I took the kids to see The Hobbit last night (which, together with Lincoln, probably doubled my personal movie total for the year). Even though it’s not a particularly faithful adaptation, I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. The reason why, after the cut (which will include spoilers for both the film and various Tolkien books, none of it rot-13’d. To avoid them, don’t click through.)
For almost all of his life, Tolkien wanted to write the stories of the First Age, which comprise the hopeless war of the Elves against Morgoth: the fall of Gondolin, the tale of Beren and Luthien, the tragedy of Turin Turambar, and so on. These are very much in the mood of the Norse myths, where the Gods are barely a match for the Frost Giants, and their uneasy truce is destined to end in the mutual destruction of Ragnarok. (In fact, the end of the First Age, where the Valar finally defeat Morgoth and expel him from the world, results in the destruction of the part of Middle-Earth where the earlier stories take place.) He never did figure out quite how to tell those stories; he made several false starts, and was still revising and reworking them until his death. Tolkien had a sort of unfettered creativity; when he went to try to reconcile two conflicting passages, he’d get an even better idea that was inconsistent with both of them. The Silmarillion, as published posthumously, was his son Christoper’s attempt to make a coherent story by cementing together fragments that more or less agreed, and in some cases inventing material to cover gaps that none of the fragments covered.
The Hobbit was a children’s story that used some bits of his First Age stories, e.g. dwarves as stubborn, greedy creatures that dug treasures from the earth, while ignoring the main mythology. Oh, and inventing hobbits, as sympathetic, everyman-ish characters children (and their parents) can identify with. It was a huge success, so Tolkien’s publishers asked for a sequel, another book about hobbits, and he began work on what would become The Lord of the Rings. Here, he did use the First-Age stories as world-building material, which gives Middle-Earth its majestic sense of being a real place with a long and complex history. This led to the problem of how to fit in The Hobbit, which had no connection and a fair number of inconsistencies.
The major revision was the ring, which went from being a magic ring to being The One Ring. In fact, The Hobbit’s entire sequence with Gollum was rewritten to accommodate this. You can find the original one here; in it Gollum agrees both to let Bilbo keep the ring and to show him the way out as rewards for winning the riddle game, which, in the revised version, is more or less the lie Bilbo tells Gandalf and the dwarves to conceal the existence of the Ring. The Necromancer, who had no equivalent in the earlier stores, became an alias of Sauron. Other discrepancies, like the provenance of wizards (in The Hobbit, they seem unremarkable; in LOTR, there were ever only five and two disappeared an age ago) and the character of elves (in The Hobbit they seem like Midsummer Night’s Dream fairies; in LOTR they are both grave and deadly) are simply left in place.
What Jackson has done in the film, then, is to make a version of The Hobbit that fits together with The Lord of the Rings. The quest isn’t just about some dwarves wanting their stuff back; like everything Gandalf does, it’s part of his plan to keep Middle Earth free from the shadow. He aims to find out whether Smaug is still active, re-establish Erebor as a military power, and begin the process of reconciling the dwarves and elves, all because he’s unconvinced that Sauron is gone for good. (It’s an interesting question: at this point, is Saruman insisting that there is no Necromancer because he’s merely over-confident, or already corrupt?)
That’s not to say that the film is without flaws. The chase in the orc-caverns with the levels collapsing onto levels looks for all the world like a video game, and then the same motif is repeated in the escape from the wargs, with the trees collapsing onto more trees, and the eagles passing dwarves around as if they were the Harlem Globetrotters. And I can’t imagine why the script changed Gollum’s curse
“Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!”
But overall, Jackson does have an idea, and it’s a good one.