Fact Check

12.14.12

‘The Hobbit’: 19 Changes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Novel to Peter Jackson’s Movie

Peter Jackson’s much anticipated The Hobbit hits theaters today. Resident Tolkien-ite Anna Klassen compares the film to the original novel, revealing 19 differences between the Tolkien classic and the movie.

 “All good stories deserve embellishment.” 

This quote, delivered by Gandalf the Grey in Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s book, The Hobbit, acts as a warning to its viewers: This is not your grandpa’s Hobbit.

Along with shooting the film in revolutionary 48 frames per second (presented in 3D), the adaptation was radical in its content, hand-picking what would be included from the book, and turning sentence-long descriptions from the novel into 20 minute scenes in the film. Earlier book-to-big-screen trials of The Hobbit, animated and otherwise, kept the medium in its original context: a book created for children. But Jackson’s version, coming off of the steam and success of the more mature Lord of the Rings (LOTR) series, presents a darker, adult adaptation.

As a novel The Hobbit is 276 pages in its 75th anniversary edition. The Hobbit as film is two hours and 40 minutes long, and encompasses only one-third of the book—and mathematically speaking, we knew there were bound to be some modifications. What follows is a comprehensive (and perhaps exhaustive) list of changes we saw in the transition from book to film. Warning: Major spoilers ahead.

1. Tolkien is famous for inserting his own voice into his novels, and in The Hobbit, he holds our hand through the entire journey, often using the terms “we” or “us” to describe himself and the audience. In the film, Tolkien’s voice is replaced by Bilbo’s in an introduction that sets the scene for the story that follows.

2. There is a prologue, similar to that in the LOTR films, which explains the history of the Hobbits, Middle Earth and the Dwarves’ current circumstances. However in the book, these snippets of history are given on a need-to-know basis, and sprinkled throughout the story. 

3. Elijah Wood’s character of Frodo makes a cameo at the beginning of the film, in an attempt to tie the LOTR films into its novel predecessor, The Hobbit. In an awkward scene, Frodo speaks with his uncle (an elderly version of Bilbo) about an ambiguous adventure he had long ago. This exchange never happens in the novel.

4. In the book, during Bilbo’s first encounter with Gandalf, Bilbo becomes fed up with Gandalf for suggesting he go on an adventure, wishing him a “Good morning” and making his departure. But because Hobbits (especially Bilbo) are never impolite, he invites him to tea the next day, which he soon regrets. No such arrangements are made in the film.

Video screenshot

On Flick Picks, Ramin Setoodeh and Peter Travers give "The Hobbit" two thumbs up.

5. Bilbo (like most Hobbits) is supposed to be rotund, and Bilbo is said to be more than 50 years old. Tolkien writes of Hobbits, “They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours; wear no shoes … have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs.” Jackson’s representation of Bilbo is clearly the “Hollywood” Hobbit, for Martin Freeman is neither rotund nor middle-aged (although Hobbits may age differently than humans).

6. Thorin, the leader of the dwarves and (debatably) the protagonist of the film, enters the “unexpected party” at Bilbo’s hobbit hole last, after the feast with the other dwarves has already begun. Yet in the book, Thorin arrives with three other dwarves, making his prolonged entrance in Jackson’s adaptation seem all-important.

7. During the feast with the dwarves, Tolkien writes, Bilbo becomes anxious at the prospect of an adventure and tries to sneak out of his Hobbit hole and hide, hoping none of the dwarves will see him slip away. In the film, Bilbo makes no such attempt.

8. The history of Bilbo’s “Took-ish-ness” goes unexplained in the film. Belladonna Took was Bilbo’s mother, and it is said that she had something “queer” about her that she passed on to Bilbo. Belladonna is rumored to have been part fairy, and while Hobbit’s have no magic about them (“except the everyday ordinary sort which helps them disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off”), fairies do. While the mixing of Hobbit and fairy blood in Bilbo is never confirmed, it is his mother’s remaining influence that is said to give Bilbo his increased spark for adventure.

9. Radagast the Brown, one of the five wizards who exist in Middle Earth, plays a substantial role in the film. He is painted as a crazed, animal-loving and quirky character who interacts with Gandalf, the dwarves, and Bilbo throughout the film. He even aids the group by distracting a herd of goblins on their tail (a scene dreamed up by Jackson). Yet in the book, Radagast is only mentioned, and never actually appears.

10. In a memorable scene in the novel, Bilbo has a moment of “Took-ish-ness” when he sees a group of Trolls in the woods, and because Hobbits have the ability to be ultra stealthy due to their size and lightness of foot, he decides to pickpocket them. Yet in the film, Bilbo only pursues the goblins because they have stolen the company’s ponies to eat, and Bilbo hopes to set them free.

11. When the company ends up in the trolls’ cave, they find three valuable and historic swords. Thorin claims Orcrist, the Goblin-Cleaver , Gandalf takes Glamdring, the Foe-hammer, and Bilbo finds a large knife (big enough to be a sword for a Hobbit) which he later names Sting. In the film, Sting is gifted to Bilbo by Gandalf in a moment of mentorship. But in the book, Bilbo chooses Sting as his own. This is significant, for just as Harry Potter decides his own fate under The Sorting Hat when choosing Gryffindor as his school house, Bilbo finds a moment of courage when selecting Sting.

a. Perhaps one of the odder casting decisions in The Hobbit (not including Lee Pace—all 30 seconds of him—and Flight of the Concords’ Bret McKenzie, reprising his LOTR cameo by popular demand): Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch plays Necromancer, aka Sauron the Dark Lord, and Smaug the Magnificent. Smaug, of course, is the dragon who stole the dwarves land from Thorin and his forefathers. Smaug doesn’t appear in the first half of the novel (and this film only covers  a third of the book), but does show his scales in the film, being “voiced” by Cumberbatch in the prologue and a final scene of foreshadowing.

12. The company travels with a miniature herd of ponies, and when they suddenly disappear, we are told the ponies “bolted.”  In the novel, they are clearly taken (and eaten) by trolls.

13. When Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves reach the elves’ home in Rivendell, they are grateful for shelter, safety, and food to stuff their bellies. But in the film, an unnecessary tension is presented when the dwarves arrive, throwing a fit and complaining to Gandalf that they would rather not room with elves.

14. Galadriel, the beautiful female elf who is a pivotal character in The Lord of the Rings series, does not appear in The Hobbit.  Yet in Peter Jackson’s version, in a very long and tedious scene, Cate Blanchett reprises her role from the LOTR films as Galadriel. During a press screening of the film earlier this month, Philippa Boyens, one of the film’s writers, explained the decision to insert a female presence. In what is essentially a novel devoid of females (creature or otherwise), Boyens jokes, “You start to feel the weight of 13 hairy dwarves.” 

15. In the film, there is a heavy tension between Bilbo and Thorin. Thorin doesn’t believe Bilbo is cut out to make the trek, and constantly belittles his comfortable life at home. There are several verbal confrontations between the two that escalate throughout the film. In the novel, Thorin’s hostility towards Bilbo is mostly petty, and rarely personal.

16. In LOTR, we are given characters like doe-eyed Arwen, Barbie-haired Legolas and brooding Aragorn that satisfied Hollywood’s need to insert beautiful people in blockbusters.  But because The Hobbit is filled with fat, unattractive dwarves, aging wizards and a slimy, bug-eyed creature called Gollum, Peter Jackson may have altered the character of Thorin to provide for an appealing hero. Although he is a dwarf, Thorin seemed to avoid the frizzy beards and extra nose appendages required of others in the company. He also has a deep, creamy voice and calm demeanor that completes his fallen-hero facade. But in the book, Tolkien paints a much less attractive Thorin. He is greedy, bumbling, an inexperienced leader who wants to kill Smaug not to avenge his forefathers and reclaim his homeland, but to get his hands on the gold Smaug guards. In the film, he is a king in exile, and his intentions are entirely honorable.

17. In the film, we watch as Gollum gets in a tussle with his next meal, an unsuspecting goblin. While the two are fighting, Bilbo sees a gold ring fly from Gollum’s pocket and land unnoticed on the ground. Once Gollum drags off his catch, Bilbo hurries to retrieve the ring, putting it in his pocket for safe keeping. But in the novel, we aren’t told how the ring is lost, and Bilbo never sees it, but rather stumbles upon it in the darkness of the cave.

18. Near the end of the film (and nearly a third into the novel), Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves find themselves trapped at the top of tall trees while wargs (oversized, evil wolves) snap at their feet. To remedy the problem, Gandalf sets pinecones on fire and begins throwing the flaming cones at the wargs until they are lit on fire or run away. Inconveniently, the trees in which the dwarves are perched also catch fire, and Gandalf calls his friends the Eagles to rescue them. Yet in the film, the dwarves, hobbit and wizard all congregate to a single tree that remains untouched by the fire. The weight of the company tips the tree over the edge of the cliff, and leaves the creatures dangling for their lives. At the same time, the “Pale Orc” (Thorin’s archnemesis and leader of the goblins—a character very embellished for the film) shows up to join the party.  Riding a warg, the Pale Orc watches as the company awaits their free-fall into death. He recognizes Thorin as the dwarf who cut off his hand way-back-when, and tries to claim his life. But Bilbo will have none of it, and uses his tiny hobbit sword to fight off the Pale Orc and his gang until the eagles swoop down and carry them to safety. Clearly meant to create a final climax in an otherwise less eventful scene, Jackson takes the liberty to add this battle to close his first film.

19. When Bilbo is snatched up in the claws of the eagles, he is frightened and the eagles speak to him, reassuring him that it is a clear, beautiful day—the perfect time to fly. In the film, the eagles don’t speak, and he mounts the back of an eagle, which carries him to safety. At the close of the film, Bilbo is no longer Tolkien’s flawed protagonist, but Jackson’s Hollywood hobbit with all the action hero trimmings—John Wayne’s sunset and an eagle as his loyal steed.

Editor’s note: In the original version of this piece, Rivendell was misspelled, the ponies were said to be stolen by trolls instead of goblins, and there were said to be six wizards, not five.