I write fantasy. I read fantasy. I love Tolkien and I loved Jackson’s representation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The reaction to An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug has been interesting to me because, for all intents and purposes, Jackson actually made fewer character changes in The Hobbit series—and none that damaged the integrity of the original story—than he did in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the former is being called fan fiction and the latter is hailed as genius by Tolkien fans everywhere.
Part of this, I think, is because more people have read The Hobbit than The Lord of the Rings, so more people are doing comparisons. Part of it is that Jackson added a character and storyline that didn’t actually exist in the book. Part of it, though, is the way we look at novels and films.
I’m not a purist when it comes to adaptations. Films are not novels and certain things have to happen in order to convert a book to a movie. Characters get combined (think about The Stand which was a four-part mini-series and still required this), subplots get removed, scenes we loved end up on the editing room floor. In the case of The Hobbit series, something different happened and it happened for, I believe, a very specific reason.
The Hobbit, as a novel, is simply a series of small adventures that make up a large adventure. It works in the book because it’s all tied together between two covers. To make it work in movie format, Jackson didn’t have a lot of options. He could make it all one movie and cut important sequences (think Eragon where the most interesting sequence in the book was completely removed in the movie). He could split the book into separate movies and use these action sequences as a guide to the film plot arc (probably what he should have done, but a difficult task because there isn’t a natural arc to any of the in-book sequences). Or he could do what he did and add some lore from outside the book to fill in gaps.
While I wouldn’t have chosen the particular mode that Jackson did, I think I understand why he did it. First, it allowed him to adapt a particularly difficult-to-adapt book into a film that people would actually go and see. Second, it allowed him to bring some of Tolkien’s lore to all of those movie-goers that haven’t actually read the book—and there are many of them. While the book allows us to read the history of the dwarves into a condensed few pages, that same history takes quite a bit of screen time to explain. And the story would be harmed without it.
I mentioned earlier that I’m not a purist when it comes to adaptations. I’m also not a purist when it comes to being a fan of anything. I’m able to recognize some flaws and I can give a film director/screenwriter some leeway to adjust things that didn’t work real well in the book. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, Sam actually puts on the ring when he goes to rescue the paralyzed Frodo from the orc tower. It didn’t work in the book because every time Frodo put on the ring, it drew Sauron’s eye. Tolkien messed up. Jackson fixed it.
The same is true of Jackson’s decision to send the dwarves—and Thorin Oakenshield in particular—into Erebor to help Bilbo. In The Hobbit, it just never made sense that the bravest dwarf king wouldn’t do his part at this critical juncture of the story. Jackson’s version is more true to the character of Thorin and doesn’t hurt Bilbo’s character at all. He was, after all, still brave enough to go in by himself.
What’s really been fascinating to me about this whole comparative process, though, is the way SFF and Tolkien fans didn’t mention the single biggest harm that Jackson did to both story and character throughout the two adaptations: the way he handled the character of Eowyn. These fans couldn’t find it in themselves to stand up for the strong, female character that Eowyn was in the books or to mention the profound difference of impact between Eowyn’s slaying of the Witch King and subsequent conversation with Theodin in the book compared to the film, and the drastically reduced—if not utterly removed—feminist commentary that was very present in The Return of the King as novel.
But these same fans complain that Jackson added Azog the Defiler to The Hobbit even though that addition lends strength to both Bilbo and Thorin.
The end—albeit likely unintended—message? That it is never okay to change the course of a male character, but it is perfectly acceptable to diminish female characters and any message that suggests that male privilege might be wrong.