Back in the mid-nineties, Peter Jackson had a problem. He (and his creative partners) had unveiled plans to film J.R.R. Tolkien’s most celebrated novels, using their native New Zealand as a stand-in for Middle-Earth. They hoped to make The Hobbit—chronologically, the series’ initial book—first. But Jackson’s producers failed to secure rights for The Hobbit. Undeterred, Jackson shifted gears. Rather than start at the story’s start, his team would adapt Tolkien’s massive, rambling follow-up to The Hobbit: The Lord of the Rings.
The rest is history; Jackson & Co. convinced the studio to finance three separate LOTR pictures—one for each book. Each proved spectacularly successful (both commercially and critically). A decade later, The Hobbit finally escaped development hell; the first film, An Unexpected Journey, was released in December 2012.
What’s done is done. Still, I can’t help but wonder: what if Jackson had obtained the rights to The Hobbit, way back in 1996? What if he adapted that book first? How might this version of *The Hobbit* differ from the one now in production? And what effect might this have had upon the subsequent Rings sequels?
My next few blog posts address these questions. Next time, we’ll consider Lord of the Rings. Today, I explain why The Hobbit should have come first.
The Hobbit is a short book. Quick readers can plow through the entire novel on a long Sunday afternoon. So when Peter Jackson announced that his adaptation would span two films, fans scratched their heads. Would the material stretch that far? And then, just a few months before the first film’s completion, the studio agreed to a Hobbit trilogy. Fantasy nerds began to fret; the expansion felt like a cash grab, rather than a creative imperative.
The December release of An Unexpected Journey has done little to allay those fears. This first Hobbit film takes far too long to do far too little. Nearly every scene would have benefited from ruthless edits, and many sequences should have been cut altogether. To borrow Tolkien’s words, the movie felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
But if The Hobbit had come first, things might have been different. It’s unlikely that the film’s corporate backers would have green-lit two Hobbit films (let alone three). An unproven director like Jackson (whose earlier films were low-budget and small-scale) wouldn’t enjoy that sort of leeway. Instead, the studio would minimize its risk by demanding a shorter run time. Dependent on their funding, Jackson would have been forced to trim down his Hobbit, streamlining the narrative and paring down any excess.
What padding might Jackson have stripped? First and foremost, he’d face no temptation to stuff The Hobbit with Middle-Earth footnotes. In his ongoing Hobbit trilogy, Jackson extends his screenplays by mining the Lord of the Rings appendices for relevant subplots. A shorter Hobbit offers no room for such additions. Specifically, the entire Necromancer storyline would have been cut. Since this clunky subplot revolves around characters the audience has never met (Sauron, the Ringwraiths, Saruman, Galadriel, Radagast), including it makes little sense.
With this one move, Jackson drastically improves his movie, since An Unexpected Journey’s most cringe-worthy scenes never even get filmed. And good riddance! Consider: Tolkien had reasons for banishing this material to the Rings endnotes. First, it’s tangential to the story’s heart (i.e., Bilbo’s wide-eyed introduction to the world). Second, it lacks the book’s charm and whimsical tone (Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for juvenile readers).
If this hypothetical Hobbit had no time for Tolkien’s canonical glosses, it certainly couldn’t have fit Jackson’s own plot inventions. Journey’s framing device—an older, nostalgic Bilbo, badgering his nephew Frodo—wouldn’t have made the cut. With no *Lord of the Rings* for context, the audience wouldn’t care about these characters. The “orc hunting party” wouldn’t make it in, either. Why bother resurrecting Azog (in The Hobbit book, he’s unmentioned and long-dead)? Smaug the Magnificent provides all the fierce villainy you need for a shorter movie.
Make these changes, and you’ve saved ninety minutes from the bloated first film. With a few deft rewrites, you’ve made room for an abbreviated, thrilling adaptation—all contained in a single film. Or, if Jackson somehow convinced his handlers to approve two movies, these cuts set up an epic final act: the barrel ride to Lake-town, the glorious, dragon-centric climax, and the Battle of Five Armies as a stunning, poignantly tragic denouement.
Had Jackson secured the rights and made The Hobbit first, fans would’ve enjoyed a tighter film that better respected its source material. But what might this have meant for The Hobbit’s vast, sprawling sequel? Next time, we’ll explain why The Lord of the Rings would have worked better as a follow-up to a successful Hobbit adaptation.