J.R.R. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, loathed The Lord of the Rings movies. Speaking with the trademark eloquence of his father, Christopher reflected, “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time.” He even went so far to accuse Peter Jackson of “eviscerating the book” and turning it into an action flick for college students.
If that’s how he felt about the Academy Award-winning trilogy, imagine the horror Christopher Tolkien experienced after watching The Hobbit movies. Though it became a billion-dollar franchise at the box office, Peter Jackson’s follow-ups to his beloved film series are among the most derided blockbusters of all time. Whether you love or hate the movies, most will agree on one thing: they do not represent the story Tolkien wanted to tell.
From getting dipped in rainbow CGI to shoehorning countless LOTR references throughout the trilogy, here are The Hobbit’s 15 Worst Changes From Book to Screen.
15. Turning A Children’s Book Into An Action Trilogy
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. Just beyond that hole, there existed a technicolor world of albino orcs, rabbit bob-sleds, apocalyptic armies, and molten gold toboggan rides.”
If Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy were truly based off a book, that’s how the source material would start. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that each of these movies are among the least faithful book-to-screen adaptations of all time, not least because they miss the themes, the tone, and the very message of the novel.
J.R.R. Tolkien may be known for his exploration of good and evil, but those dramatic elements emerge much later in The Lord of the Rings. When he finished The Hobbit in 1937, it was touted as a children’s fantasy adventure. Even his dear friend (and frequent critic) C.S. Lewis wrote that the book had “a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology.” How, then, did The Battle of the Five Armies become even remotely tethered to The Hobbit brand? Whether out of a fever dream, movie studio greed, or a total misreading of Tolkien’s tale, the adventure of Bilbo Baggins moved from a whimsical romp to a breathless, violent war trilogy that remains a stain on Peter Jackson’s legacy.
14. Using More CGI Than Transformers
If asked to define the modern era of movies in a single film, any of The Hobbit entries would do. They embody the excess, the noise, and the offensive amount of mindless action that dominate blockbusters today. If we didn’t have The Lord of the Rings as a companion piece, perhaps the CGI-bonanza in The Hobbit would seem less absurd.
Unfortunately, the practical effects, make-up, and fight choreography in LOTR were so effective that almost everything throughout the nine hours of The Hobbit falls short by comparison. Remember how frightening the Uruk-Hai and Orcs were? Good luck finding anything on that level in The Hobbit. The movies are replete with extended moments of total animation, turning the precious backdrop of Middle-earth into a video game cutscene. Prior to the release of An Unexpected Journey, the internet was abuzz with rumors of 3-D and high frame rates galore. That’s all well and good, but if that technology makes your low-grade CGI that much more obvious, what’s the point? The best moments in The Hobbit are the quiet ones, like the Dwarves singing about the Misty Mountains. Outside of that, you’re stuck in Candyland.
13. Killing All Sense of Real Danger
Well-incorporated CGI doesn’t hinder a movie; it enhances it. When the computerized graphics serve nothing but the aesthetics, however, you lose your audience entirely. Because Peter Jackson overdosed on animation, he killed any sense of fear, dread, and danger in his movies. It’s a complete oxymoron: how can you have more action and less tension? Jackson finds a way. If you’re going to turn this idyllic Bilbo Baggins tale into a non-stop siege, at least make the fight sequences carry some weight, advance the plot, and leave audiences in a state of uncertainty.
Would that it were so simple. In The Hobbit movies, the action simply serves itself. It’s dead weight, an albatross around the neck of the plot. As a result, each fight sequence or boss battle feels predestined and free of peril. Even the oldest and fattest dwarves in the movies can chop down goblins like they’re stalks of corn. Nobody, not even the most skilled warriors in Bilbo’s itinerant army, earns an ounce of their heroism.
12. Abusing The Eagles
The Deus ex Machina is a timeless trope in storytelling. Though it’s been derided throughout decades of filmmaking, unleashing “god from the machine” can have a profound effect in a story. Considering Peter Jackson and the rest of his Tolkien team were always behind the 8-ball while filming the trilogy, it’s not surprising they summoned the movie gods on more than a few occasions. Unfortunately, they did so often enough to assemble a pantheon of celluloid deities.
Call it Deus ex Eagles. While it’s true J.R.R. Tolkien frequently summoned the big birds to save the dwarves and Bilbo, he did so far more sparingly than Peter Jackson allowed. Like a screen wipe transition in Star Wars, the Eagles become the most reliable parts of An Unexpected Journey to The Battle of the Five Armies. Are our protagonists in trouble? No worries, the Eagles are inbound. Whenever trouble arises and death seems certain for Bilbo and Thorin, the wing-spanned wonders arrive out of nowhere and save the day. In the books, they have far more autonomy and intelligence. By showing them at their Eyrie and describing their sapience and ability to speak, the Eagles were majestical creatures, not just beasts of convenience. It’s a shame Peter Jackson allowed them to become props without investigating their larger presence.
11. Turning Bilbo Into Action Baggins
Imagine if the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring positioned Frodo Baggins as an action hero. Rather than cowering in fear and running for his life, he would brandish his sword and take on the Ring Wraiths like Rambo. It would completely stifle any room for character development on Frodo’s journey from The Shire to Mount Doom.
These sins were committed from the get-go in An Unexpected Journey. While Tolkien’s writing made his lead hobbit the most parochial character of all, Peter Jackson saw fit to turn Bilbo into a swashbuckling hero. Though he’s mostly preoccupied with toast and tea in the book, and almost naive to the trouble around him, he becomes a foolhardy halfling in the movies, battling rabid wolves and murderous goblins with little hesitation. As a result, this early show of bravery makes Bilbo a fairly one-note character from the first movie to the last. Imagine the payoff if Jackson had allowed Bilbo to embrace his more bumbling nature before emerging into the man he eventually becomes. That’s the journey, the monomyth, that Tolkien intended.
10. The River Barrel Sequence
If you could boil down the essence of The Hobbit trilogy to one all-encompassing scene, the river barrel sequence would be at the top of the list. Though Tolkien wrote a vaguely similar event in the novel, he drew the line well before the point of absurdity. In the ninth chapter of The Hobbit, “Barrels Out of Bond,” Bilbo hatches a brilliant plan to save the dwarves from imprisonment under the Elvenking. When he happens upon a river underneath the palace, he gives each dwarf a wine barrel and carefully releases them downstream. The setup is considerably different in The Desolation of Smaug, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
If The Hobbit had a theme park, this would be the main attraction. Peter Jackson took the rudiments of Tolkien’s scene and threw in the kitchen sink, adding Legolas, Tauriel, Orcs, and a ridiculous amount of ludicrous action. At one point, Bombur and his barrel get booted from the river and become an Orc-steamrolling machine. The only thing missing from this sequence was a formal GoPro sponsorship, given the number of jarringly out-of-place shots from the low-resolution cameras.
9. Making Smaug A Fool
From a visual standpoint, Smaug is at the top of Peter Jackson’s accomplishments. The dragon is a massive and menacing villain brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch’s mellifluous voice. Though most of The Hobbit trilogy looks cartoonish, Smaug’s CGI is without question the best of the series. If only his character received the same level of attention from the end of Desolation to his death in The Battle of the Five Armies.
In the book as in the films, Smaug is a cunning beast. He lives in isolation, sleeps in cascades of gold, and promises to annihilate anyone who pilfers from his pile. In the moments where Jackson faithfully adapted Bilbo’s interactions with the dragon, the results were glorious. Smaug was wily and mysterious; but when the dwarves came onto the field of play, he became totally incompetent. A pointless chase through Erebor ensued, culminating in perhaps the most confounding image in all of Middle-earth: a skyscraper-tall golden dwarf. Smaug loses his cool, becomes an inept fool, and flies off to incinerate Laketown while Bilbo speaks on behalf of the film’s producers: “What have we done?” And to think that within ten minutes of the next film, the duplicitous dragon would be dead.
8. Wasting Time On Radagast And His Rabbit Sled
Decades after Tolkien’s death, fans of Middle-earth celebrated the brilliant author’s work, venerating one moment in particular: Radagast’s dangerous and brilliant attempt at resuscitating a hedgehog.
Forgive the sarcasm, but at a certain point, it’s hard to look at The Hobbit trilogy without cynicism. As for Radagast, this mysterious wizard is mentioned but once in Tolkien’s writing. Though he is portrayed as a Tom Bombadil-type eccentric in the movies, hardly anything outside of his relation to Gandalf is discussed in the novel. In the name of creativity and adaptation, of course, certain liberties must be taken. We understand that. But for goodness sake, don’t give an exceedingly minor character three minutes to revive a porcupine. Don’t give him bird-dung streaked hair and a litany of weed and mushrooms to make him even stranger. And most of all, don’t ruin all chances of your audience suspending disbelief by letting Radagast ride around on a rabbit sled.
7. Adding Azog (And Making Him A Cartoon)
As with Radagast, Azog is mentioned only once in The Hobbit. In an expository moment, Gandalf “reminds” Thorin Oakenshield that “[his] grandfather was killed, you remember, in the Mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin.” As he does with most things, Thorin bellows an angry response and curses Azog’s name.
It makes perfect sense why Peter Jackson and his scribes would see an opportunity in showing the rise and fall of this mighty warrior. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien even describes Azog as “a great Orc,” lending even more credibility to his menacing stature. Though a momentary appearance would have been nice, Jackson makes a fatal error in letting Azog overstay his welcome. The Hobbit was never meant to have a bounty hunter hot on the heels of Bilbo and the dwarves for hours on end. And if that was the right play, don’t make Azog a totally-CGI design. At no point in the trilogy does he look remotely real, or even begin to compete with the terrifying design of Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings. The end result is this automaton enemy who has the substance of a fanfiction character and the aesthetics of a screensaver.
6. Giving Beorn Short Shrift
Forget Radagast and Azog. When J.R.R. Tolkien hands you a legendary character like the skin-changing man-bear, Beorn, you better take him to the bank. He had a fascinating homestead, the kind of bucolic setup that would rival Bag End. He was this jovial lumberjack who balanced his softer side with a deep-seated joy of obliterating the armies of evil. More than Thorin, Gandalf, and Bilbo combined, Beorn was the game-changer in The Battle of the Five Armies. Why? Again, the dude could become a bear.
Given all of this juicy material that Tolkien actually wrote, what on Earth happened to the Beorn in the movies? While Legolas and Tauriel received completely fabricated plotlines and pointless trysts, the bear-man got put on the backburner. Though Peter Jackson threw in a few random moments here and there, he failed to take advantage of Beorn when it mattered. For those who read the book, this passage about Beorn will remind you how underserved he was in the films:
“The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers…Then Beorn stooped and lifted Thorin, who had fallen pierced with spears, and bore him out of the fray. Swiftly he returned and his wrath was redoubled, so that nothing could withstand him, and no weapon seemed to bite upon him. He scattered the bodyguard, and pulled down Bolg himself and crushed him.”
Beorn was ultimately in the final fight for nine seconds, getting airdropped atop spears (that could have easily spit-roasted him), wrecking the enemy for a millisecond, then being swiftly replaced by what? You guessed it: the Eagles laying waste to the army below.
5. Shoehorning Tauriel and Her Love Triangle
From the minute Evangeline Lilly was cast in the role of Tauriel, Tolkien fans were concerned. Though the female Elven character had no origins in any of the original books or appendices, audiences reserved judgment until The Desolation of Smaug was released. Upon viewing the film and Tauriel’s role in it, they soundly rejected her with a collective: “you shall not pass!” Within seconds of the blade-wielding elf’s appearance, it became clear that she wasn’t a cleverly crafted character, or a strong woman added to balance out the all-male cast. No, Tauriel was nothing but a shoehorned love interest to spark an interspecies relationship with Kili, the five o’clock shadowed dwarf.
Her affection for Kili is firmly established in The Desolation of Smaug. We get it. Peter Jackson believes in love, and even if Tolkien knew better, the director will brazenly go out of his way to satisfy that craving. By the time Kili gets stabbed at the end of The Battle of the Five Armies, however, the true purpose Tauriel’s character comes to light. As evidenced by her final maudlin scene, the wood elf exists solely to cradle her lover’s corpse and ask, “why does it hurt so much?” Great question, but before we let the Elvenking answer his equally painful response (“because it was real”), we have a follow-up: why are you even in this movie?
4. Including Legolas (And Turning Him Into Mario)
Of all the movie sets in all the world, how the hell did Legolas end up in The Hobbit? While slapping LOTR fans in the face, his inclusion has the added benefit of robbing the attention from Bilbo and the dwarves. This mistreatment of the main characters is perfectly encapsulated in the river barrel sequence, where Legolas literally jumps on the heads of the dwarves as he takes down goblins and showboats his fancy moves. It’s an embarrassing sequence for all involved, but if it did something to advance the plot, or even enhance Legolas’ character, we might be able to forgive it.
Unfortunately, Legolas is nothing but a harbinger of things to come. He’s like a walking reminder that yes, this is in fact set in the same world as The Lord of the Rings. At least in those movies, Orlando Bloom got to do a handful of his own stunts free of CGI. In The Hobbit trilogy, Peter Jackson turns him into elven Mario as he breaks the laws of physics and runs up falling rocks.
3. Everything About Alfrid
Now we come to what may always be considered the very worst interpolation of The Hobbit. In grand George R.R. Martin fashion, the Alfred of Middle-earth becomes “Alfrid” with an appropriately self-centered “I.” This ingratiating, unibrowed gadfly is an absolute drain on The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies. Though he seemingly emerges out nowhere, Alfrid QUICKLY becomes a central character in the remaining Hobbit films, rivaling the screen-time of Bilbo, Thorin, and the others. Worse yet, Alfrid was apparently added to bring levity to the plot. That’s all well and good, but when the sum of the jokes amounts to cross-dressing and scatological humor, everybody loses.
On a narrative level, Alfrid allegedly represents the untempered greed that afflicts the world of men. To convey these themes, we literally watch Alfrid don a dress with an inhumanly large brassiere and stuff gold coins down his shirt. It’s unbecoming of Peter Jackson and an absolute disgrace for the world Tolkien painstakingly created. There’s a reason Alfrid Lickspittle is known as the Jar Jar Binks of Middle-earth.
2. Adding Sauron
If brevity is the soul of wit, subtlety is the heart of cinema. After all, Peter Jackson’s (mostly) light touch and restraint helped make The Lord of the Rings trilogy so eminently compelling. As with the combined directorial efforts of George Lucas and Irvin Kershner in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, each scene left you wanting to see more than what was revealed. With The Hobbit trilogy, however, everything is done to the nth degree. Any chance of curiosity and wonder is killed by overplaying almost every sequence.
Even Sauron didn’t escape from the madness. Though he was perhaps the most enigmatic character in LOTR, only being seen in the opening battle and through the lens of his omniscient eye, Sauron is on full display in The Battle of the Five Armies. During a battle against Galadriel at Dol Guldur, Sauron and the Nazgul move out from the shadows and are seen in all their fiery glory. In addition to the fight against Galadriel, Jackson even added a Sauron duel with Gandalf in the extended edition of The Desolation of Smaug. Whether or not Tolkien always intended the Necromancer of The Hobbit to become Sauron of Mordor, Peter Jackson would have been wise to leave the all-seeing eye alone.
1. The Ham-Fisted LOTR References
Sauron may be at the top of the heap, but he’s just one of countless LOTR stars to get roped into The Hobbit trilogy. The references from An Unexpected Journey to The Battle of the Five Armies are abundant. For starters, there’s the moment where Legolas grabs Gloin’s family picture, asks about the “horrid creature” in it, and learns “that’s my wee lad, Gimli.” To make damn sure everyone understood the reference, Legolas raises an eyebrow and mugs for the camera.
At the end of the trilogy, Legolas gets caught in an even more cringe-inducing callback, confirming his character was designed to do nothing else but reference LOTR. As he leaves Thranduil, Legolas receives perhaps the most random piece of advice he could have expected: “There’s a young ranger amongst them. You should meet him.” Legolas asks who he is and learns that his street name is Strider, but to find out the one that’s on his birth certificate, Thranduil tells him, “you must discover for yourself.” Seriously, why would this racist Elf want anything to do with a random dude from the Dunedain? It’s almost as if the Elvenking is recommending we start watching The Fellowship of the Ring and forget The Hobbit movies ever happened. Noted.
What else got lost in translation from book to screen? Let us know in the comments