Three movies for The Hobbit. Like a lot of other geeks, this makes me wary. (Non-geeks who know geeks are probably feeling despair instead, knowing they’re going to be dragged to all three.)
Joking about the second film being a documentary on the genealogy of the Stewards of Gondor aside, I’ve been doing a sort of mental inventory of what content Jackson could use and how that might add up to six to eight hours of narrative without the grotesque bloating of his King Kong. I actually think this kind of “cultural workshopping” is a great potential meeting ground for traditional humanistic critical analysis and practical cultural production. (My Swarthmore colleague Craig Williamson has taught some terrific classes along precisely these lines.)
So here’s what I come up with out of the LOTR appendices and The Hobbit (TH), either narratively important bits that happen entirely “off-screen” of the main book or that could receive a fuller visual and cinematic treatment in the film than in the book.
The War of the Dwarves and Orcs. (Over Moria, before TH starts.)
Gandalf’s espionage mission into Dol Guldur in which he obtains the map of the Lonely Mountain from Thorin’s father Thrain II.
Beorn wiping out a bunch of goblins with an army of bears and/or bear-men while Bilbo and the dwarves sleep in his house.
The White Council’s assault on Dol Guldur along with expository set-ups earlier in the narrative (e.g., consultations between Gandalf and Elrond while the group is hanging out in Rivendell.)
Elvish doings in Mirkwood that intersect with the dwarves.
More Elvish doings while Bilbo is doing his sneaking around. (Have to be careful here because the elves have to feel a bit more comical and less capable than LOTR elves.)
Smaug vs. Laketown/Bard
Gandalf’s return from Dol Guldur to Battle of the Five Armies. (He gets intelligence about what’s going on from somewhere, after all.)
Saruman seeing Sauron in the palantir and being ensnared by him. Could happen at various points in this narrative. (This very question is debated by characters in LOTR.)
Battle of the Five Armies
Bilbo’s return trip and his new life in the Shire.
Gollum leaving the Misty Mountains, going to Mordor, being interrogated by Sauron, and later being captured by Gandalf and Aragorn.
Balin’s attempt to recapture Moria.
Ok, is there a narrative line here that is neither bloated nor confusingly digressive? I can kind of see one, actually.
You cannot start the first film with the War of Dwarves and Orcs or Gandalf’s spy mission to Dol Guldur. That would be a tonal and narrative disaster. You have to start where the book starts.
But how do you make those two bits of story into something more fleshed out, something less of a footnote?
Well, the War of Dwarves and Orcs is important for injecting a much more personal arc into the Battle of Five Armies and giving the story one of three major antagonists. Smaug is the Big Bad of the film, and if Dol Guldur is going to have a major role, Sauron in his guise as the Necromancer is the other. But the third is right there in plain sight: Bolg, the orcish ruler of Moria, son of Azog, who killed Thorin’s grandfather and started the War of Dwarves and Orcs. All of this even rates a footnote when Gandalf starts yelling about what’s coming at the beginning of the Battle of Five Armies. So you use the backstory to give Bolg a way more personal presence in the overall narrative. What Jackson might even do is put Bolg into the Misty Mountain confrontations–maybe have him be visiting the Great Goblin, have him be chasing Thorin once they get out, have him survive the battle with Beorn and see him go off to raise up his armies. So a flashback to the war over Moria (which also lets you introduce Dain early on) somewhere around the time the dwarves first encounter the goblins might work very well.
The Dol Guldur spy mission can be expanded really well whenever Gandalf first gives over the map to Thorin. That might be a great thing to do in Rivendell–Gandalf is getting them ready to go through Mirkwood, he’s making plans with Elrond, so he can flash back to Dol Guldur. The other place that could happen is just before Gandalf rides off for the White Council’s assault on DG. So film #1, with these two flashbacks, gets you to the edge of Mirkwood–the big set-pieces that can close it out would be Beorn’s battle against the goblins and wargs and Gandalf flashing back to his spy mission and the terrible danger of an all-out assault on DG.
Film #2 is where I think the bloat problem is going to loom largest, because the obvious closers for a second segment if there have to be three are arriving in Laketown and the Assault on Dol Guldur. The dwarf and Bilbo segment of that film is almost weightless–it has the tension and character development of the long journey in Mirkwood, the spider battle and then the more light-hearted tension of being stuck in the elvish fortress and the barrel escape. The DG thing can have a certain amount of build-up through Gandalf meeting up with Radagast, preparations in Lorien or Isengard (maybe with some tension about whether Saruman has already been turned or not), and then the Big Battle. That whole battle is entirely open in narrative terms: we have no idea whether it’s just the three wizards, Galadriel and Elrond personally storming the place or whether there are armies clashing as well. But I think the best end for that is for them to think they honestly kicked Sauron’s ass, and for Gandalf to feel safe returning to help the dwarves with their Smaug problem.
I don’t think a second film can go any deeper into the main Hobbit story and that’s where I would see the worst danger of bloat. But since he’s going to go for three, that’s the only logical stopping place I can see, short of Lonely Mountain (the film could plausibly extend into the maneuverings at Laketown and end with the dwarves and Bilbo starting towards the mountain).
Third film would then be the standard story through to Smaug’s attack on Laketown. Then maybe we see that Gandalf learns that Bolg’s armies are heading for Lonely Mountain and it becomes a race–probably there can be a few set-pieces along the way of Gandalf fighting with some part of Bolg’s forces. Then we go back to Thorin being an asshole and Bard and the Elf-King blockading the Gate, Dain’s arrival, and then Gandalf getting all shouty about the Battle of the Five Armies. Big climactic battle, doubtless we get a dwarfo-a-orco between Thorin and Bolg at some point (I seem to remember that we hear a bit about that confrontation when Gandalf infodumps on Bilbo after he wakes up).
Then get Bilbo back to the Shire and DO NOT stretch that out, play it straight to the books, with one exception–have Aragorn meet Gandalf and Bilbo on the way home, have Gandalf confide to Aragorn that he’s a bit worried about this Ring of Bilbo’s but what the hey, Sauron has been crushed again so no biggie. Conclude the film with Gollum leaving the Misty Mountains and do NOT do it quite the way it happens in the books. Have him meet up with Aragorn and maybe Legolas, have Aragorn realize that this guy is talking about Bilbo and that his chatter about the Precious and the Master is quite alarming. Aragorn interrogates him, gets the whole Smeagol thing down. Gollum escapes, takes off for Mordor, because he figures that’s the only way to be safe from Aragorn and the elves. Aragorn goes in pursuit all the way to the Black Gate, sees Mount Doom erupting and realizes Sauron’s back in Barad-dur, figures he has to get back to Gandalf and Elrond right away with the bad news.
End the trilogy with Bilbo hanging in Bag End, smoking his pipeweed, saying “Well, all’s well that ends well”, and a furtive glance at the place where he’s got the Ring stored.
It can work, I think, but that second movie really worries me.
Also, Jackson’s been quoted saying that they’re going to expand or create a role for a female protagonist of some kind. Other than Galadriel there is literally no one in the main narrative or the appendices who they can use, so this will have to be a reimagined or wholly invented character. I suppose you could make one set of dwarf siblings into females but that messes with Tolkien canon about dwarves and besides, the one bit of footage everyone has seen doesn’t have an obvious female dwarf in sight.