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Film Review: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’

Warner Bros

David Ives - published on 12/12/13

While Jackson's additions may result in a questionable (some will say lousy) adaptation of Tolkien, in a weird way it all comes together to make the second Hobbit film a better, more enjoyable movie than its predecessor.

Back in 1964, for a dollar amount that has been described by those involved as “peanuts,” producer William L. Snyder managed to snag the film rights to a then-obscure series of fantasy novels penned by a middle-aged philologist from Oxford. Snyder then enlisted the services of renowned animator Gene Deitch, and for the next two years tried to secure funding for a full-length theatrical adaptation of his acquisition. Unfortunately, nobody in Hollywood had ever heard of this English professor or his quaint little fairy tales, so Snyder couldn’t raise a dime in funding. 

As fate would have it, however, with just a few scant months remaining before Snyder’s rights to the works were set to expire, American college students rediscovered the nearly forgotten stories in a big way. Seemingly overnight, Snyder found himself sitting on a hot property. With no time remaining to produce a feature film, yet needing something – anything – to put in a theater in order to retain movie rights to the books, Snyder gave Deitch thirty short days to write, animate, and print a single reel, 12-minute long version of the first novel in the series. Hacking out large chunks of the narrative and making drastic changes to what was left, the animator valiantly succeeded in delivering the film mere days before the deadline. And that was how, on the last day of June 1966, the first film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit made it to the big screen.

OK, so it only made it to one screen for one day and then disappeared, but it existed just the same. And these days, it’s actually pretty easy to find the thing floating around the Internet, so if you’re really interested in a 12-minute long version of The Hobbit with changes to the story that Deitch admits “a few years later would have been grounds for burning [him] at the stake” (there are no dwarfs, Bilbo marries a princess at the end, and so on), you should have no trouble finding a copy. But even if you don’t have the stomach to track down Snyder’s version of The Hobbit, it’s still nice to know the thing is out there for at least one simple reason: perspective.

You see, over the years, there have been a number of attempts to bring the works of Tolkien to life, and none of them, not a single one, has been entirely faithful to the narrative, tone, or spirit of the original novels. And there never will be such a movie for the simple and obvious reason that what makes a good book does not necessarily make a good film. I first opened the pages of The Hobbit when I was eleven years old, and I still count those few days it took me to make my way to the end of the story to be among the greatest reading experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I treasure Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but I’m not so sure I’d enjoy watching a straight-ahead film adaptation of it. I’m just too afraid that certain passages that come across on the page as lyrical and whimsical would most likely translate to the screen as saccharine and dull. When you translate something like The Hobbit to film, you have to change things to make it work – that’s just the way it is. (Maybe you don’t make the insane decision to get rid of all the dwarfs like Snyder and Deitch did, but you do change some things… and that’s OK.)

I guess all of the above is my extremely long-winded way of explaining why I’m perhaps a bit more forgiving of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies than many of my peers in the ever-widening circle of Catholic movie reviewers. Because Tolkien’s works are so deeply infused with his Catholicism, his writings have reached a near state of idolatry amongst us papists, and as a result, there are a legion of fans (many of them film critics) who will brook little deviation from the printed page. I get it, I really do. It would be great if every Catholic theme present in the book made it into the films; the world would be a better place for it. But if I may paraphrase a certain grey wizard, I don’t get to decide which adaptation of The Hobbit makes it to the screen; all I get to decide is what to do with the adaptation I am given. And that Hobbit is Peter Jackson’s, not J. R. R. Tolkien’s.

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