In Defense of the Hobbit Movies

I like the Hobbit films.

That’s probably not all that surprising, given my opinions here and the fact that fantasy novels regularly appear in my top ten lists. This is probably increasingly unsurprising because I’ve frequently mentioned that I have a doctorate in English Literature. Nearly everyone who’s this far into their English academic career likely has some love for major fantasy series like this. Just to continue stating the obvious: yes, I like Harry Potter and hate what J.K. Rowling has shown herself to be; I love Brandon Sanderson and really hope nothing bad is revealed about him; and I like reading comic books.

In fact, part of my love for fantasy comes from these series. One of my strongest memories from my youth with my father is his reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy to me as a bed time story. I can still recall working through the whole books, and being at least intelligent enough to start talking about them. This series is foundational for me, and that memory is one that I will carry with me for a long, long time.

Allow me to get back on track by amping my opinion up a bit more:

I like the Hobbit films more than the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

That is likely a statement that caused a few raised brows, and maybe had a few fingers flying across keyboards to begin constructing counterarguments. I do think that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is an incredible landmark in film making. It’s a fantasy epic treated with scale and respect that we didn’t really see again until Game of Thrones, and even that was in a decidedly different light and presentation. There’s something downright mythic about the Lord of the Rings movies, something that everyone making it earned.

Last week I had a tooth pulled and wasn’t feeling up to playing video games. All I wanted to do was sit around and watch things and eat ice cream. I just happened to have recently purchased both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings extended trilogies on 4K, so I knew that they’d look amazing and scratch that itch. Eager to begin that journey, I put the Hobbit movies in.

That does mean that I am referencing more the extended, non-theatrical versions. I like the ones that take the time to flesh out the story more, and the more time I can spend with these characters and in this world, the better.

The Hobbit was originally intended to be a fairly lighthearted story for children. That’s not just me saying it; I think it’s fairly close to canon (please note: I am an animation scholar, not a Tolkien one). That’s part of why it’s episodic in nature, why there’s a bunch of dwarves with fun rhyming names but no real character traits, and why it’s fairly short, without quite as many details. Lord of the Rings is where Tolkien really started taking off and creating intricate details for his world, which is part of why it is rightfully loved to this day.

That lighter tone is definitely part of why I liked my watching of the Hobbit movies more. The characters feel like they’re having a bit more fun with the story, though the more epic trilogy does have its moments of lightheartedness as well. This is likely because in Lord of the Rings, they basically made the Hobbits and dwarves the comedic relief, and the Hobbit pretty well stars only Hobbits and dwarves. But there’s also just this overall feeling of playfulness in the film. It feels like it’s meant to be fun, while the Lord of the Rings never quite shakes off its epic feeling.

Bilbo almost immediately comes off as an incredibly likeable character. They do a good job presenting him as quite likeable, as someone you probably know or someone who strongly resembles the audience. He’s been living that quiet life for quite a while and been thoroughly enjoying it. Sure, there’s little problems, but those are to be expected. He’s also someone that’s clearly grown past the need for adventure that’s often so present in younger protagonists.

However, the visit of the dwarves and wizards starts to stir something in Bilbo. He feels he has to leave on this adventure, that it’s something he’d regret otherwise. Yet at the same time, this Hobbit clearly doesn’t want to ride a horse, claims he’s been on walking holidays and should be able to handle himself, and wants to turn the entire expedition around to get a pocket handkerchief. He still feels like someone who put adventure behind him.

All of that is helped by Martin Freeman’s performance. The man has practically made a career out of being a lovable curmudgeon who needs someone to prod him into action. He looks so much like what most of us were likely picturing as Bilbo, minus probably quite a few pounds (Hobbits are supposed to be plump).

But it’s hard not for a viewer to see themselves in Bilbo. At least, it was hard for this viewer not to. As we get older, the thought that we could actually get our Hogwarts acceptance letter, be told we’re a mutant, find out we’re the Chosen One, or any other usual hooks for a fantastical adventure, that thought feels like a passing fancy, not something we’d get to experience. Bilbo is portrayed here precisely like that, like the older person who’d dreamed of adventure and magic in their youth, possibly missed it, and is offered a second chance.

It definitely helps that Bilbo continues to be a dynamic and rounded character. He starts off bumbling his way through things, but showing flashes of courage and cleverness, and who doesn’t love someone who wins through clever means? He begins to find his footing, and he never really loses his own moral fortitude or fiber. Put simply, if I were to go on adventure, I’d like to think I’d end up acting and growing like Bilbo.

Another major element that makes me thoroughly enjoy the films are the way action scenes are handled. I generally don’t like action scenes in movies. They often seem pointless to me, as we know that certain characters cannot be really hurt or die until certain moments. You can’t exactly lose Bilbo or Thorin in the first film of a trilogy, and there’s pretty much no way that a named character is going to be taken out by some random villain, even if there were enough dwarves that you probably could’ve spared three or four without really impacting the overall plot (they literally shelve about that many in the last film and it’s honestly not that noticeable).

But in this case, the battles are always dynamic. Most of the fights involve constant movement, with our characters going from one location to another. There are several that stand out, but probably the best example is the escape from the goblins beneath the mountain. You have this huge threat of a villain, a character that comes across both as comedic and legitimately threatening, which is impressive in its own right. And he’s leading the charge with several minions against the dwarves and the wizard, while our titular Hobbit is dealing with his own problems.

They’re constantly trying to find ways out. This means jumping across platforms, swinging on rope bridges, collapsing one floor to reach another, etc. It’s almost cartoonish, and there’s elements of comedy, but it’s incredibly dynamic and engaging. I was genuinely interested through most of the fights in the Hobbit, and as someone who’s just not into fight scenes, that’s saying something.

I also thoroughly enjoy how they flesh the dwarves out more as characters. I can understand faithfulness to the books; I threw a fit as a teenager when the elves showed up in the Two Towers, but I also think that there can and should be changes to fit with a different adaptation. In this case, they gave several of the characters more distinct personalities, enough that I remember them. Balin is the old wise mentor/veteran who they often look to for advice. Bofur is an overlooked dwarf who may lack in what we usual see as intelligence, but seems to possess high levels of emotional intelligence. Bombour’s fat…

…okay, they all didn’t get fleshed out. And some of this “fleshing” pretty much brings the dwarves up to the same level as Fire Emblem characters, meaning they sometimes seem to have just one personality trait they stick to, plus some strange ability to fight that might not completely gel with their supposed backstory (Thorin insists that he has tinkers and toymakers in this group, but literally every dwarf can fight; maybe it’s a racial thing?).

I do think Thorin is pretty well fleshed out and developed here. He’s one of the few points of the film that benefits from deciding to make three movies out of a book and a lot of supplementary material. The extended editions in particular flesh him out, giving him a backstory and obviously setting him up as the trilogy’s tragic hero. Richard Armitage plays him with great gravitas, making him feel like a warrior king, which is what we want out of our heroes. There are hints of his struggles with his darker desires and inclinations, and the films aren’t afraid to play into this. His downfall will likely remind viewers of Denethor, who is in a moderately similar situation.

It’s also quite easy to see Bilbo and Thorin’s relationship in a fairly queer light. There’s a great deal of chemistry present between the two actors, and they get quite physical with one another at several points. It feels like there’s a good deal of tension going on there, and it’s not the first time that characters in a work by Tolkien have strong queer energy: Sam and Frodo are frequently shipped, as are Legolas and Aragorn (maybe even Merry and Pippin? I admit to not seeing that one as much, and the relationship feels more brotherly than the rest to me, but my like of the Eowyn x Merry ship might be sinking that some). Considering that there’s likely to never be a queer relationship in Lord of the Rings, the relationship between these two is likely as close as we’ll get.

If nothing else, their interplay and relationship has several payoffs. We can see both growing as they learn to respect and trust one another throughout the course of the films. Affection grows between the two of them, and it becomes all the more heartbreaking when Bilbo makes decisions that are likely for the best of Thorin, not to hurt his friend/crush, but to make the dwarf be the just and fair king that Bilbo knows he can be.

I… I also like Tauriel.

Yes, yes! I know she’s not in the books, and I know that she has a sort of Mary Sue feeling around her (this is just common of elf characters in a lot of fantasy though), but I still like her inclusion. Tolkien was constructing his works to mimic old myths and legends. He wanted to create something that truly felt like an epic of that time, and he may have stuck a little too close when it comes to gender portrayals. We get Eowyn, who gets a real moment of being a badass before being offered up to Faramir almost as a prize (I recall my audio drama of the series doing a pretty good job of building that relationship, but I can’t recall if there’s other versions that do the same). Adding another elf to flesh out the elves in this film is a good idea. Adding a female into the mix so that this isn’t just a giant sausage fest is also good.

I also appreciate the relationship between Tauriel and Kili. For one thing, this helps flesh out the dwarves, though at least the extended version offers some more characterization for Kili (as well as having him admire elves before Tauriel). It does feel like they needed another scene or two to really expand on their relationship, perhaps with some more conversations to establish why these two felt drawn to each other. There were still a decent amount of scenes, arguably as many as some other relationships in the franchise (again, Tolkien was going for an epic feel here, and that also applies to romances).

That being said, including Legolas was a mistake. I sort of get what they were doing here. For one thing, they wanted to include one of the more popular characters from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As I sort of hinted with the bit on queerness in the film, Legolas was extremely popular with the female audience of the film. He’s underdeveloped, but he’s quite attractive in that elfish way, and giving him more screen time should let us flesh him out some.

I’d argue the films do try to do that a bit. We see Legolas’s relationship with his father, and we see hints of why he gets his crush on Aragorn later. But while Tauriel helps flesh out the dwarves and adds an interesting dynamic, Legolas just sort of looks cool in fights. He has an extremely minor impact on the plot, even less so than Tauriel, and the need for a love triangle feels like pandering to the Twilight/Hunger Games crowd (and yes, those films were pretty much contemporaries with this one).

They also probably could’ve done this series in two films. The memes pointing out that this is three films based off one smaller book are pretty much in the same category as “why didn’t they take the eagles to Mordor” for me. It’s clear that they were drawing upon extra material and expanding on ideas that were present in Tolkien’s work. That being said, as much as I love the fight scenes, they probably could’ve trimmed them down. Legolas and all his nonsense could’ve easily been shelved. They could’ve pulled back on the weird stuff going on in Lake Town.

It’s obvious that the studio looked and said that the first set were a trilogy and therefore this set needed to be too. I do think they did a pretty decent job fleshing out what they have, and I think the extended set shows that it’s at least somewhat worth it, but it does feel a bit like stretching.

I still enjoyed watching the Hobbit films more than the Lord of the Rings. I would definitely agree with anyone who says that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a “better” series of movies by far. That series feels more maturely handled, feels more like attempting to make a great movie and tell this epic story of good and evil (just like Tolkien wanted). But there’s something to be said for little stories too. It’s even better when they’re willing to flesh out that little story a bit, give it just enough weight to be worth exploring.

I have also argued several times on this blog for guilty pleasures. We’re allowed to like things that give us stuff we like. I like romance; I like at least hints of queer relationships; I like comedy interwoven with seriousness; I like stories of good versus evil. There’s a reason I state A Knight’s Tale is my favorite film (and I should probably rewatch that to write on it soon). The Hobbit gives me a lot of what I like. I’m more likely to want to put it in and watch it then I am Lord of the Rings. This doesn’t disrespect that earlier trilogy’s legacy, nor am I saying that it didn’t have a lot more impact than the Hobbit did.

What I am saying is that there’s a lot more here to like or love than there is to dislike, and that I most definitely fall on the “love” side of things.


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