In preparation for my upcoming course, I decided to watch the Hobbit movies. I did not intend to use them in my course, but I wanted to get a feel for them. The movies were enthralling and entertaining. No one would argue they represent the book. They are crazy different — like ice versus ice cream. The movies and the book have their own value. Still, I was gripped by how different the presentation of Bilbo was between the book and the movies. Bilbo was more heroic in the movies but less believable.
I should preface this by restating that the movies have a completely different feel. They are an adult fantasy with serious tone and dark shading. The true Hobbit was a children’s book that was twice more lighthearted than the movies. For example, the movies only contain one song at the very beginning. However, the book has many transcripts of songs by the dwarves, the elves, men, and even Bilbo himself, as well as mentions of singing and smoke rings throughout the tale. Since the movies are very grave and serious, many of the scene transformations are understandable.
At the beginning of the book, Bilbo gets himself and the dwarves into a bad situation with the trolls. His first attempt to burglarize did not go well, to say the least. Gandalf returns silently. He tricks the trolls into arguing longer by throwing his voice around (c. 2, p. 38-9). However, in the first movie, it is Bilbo who detained the trolls and postponed their dwarf dinner. Gandalf even praises him for it as a way of defending his choice of Bilbo.
In that same chapter, Bilbo receives his sword (an elven dagger). The movie makes this scene very dramatic between Gandalf and Bilbo: “I can’t take this,” Bilbo said. “I have never used a sword in my life.” Gandalf replies, “I hope you never have to, but, if you do, remember this: true courage is about knowing not when to take a life but when to spare one.” However, the book merely relates, “Bilbo took a knife in a leather sheath. It would have made only a tiny pocket-knife for a troll, but it was as good as a short sword for the hobbit” (c. 2, p. 41).
This sword scene becomes very significant later on, right when Bilbo is about to escape from Gollum. In the movie, Bilbo nearly slashes Gollum’s throat under the protection of the invisibility ring. He recalls the words of Gandalf and backs down. But, this all comes from the imagination of the screenplay writer.
The book scene reads as follows:
He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart… And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped.(c. 5, p. 81)
In the book, this tense decision takes place within Bilbo’s mind. He never lifts the sword. Also, it comes from a place of desperation and not from the power of the sword. Bilbo’s conflict is one of method and not so much morality. Though both scenes share the feeling of pity within Bilbo, the one from the movie puts Bilbo in this position of power — holding a life in his hand. The tone of the movie is darker. Whereas, the book celebrates survival, the movie praises victory above all — victory over the enemy or victory over your own rash desires.
This difference is only solidified by what happens when Bilbo returns to the dwarves after the scene with Gollum. The dwarves viciously condemn Bilbo for wanting to go home while they think he has run away: “I’ll tell you what happened,” said Thorin. “Master Baggins saw his chance and he took it. He’s thought of nothing but his soft bed in his warm house since first he stepped out of his door. We will not be seeing our Hobbit again. He is long gone.” In reality, Bilbo was invisible and could hear them. He returns to the fold, announcing that he has returned in order to help Thorin reclaim his home, since did not have a warm house to return to. Once again, Bilbo is victorious over a knee-jerk reaction to run away (which happened before Gollum). This scene didn’t take place in the book. The reunion, in the book, was quieter and less dramatic; thus, it makes for a believable scene but far less Hollywood-esque.
In the book, when the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo escape into the trees (chapter 6), there is no Azog. Bilbo has no chance to defend Thorin. Also, when they are in the forest, the dwarves help and encourage Bilbo to climb to see above the trees (chapter 8). Once again Bilbo is robbed of the Hollywood heroism of coming up with the idea and fulfilling an extremely helpful act all by himself. It seems Peter Jackson feels the “real” Bilbo does not have enough agency or heroism in the original book. I will not even mention how the dwarves, in the book, managed to get into the barrels on their own without their “circus master,” Bilbo, telling them to (c. 9, p. 166) … oh, I guess I just did.
Sick, Sleepy Hero
Heroes never get sick, right? Luckily for Hollywood, Jackson agrees. Not only does the movie lack rest, recovery, and lighthearted distractions, but Bilbo never even gets sick. In the book, he does (chapter 10).
The last film, about the battle, was entirely a figment of the screenwriter’s mind. In the book, Bilbo did not participate in the battle. There were no moments for him to risk his life and be a warrior.
Tolkien, who truly experienced war and hardship, understood that you cannot live in perfect tension all the time. The movies are nine hours of perfect tension and dark scenes. Who would want to live through the real-life version of that? While Tolkien was at war, he and his friends wrote poetry and stories. Men sang in the trenches. Tolkien himself became ill during the war, but still had to keep on fighting. The reality of war is far better expressed through lighthearted moments, sickness, and recovery than by constant heroism and strife. War and quests for revenge are about wanting to live and survive. If you die physically or spirtiually in the process, then what have you really gained? Jackson’s Bilbo completely lost this desire to live life in the movies.
In conclusion, I like Bilbo from the book. He is enough of a hero and warrior: he out-smarted Gollum, killed the spiders, faced the dragon, stole the Arkenstone, and survived. He was an unlikely hero that rose to the challenge. His transformation was a wonder to behold. He did not return as a king, but someone who appreciated his home and knew what he was made of! His love of life increased. All heroes must return to life after the adventure. Tolkien’s Bilbo is ready to do this, but Jackson’s Bilbo will only be able to brew on his victories and all the vanities that come with them.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit movie trilogy
Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth
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