Peter Jackson was right for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. His penchant for making mundane activities like walking and, well, slightly faster walking seem extraordinarily meaningful was perfect for the classic story. But throw in the fact that he can similarly make the obviously exciting moments of large scale battle and gruff pre-battle pep talks equally potent was just the cherry on top of the fantasy sundae.
He is not, however, making a good argument for being the director for The Hobbit film series. This is not a review of An Unexpected Journey or The Desolation of Smaug, but it is an analysis of Jackson’s key contribution to the Middle Earth translation from page to screen. There are many things that The Hobbit films do well including feature a bevy of talented actors and showcase great character interactions. But we can get into that another day.
Though he has directed many films, Jackson is mostly known for his projects that put dazzling imagery on the forefront, including the successful King Kong in 2005 and the less successful The Lovely Bones in 2009. But of course, the movies most people think of are The Lord of the Rings trilogy, three of the most successful and critically acclaimed films to ever be released.
Either through serendipity or production clarity, Jackson was allowed to write, direct, and produce the trilogy. It was ideal. The Lord of the Rings is all about seeing the interactions of small pieces in a large machine, how a lonely ranger can lead an army and how two little hobbits can become heroes to all of Middle Earth.
At regular intervals, we are visually reminded in these three movies that something larger is always at work. By seeing our (literally) small heroes run through the sweeping, rolling, snowy, immense hills, cliffs, and valleys, we get the relative scale imprinted on our minds. There are large stakes on the table with Sauron’s return looming over the whole of the known world; these are characters charging their way through all of it to ensure it survives.
Jackson is exceedingly capable at providing this intuitive mental comparison. All of our drama—even the moments featuring only two characters—is drawn from our knowledge that these people are acting on the faith and knowledge that they are physically overwhelmed by the sheer size of their opposition. The drama of scale is easy to understand. (Perhaps that’s why King Kong also succeeded.)
The Hobbit, however, is not about the drama of the small standing up to the big, though size still plays into it. The Hobbit is about small people simply making big moves. It’s about a tiny hobbit going on a big adventure because he can. The dwarves have reason to go, but Bilbo goes simply because he can. It’s a casual decision with huge personal implications.
It’s the exact opposite of The Lord of the Rings. The fellowship acts because they—and everyone capable—owe it to keep the evil forces of Sauron in check. Bilbo acts because he made a decision and he ends up getting whisked away to adventure.
And yet Jackson feels the need to imbue The Hobbit films with the grand and dire consequences we’re familiar with through the story of the One Ring. He adds an entire subplot involving Smaug being a potential danger through a rising shadowy danger Gandalf kind of senses in the world. Galadriel and Saruman weren’t even in the book, and yet they feature prominently in the middle of An Unexpected Journey when Gandalf explains why this quest is necessary.
These moments of expansive implications are the weakest moments of both Hobbit films out right now because they don’t match the rest of the movie. Jackson gets it. He even threw in some choice words (perhaps too on-the-nose, though) about it: “I’ve found it is the small deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.”
While not in the actual book, it accurately sums up the themes of Tolkien’s original tale, though perhaps a bit overly portentous. Seeing Bilbo run out of Bag End and out of the Shire, screaming to passersby that he’s going on an adventure, we are similarly filled with the easy, vague dream of possibilities. What will he find? Where will he go? Small people, big moves.
So it makes no sense why we would want to see the machinations of a villain that doesn’t and shouldn’t exist crop up in a story of dwarves, gold, and a really big, angry dragon. It fits in nicely with the strangely ephemeral Gandalf of the written version and the beloved characterizations Jackson established with his first trilogy, but that doesn’t make it necessary or even justifies it.
We know Jackson understands what makes The Hobbit a special story; he puts it in a quote that litters the Tolkien-centric Tumblrs of the Internet. Does he feel like he owes fealty to fans of old? Does he feel like he needs to create as grand of a spectacle as before for those returning for more Middle Earth? Those are hard questions to answer. But thus far through two films of The Hobbit, Jackson isn’t providing much in the way of a defense.