On forcing The Hobbit, or any story, to be what it's not

This weekend my family saw The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final of Peter Jackson's Hobbit films. As I watched nearly three hours worth of action and fighting and more action and more fighting — and marveled at how CGI and poor directing can turn epic battles into nothing more than boredom — I realized what was wrong with the entire Hobbit trilogy.

The problem is Peter Jackson tried to force The Hobbit to become a story it is not.

If you've read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, you likely know what I mean. The novel is fun, lighthearted, fast-paced, and above all centered on Bilbo Baggins, a main character you can't help but love. You can still see flashes of this original story in the film trilogy — you'll be watching Martin Freeman as Bilbo and he'll say or do something which echos back to the original novel, where Bilbo is very much a fish out of water as he takes part in adventures no reasonable person would take part in. And Bilbo knows this. Which makes us love him all the more for going on the adventures and supporting his friends and struggling to do right in Middle Earth.

No, the problem with The Hobbit films isn't Martin Freeman's portrayal of Bilbo Baggins — the problem is that Peter Jackson wanted to force the entire story to be an extension of his Lord of the Rings film trilogy. So Jackson buried all the loveable parts of The Hobbit beneath non-stop action and irrelevant scenes.  The end result: instead of making a new Lord of the Rings series, he turned the Hobbit trilogy into a parody of the very films which made Jackson famous in the first place.

The funny thing is Jackson should have known this would destroy the story. After all, no one else than J. R. R. Tolkien himself learned this very lesson the hard way.

You see, The Hobbit was originally written as children's literature and became a classic in that genre. When Tolkien was asked to write a sequel, he eventually began work on what became The Lord of the Rings. But this trilogy was very different in tone and structure than his original novel.

To fit The Hobbit in with the new series, Tolkien made minor retroactive changes to the novel, such as turning Gollum into a much more disturbing character. For example, in The Hobbit's 1937 edition Gollum willingly gives Bilbo the ring after losing the riddle game. Gollum's anger at Bilbo, and his famed cry of "Thief, Thief, Thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!" was only added to later editions by Tolkien.

But Tolkien wasn't satisfied with these minor changes. By 1960, The Lord of the Rings had become as big a hit, if not bigger, than The Hobbit. So Tolkien sat down to rework his children's novel into something more like his new series.

As Jason Fisher, author of Tolkien and the Study of his Sources, explains:

"What Tolkien was doing in those abandoned 1960 revisions was attempting to bring The Hobbit in line with The Lord of the Rings in terms of its style and its tone and its character. I think that’s very much what Peter Jackson is probably doing. Judging by the material I’ve seen so far, it seems that Peter Jackson is attempting to create a prequel to The Lord of the Rings that will match The Lord of the Rings in terms of style and tone and character."

Fortunately for us, when Tolkien was only 30 pages into this major rewrite he showed the revision to people and everyone basically said it was an abomination and totally destroyed what they loved about the original novel. So he abandoned the urge to rework The Hobbit into something it was not.

It's a shame Peter Jackson didn't learn from Tolkien's experience. There are flashes of the original Hobbit in these films and in Martin Freeman's performance. I'd love to see an entire film based on such a true retelling of The Hobbit. (Note: If anyone wants to creatively "edit" the Hobbit trilogy into a single film which is honest to the original novel, I'd watch it in a heartbeat.)

Sadly, the Hobbit trilogy has been so financially successful that it won't matter to either Jackson or Hollywood that the films are now merely a parody of both Tolkien's original novel and The Lord of the Rings films. But if you care about stories, remember this: When a story works, the worst thing you can do is try to change the story into something it is not.