The hobbit film is loosely based on it’s source material, it shares the name and the characters but the story is far off and comes off as tolkien fanfiction rather than something made by the man himself.
Yep! That’s what I enjoy about the films so much - transformative works like fanfiction and movie adaptations can give the source material so much more depth than it had before.
For “The Hobbit,” they’re very obviously taking both the original 1937 children’s book, the changes Tolkien himself made for the re-published version, and all the legally available information from the LoTR trilogy in order to tell a bigger, more nuanced, and ultimately more meaningful story about just what was really going on while Bilbo was having his adventure. Because according to Tolkein, while the Quest of Erebor took place the Necromancer was also being driven out of Dol Goldur, Saruman was beginning his descent, and all sorts of chess pieces were moving around that would lead to the war sixty years later. In a sense, it’s doing what fanfiction does so well - turning the camera (so to speak) and shining light on things that you couldn’t see in the original work.
And the movies also emulate the best of what fanfiction does by interrogating the source material to a certain degree - though how much is intentional and how much is purely “we want a cooler-looking story” is certainly up for debate. For instance, Tolkien very clearly modeled the dwarves of Erebor and dwarvish culture on Jewish people and culture as seen by a Christian in the 1930’s. Which would’ve been great except the perception of what Jews were like back at that time was decidedly not-great; if you’ve read the Hobbit, no doubt you remember the quote:
There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but a calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.
Which was a sentiment held by most non-Jews in the early part of the 20th century, and one we as a people have labored under for literally millennia. By allowing the dwarves of Erebor to be heroic figures, with their own complicated backstories and interests, the film shows them as people to be admired rather than detested.
Similarly with the addition of Tauriel, who if she had been in a fanfic would be referred as an OC or OFC (Original [Female] Character), the film shines a light on one of Tolkien’s greatest weaknesses as a writer; his disinterest in writing about female characters. I phrase it like this because from what he wrote, it is clear that there are women around; he just doesn’t talk much about them, with the exception of Eowyn. This is all the more frustrating because of the glimpses we get of truly amazing women: Belladonna Took, the remarkable daughter of the Old Took who went on adventures, probably with Gandalf; Gilraen, who marries too young against her father’s wishes (but with her mother’s aid), only to lose her husband two years later and who takes personal responsibility for the entire line of Isildur by taking her young son into the protection of Rivendell, and whose last words to Aragorn are “I gave hope to our people and kept no hope for myself,” which is sad but you’ve gotta love an old lady who can make a pun into a heartbreaker; Luthien, who fell in love with a mortal man and chose her heart over her grace; Arwen, who followed in those footsteps but who chose mortality not just for love of a man but for love of Middle-Earth, because she had faith that it would endure; Galadriel, who defied the very gods of her people and conquered the temptation of the One Ring; Shelob, a monster and mother both, whose hunger is insatiable but who chooses to linger in her caves rather than roar into the world; Dís, the last of the line of Thror, who is widowed and orphaned and left childless and brotherless by the actions of those husbands and fathers and sons and brothers; Eowyn, who is remarkable all the more because she is not seen as so, but rather seen as one of the many proud shieldmaidens of Rohan, whose contributions go unremarked but not unremarkable. Women who are not even named - Theoden’s wife, Denethor’s wife, Thranduil’s wife, Gloin’s wife, Bard’s wife, Thrain’s wife - but who are stamped on the husbands and sons they loved in the most fascinating of ways.
All these women are there, in Middle Earth; all of them are worth trilogies of their own. And the films, and fanfiction, can show them in ways Tolkien never did. And so in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” we can see Galadriel helping to defeat the power in Dol Guldur, or an elf-maid fight and kill to protect her king and people, or even [possible spoilers for Extended Edition, if the rumors are true] Belladonna Took greeting Gandalf as an old friend and companion and equal. We can take a look at the things that the man himself did not bother to show, but that we want to see.
The films and filmmakers do not interrogate as well as they should; the racism of Tolkien’s all-white Middle Earth goes largely unchallenged, with POC actors playing orcs and goblins or hidden behind CGI or pounds of makeup to play scale doubles or stuntmen. The conflagration of physical attributes with morality is, if anything, played up in the films, with the Goblin King a grotesque figure and the evil Azog shown as even more monstrous with his prosthetic arm. The relationship between Legolas and Gimli, which is so profound that it moves Legolas to demand (of his gods) that Gimli be permitted entry into the afterworld of the elves - moreover, moves Gimli to spend eternity amongst elves rather than his own kind - is portrayed as nothing more than amiable comradeship.
But these are shortcomings that all transformative work can fall prey to, and should absolutely be challenged but should never be dismissed. The films and fanfiction allow people to talk about stories and spin stories themselves, taking part in a world that Tolkien gave us - a world he wanted other people to visit. If we change things along the way, if we show things that Tolkien didn’t illuminate, well - the original stories are still there, unchanged by anyone (except of course the man himself, who re-edited The Hobbit extensively). And we can read the books, and see the films, and decide for ourselves what we want to believe.
There it is: the films are fanfiction, to their credit.
I’m not crying, you’re crying
The only thing I would add is that Luthien, at least, does get her own story; she has an entire book in The Silmarillion (but please correct me if I’m wrong!).
Since Eowyn was brought up… I’ve been thinking about her character a lot recently, but I haven’t reread the books in a long time so these thoughts are somewhat off-the-cuff:
One of the big criticisms of Eowyn I’ve heard is that Tolkien essentially “domesticates” her and has her give up her shield and sword in favor of healing and being the Steward’s wife at the end of Lord of the Rings. I’m not so sure that’s what’s going on.
Eowyn uses fighting as an outlet for her frustration and fears and she sees battle as a way to bring glory to her people. Tolkien lived through the Great War and saw its horrors firsthand. I think some of what he’s doing with her character is addressing the need to see war as a necessary evil and action of last resort, rather than as a way of life to be glorified.
It’s important that Aragorn and Eomer are out there on the front lines because they are the leaders of their people. They must decide when and where and how their people fight; if they aren’t willing to take that same risk themselves, they would be poor kings.
In contrast, Eowyn represents hope for the future, a future in which war is not a constant reality. I read Eowyn’s arc as Tolkien elevating the art of healing over the art of war.
In line with this, it is telling that the true heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not warriors, but hobbits, a sort of gentle-English-farmer-equivalent. Sam and Frodo destroy the Ring not through arms, but ultimately through strength of character.
I think there is definitely validity to the criticism that Tolkien does not offer enough depth to his female characters in proportion to the male characters, but I think it’s an oversimplification to dismiss Eowyn’s arc as Tolkien “teaching” the reader that women have no place in combat.
(Not that this is what the jarvtimmen or leupagus were saying about Eowyn at all; I actually agree with all their points! I’ve just been thinking about Eowyn a lot lately and their post presented an opportunity to get these thoughts out there, however roughly-hewn.)
re: Luthien: I think the women in the Silmarillion are background-ed (is that a word?) even when they’re permitted to take center stage, like Luthien—because the Silmarillion is, well, background. I love it, and I love the stories that come out of it, but it’s so distant and so limited—like in real life mythology, the characters and stories are deeply interesting but beg to be fleshed out, to be given not just skeletons but muscles and skin and eyes that can look back out at you. (There’s a reason why we keep retelling fairytales, right? Cinderella in the fairytale begs for Disney’s Cinderella, or Gail Carson Levine’s Ella, or Drew Barrymore’s Danielle.) Arwen haunts the Lord of the Rings books, and comes to breathtaking life onscreen. The stories in the Silmarillion are ghostly in similar ways, I think, and I at least am dying to see them come to life. And fanfiction can do that, whether in actual fanfic* or in the movies or in class plays written by eighth graders.** Transformative works are where and how ghosts get flesh.
re: Eowyn—I hear you. I think it’s because she’s the only not-ghostly female character in the books, so she’s got the weight of representation on her shoulders. That means we’re looking to her to be impossibly strong and also to be representative of women generally, instead of just representative of herself. Which is partially why bringing all of Tolkien’s ladies to the spotlight and giving them space to exist as fully developed characters is important—it takes some of that pressure off of Eowyn.
Dudes, this is awesome meta, and I think you’re both right. And yes, Luthien’s such a cool character - I will freely admit that what I knew about her (before looking her up on wikipedia, DON’T LOOK AT ME I’M A MONSTER) was limited to what Aragorn says in the movies, which in itself is an incredibly silly and reductive version of what actually went down (LUTHIEN FOR TOTAL BADASS MOTHERFUCKER AWARD, MIDDLE EARTH EDITION). But the fact that she’s so exceptional is in itself part of the problem; far preferable would be to have characters like her alongside characters like Boromir and Gollum and Sauron and Gandalf and Frodo etc.
Remember when Luthien turned into a bat to help steal a Silmaril from Morgoth’s fortress, Angband?