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December 4, 2015

How Not to Turn a Book into a Movie

by Chris

Bag End, as used in the Lord of the Rings films.
Bag End, as used in the Lord of the Rings films. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies recently released as an extended edition, my eleven-year-old and I thought it would be a good time to return to Middle Earth. In advance of the extended edition’s release, we watched, over several nights, all of the Lord of the Rings films, followed by the first two Hobbit movies. As we did, it started to occur to me that we might as well be watching the rise and fall of someone who once might have been considered the greatest director of modern times.

It’s no secret that the Hobbit movies are vastly inferior to the Lord of the Rings films. But where George Lucas’ prequel trilogy went from awful to almost passable, Jackson’s just declined ever further as they went on. The Return of the King won eleven Academy Awards—a feat matched only twice in the history of film—including best picture, best director and best screenplay. The Battle of the Five Armies was nominated for one, perhaps out of sympathy: best sound editing.

I recently saw an interview with Jackson, where he gave, if not an excuse, at least some insight into what happened. You see, the Hobbit movies were originally to be directed by Guillermo del Toro, who eventually left the project due to studio delays, having yet to film a single shot. Ultimately, Jackson was brought back on board as director, taking over del Toro’s work—but with no time offered to reconsider the script or shots. Essentially, the studios had given Jackson two years to not only film, edit and produce a set of three movies, but to also rewrite the script and hire an almost entirely new cast. By contrast, The Lord of the Rings films had four—with Jackson having been planning it for decades before.

Watching this degradation of what could have been a masterpiece has left me with some observations of what works when converting a book to a film, and conversely, some things that don’t.

  1. Give the material the development time it deserves. Tolkien didn’t rush through The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; in fact, The Lord of the Rings took almost twelve years to complete. The works represent a vivid imagination, but more importantly an incredible attention to detail. To this day, Tolkien sets the gold standard for world-building, and this was something Jackson instinctively understood with the first three films.
  2. Respect the books’ pacing, but don’t drag it out. The Lord of the Rings novels are notoriously slow-paced, and filled with details that some might argue are extraneous to the main plot. When The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, it managed to follow this slow pace superbly. It’s nearly forty minutes before the journey even begins, and by the time most movies would be ending, Fellowship has only just reached its midpoint. Yet for all of this, the story never gets dull, primarily because there was so much material for Jackson to draw on. The Hobbit is a shorter and simpler story; it didn’t need three films.
  3. Removing and combining characters is fine; adding them is not. Perhaps the most egregious mistake Jackson made was in introducing characters that weren’t in the book—either by importing them from other works, or inventing them entirely. Whilst sadly The Hobbit is a somewhat female-less story, Tauriel’s inclusion in the movie was almost worse. As a female character she remains a token in an otherwise all-male cast, and shows a lack of respect to the original material in the thought that she could be on par, as it were, with Tolkien’s own characters. Worse still was Legolas—not only was he not in the original book, but he was utterly unnecessary as a character.
  4. CGI is not everything. Whilst The Lord of the Rings films make heavy use of CGI (The Return of the King has nearly 1,500 computer-generated shots), they also make heavy use of practical special effects, including make-up, prosthetics and miniatures. Where Jackson excelled was in the deft combination of both. And while Gollum remains clearly CG, he was nonetheless convincing. The pale orc? Unnecessary. What made the orcs so believable in the first movies was their immediacy, the genuine presence of an actor that actually looked like that. And while Smaug is undoubtedly a masterpiece of digital technology, the other characters are not.
  5. Sometimes, you don’t need to make the movie at all. This point could be a little contentious; I’m not necessarily suggesting that the Hobbit films would have been better off unmade. Still, for nearly twenty years Star Wars stood as a trilogy, and look what happened when Lucas decided to revisit it. As much as fans were clamoring for a Hobbit movie, it might have been better to leave them with the incredible legacy of the first three films, rather than foist something utterly underwhelming on them.


I’m not trying to say that the Hobbit films are awful; I actually rather enjoyed An Unexpected Journey. I thought it matched the pacing of the Lord of the Rings movies better. But The Desolation of Smaug was too concerned with fast-paced action shots, and The Battle of the Five Armies showed an over-reliance on special effects to try and drive the story. Ultimately, the movie are already made, and short of some major George Lucas-style tinkering, nothing can make them better than they are. They are, for better or worse, part of the Middle Earth film legacy. And we’ll have to enjoy them as they are, because we probably won’t ever get anything better.


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