Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Hobbit Movies

Let me begin by saying up front that I am hugely beholden in all of the below analysis of the novel The Hobbit to Corey Olsen, aka The Tolkien Professor, and his excellent series of lectures (available online) on The Hobbit. Credit where it's due.

Now, let's talk about the upcoming films based on The Hobbit. As you may have heard, the film adaptation of Tolkien's novel The Hobbit is going to be split into two installments. The first, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, will apparently cover from the beginning to the novel until Bilbo helps his companions escape from the halls of the Elf-King, leaving the second, The Hobbit: There And Back Again, to cover Bilbo's arrival in Lake-town through the end of the Battle of Five Armies and Bilbo's return home.
Promotional image for An Unexpected Journey property of Warner Bros

Before I go on, let's talk for a second about three-act structure, for those who aren't familiar. You may have heard of this in the context of film trilogies, but at heart it's an idea about individual movies. The basic concept is that a film has three acts: in the first act, the viewer meets the characters, and the stakes of the film are set: i.e., what are the characters hoping to accomplish? The stakes could be anything from "steal the money" to "get the cute boy to notice me" to "make it to White Castle." In the second act, the characters situation gets darker and darker, because they aren't yet capable of doing what they need to to settle the stakes. In the third act, the characters change in a way that lets them finally accomplish their goals and settle the stakes.

Take the original Star Wars movies, and the character of Luke Skywalker in particular, as an example of this unfolding over a trilogy. In A New Hope, we meet Luke Skywalker, a restless farmboy, and after he meets Ben Kenobi and the Empire kills his foster parents, he sets out to accompish two things: stop the Empire, and avenge his father by killing Darth Vader. in The Empire Strikes Back, the Rebellion suffers major setbacks despite Luke's best efforts, while Darth Vader both defeats him in a duel and drops a major bombshell: (thirty-year old spoiler alert) HE is Luke's father! NOOOOOO! In Return of the Jedi, we see a very different Luke from the boy we met in the first movie, a patient, powerful young man, start solving his problems proactively, helping his friends prepare to attack the Empire and then confronting Vader a second time, this time with the intent of of redeeming him. In the end, the rebels destroy the Death Star and Luke saves Vader. Stakes settled, films over.

The Hobbit isn't going to be a trilogy, so I don't want to think about each movie as its own act per se. Instead, I just want to think of it as two three-act structures, one following the other.

So, in the first film, it seems to me we can expect these three acts:

  • Act 1: Begins with Gandalf initially approaching Bilbo. Ends with the arrival of the party in Elrond's house.
  • Act 2: Begins with the party entering the Misty Mountains. Ends with Gandalf leaving them on the threshold of Mirkwood.
  • Act 3: Begins with the party entering Mirkwood, ends with Bilbo rescuing Thorin & Company.
Maybe the film ends with a nice ominous shot of Lonely Mountain in the distance and Bilbo not liking the look of it at all.

In the second film, the act structure might look more like this:
  • Act 1: Begins with the party arriving in Lake-town. Ends with the party approaching the Lonely Mountain.
  • Act 2: Begins with searching for the secret door into the Lonely Mountain. Ends with the destruction of Laketown.
  • Act 3: Begins with the death of the Dragon. Ends with Bilbo departing for home.
The movie may continue after that point, but the rest is epilogue.

This structure - which I must emphasize is purely speculative and doesn't include the White Council material hinted at in the novel The Hobbit and fleshed out in Tolkien's other writings, which we know Jackson et al. are going to be including in the films - suggests some cool things about the films - mostly about what the stakes will be for each movie. Because of course it's not enough for the whole series to have stakes; for each movie to work, it has to have stakes of its own, that are completely resolved by the time the credits role.

We can see this in the Star Wars example: in New Hope, in addition to the larger stakes, the first act sets smaller stakes for Luke as well. They're something like, "Can Luke find a place in the world outside the family farm?" and "Can Luke follow in his father's (and Ben's) footsteps as a Jedi?" The award ceremony at the end of the film resolves both questions: Luke now has a place as a celebrated member of the Rebellion, and his victory came because he was able to call upon the Force to make the shot at the end of the Death Star trench run. The larger questions of the Galactic Rebellion and Luke's father's legacy are unresolved, but the movie has provided answers to enough questions to give us a sense of satisfaction at its conclusion.

(By the way, I haven't thought about it much, but as I think about this I have an intuition that a clumsy intersection of the series-long and movie-by-movie stakes is one of the weaknesses of the prequel series. Thoughts?)

So, vis a vis the Hobbit, we have to have stakes that are introduced before Bilbo leaves Rivendell that are completely resolved before he reaches Laketown, as well as stakes that are introduced before the party begins to search for the secret door that  can be completely resolved in just one movie. Looking at The Hobbit gives us, I think, a pretty clear idea of what those stakes must be - and I think shows that Jackson et al. made a pretty and savvy and informed choice of where to end the first movie, because the journey from Mirkwood to Lake-town marks a pretty major thematic shift in the book.

At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo has been advertised to the dwarves by Gandalf as a burglar, a experienced adventurer of a kind, when actually he's a middle-aged man of leisure who enjoys the occasional long walk. They're noticeably dismayed when they meet him, and in his unpublished writings Tolkien provided additional material about just how close Thorin was to refusing to take Bilbo along. Bilbo himself has no reason to want anything to do with this dangerous quest; he's quite happy in his peaceful life, and he has no real skills, knowledge or experience to contribute to the party. Tolkien drops a few hints right from the begging that there's a little more to Bilbo than even he realizes, but still, the idea of this quite ordinary and domestic fellow going on a dangerous adventure seems absurd on the face of it. What upsets the scales and drives Bilbo out on to the road is, initially, a realization of how silly and disappointing he is to the dwarves, and a sudden need - a very Tookish need, one might say - to be taken seriously by them, to be thought brave and fiercesome. He impulsively agrees to go in a moment of embarrassment as, essentially, a pose to save face. It's not just a fleeting moment, either: it drives many of his decisions, like trying to steal from the trolls and using the Ring to make a flashy entrance when he reunites with the dwarves after the Misty Mountains.

This will be the central stake of the first movie: can Bilbo win the respect of Thorin & Company? You can tell not just because it makes sense, but because, in the novel, that question is decisively answered - wait for it - with the escape from the Elves. That rescue is the culmination of a series of unlikely heroic acts from Bilbo in Mirkwood that save the dwarves from very nasty ends to their quest, and after that point, while the dwarves don't always agree with Bilbo, nobody will ever question whether he's to be taken seriously. He completely proves himself as competent adventurer.

Likewise, just after that point in the novel is when the company arrives in the neighborhood of the Lonely Mountain, which introduces a major theme we don't see very much in the first half of the book: the idea of the lost glory and prosperity of the Kingdom Under the Mountain. Yes, the story is told to Bilbo at the beginning, and the dwarves sing their famous song about the treasures of the Kingdom, but only when the party arrives in Lake-town does the Kingdom take on a reality beyond the idea of being a place where there's lots of treasure. Lake-town is inhabited by people who used to live in Dale, a city near the Mountain that thrived on a symbiotic relationship with the dwarves. Dale was destroyed along with the Lonely Mountain, and now the people of Lake-town live in diminished circumstances, to the point where they still sing songs about the old prosperity that flowed out from the Mountain, and tell hopeful stories about how wonderful it will be once the King Under the Mountain returns. In Lake-town, we start to see the larger implications of this quest for treasure: it will enrich not just Bilbo and this company of dwarves, but a whole region and all of its peoples. This issue - the prosperity of the whole region - comes to dominate the end of the book; if you notice, Smaug dies right at the beginning of act 3 in my little scheme above; with the dragon out of the picture, the conclusion of this story deals almost exclusively with how the the dwarves, elves and humans will resolve their differences. Those are the real stakes of the second half of The Hobbit, and by having Bilbo and company arrive at Lake-town at the beginning of the second movie, Jackson et al. have positioned themselves perfectly to introduce that stake in their second act 1.

Of course for a really good film adaptation google Hobbit 1977
One final note: as mentioned, Smaug doesn't die at the end of the story. While the question of defeating Smaug is obviously an important one throughout the story, it's not the central stake of The Hobbit, nor is the question of whether Bilbo will escape with treasure: he gives up all claim to it well before the end, and while he does bring back gold and silver, it's only a fraction of what he's promised in the beginning, and to him it's a bit of an afterthought. The real central stake of the whole story is more a challenge Tolkien presents to his readers: "...well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end." To my mind, the trailer released in December promises that that question will be prominent in the story, right at the end:

BILBO: You will promise that I will come back?
GANDALF: No. And if you do, you will not be the same.

Sounds about right to me.


  1. Dave, you seem to have ignored the Battle of the Five Armies, which, in my opinion, will take up the majority of the second film. The LOTR movies demonstrated the relative ease of creating interesting battles as compared to the difficulty of expressing the complex socio-political and cultural conflicts that (for many of us) constitute the point of Tolkien's universe. What you describe as the first and second acts I imagine would take very little time in a film, and I expect will be compressed into either the end of the first film or the beginning of the second.

    1. Only a fool would bet against Peter Jackson having a lengthy battle sequence in a movie, I admit.

      Two things, though: first off, remember that there is a great deal of very exciting stuff earlier in the book that Jackson et al. won't want to skip or make light of. Bilbo's confrontation with Smaug, for instance, is a great chance for a scary, engaging sequence, great source material for scenes like (and, I would argue, a great deal better than) the extended Slinker/Stinker sequences from LotR. Likewise, the destruction of Laketown has all the action Jackson et al. could want in a fresher setting and scenario than the Battle of Five Armies. I don't think these are sequences the filmmakers will lightly discard, and supporting them adequately brings the attention of the film back to the larger world.

      The other question, though, is what do you think the second film will be about? A big battle sure, but Jackson knows that battles need stakes. He puts a great deal of effort into showing what's at stake at Helm's Deep, and Osgiliath, and Pelennor Fields. Those are all monolithic struggles against the forces of the Shadow, but that's not the situation at the Battle of Five Armies. Each of the five sides has a completely different agenda taht has nothing to do with heroism or the battle against evil. So how does Jackson dramatize that if not by giving us at least a glimpse of what each side wants and why?