Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is a fascinating failure. It was originally intended to be two films directed by Guillermo del Toro, and he spent a full year and a half in Wellington working on pre-production before abruptly leaving the project. The official explanation from del Toro was that due to MGM’s shaky financials at the time, the films had no official greenlight, and he couldn’t risk spending any more time on an uncertain project. The actual explanation is likely somewhat messier, as Lindsay Ellis brilliantly breaks down in her three part autopsy of The Hobbit, which can, and should, be watched here:
She theorizes that MGM, and the four other studios involved in the films, didn’t like the direction del Toro was taking – a significant departure from the Middle Earth presented in The Lord of the Rings movies. Whatever happened, the result was that Peter Jackson reluctantly agreed to direct The Hobbit, threw away everything del Toro had done, from script to character designs, and started from scratch about two months before filming started. Compare this to the three and half YEARS of pre-production that was done on Lord of the Rings, and we can start to see why the Hobbit movies aren’t masterpieces.
The Hobbit is one of my favourite books, and Lord of the Rings is my favourite film trilogy of all time, so to see everything fall apart so spectacularly hurt a lot. The first film, subtitled An Unexpected Journey, has a handful of good scenes, and I actually kind of like The Desolation of Smaug, but The Battle of the Five Armies really illustrates how messy the entire effort was. The character arcs that have been sloppily built over two movies fall completely flat, and the titular battle is a bloated CGI mess that goes on for an interminable amount of time. Compare this to Lord of the Rings, which I rewatched this week. Every aspect of that trilogy gels seamlessly together to create a one-of-a-kind epic that never once loses sight of it’s characters amidst its spectacular action setpieces. It makes me sad that even though The Hobbit reunited almost everyone that made Lord of the Rings so special, the end result just doesn’t work.
I’d heard from a few people that I really should check out J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a fan edit by Dustin Lee. It trims the trilogy’s eight hour runtime in half, and according to his website tries “to keep the spirit of the book intact by removing unnecessary subplots, characters, ridiculous action scenes, and so on.” This sounded promising. Yesterday I finally took the plunge and watched the entire four hour film, and am pleased to say, really, really liked it. Lee has done a masterful job with this edit, and anyone who likes Lord of the Rings but not The Hobbit owes it to themselves to check out the fan edit.
You may be asking, “Are fan edits legal?” Here is what Lee has to say on the subject: “According to Fanedit.org, fan edits have no right to exist and no law to really forbid them. It’s a grey zone of legality. It is not the same thing as downloading an original movie (which is just stealing). There is the “fair use” argument that allows one to be creative with copyrighted material within limits. And there is “no money involved”, which is the main reason for no criminal offenses. Fan editors do not intend to earn money or to replace the original work. BUT AT THE SAME TIME, if you download my fan edit without owning the original Hobbit films, you are technically replacing the originals without ever having paid for them, which is wrong. So that’s why I ask that you own them first! At the end of the day though, no one has ever been arrested for creating a fan edit or for having one in his or her collection.” The entire Hobbit trilogy can be purchased on iTunes for $30, and the 10GB HD download of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit can be found on Lee’s website:
What follows is a breakdown of the changes Lee has made, and what I thought of them. Full spoilers for the entire Hobbit trilogy ahead!
Right from the get go, the lengthy prologue with Smaug attacking Dale is completely gone. One of the biggest problems with The Hobbit is that too much focus is placed on the dwarves, and not enough on Bilbo. Thorin is no Aragorn, and making him essentially the lead was an unfortunate decision that reeks of studio notes. Removing the prologue and instead opening the film the way the book opens made me very happy.
Sadly, Lee couldn’t do much about the washed out appearance of Hobbiton. This is a result of shooting the film in 48 FPS, a neat idea that backfired completely. Shooting at twice the normal frame rate gives everything a muted appearance, and nowhere is that more noticeable than in Hobbiton. What was green and lush in Lord of the Rings is now grey and sad.
And then there’s the dwarves. Their intrusion into Bilbo’s house gives me mother! level anxiety, and they genuinely seem to be going out of their way to be awful. Lee couldn’t do anything about this, but he did trim some of their antics. Lord of the Rings features some genuinely hilarious moments – Merry saying “I think I broke something,” and then pulling out a broken carrot never fails to make me laugh out loud. The Hobbit attempts humour more frequently, and occasionally succeeds, but never when the source of intended hilarity is the dwarves. Everything about them is supposed to be funny, from Ori’s bowl cut to Oin’s ear trumpet, but somehow NOTHING is. It’s kind of heartbreaking, because the actors give it their all, but Lee was very wise to remove as much of their tomfoolery as possible.
The scene where the dwarves sing has been kept intact, and it’s really great. The entire sequence feels like a direct translation of the original text: “As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”
After Bilbo chases after the dwarves and joins their company, and the scene with the trolls (with some more dwarf hijinks removed) Lee deletes a boring Orc chase, and if I hadn’t seen the original cut, I’d never know it had once been there. We get right to Rivendell (hey, it’s Bret McKenzie!), and Lee cuts out everything involving the Necromancer, Saruman, Galadriel, and Radagast. For someone like me, who didn’t mind those scenes but agreed they didn’t fit with the rest of the narrative, Lee has made a one hour film entitled Durin’s Folk and the Hill of Sorcery, that beautifully edits together this entire subplot, and is available for free on Vimeo:
The godawful encounter with the stone giants has been removed, and we instead only see the character moments: Bilbo almost falling to his death, and Thorin’s subsequent dismissal of his usefulness to the company. We get a shortened version of the Goblintown sequence, which I hated in An Unexpected Journey, but actually really liked here. Lee’s version of the film just works, and it’s amazing how much more open to The Hobbit it made me.
Riddles in the Dark is presented in its entirety. It feels almost like a one-act play, and watching Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman play off one another is impossible not to love. Freeman is a great Bilbo, and by the time he escapes Gollum and gives his speech about the dwarves not having a home I was tearing up. Then Azog shows up. This edit removes as much of him as possible, but considering he’s the main antagonist of the film trilogy, some Azog was unavoidable. He looks atrocious, a bland CGI creation that feels neither threatening nor believable. His iron poker for a forearm is intended to be menacing, but just comes off as ridiculous. Luckily his appearance here is pretty brief and before I knew it our merry band of adventurers was flying towards safety on the backs of giant eagles.
Considering I can’t make this column any more nerdy than it already is, I will mention that, no, the eagles aren’t a plot hole in Lord of the Rings. The whole point of the story is that the ring corrupts the powerful, and the eagles are pretty much all-powerful. So no, the eagles shouldn’t have taken the ring to Mordor – take that Family Guy!
We segue nicely into Desolation of Smaug, where Lee removes the most hated aspect of The Hobbit movies – the love story. I feel terrible for Evangeline Lilly in Smaug; Tauriel is an interesting, original female character, who is given almost nothing to do except fall in love with a bizarrely human-looking dwarf. The entire subplot is a colossal misfire, and I was happy to see it go. And Evangeline Lilly is about to star in a Marvel film with her character’s name in the title, so I don’t think she’ll mind being cut out of a fanedit of The Hobbit too much. Legolas is also largely removed from the film, and gives basically an extended cameo, which works quite well.
The dwarf antics are mostly taken out of the barrel chase, and the result is a tight, fun action scene that leads into an unexpected intermission. Apparently this comes right at the moment Peter Jackson originally intended to split the two movies, before the studios realized that an extra movie would make extra money. The intermission is a delightful surprise, and makes me wish more movies had them. I refilled my coffee, and sat back to watch the second half of a film that I was enjoying far more than I’d dared hope.
We head to Laketown, where much of the political subplot has been excised. The town looks gorgeous, its theme by Howard Shore is jaunty and catchy, and Luke Evans manages to sell Bard as a three dimensional character. This leads me to the only edit I wish Lee hadn’t made, and that’s the moment where a dwarf pops his head out of Bard’s toilet and his daughter asks if he grants wishes.
Lee expertly cuts around Fili and Kili staying behind in Laketown, and instead we simply assume they are with the rest of the dwarves as they finally arrive at the Lonely Mountain. We get to enjoy the entirety of the scene between Smaug and Bilbo (Sherlock reunion!) and it’s almost as good as Riddles in the Dark. Most of the action sequence as the dwarves escape Smaug’s wrath is thankfully cut, which leads to a slightly confusing moment where Smaug bursts out of the mountain, suddenly covered in liquid gold. To Lee’s credit, the scene that transitions to him being covered in gold is truly abysmal, and Lee has digitally removed as much of the gold as possible. It’s a tradeoff, but I think he made the right call.
We now get to The Battle of the Five Armies, the worst film in The Hobbit trilogy. It starts out promising enough, with Bard defeating Smaug, but then Thorin starts to get dragon sickness and everything goes to hell. Lee was presented with a fairly serious challenge here and I’m happy to say that he makes the best of a bad situation, and resolves this confusing plot thread with as much grace as is humanly possible. He removes several of the scenes depicting Thorin’s descent into madness, and this makes the arc feel more defined. By the time Dwalin tells Thorin how disappointed he is in him, we believe that Thorin may actually be listening, because we haven’t spent so much time watching him go insane. When he emerges from the Great Hall sans crown and ready to see reason, it’s still a tad underwhelming but nowhere near as much as in the original film.
The battle itself has been trimmed to its bear essentials, and rarely drags. The special effects still don’t look very good, but it didn’t really bother me this time, as I was by now fully immersed in the world. When the final encounter with Azog rolled around I couldn’t believe we were already there. The CGI artists had an extra two years to work on him this time, and he looks much better. The battle is well staged, though we get another bit of editing confusion where Thorin’s sword suddenly changes to the one that was taken from him in Mirkwood. Thorin’s last line – “If more people valued home above gold, this world would be a merrier place” – felt completely earned thanks to Lee’s Herculean efforts to shift the focus of the story to Bilbo. Then we get that great shot of Bilbo and Gandalf sitting together after the battle is over, a wonderful added scene, from the Extended Edition, of Thorin’s funeral, and finally we’re back in Hobbiton and the film ends the way The Fellowship of the Ring begins.
All in all, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit made me realize there was a lot of magic in The Hobbit movies – it was just surrounded by a lot of junk. Lee has molded these movies into something miraculous, and his cut of the films will now be a permanent fixture of my yearly Lord of the Rings marathon. Which I’m just now realizing has ballooned to fifteen hours. Plus that hour long Durin’s Folk and the Hill of Sorcery. Oh well, still shorter than Star Wars. And speaking of Star Wars, Lee’s fun edit of Rogue One, as well as several of his own films are available on his website! Check it out!