Not so short after all: The Hobbit’s three-part structure

Art & Lit Screen

Around about July this year fans of Middle Earth, Bilbo Baggins and magic rings in general let out a universal sigh, as Peter Jackson revealed that his cinematic rendering of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first novel, The Hobbit, would be separated into three parts. And last year we all thought that splitting the book into two films was pushing it. The first thoughts on this decision could only be unflattering to the award-winning director, and the decision raised questions as to whether he would fall prey to the same problem with filler that The Deathly Hallows Part 1 suffered, forcing us to watch an awkward Hermione shuffle around a tent whilst Harry proves to nobody that he is ‘a big boy who can look after himself’. However, after having seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I retract all earlier comparisons and would venture to say that this may even be Middle Earth’s most captivating outing yet; perhaps Jackson’s decision was not as ill-advised as we all first suspected.

The first instalment of Jackson’s new trilogy opens with a dramatic depiction of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, whose wealth and safety is soon usurped by the enigmatic dragon, Smaug. The dwarf people are scattered to the winds, homeless and vengeful, and the foundations of the adventure are laid. The spectacular visuals and soundtrack of this sequence certainly herald what is to follow; though the film is almost three hours long it shows no signs of losing pace. Tolkien’s book, and his chosen audience, explains why Jackson’s adaptation doesn’t run out of action, or humour, as the film goes on. An episodic and straightforward children’s adventure, each of The Hobbit’s nineteen chapters introduces a new character, location or event. As a result, there is no shortage of action, and then the scenery of the filming locations and the special effects fill in any gaps.

By including the character of Azog, a periphery character in Middle Earth canon (he is only briefly mentioned in the appendix of The Lord of the Rings) as a primary antagonist, Jackson aligns the structure of The Hobbit with that of The Lord of the Rings. The original trilogy builds up to a final climactic battle against the ultimate evil of Middle Earth. Now, The Hobbit trilogy will be able to build towards a similar climax: the showdown between Thorin and an enemy whose presence in the film is even more sinister than that of the dragon, the ‘Pale Orc’ who slew his grandfather. Though this may devalue to the significance of Smaug to some, it can be almost certain that, just as the rise and fall of Saruman is depicted in The Two Towers, the dragon will be the centrepiece of the second film. The overall structure is less like Tolkien’s succession of set-pieces, only tied together at the end, but has been made into a more fluid and connected entity by the writers, reflecting some of the maturity of his later novel.

Furthermore, certain details of the original story, the casual references to Necromancer and Radagast, are emphasised in Jackson’s imagining of the film as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. The discussion in Rivendell is a slower moment, but instead of detracting from the power of the film it places the story in Jackson’s larger vision of Middle Earth, the possibility of Smaug as being a weapon for ‘the enemy’ linking the two trilogies. By acknowledging and highlighting the bonds between his two works, Jackson creates the current of a real history of Middle Earth running through his fantasy epics. For his new cycle to match and complement his first, it is necessary for Jackson to write in three parts. When it works, it isn’t always detrimental to stick with what you know, and Jackson’s new trilogy could grow to epitomise this mind-set. This does not mean, however, that The Hobbit is merely a repeat of The Lord of the Rings, it is something entirely different. Just as Tolkien’s audience changed from children to adults, Jackson’s Middle Earth seems to be one which has grown old with its history. The Hobbit was not written as a prequel, it was the original tale of Middle Earth, and Jackson has respected this status by developing a film world which, like its author and his world, still dwells in innocence.

Though the structure of the film follows much the same lines as those of its precursors, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey diverges in terms of tone, subject matter and character; these changes make the continuation an appealing prospect, not one to be treated with disdain. If the scale of this trilogy is to match Jackson’s first, then fans of the original saga and new fans alike can count the extension of the story into three films a blessing rather than a curse.