I’ve always preferred The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. The first book may be silly, but it’s fun. It doesn’t demand a fortnight to read. It doesn’t get bogged down in faux-history. Most importantly, The Hobbit boasts a more interesting main character.
Yes, Bilbo is ridiculous and stuck-up and pretentious. But he’s also likeable and interesting. Bilbo is someone special—someone worth Gandalf’s time, someone worth recruiting for an adventure, someone chosen by the gods to find the Ring.
Frodo, meanwhile, has none of that going for him. He strikes me as over-serious, un-hobbit-like, and somewhat aloof. His claim to fame? He happens to have an interesting uncle.
These distinctions show up on film. In Peter Jackson’s movies, Bilbo brightens up any scene he’s in. He’s delightfully quirky, self-conscious, irritable, and intriguing. Ian Holm (as older Bilbo) and Martin Freeman (as his younger counterpart) do fantastic work, but they’ve got a lot to work with. His evolution—from gentrified stick-in-the-mud to thoughtful adventurer—is a fun assignment.
Meanwhile, while Elijah Wood handles the role of Frodo admirably, he’s restricted by the character’s arc. The actor seems quiet, depressed and exhausted because Frodo is quiet, depressed and exhausted.
Along these lines, it’s probably unfair to blame Frodo for his antiseptic personality. We’ve only just met him when his psyche starts disintegrating under the Ring’s corrupting influence. He declines from page one, and it’s hard to mourn someone we’ve barely met. In fact, we almost welcome his deterioration; at least it lends the character some bite.
As Tolkien himself explained the differences,
Frodo is not intended to be another Bilbo. Though his opening style is not wholly un-kin. But he is rather a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror—broken down, and in the end made into something quite different.
Even after the Ring is destroyed and Frodo recovers a bit, he still seems dull. Tolkien has an explanation for that, too: “Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest.”
As Tolkien observes elsewhere, Bilbo is “the genuine hobbit:” a resilient, plucky, naive homebody, thrust unwillingly into the wider world. Frodo seems more elvish: flat, steady, and over-wise. In short, he’s just a bit boring.
Give me the elder Baggins, any day.