November 17th, 2015 marks a milestone in the history of the Peter Jackson Middle-earth film series, in that it's the release date for the Extended Edition of the final Hobbit film, The Battle of the Five Armies. This is the last time that the fanbase gets to celebrate the release of any official version of any of the films, and in honor of that, I wanted to do something special this month.
It goes without saying that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is a literary masterpiece, but because film is such a different medium from literature, a lot of changes did have to be made in the process of adapting the book for the big screen. While some of those changes have been controversial, some of them have actually made a lot of sense and strengthened the story in many regards. It can even be argued that the films handled some story elements better than the source material did, and I say that as someone who loves the book enough to collect copies of it.
Since both versions of all three Hobbit films can now be seen in all of their glory, I think it's only fitting to discuss what are, in my opinion, the top five things that they improved from the book.
I put this one low on the list since 1) Tolkien had the excuse of writing The Hobbit as a stand-alone book with no plans of further developing its universe at the time, and 2) the differences between the two works are because of The Lord of the Rings being different from The Hobbit, not the other way around. Tolkien did make some revisions to The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings was published, most notably to Bilbo's encounter with Gollum, but the two works remain very different in tone and in their presentations of Middle-earth--which is actually never given as the name of the setting in The Hobbit.
The Hobbit films make a point to show us that transition in tone, starting out lighthearted like the book and then slowly taking on the darker and grittier feel of The Lord of the Rings as they progress. They also remove some of the book's more whimsical elements, such as the talking purse that Bilbo tries to steal from the three trolls, to better match with the more realistic Rings.
In addition to that, the Hobbit films emphasize a lot of prominent elements from Rings that were largely glossed over or absent from the book, such as Sauron and the Rings of Power, the deep-rooted tensions between the elves and dwarves, and the One Ring's influence on Bilbo. It can be debated whether or not The Hobbit needs those elements in it as a stand-alone story, but now that it shares a universe with Tolkien's darker and more fleshed out works, I think it's good to tie the whole series closer together.
One of the strongest overall changes in the Hobbit films is Thorin's motivation for wanting to reclaim Erebor from Smaug. In the book, his main reason from the start is to steal back the treasure in the mountain, but in the movies, he starts out wanting to win back his people's homeland and only becomes greedy for the treasure after he reclaims the mountain. Since his goal in planning the quest is different in the adaptation, his strategy is different as well.
Thorin's plan in the book is to hire a burglar, send that burglar into the mountain over and over again to steal back the whole treasure one piece at a time, and then transport all of that treasure to a place that's far away from Smaug. Thorin's plan in the movies is to hire a burglar, send that burglar into the mountain to steal back the Arkenstone, use the Arkenstone to command the loyalty of every army in Middle-earth, and then lead those armies into the mountain to kill Smaug. Comparing these two plans, the one from the movies seems a lot more logical and has a much better chance of working.
To the book's credit, Bilbo does point out how flawed Thorin's idea to steal and relocate all of the treasure is. However, it's difficult for an audience to invest in characters who are that poor at planning ahead, especially when the thing that they're trying to get isn't terribly noble. In terms of the narrative structure, it's also more concise to have Thorin's plan center around the Arkenstone since the King's Jewel becomes so important later in the story.
Granted, his plan doesn't work out in either the book or the films, and since both versions of it do serve the purpose of showing Bilbo's cleverness and capability, it can be argued again that Thorin's plan doesn't matter. Still, I find the story a lot more engaging if Bilbo's company has a feasible strategy going into things.
Smaug's attack on Lake-town in the book is far from boring, but since it's also Bard's introduction scene, the readers only have the most general reasons for wanting him to kill the dragon. In contrast, letting the readers get to know him over the course of several scenes leading up to that point threatens them with a sense of loss if he fails, and that always raises the stakes. It's all the more beneficial to establish Bard as an important character prior to the attack on Lake-town because Smaug's death is such a crucial plot point in The Hobbit. Having an unknown person resolve one of the main conflicts in a story runs the risk of cheapening that resolution, even if the unknown person receives help from an important character.
I also think that giving Bard extra time for development makes his personality in the films more compelling than his personality in the book. Since we see what he's like and how he interacts with Thorin before Lake-town's destruction, we have a better understanding of where he's coming from when he demands a share of Erebor's treasure. What's more, it's easier to get behind him when we're introduced to him as someone who's witty and charming rather than someone who's just a voice of reason. All in all, I feel that the movies did a lot more with this character and made his purpose in The Hobbit much stronger for it.
Bilbo's most important relationship in The Hobbit will always be the one he has with Gandalf, but in terms of him actually finding it in himself to grow as a character, his relationship with Thorin plays the biggest role. Thorin underestimates Bilbo while overestimating himself, which challenges and even forces Mr. Baggins to grow more courageous over the course of the story. While this dynamic between the humble hobbit and the proud dwarf king is of course explored in the book, it's shown mostly as a professional relationship that doesn't really become personal until their last few scenes together. In the films though, Bilbo and Thorin's relationship is a personal roller coaster that serves as the story's emotional backbone from beginning to end.
I can't stress enough how much more the movies focus on these two and complicate their relationship, and it all works perfectly. They hit every high and low imaginable, becoming friends a third of the way into the story and then constantly having their friendship tested, damaged, and repaired up until Thorin's death. It should be noted that a lot of the scenes dealing with their relationship were added to the story for the films, but even the scenes that come from the book are given more weight on screen and become more engaging, as well as more heartbreaking in a few cases.
The two biggest reasons for this seem to be that Bilbo in the films is much more affected by Thorin's criticism of him than in the book, making him more sympathetic and strengthening their conflict, and that the films give a lot more attention to Thorin's character arc than the book does. The book mentions Thorin's hardships of the past but doesn't really delve into how much they've affected him, whereas the films do that and more. We can sympathize with him as much as with Bilbo, and the fact that we can still see his nobility and optimism through his arrogance and bitterness makes us want to see him befriend the hobbit all the more. There's just a lot more meat added to the bones of what was in the source material, and at the end of the day, that makes for a heartier meal.
Maybe it's an obvious choice for #1, but it was apparent from the start that the films had made these characters way more interesting than the book had. Instead of thirteen largely interchangeable dwarves with varying beard and hood colors, the movies gave us thirteen very distinct individuals with unique personalities and appearances--most of which were conceived from scratch by the filmmakers themselves.
What's especially impressive about this feat is that the filmmakers did more with the dwarves than they really needed to. I've said before that Jackson's team could've easily just made each dwarf a one-note stock character and still given the audience more than the book did, but they took the time to develop these characters as much as possible and show more sides to each of them as the story went on. They didn't just want to make these dwarves entertaining, they wanted to make them realistic and relatable, and they were right to do that. These are the characters that drive the narrative, the people that Bilbo spends the most time with on his adventure and decides are worth risking his life for over and over again. He should form bonds with them over the course of the story, and in order for us to believe those bonds, it's important that we believe those characters.
Another reason why I made the film dwarves the #1 improvement from the book is because unlike the other things on this list, this one actually goes full circle to benefit the book. There are entire fanbases now dedicated to characters of Tolkien's who had virtually no fans prior to 2012, and anyone who reads The Hobbit after seeing the films will have an identity for each dwarf. They'll think of a prankster in a floppy hat when they read about Bofur tripping over Bilbo in Beorn's house; they'll think of an easygoing young warrior with knives hidden all over him when they read about Fili trying to spot the boat in the Enchanted River; they'll think of a pointy-haired thief and a fussy mother hen when they read about Nori and Dori bickering over leaving Bilbo at the bottom of their tree during the warg attack.
That's probably the greatest accomplishment of the Peter Jackson Hobbit films: they gave us something memorable that offers us a new experience when reading the book. They gave us a more colorful cast of characters to go on a quest with, which made the story as much about meeting new friends as it is about seeing new places and trying new things. In short, they added an extra dose to an already very exciting adventure.