So we all know that Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is an inferior piece of fantasy entertainment when compared to its big brother, the Oscar-winning adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Hobbit was mired in development hell and was essentially shot on the spot, with little time for Jackson and his team to plan it out properly. As such, the movies are a bit…uneven, to say the least. That said, there are still redeeming qualities in those movies and in the light of looking forward to Prime’s upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel show, let’s look at all the things The Hobbit got right.
While many of the action scenes in The Hobbit trilogy range from bloated to ridiculous (I’m looking at you Legolas), one thing we can agree on is that there are some solid performances from the cast throughout the film. Sure, not everyone is shining, as most of the Dwarves are literally walking set dressing, but there are some key figures who elevate the film. Thankfully, Martin Freeman as the titular hobbit is one of them. He has a visible character arc and his awkward, bumbling personality begins to become infected with the power of the Ring as the films go on.
Likewise, Ian McKellen, whose scenes were often shot in greenscreen rooms to create the size proportions this time around (as opposed to forced perspective like the Lord of the Rings trilogy), is great as Gandalf, especially in the first film where he’s featured the most. His introduction with Bilbo in the first movie is an absolute standout. Andy Serkis’ short but sweet return as Gollum is great and a painful reminder that the character was never nominated for an Oscar (the Academy doesn’t recognize motion-capture performances). Another character who does a great job is Lee Pace as Legolas’ father, Thranduil. He’s simultaneously terrifying and elegant and would have preferred to have seen more of his character than Legolas in this series. But perhaps the best performance in the entire trilogy wasn’t even a visible actor on screen…
Perhaps the highlight of the entire The Hobbit trilogy is Benedict Cumberbatch’s motion-capture performance as the dragon Smaug. One thing Jackson did right was choosing to fully reveal Smaug in the final act of the second film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, as opposed to the introduction of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This created a sense of mystery around the character, as we only saw quick flashes of his form and size. When Bilbo enters Erebor, we too are not quite sure what to expect when it comes to Smaug and those who didn’t read Tolkien’s books may have been surprised to learn the dragon can talk.
Benedict Cumberbatch could have easily just recorded his lines and would have been done in no time, but the actor actually also committed to doing the motion capture for the dragon as well. Below you can see the actor, crawling on the ground, acting out his role as the dragon.
But it’s also the line delivery that’s spot on. The interaction between the two characters is different than it is in the book The Hobbit, but I still enjoy the performance Cumberbatch gave overall quite a bit. Smaug is clever, violent, unpredictable and easily distracted. Like Sherlock Holmes, Smaug is able to deduce that Bilbo is travelling with a company of Dwarves and that it must be Thorin who put Bilbo up to the bulgar role. Smaug toys with the idea of even letting Bilbo take the Arkenstone in favour of watching Thorin succumb to madness like his father. But, being a dragon, he also enjoys cooking things with his firey breath. Thankfully, the CGI for Smaug is top-notch, something the rest of the series was severely inconsistent with and the great cliffhanger ending on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug really leaves you hanging for more the first time you see it (which is surprising considering The Hobbit was originally to be a duology and the original ending for the first chapter would’ve been when the company meets Bard, not the battle with Azog in the trees.)
Expanding the Lore
So this is a tricky thing to talk about as expanding the lore of The Lord of the Rings can be seen as both as a positive and a negative, as it often created unnecessarily bloated runtimes or eye-rolling easter egg moments like the Gimli reference. But considering that Tolkien’s book was essentially a series of adventures barely strung together by the plot, it would make sense that Jackson and his team would want to add more to The Hobbit to flesh out its world and story a bit more. A good example of this is the inclusion of Azog, The Pale Orc.
Azog is, unfortunately, a CGI villain rather than one made of prosthetics (like Lurtz from Fellowship), and isn’t actually in the original book but is featured heavily in the appendices of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. In Tolkien’s writings, Azog dies at the Battle of Azanulbizar but in the movie, Jackson actually spares his life and makes him the central antagonist for the Dwarves, specifically Thorin. Without Azog, the first movie, in particular, would have no sense of threat and urgency and including an antagonist is ultimately the better move for the sake of the narrative. But while the character is CGI, props must be given to Manu Bennett, who did all of his scenes in Orkish. This role could have also been given to Bolg however, a character that is in both the movies and the books, but it seems Jackson wanted to have a foe for both Thorin and another for Legolas. If Legolas didn’t have an enemy to contend with, then the Hobbits could have been chased by Bolg and that part of the story wouldn’t have changed.
The Necromancer is also a character that’s featured in Tolkien’s The Hobbit books but whose role is greatly expanded upon. We get a lot of world-building at the Necromancer’s stronghold, Dol Guldur, including the reintroducing of the Ringwraiths. Many would say that this is actually a forced reference to The Lord of the Rings, but in actuality, while Sauron was posing as the Necromancers, the Ringwraiths did return at this time and in Tolkien’s writings and began assaulting the Númenóreans living in exile on Middle-earth. There’s a ton of cool additional information just lying in Tolkien’s notes, let alone in the actual stories, and seeing elements of these minor story beats get included in The Hobbit does make sense to me. Gandalf, in the book, goes to investigate the Necromancer but his story is largely unseen in the book, so Jackson opted to reveal what happened on this part of the quest. Can it be heavy-handed at times? Sure, but it’s also no secret that the Necromancer is Sauron. Likewise, the inclusion of the White Council taking on the Ringwraiths and Sauron may seem out of place, but it is something Tolkien wrote about and including it is just awesome fan service that actually ties into the narrative. That’s a difficult feat to do, but that scene, which showcased Elrond fighting Ringwraiths, exists and it exists in a way that’s visually stunning and doesn’t feel shoehorned in because Jackson developed this part of Gandalf’s story.
Of course, this is also where The Hobbit films get super ham-fisted (Thranduil talking about Strider makes no sense for instance) but this is the positivity article!
Once again, Howard Shore returns to compose the sound of Middle-earth for Peter Jackson. The Lord of the Rings soundtrack is, arguably, one of the most iconic film scores ever made and as such, what he delivers with The Hobbit films aren’t as memorable. But there are still gems, including the main Dwarf theme that plays throughout the trilogy and Thrice Welcome, the theme heard when we see Lake Town for the first time. But more interestingly is the inclusion of in-universe songs, such as The Misty Mountains Cold and Blunt the Knives, both of which were featured in the book. By the time the end credits roll on these movies, we get some iconic and beloved tracks as well, including the fan-favourite track I See Fire by Ed Sheeran and The Last Goodbye by Pippin himself, Billy Boyd, which to me are more memorable and enjoyable than any of the end-credit songs in the original trilogy.
Those are some of the things that The Hobbit trilogy actually got right. The films may not be as iconic or memorable as The Lord of the Rings films, I still can’t tell you which Dwarf is who because I have no emotional connection to most of them, and the overall package is a bit bloated, but there is certainly treasure to be found in this otherwise enjoyable, if not iconic, prequel series. What do you think of The Hobbit films? Do you prefer them or the Star Wars prequels? Let us know in the comments and be sure to read up on our coverage of the Second Age of Middle-earth, the era which will be the focus of the upcoming Amazon Studios television series.