"The Hobbit": An Unexpected Controversy

The book vs. movie adaptation debate is common enough: Was the author involved in the film process, does the screenplay honor the spirit of the book, were the actors chosen for accuracy or box office appeal, and most of all, what key plot points or underlying metaphors were missed?

As The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey hits theaters this week, we stand at the precipice of another epic adaptation battle between "snobby nerd readers" and "lowbrow geek moviegoers." Let me cut quickly to the chase: Tauriel.

If you're in the book camp and plan to see all three movies, consider yourself forewarned. Tauriel, portrayed by actress Evangeline Lilly (Kate from Lost), is an elf character entirely fabricated by director Peter Jackson and his co-writers, (wife) Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.

 Of course this isn't the first time that the franchise has taken creative liberties with J.R.R. Tolkien's world. They've altered plenty of plot to suit their purposes. (Don't get me started on the filmic neglect of the hobbits' real return to the Shire at the end of the series!) They've even merged characters before. (Arwen, as she's portrayed by Liv Tyler in the movie, is actually a combination of Arwen and Glorfindel from the books.) Inventing a brand new character in the style of Tolkien, however, is an oliphaunt of a different color.

At San Diego's Comic-Con International last July, one of the hottest events I attended was the Warner Bros. panel, featuring Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, and The Hobbit. Jackson rewarded approximately 6,500 ecstatic attendees with more than 12 minutes of never-before-seen footage spanning the new series, including a glimpse of Tauriel. Addressing one of the first fan questions (regarding the lack of female characters throughout the series), co-writer Boyens justified Tauriel's invention. "We believe it's completely in the spirit of Tolkien," she said.  To be fair, Tauriel's job, at least, was established by Tolkien as an unnamed (male) role -- a warrior and the chief of the Wood-elf guards.

In addition to this new character, purists should also be prepared to see familiar faces where they shouldn't be. Among the cameo-making Lord of the Rings characters who never appear in the book version of The Hobbit are: Sauruman (Christopher Lee), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), old Bilbo (Ian Holms) and Frodo (Elijah Wood).

Jackson described his film as "by fans, for fans." He genuinely loves these books, just perhaps not the way that the Tolkien estate would prefer.

Also in July this year, in the French newspaper Le Monde, Tolkien's son Christopher -- the executor of his estate (and, as they bill him in the English translation, the "interpreter of his father's unpublished work") -- broke a longstanding silence. "They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25. … And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film."

 Which is why we'll probably never see an adaptation of The Silmarillion -- Tolkien's lifelong project documenting the history of the First Age of Middle Earth, the source of all things Lord of the Rings, and the ultimate prequel. Interestingly, The Silmarillion was unfinished when Tolkien passed away in 1973. Christopher actually added to it (with help from author Guy Gavriel Kay), edited it and published it in 1977.

The Tolkien estate maintains the rights to the book. No film to rule them all, no film to bind them.

What do you think? Have you read the book? Will you see the movies? Do the films overshadow the books or encourage new fans to seek out the original sources? Can the books and movies ever coexist peacefully? Is the Tolkien estate being overly sensitive or is Hollywood being too insensitive? Weigh in and tell us how you feel.

For all things Tolkien, check out Amazon's Hobbit store.

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Comments (7)

I'm waiting for the first transgender hobbit to be included. Until then, its all DISCRIMINATORY!!

Posted by: Gerard | Sunday June 22, 2014 at 10:53 AM

I would have liked to have seen a movie that held close to the original, but I understand that hollywood has to deal with politics and th great book of P.C. outweighs any real literature out their. I will see the film and I may even like it, but in no way will it replace the wonderful classic books. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have been a part of my life ever since I has a little boy and they will always be very special to me. God Bless!

Posted by: Michael Weil | Wednesday December 26, 2012 at 8:26 AM

I'm sure it will be a "good" movie. The LOTR was a "good" set of movies, but what do you expect? They take a 500 carat highly finished diamond, mash it into little bit, and do a passable job of cutting a decent 1 carat stone out of the debris. I'll probably see it (might wait for DVD in the $5 bin at WalMart), but it won't be nearly as good as it could have been.

Posted by: Tom | Wednesday December 12, 2012 at 8:17 AM

The movies will never overshadow the books. Movie adaptations are just interpretations of the source material looked at through another person's eyes, and while it may bring that version of the story to a wider audience, I dont think it will ever truly beat out the books. So many people I know watch movies and then based on their enjoyment, pick up the book to find the full story and many times continue on with the series or author. Film is a medium that allows the stories to be retold and introduced to a new generation thanks to the prevalence of Hollywood and TV, but while there can be many movie versions of the same story, there is always the source novel that people come back to in the end. Movie adaptations are an homage to the books, not a replacement and hopefully never will be.

Posted by: Taran Atreides | Wednesday December 12, 2012 at 6:56 AM

Film adaptations are a tricky thing. If it's too faithful then you may risk losing out on a large viewership. On the other hand if you take too many liberties than you risk alienating fans and devotees of the source material. Sometimes I think that it's best to think of a movie adaptation as being a separate thing from the books. So as far as I'm concerned part of the fun is seeing what is expanded upon and what is played down. I'm currently reading my way through The Hobbit just so I'll be ready for any of Jackson's changes or revisions.

Posted by: Randy | Wednesday December 12, 2012 at 6:43 AM

I reread the Hobbit last month to prepare myself for the new movie release, the last time I'd read it was when I was a child and I had only the foggiest memories of it.

However, what shocked me the most was that within this rich, wide-ranging travelogue with an enormous cast, there was not ONE single named female character. Not one. I was completely flabbergasted.

So, let me say this, THANK YOU PETER JACKSON.

The Tolkien books are amazing works of literature, but we cannot deny that the author was just as influenced by the outlook and worldview of his time as all of us are. This particular worldview, that men are more interesting characters than women, now seems especially dated to a modern audience. I'm ecstatic about this news. This is an improvement, not a betrayal.

Posted by: Sara | Wednesday December 12, 2012 at 3:38 AM

I personally don't care....so what that they had to put a female elf in there. Thorin rounded up 12 other Dwarves that just happened to be male and found a male Hobbit.

I understand that putting a female character as well as adding more action scenes from the Appendix of the RotK, otherwise it would just be one movie. Yes, pure greed and the more hooks used to bring in a broader group than the hardcore Tolkien fans.

If it wasn't for the Tolkien movies or the Sherlock Holmes movies or HP movies, I wouldn't be going to the theater at all during the winter movies. So yes, their plan to get people to see movies outside the coldly planned summer hits works.

Posted by: matt | Tuesday December 11, 2012 at 10:24 PM

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