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Stephen D. Winick Headshot

In Defense of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Peter Jackson's film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey cleaned up at the box office a few weeks ago, setting records for strongest midnight opening, opening day and opening weekend for a December film. But critical reviews have been mixed. Many reviewers, including HuffPost's Frank Schaeffer and Scott Mendelson, objected to the film on the grounds that it's bloated, using too much material from outside Tolkien's novel.

I don't agree with all of Jackson's choices. Unlike Mendelson, I didn't find the escape from the goblin cave "superb." For me, it's a tiresome roller-coaster that goes on far too long. Sections of ladders become sleds! Rope bridges become swings! Ladder sections fall into place across chasms just in time for the heroes to cross and then collapse just in time to kill or thwart the villains! Zzz...

But one complaint I don't have is that Jackson should have followed Tolkien's novel precisely. As HuffPost's Athena Andreadis points out, The Hobbit is "wee and twee... a childish children's book." The "bumbling grumbling dwarves of the book" that Schaeffer loves were never believable as king and noble retainers, except to little kids. If you want an adult audience to enjoy these films, sticking to the book isn't much of an option.

Schaeffer and Mendelson also complain that Jackson makes The Hobbit a prequel to The Lord of the Rings (henceforth LotR) rather than its own tale. But here's the difficult truth: The Hobbit IS most significant as a precursor to LotR, which is one of the most beloved and best selling novels of all time and was made into wildly popular films. The entire audience for The Hobbit consists of people who are familiar with LotR, and most of them will perceive it as a prequel, or at least a prelude, no matter what Jackson does.

More importantly, though, even Tolkien realized The Hobbit would, and should, be seen as a prelude to his larger work. Rather than sticking to the depiction of Middle-earth created for The Hobbit when he wrote LotR, he wrote the later work as he saw fit, creating inconsistencies between the two stories, and then edited The Hobbit to get rid of them. Those that were less easily remedied, he smoothed over with additional writings. The world of LotR took precedence, and The Hobbit was adjusted to fit that world.

One inconsistency was particularly important: when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, Gandalf was just a funny wizard, described as "a little old man." But once Tolkien wrote LotR, Gandalf was redefined with certainty as Olórin, a spirit sent to Middle-earth by the Valar to watch for and fight against Sauron. Tolkien also established that Gandalf was the only steady and dependable Wizard, and the only successful one; Saruman was distracted by his ambition, while Radagast was distracted by his love of nature and animals. (Tolkien wrote little of the other two Wizards, but suggested they set themselves up as the leaders of their own cults in the East and South, possibly to help the West against Sauron and possibly not.) In this context, it's hard to see why Gandalf would take it on himself to lead a ragtag group of displaced Dwarves toward their destiny, unless it could somehow further his mission of defeating Sauron.

Tolkien took a step toward solving this conundrum in LotR, when he made it clear that the Necromancer of The Hobbit was not merely a human sorcerer, but the evil spirit Sauron. When Gandalf explains his long absence from the quest in The Hobbit, Bilbo and Elrond learn that he was at a council of Wizards discussing the Necromancer, and then driving the Necromancer from his fortress at Dol Guldur. According to one of Tolkien's published letters (#257), the Necromancer originally had no particular significance, apart from being a plot device to separate Gandalf from the company. But once he redefined the Necromancer, the off-stage action had great import: while the Dwarves were raiding The Lonely Mountain, the Wizards were dealing with Sauron. This explains why The Hobbit was important to the Wizards' primary mission, but it leaves unanswered questions. Why did the Wizards drive Sauron from Dol Guldur if they were not ready to finish him outright? And, more importantly, why did Gandalf initiate the Dwarves' quest?

To answer these questions, Tolkien wrote a passage called "The Quest of Erebor," (available in Unfinished Tales and The Annotated Hobbit) in which Gandalf explains his reasons for aiding Thorin. Before The Hobbit, Gandalf had predicted Sauron's plans: to attack Rivendell and Lórien, the Elven strongholds nearest Dol Guldur, and to recruit (or enslave) the dragon Smaug and make use of him as a weapon. Gandalf believed that by following these plans, Sauron had a chance to enslave Middle-earth. He was considering how to convince the other Wizards to take action when he encountered Thorin, who wanted to raise an army and take The Lonely Mountain. He realized that by helping Thorin he could get rid of Smaug and give the Dwarves a new stronghold between Sauron and the north, thwarting half of Sauron's plan. Thwarting the other half, the attack on Lórien and Rivendell, would require a direct attack on Dol Guldur. Hence, the two-pronged action of The Hobbit: on-stage, the Dwarves and Bilbo kill Smaug and take The Lonely Mountain, while off-stage, the Wizards attack the Necromancer. Bilbo, the recorder of Gandalf's speech, makes it clear that in the whole affair, "Gandalf was thinking only of the defence of the West against the Shadow," harmonizing Gandalf's actions in The Hobbit with his duty as Olórin.

(Along the way, Bilbo's presence on the quest results in the ring coming west, while the actions of the Wizards result in Sauron going east, moving them far apart. This also contributes to the victory of the free peoples over Sauron. Gandalf suggests that, while he was not conscious of planning this, his higher self might have foreseen this as another positive outcome of his actions.)

By writing "The Quest of Erebor," Tolkien showed that he was keenly aware of the place of The Hobbit's on-stage and off-stage action in the later story of Middle-earth. If he had made a movie of The Hobbit, or fully re-written it after creating LotR, it's likely he would have shown the Wizards' offstage actions. For Jackson, not to do so would be a missed opportunity.

Once we accept that Jackson will show the council of Wizards and their actions at Dol Guldur in the later films, there's a logic to the "extraneous" elements brought into the first film. Saruman and Radagast will both certainly attend the council of Wizards and take part in driving Sauron from Dol Guldur. Galadriel of Lórien, likewise, will be part of the Wizards' plans. In other words, all these characters were destined to show up in the later films anyway. (Alternatively, the council meeting shown in the first film may take the place of the one that occurs later in the novel. In either case, Jackson is showing characters and situations Tolkien included in The Hobbit and "The Quest of Erebor.")

Folks who object to Radagast's prominence, his silly devotion to hedgehogs, or his sleigh pulled by rabbits, should probably lighten up. Radagast is one of the most interesting enigmas in Tolkien's writings; he is one of only three wizards who remain in the West to fight Sauron. Saruman falls to the darkness, leaving only two Wizards. Radagast plays a role early in LotR , but when Elrond sends for him later, he has disappeared, abandoning his friend Gandalf and his duty to the Valar. The reason for this is never made clear.

In the essay "The Istari," included in Unfinished Tales, Tolkien suggested that Radagast was a failure for having been distracted from his mission. In notes included with "The Istari," Tolkien wrote that Radagast was specifically chosen to go to Middle-earth by the Valar Yavanna, and Christopher Tolkien suggests that he might have had an additional mission involving the protection of the wilderness, which would explain his disappearance as the fulfillment of an even higher purpose.

Given this intrigue surrounding Radagast, why not include him in the films? If the specifics of his depiction bother you, remember: Radagast's increasing detachment from people and attachment to animals, his apparently silly behavior, his loyalty to Gandalf, and his estrangement from Saruman are all mentioned by Tolkien. As to the smaller details, Tolkien doesn't include any, so Jackson had to make them up. Is there anything in his depiction inconsistent with the character Tolkien created? If there is, I don't see it.

One of Jackson's changes does puzzle me: in the movie, Gandalf tells Thorin that he received a key and map from Thorin's father Thráin. But in the novel, the only time Gandalf met Thráin was 91 years before at Dol Guldur, where he had gone to confirm that Sauron was indeed back. By making Radagast discover the Necromancer instead of Gandalf, Jackson has changed this backstory, presumably eliminating Gandalf's earlier trip to Dol Guldur from the history of Middle-earth. So... how did Gandalf meet Thráin and get the key?

Jackson may tell us in the later films. This nerd, for one, will be watching.