I really enjoyed ‘An Unexpected Journey’ when it first came out, even ranking it among my beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, as the franchise went on – and on and on – it became increasingly clear that cracks were beginning to show in a once-promising prequel. There’s still a lot to like about the films; the acting’s good, there’s some nice moments scattered throughout, but there are too many mistakes and missteps that point to wasted potential. After much thought, here are 5 things I’d have changed about the Hobbit prequel trilogy…
*SPOILERS FOR THE HOBBIT BELOW*
#1) Make it two films at most, one at best: There was nothing extra gained from the extended running time in the way of plot, characterisation, or delving into the lore of Middle Earth, so let’s keep it tight. Perhaps one film is too constrictive for the sprawling imagination of Tolkien’s vision, but if they want to split it in two, they really need to earn that second film – e.g. by incorporating more Middle Earth mythology, more of the Smaug vs. Erebor conflict, and way more character development. (Flashbacks would be a good way of doing this – the Battle of Azanulbizar was amazing – more please!) I would have included the character of Thorin’s sister, and mother of Kili & Fili, Dis (fan cast: Meredith Eaton), exploring her journey running parallel to that of her kin; as she suffers the most by the end of the story, we should get to know her personally so that we share in her grief. The Tolkien-verse has always focused on complex family dynamics, whether it be blood relatives (Faramir & Boromir’s daddy issues, Aragorn’s reluctant inheritance, Arwen’s mortality etc.) or the bonds forged between characters in times of hardship (the fellowship et al) and the Hobbit has lashings of both of these – but it could have done a bit more. I’d hardly have known Kili and Fili were related to Thorin but for one line in Desolation of Smaug. Given that he ends up inheriting the throne of Erebor by the end, there should be way more time given to developing Dain Ironfoot.
Though I have many complaints about the excess filler scenes and clunky call-backs to the original trilogy (see #5), there was one scene from the book which the films left out entirely: the part where members of Thorin’s company, traipsing through trippy Mirkwood, experience a Last Supper-style vision of a bountiful and golden-lit elven feast in the forest, only for the image to disappear whenever they approach. It’s a small thing, but it’s a highly cinematic moment which is completely overlooked in favour of CGI battle scenes.
#2) Utilise the platform’s prime opportunities for diversity: The Tolkien-verse has, as yet, never been a particularly diverse franchise, and the absence of diversity has perhaps never been more apparent than in the Hobbit. For a start, so much time, effort and money went into using CGI to digitally alter the heights of actors, and it just feels insensitive and unnecessary – instead, utilise the potential of the Tolkien-verse to provide opportunities for diverse talent. (This isn’t a slight to the actors who took on these roles in the films we got – I can’t fault their performances, but it feels like a step backward as opposed to a change for the better).
My dream cast? Warwick Davis as Bilbo Baggins and Peter Dinklage as Thorin Oakenshield. I would also reduce the number of Thorin’s company to a maximum of 9 (mirroring the fellowship of the original trilogy) to ensure the time is better spent developing these characters. Either reduce the number, or have more casualties along the way – I’d prefer fewer characters, so that the canon deaths at the end of the story have greater impact (though there could be an early casualty to convey the sense of danger to the characters and audience alike).
Thorin’s company also provided a – missed – opportunity for greater diversity in other ways. I love the original trilogy, but it – and the Hobbit series – is severely lacking in representation for non-white/ LGBTQIA/ female characters (I don’t think any female characters shared a scene, let alone a conversation, with each other in either Tolkien trilogies). Kili and Fili are perfect characters for a gender-swap – strong, clever, fun, and carrying a hefty heritage on their shoulders. Fili is the heir, a little intense and a constant worrier; Kili is the trouble-maker, cheeky and reckless. They couldn’t be more different, and yet they love each other (and their uncle), and believe in the cause even if they’re still naive to the ways of the world. It would have been a fantastic opportunity for a unique female dynamic in the franchise – how many badass warrior sisters are there in pop culture? In addition, there’s no reason for every single ‘goodie’ in Middle Earth to be a white guy – so much talent has been overlooked under the guise of ‘historical accuracy’ in a series where there are orcs and elves and magic rings. It’s a pitiful argument and a poor excuse to exclude those who don’t tick the ‘white straight male’ boxes on the casting sheet.
#3) Rewrite Tauriel: Look, Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly are two exceptionally beautiful humans – but that doesn’t mean they have to fall in love! It’s been a common trope in cinema, SFF or otherwise, that the most pulchritudinous man and woman in the room have to swear undying love to one another the moment their eyes meet.
At a fundamental level, the dwarf/ elf love story between Kili and Tauriel was promising but problematic. I appreciate they were trying to tell a Romeo and Juliet style tale of love breaking down barriers, but it was awkwardly forced in during reshoots to pad out the run time, and ultimately fell flat. Also, the otherwise great new addition of Tauriel was undermined by her character being largely defined by the forbidden love element – you finally had an opportunity to introduce a main female character into the Tolkien-verse whose story arc did not revolve around a man – and they introduced one anyway. What a waste – and an insult. I mean, they didn’t feel the need to fix up Frodo, or get Merry married, or pair off the rest of Thorin’s company – so why does Tauriel need a boyfriend, for goodness sake? (Though I would accept a love story between Tauriel and a female Kili – if it was well developed and not shoved in as an afterthought). [Also, my fan cast for Tauriel is, and always will be, Gemma Chan – someone please cast her as a badass warrior elf ASAP].
So let’s give her the credit – and the arc – that she’s due. Tauriel is smart, strong, and has risen through the ranks through skill and sheer determination to become Captain of the Elven Guard. Throughout her life, she has been discriminated against by her fellow elves, and her loneliness is acute. But through all this, it does not diminish her kindness – she genuinely cares about people, about nature, about protecting all that is good in this world. She believes in the complexity of people, knows that there is goodness and badness within everyone. She works hard, defying the traditions of her people and ascending to a career height that many still look down on her for accepting. She is stuck in a social limbo – neither as lowly as those who share her birth status, nor is she equal to the hierarchy that she serves. She prizes honour above all else – but when her duty clashes with doing the right thing, she, like Furiosa and Mulan before her, will leave everything she has built behind to fight for goodness to prevail.
Her complexity was hinted at in the film, but all that good character development was shattered by tying her narrative in such a constricting, stereotypical box. Instead of a romance with Kili (and her quest to gently dissuade Legolas from crushing on her), Tauriel’s arc should have been about breaking free from obligation and refusing to follow unjust orders, believing in herself and doing what’s right rather than what she was ordered to do. After all, the male characters in the films are allowed such nuance in their motives (ranging from revenge, to honour, to heritage, to justice), and why should Tauriel be any different? There was an interesting class/ social issue there too – Tauriel belongs to a lower-caste than Legolas et al in elven society, and that would have been an excellent motivator for her to get involved with Thorin’s crusade (and prove her worth to her fellow elves and, primarily, herself). Tauriel leaving to join the dwarves’ crusade, though it goes against his people’s prejudice, would spur Legolas into joining her, the family he has chosen, rather than staying within the confines of his father’s kingdom. Legolas’ deepest relationship across the trilogies is in LotR with Gimli, and any attraction for Tauriel would undermines the uniqueness of his bond with Gimli, because you feel that Gimli is the closest he ever got to romance.
Tauriel’s very inclusion in the story, as a new character who doesn’t appear in the original trilogy, meant that her arc had to end in either her death – possibly a noble self-sacrifice for the greater good – or self-imposed exile. Perhaps she goes to live with the dwarves, or becomes a kind of lone ranger figure, roaming the lands and doing good deeds for people. If she were alive, she would undoubtedly have joined the quest to protect Middle Earth – perhaps Tauriel fought in the war for the ring but didn’t cross paths with the fellowship so her heroism went under the radar.
#4) Give Legolas’ character more layers: Unlike the rest of the internet, I actually enjoyed Legolas’ inclusion in the story – as we know from LotR lore, Elven King Thranduil is Legolas’ dad, and so it makes perfect sense that the preening Prince would appear in the prequels. Yes, it’s shameless fan service – but it actually makes sense this time round. The Legolas we know in the original trilogy is a tad aloof, occasionally smug and a smidge elitist, but he’s ultimately brave, caring, and directly responsible for most of the fellowship STILL BEING ALIVE by the end (though he’s never really got credit for doing so).
Legolas has always been an underrated character – he’s loyal, he’s capable, he saves ALL of the fellowship with asking for (or getting) any praise for it; he’s noble, principled, snarky, competitive – he’s a very rich and nuanced character whereas many people often pass him off as the ‘pretty blonde one’ which really doesn’t describe him well at all. I like the fact that the pre-LotR Legolas is more like his nasty daddy – cold, aloof, prejudiced and arrogant. I think his affection for the Tauriel character feels natural in theory, but the romantic element is not a necessity. If anything, showing a platonic relationship between a man and a woman would not only be groundbreaking, but in a fantasy context it would be our first taste of elven kinship since Haldir and Legolas in LotR. Tauriel’s inherent goodness and sense of justice should have been her motivation, and her decision to leave her home of thousands of years in search of some hunky guy she met YESTERDAY is jarring.
When we see how deliciously dastardly his daddy is, it’s understandable that Legolas started out as the Draco Malfoy of Mirkwood. In the prequels, his character should be (almost) as cold and haughty as his dad, followed by a display of a single redeeming character arc. Maybe he’s good with animals? Maybe he secretly misses his mum (who was much nicer than Thranduil). I don’t know – something that shows us he’s not just an irredeemable, insufferable little toe-rag. Maybe he has a conversation with Tauriel where he confesses that she is his only friend – perhaps she is his confidante; the only one who knows how much pain Thranduil causes him, the only one who sees him as a person, and not as a prince – but [*in Edna Mode voice*] no romance!
I personally think Legolas can be read as being an asexual character – and romance is not necessary to his character arc; the kinship between the characters should be the driving force. [Side Note: the one element of the Kili/ Tauriel romance I liked was when Tauriel, cradling Kili’s body in her arms, wonders ‘why does it hurt so much?’ to which Thranduil replies ‘because it was real’. It was a touching moment for both characters, but I think it would work just as well if the dialogue was shifted to Bilbo & Bard. Bilbo, cradling Thorin, and Bard, who also knows what it’s like to lose his true love, offering comfort and peace]. Perhaps after Tauriel’s noble death in the fight against evil, Legolas changes, and begins to fight for the protection of Middle Earth as she did (though this basically falls into the ‘female character dies to increase male character’s man pain/ character arc/ narrative journey’, so I’ll hold off on that for now). Perhaps the very fact that Tauriel disagrees with her people’s prejudice against dwarves, despite the fact that she might face prejudice from Thorin’s company, all to fight for what’s right, would be enough for both Tauriel and Legolas’ character arcs.
At the end of the film, Legolas has grown but remains conflicted between his newfound respect for them clashing with centuries-worth of hatred passed down by his kin. When Legolas appears in LotR, we now would have a greater appreciation of his past and what it took for him to get here, as well as realising through the films that the Fellowship has given him his very first taste of true friendship since Tauriel; perhaps the reason he joins in the first place is because Tauriel would have done so. [A side note: could we stop trying to turn Legolas into Super Mario please? His action scenes leaping over crumbling rock debris was laughable.
#5) Streamline and clarify the story: Never mind Sauron or Azog or the Master of Laketown or the 47 other baddies they crammed into this series, the script is the true villain of these films.It suffers from the Spiderman 3 Syndrome of Excess Antagonists – not only do we have Smaug, the supposed ‘big bad’ of the whole shebang, but we also have Azog the Defiler (not the name you’d lead with on a first date), his son Bolg (had to Google his name), Sauron (post-death, pre-eye tower), Saruman (ish), Thranduil (sort of), Legolas (for about 10 minutes, before he switches sides), giant spiders (for one scene), Thorin (in a gold-obsessed stupor) and most egregious of all, Stephen Fry’s slimy Mayor of Laketown and his sort-of sidekick/ life partner Alfrid, played by Ryan Gage who is wasted here. The last character probably had the most wasted potential of the lot – set up as a kind of Wormtongue/ Peter Pettigrew hybrid, this slimy sycophant should be the first to go. He has no arc, he doesn’t get his comeuppance (via death or otherwise), he added nothing to the plot except for ickiness and awkwardness and TOOK HIS DAMN TIME DOING IT. I know it’s the script’s fault, but they spend so much time on this character and all for nothing. So he’s gone (off to better projects, hopefully).
The prequel trilogy started off vaguely promisingly, and then promptly forgot about its titular hero in order to focus on all the other characters instead. Even Alfrid! (see above). Bilbo is our hero; our eyes and ears to the mysteries of Middle Earth we didn’t get to see in LotR – but he gets lost in the melee and machinations of Middle Earth instead. One thing the original trilogy never did was to undermine the heroism and importance of its hobbits. In the prequels, there’s only one hobbit hero to focus on, and they soon forget about him as they meander through a vaguely-sketched out smorgasbord of two-dimensional SFF character sketches.
The best relationship of the prequel trilogy was the blossoming bromance between Thorin and Bilbo (aka the ship that launched a thousand fanvids). Their bond was beautifully set up in ‘An Unexpected Journey’, and then promptly forgotten about until the last minute – Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage still manage to tug at the heartstrings, but it’s a great relationship ultimately under-served by shoddy writing.
Perhaps worst of all, as with most prequels, are the clumsy call-backs to The Lord of the Rings, i.e. other, better films that you’d be much rather watching all 12 hours of than another 12 seconds of this CGI-crammed chaos. The Desolation of Smaug starts with a pointless filler scene which shows Thorin and Gandalf planning the crusade, which offers literally no insight to the plot – except that it necessitates a nostalgic trip back to the Prancing Pony and features Peter Jackson’s characteristic carrot-eating cameo, because God forbid we go 4 seconds without referencing the original trilogy. It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know, and it took up about 7 minutes of screen time they could have dedicated to better things – like character development, for instance.
Take one of the very few good prequels known to humanity – 2009’s Star Trek, which gently nudges at our nostalgia nerves whilst distracting us with genuinely great storytelling, dynamic characters and complex relationships. The Hobbit films’ treatment of the nostalgia factor, on the other hand, is about as subtle as being repeatedly thwacked in the head with a sledgehammer. Take for example the stunningly stupid scene at the end of ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ (probably one of the worst titles they could have come up with), in which Legolas’ dad suggests he go looking for a young Dunedain ranger called Strider – this scene, characteristic of the rest, was mind-numbingly awkward and clearly shoved in as an afterthought so as to stoke the embers of the audience’s remaining goodwill. Never mind the fact that Aragorn would have been about 10 years old at the time, how would he be known to Thranduil, and why would he send his son to look for him? Plus, it removes the agency of Legolas to seek out Strider of his own accord. And speaking of Legolas, his exchange with Gloin (as in ‘Gimli, son of’) is the height of clunky – it’s like the film can’t trust its characters to be complex and likeable, so they constantly remind you of far better films and characters instead.
Overall, the Hobbit trilogy was an enjoyable but far more forgettable series than its preferable predecessor. Having researched the making of the series, it’s frankly a miracle the films got made at all, given the behind-the-scenes debacle of drop-outs and deadlines that plagued the set from Day 1. I still have a lot of affection for these films, especially for the first one which, despite some questionable video game style CGI in the last act, had oodles of heart and hope to carry it through its oft-derivative but endearing story. But there was so much wasted potential that it makes me wonder what might have been.
Let me know your thoughts on the Hobbit below, and I will be posting my re-imagining of Suicide Squad (2016) in the not too distant future…
- Revisiting Daredevil (2003)
- Revisiting Solaris (2002)
- Revisiting The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
- Revisiting Penny Dreadful (2015-17)
- Rewriting Sleepy Hollow (2013-17)