The Hobbit film: Tolkien experts give their verdict


Matt Pickles | 20 Dec 12

Abu-Dun (Flickr)

The Hobbit film directed by Peter Jackson has just been released. Shortly before this, a book called ‘J R R Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit’ was published.

The author, Dr Mark Atherton, is a lecturer in the Faculty of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. Here, he shares his thoughts on the film with Arts at Oxford.

'Reinterpretations of The Hobbit are nothing new,' he points out. 'Indeed Tolkien originally wrote it as a children’s story. He then turned this story into a novel that was published in 1937.

'Ten years later he adapted it for a second edition to bring it in line with the developing plot of the then unpublished The Lord of the Rings – in particular, the chapter in which Bilbo finds the Ring.'

As a piece of entertainment, Dr Atherton found The Hobbit exciting. 'In action we have once again a cinematic piece of action adventure,’ he says. 'The effects are most impressive to the viewer seeing it with 3-D spectacles.'

But Dr Atherton believes that the film would have worked better if it had stayed closer to the book - for one thing, he says the mythical mood created by Tolkien is gone.

‘Although the film is a grand epic of good against evil in which a humble hobbit must play his part, the folkloric mood of The Hobbit is lost,' he says.

'In the book the dwarves turn up at Bilbo's house in twos and threes in a set sequence, which is repeated when the dwarves approach the trolls’ fire before being snatched and thrown into bags.

'These are the narrative patterns of the folk tale that set up our expectations – it would make much better sense if the film had kept to this structure'

The film also changes the way the audience perceives the action. Dr Atherton explains: ‘The narrative of the book uses Bilbo as a focalizer of the action: we meet the new characters through the eyes of the protagonist, we share his perspective, learn new facts when he does and share his dilemmas, perplexities, comforts and discomforts. This does not happen in the film.

‘Bilbo doesn’t know what will happen next, or why these events are happening, and it would make for a more interesting, mysterious story if the film followed the book more closely.’

Dr Stuart Lee of the English Faculty also enjoyed the film. ‘It was visually stunning with good performances all round, but Martin Freeman stands out as capturing the essence of Bilbo,’ he says.

‘The additions, mainly drawing from Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings and other stories by Tolkien, are well done and add depth to the story which Tolkien would have approved of.’

But he agrees that where director Peter Jackson strayed too far from Tolkien’s story, the film suffered.

'Jackson has managed to turn a children’s book into a film for an older generation which Tolkien may have found difficult, especially the over-emphasis on combat,' Dr Lee says.

'Tolkien would have strongly objected to the Disney-esque portrayal of Radagast which goes beyond Tolkien’s mythology and seems to stray into Narnia territory.'

Eagle and Child sign

Top image: A cinema showing The Hobbit (Abu-Dun, Flickr); Bottom image: The Eagle & Child pub in Oxford, where The Inklings (which included Tolkien and CS Lewis) used to meet