The Hobbit was first published in 1937. A novel for children, it is of course enjoyed by adults too. So how did a 365-page children’s story become an epic trilogy nearly 8 hours long (pushing 9 hours for the extended edition)? The answer is the phenomenal success of director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (2001-3). Had that trilogy not been made first, I doubt that The Hobbit would have been expanded to the same grand scale. When the latter was released, I was sceptical. I knew and loved the original story. However, after re-reading the book and then watching the films straight after, I have now decided that Jackson and co did the right thing, but probably half an hour could have been cut from each film. They didn’t need to be so long.
In the book, Tolkien has to explain to the reader what hobbits are. However, thanks to the LOTR films, we are already immersed in a familiar world, which is a shortcut allowing us to get into the story with few explanations. What I find interesting is that The Hobbit is moulded into a prequel which begins and ends on the very day that The Fellowship of the Ring begins, with the rest of the story a flashback or written record in between. Some characters are reintroduced for continuity, such as Saruman, Lady Galadriel and Legolas. There is more emphasis on the significance of the One Ring, which in the book is simply a magic ring which turns the wearer invisible.
A lot of material is added to the story, creating more of a build-up to the Battle of the Five Armies. It’s funny to think that this ultimate battle occupies one chapter in the book and is almost skimmed over to spare us child readers the details, while it is the focal point of the third film, which is even named The Battle of the Five Armies. Tolkien’s bachelor party is invaded by some female characters added to the film trilogy: Lady Galadriel, a warrior Elf called Tauriel and the womenfolk of Laketown. There’s an expanded role for Bard the Bowman, which is only proper, as in the book he is introduced to us after he has killed Smaug and was obviously not a well thought-out character. In the book, the dragon is the main enemy, but in the film there are also the Orcs (Azog the Defiler and his son Bolg) plus the Necromancer to deal with. These evil figures are mentioned in the book but are not lingered upon.
There are many things to like about the film trilogy. The cast (especially Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen and Aidan Turner), the locations, the visual effects, the costumes, the music (scored by Howard Shore, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and songs over the end credits sung by Neil Finn, Ed Sheeran and Billy Boyd respectively). There’s little I dislike, although I feel that the Elves are a bit too sour and humourless. In the book, they love to sing and dance, often being described as ‘merry’. It seemed odd to create a new character, Tauriel, especially for this story, seemingly with the purpose of fulfilling the roles of token female, love interest for Kili and a demonstration that Elves have feelings.
If you read the book only after seeing the films, you might find the plot a little thin and the characters undeveloped, but take into account it was written for a young audience and before the majority of Tolkien’s Middle Earth literature.