I have never had any difficulty answering the question, “What is your favourite book?” For as long as I can remember, it’s been The Hobbit, first encountered when I was seven, the year I also discovered Doctor Who, poetry, and the concept of mythology. The Hobbit led me to writing, to holding worlds inside me, to new vocabulary, to song–making, to riddles. It led me, eventually, to The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, the Unfinished Tales, to practicing Elvish calligraphy in cleverly folded high school letters with my friend Linh while we dreamt up our ideal casting for the films that would certainly never be.
Fifteen years later, the first Hobbit film appeared on my birthday. I was the first in line for the IMAX screening, wearing a hooded cloak and a One Ring on a chain around my neck. I babbled happily to anyone who’d listen that it was my birthday, that my favourite book had been made into a film on my birthday, that it would be coming out on my birthday for the next two years and it felt like such a gift, so unutterably—yes—precious a thing.
You see where this is going.
I want you to understand with what great good will I went to see these films. I went, knowing my tiny book had been inexplicably expanded into three parts, knowing about all the scheduling problems, about Guillermo Del Toro leaving the project, about the unusually high frame rate, about Sexy Thorin Oakenshield. I knew, but I went, because I trusted that no matter what they did with it, there would be enough Hobbit in there for me enjoy it. Because Peter Jackson had already made his big epic film, and he’d chosen to make this very different film, and surely that choice had to count for something?
That sound you hear is the ever–ringing echo of my hollow, broken laugh.
The films are terrible. By every conceivable metric, they’re terrible. As films, they drag, they bore, they embarrass; it’s difficult to understand what they were setting out to accomplish. In the films, The Hobbit exists only as scaffolding for an ill–stitched patchwork cut from Lord of the Rings’ cloth. This is hardly an original observation; I have little to add to the many disappointed critics who’ve drawn attention to the ways in which the films are Lord of the Rings lite, and can only nod in agreement with the intrepid editor who cut the eight–hour mess of it down by half by, you know, focusing on what’s actually in the book.
But there’s a more sinister dimension to the films’ failure as adaptations of the book. It isn’t just that Peter Jackson Missed the Point; it isn’t just that The Hobbit ignores its titular character in favour of Thorin’s broody dwarfpain and Kili’s invented love triangle with Legolas “why is he in this film” Greenleaf. It’s that, beyond all the bloat, there are points where I was reminded—and here I become only slightly hyperbolic—of Morgoth torturing the Elves into Orcs at the beginning of the First Age. The films don’t only ignore The Hobbit, they actively subvert its spirit while being ostensibly devoted to its letters.
Two moments in particular struck me as emblematic of the films’ deliberate twisting into a painful betrayal of the source material: when Bilbo climbs a tree in Mirkwood in The Desolation of Smaug, and the arrival of the eagles during The Battle of Five Armies.
In the book, when Bilbo climbs the tree, he and the Dwarves are tired, hungry, thirsty, overheated, on the cusp of despair. He climbs, and above the forest’s canopy he feels the sun on his face, revels in a cool breeze, in huge beautiful butterflies—until his eyes adjust to the light and he sees the green swell of the forest going on and on forever.
The narrator explains that, though the tree is tall in itself, it’s at the bottom of a valley, so that to Bilbo it would indeed look as if the forest were endless—but it’s not; in fact, if they were to stick to the path, they would soon come to thinner trees and more light and emerge from the dense mirk. But Bilbo doesn’t know this, and can only report what he saw.
I have thought of this passage countless times over the last several years. I’ve thought of it as a crucial metaphor for depression, for an inability to grasp our own self–worth, because we’re at the bottom of a valley and it doesn’t matter how close we are to finishing this novel or that degree, how very on the brink of finding a job, a place to live—all we see is the forest going on and on forever, and our despair leads us off the path and further into the woods towards flashes of elf–light and the threat of spiders. This passage has moved me, comforted me, strengthened me, devastated me.
In the film, Bilbo climbs the tree. There is light; there are butterflies. He looks towards the East. He spots the Lonely Mountain. He calls down, “I know which way to go!” before climbing down to get captured by spiders.
I sat in the cinema feeling stunned. What, then, had been the point? Why include a scene of Bilbo climbing a tree to no purpose if not for the lembas–layers of metaphor? It’s not as if they get to use his knowledge. Why did they include the right kind of butterfly, the velvety purple–black Emperors, but exclude the feeling? Why have him climb the tree at all?
Why—except to say to those of us who’d been waiting for that scene, who’d been longing for it and everything it signified, that this was not our story?
Turn, now, to The Battle of Five Armies—the film that actually hurt me the least overall, not because it was good but because I was resigned to it, because it at least had tonal unity, because although it was an extended battle scene extrapolated out of three pages in the book, at least it didn’t seem embarrassed by itself.
When the Eagles appeared on screen, I smiled a little sadly. I leaned my head towards my fiancé and whispered, “I wish—I just wanted Bilbo to say ‘The Eagles are coming.’” I lay back to watch it again, and suddenly felt the film locking eyes with me as it stabbed me in the gut and twisted the knife.
In the book, Bilbo is invisible. The battle looks hopeless. Then, suddenly, he spots the Eagles! “The Eagles are coming!” he cries. He waves his arms, shouting, deliriously happy, “The Eagles are coming!” knowing that they’re saved, that the Eagles will turn the battle’s tide, that they’ll win the day. A rock hits him on the head, he falls unconscious, and wakes up just in time to be taken to Thorin’s deathbed in a tent in Dale, within sight of Gandalf and the others. He and Thorin reconcile and part as friends. A sadder and a wiser man, Bilbo returns to the Shire.
“The Eagles are coming!” is joy; it is relief. If that moment in Mirkwood is depression, the Eagles are epiphany. The Eagles are ex machina, the Eagles save us from Orcs not once but twice in the book, the Eagles are rescue, are hope, are a light flashing in the dark.
In the film, Thorin is dying alone on the rocks, seeing the battle lost, when Bilbo finds him. Thorin dies in his arms. Bilbo whispers to the now–dead Thorin, “But—the Eagles are coming.” He is bewildered, at a loss; repeats, “the Eagles are coming,” in a choked whisper, and cries, clutching his friend to his chest.
Thorin doesn’t see the Eagles. Bilbo doesn’t have his epiphany; for him in that moment the Eagles are salt in the wound of Thorin’s death. They can’t bring him joy or relief; they can only compound his misery at their having arrived too late. And it all goes a bit meta as the Eagles are salt in my wounds, too: Bilbo said the line, my dear line from the book, but in a mirror darkly. “We gave you what you wanted,” the film smirks, tossing the mutilated corpse of my favourite book into my lap.
And why? Ultimately, why did it do all this? Why did it slice the joy, the hope, the kindness out of my beloved book and brandish a hollowed out effigy in its place?
In order to lead into Lord of the Rings. The real story. The only story that mattered, ultimately. The story that’s been over for eleven years. The story so great that it needed to be told twice in diminishing echoes. The road goes ever on and on, towards armies, and battles, and desolation, and despair, because why tell a small beautiful story about goodness enduring in the face of war and greed when you can tell an inchoate mass of CGI flash about how nothing is ever more complicated than stabbing evil in the face with arrows a lot while being sad about your love life?
That first night, my birthday night, when An Unexpected Journey started, I sat enduring the bizarre soap–opera quality of the frame rate, wondering whether I’d get used to it. I sat through Elijah Wood awkwarding his way through a pointless prelude with Old Bilbo. I trusted; I hoped. And there, suddenly, was the first line of the book, a line from the page I’d committed to memory because I loved it so much, and I started to cry. In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit. It was the first line of the first part of a film made from the first book I called mine, my own, my favourite, my precious.
It was all downhill from there.
© 2015 Amal El-Mohtar