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The new Hobbit trilogy is a one pound bag with three pounds of manure. Some failures are predictable: we know that Michael Bay’s Middle Earth would have more explosions than elves and that Tim Burton would spend most of our time in Mirkwood and Moria. Peter Jackson made a masterpiece with his Fellowship of the Ring, perhaps because a limited budget forced him to keep the focus on the fairy tale and to edit out some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s weaker moments (I am rewatching it as I type to remind myself what a good movie looks like). Jackson wisely cut Tom Bombadil and Glorfindel, and he also built up Arwen’s role so her later marriage to Aragorn would make sense. In contrast, Jackson seems to have gotten an unlimited budget for his Hobbit trilogy, which falls short because Tolkien’s fairy tale was never meant to be an epic.
The focus of an epic is a dazzling hero who’s greater than ordinary men: either blessed by the gods — like the near invulnerable Achilles or the wily Odysseus — or he has godlike powers, like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, or Spiderman. These heroes overcome monsters in part through their powers, but mostly because they have the moral character to use their powers wisely; if not, they come to a tragic end because they misuse their blessings like Heracles and Oedipus. But whether heroic or tragic, the epic’s hero is on a grand scale.
In contrast, a fairy tale puts an ordinary person into an extraordinary situation, so that readers can see the hero’s character. Jack gets his magic beans and slays a giant. Cinderella goes to the ball and charms a prince. Alice falls down the rabbit hole and explores Wonderland. Their other similarities aside, the difference between an epic and a fairy tale comes from what kind of hero the protagonist is.
If Tolkien had wanted The Hobbit to be an epic, Thorin would have been the (tragic) hero. He’s a wily leader of dwarves, heir to the throne, a skilled warrior, and he has much to be proud of. But Tolkien heeded St. Paul’s advice: “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” Tolkien chose Bilbo Baggins: shorter even than a dwarf, weaker than many human children, and so small that he uses a dagger for a sword.
Tolkien’s fairy tale inverts the conventions of epics. Instead of a great man being the hero, we have a little hobbit. Instead of a courageous adventurer who dreams of slaying dragons, we have someone who dreams of eggs and bacon. Instead of a warrior, we have a burglar. Tolkien’s Hobbit is a small gem because it’s a fairy tale, not an epic.
Thus when Jackson tried to turned the story into an epic, it failed. With the bottomless budget, Jackson stretched the story across three movies and threw in so many subplots that we lose sight of Bilbo for most of the trilogy. By adding Legolas, the deputy master of Laketown, a female elf who was nowhere in the novels, and more chase scenes than a game of Grand Theft Auto, Jackson unintentionally proves that more is less. Jackson manages some nice touches — King Thranduil riding an Irish Elk and King Dain speaking in a wonderful Scottish burr — but these moments are too far apart in the nine hours of film, and can’t undo its fatal flaw.
Perhaps one day there’ll be a version of The Hobbit with the epic fail edited out. A Producer’s Cut would, of course, be a fairy tale.