as a book for young adults. Think of it as the Harry Potter of its era. While LOTR was written and intended for adults, full of complicated mythology and dense storytelling, The Hobbit is somewhat simpler. It contains all the history and ideology of those other stories, but told in a more stripped down manner and wrapped around a tale without all of the desperately dark and global consequences.
Yet even though The Hobbit is a simpler book, it comes with its own set of unique storytelling challenges. Even in his most basic form J.R.R. Tolkien was an incredibly complicated storyteller, and the journey of Bilbo Baggins presents its own unique problems for anyone looking to transform it for the screen. Here are four of the biggest ones to keep an eye out for as the film swings into production. How Peter Jackson solves them will, in large part, determine whether or not this adaptation reaches the heights of his previous forays into Tolkien's Middle Earth.
The Hobbit contains a dragon, a massive dragon, and on film it will be inevitable that once the dragon Smaug shows up, he'll dominate everything. When something the size of the Empire State building flies on screen billowing smoke and fire, people tend to focus on it. But in the book, Smaug really isn't the point of the story. In fact none The Hobbit's main characters are even involved in the final battle with him. He's defeated by someone named Bard, whom we know nothing at all about until he happens to shoot Smaug in the chest with an arrow. The battle with Smaug happens hundreds of miles away from where the story's main characters, Bilbo and the Dwarves, are. They have no idea that any sort of dragon versus man battle is happening, and once he's defeated it's days before the main characters even find out he's dead. Yet the battle to destroy Smaug must be shown on screen. It's too spectacular to ignore. That presents a huge problem for Peter Jackson's script. How do you get the audience invested in this massive, brutal, fight with a dragon when no one they care about is involved in fighting him at all?
The book solves this problem by not really being about the dragon battle. It's more about the journey to get to the dragon, and besides, the fight with Smaug isn't even the book's finale. After Smaug there's a big battle involving armies of thousands at the foot of a mountain and in that at least Bilbo with his dwarvish companions are most definitely involved. Yet on film, well you just can't gloss over a giant, flying lizard full of coals, especially not when he's engaged in a pitched, midnight attack against an entire town. Without the main characters involved, Jackson will have to find some way to develop Bard, the man who defeats Smaug, more as a character. That won't be easy, there's no obvious, direct route to involving him more in the story.
Dwarves aren't particularly nice people. There're not exactly evil, more just selfish and a little bit greedy. With only one dwarf in Lord of the Rings, this wasn't a problem. Gimli's cranky, somewhat suspect behavior was balanced out by the other characters around him and, more often than not, the negative aspects of dwarf disposition ended up being dismissed as wry comedy. That won't work in The Hobbit because, except for Bilbo Baggins, everyone's a dwarf.
Not just any dwarves mind you, but dwarves on a greed-driven quest for riches, and that means they're the worst kind of dwarves. At least Gimli had some sort of noble goal in setting out with Frodo. These dwarves are in it purely for the money and, as main characters go, that's going to make getting to care about them a little tough. They have their moments, but there's nothing particularly noble about them. Luckily we'll have Bilbo and he's everything that the dwarves are not, a far better character than any of the hobbits even in Lord of the Rings. But he's only one, small hobbit amidst more than a dozen cranky, greedy, disagreeable, bearded, bastards. When Gandalf's around they keep it in check, but Gandalf is really only with them for half the story. The rest of the time, they'll have to stand up for themselves and dwarves in their natural state aren't exactly the lovable hero types.
The very best sequence in The Hobbit involves Bilbo's discovery of the One Ring, the same piece of invisibility-powered jewelry which caused so much trouble in Lord of the Rings, and his subsequent encounter with Gollum whom our hobbity hero finds lurking and riddling in the deep. It's that sequence, more than any other, which makes The Hobbit such a literary masterpiece and it's going to be all but impossible to capture on film for the simple reason that there's almost nothing to see. It all takes place in the dark.
I'm not just talking about any dark, but pitch black, can't see your hand in front of your face dark. Bilbo gets lost wandering in deep underground caves, and spends several chapters there, stumbling around, running from the footsteps of goblins, and eventually encountering Gollum hanging around an underground, absolutely pitch black, lake. There they have their confrontation, with Bilbo forced to riddle for his life, and he only escapes Gollum's clutches by cheating and then running and stumbling back through the caves. But there's nothing to see, because much of the time even Bilbo can't see. At times Sting may provide some faint light source, but at the truly pivotal moments in Tolkien's story everything is absolutely pitch black. Are audiences willing to sit in a theater and spend ten minutes staring at a blank screen while two unseen actors engage in a game of riddles? Probably not. Yet it's partly because it's so dark, because Bilbo can't see, because he's so helpless that those moments are as brilliant as they are. You can't make The Hobbit without them.
Lord of the Rings wasn't exactly swimming in female characters, but at least it had Arwen and even when it didn't, at least we knew somewhere in the back of our heads that Viggo was out there fighting for her love. Peter Jackson greatly expanded her role in the Lord of the Rings movies, in part because he was looking for some sort of female influence women in the audience might be able to latch on to. The Hobbit, however, doesn't have an Arwen let alone an Eowyn or a Galadriel.
The Hobbit contains no women at all, let alone any sort of romance. In theory I suppose one of the dwarves might be a woman and, you'd probably never know the difference. Dwarvish women are every bit as heavily bearded as the men, and are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from them. But unless you count a brief appearance from the Sackville-Baggins who attempt to loot Bilbo's house at the end of the story, there's not a woman to be found anywhere in the book. That shouldn't matter, but in an era where The Social Network is attacked for it's lack of female influence despite being based on real life events about the creation of something by a group of men, you have to wonder how long it'll be before someone starts screaming sexism at The Hobbit. They've already started crying racism. Will Peter Jackson write in a new female character, perhaps gleaned from Tolkien's extensive ancillary notes, or will he simply go with what he's got and hope that women will be driven to watch out of their love for his previous Middle Earth films? The latter would seem to be his only viable option.
Now it's your turn. Put yourself in Peter Jackson's shoes and imagine how you'd get around these storytelling speed bumps. Then share and discuss your theories with us in the comments section below.
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