Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What Comes First? The Hobbit or the Rings?

Prequels pose a rather unique challenge to writers and filmmakers. Not only do they have to tell their own coherent stories, but they also have to adequately set up the events of the installments that came before them. Since they take place earlier in the series, they often can't include a lot of familiar elements from their predecessors, yet they still have to be similar enough to those predecessors to keep from alienating fans. What's more, most books, films, and so on are created without any prequels in mind, and this lack of accommodation can really plague a prequel's storyline and form plotholes and inconsistencies in the overall series.

Peter Jackson's Hobbit films add a layer of confusion to this. Not only are they prequels to a film trilogy that had been made without any prequels in mind, but they're based on a book that was written without any sequels in mind -- sequels which were eventually written and adapted into the Hobbit films' predecessors. It's the book-to-movie equivalent of the "chicken or the egg" question, and this leads many to wonder if the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings film trilogies can really function as one six-film series. Can future audiences view the films in chronological order without confusion, or are they better off viewing the films in the order that they were made?

There are a few inconsistencies between the two trilogies, but not many, so let's get those out of the way first.

Only two notable characters had to be recast throughout all six films: Gloin the dwarf and Bilbo Baggins the hobbit. Gloin's recasting in The Hobbit creates no conflict whatsoever, seeing how he's never identified or given any lines throughout his one scene in the Lord of the Rings films, but Bilbo's recasting is a different matter.

Even though Ian Holm was available to reprise his role for The Hobbit, playing a younger and more able-bodied Bilbo would have been too difficult for him, so Martin Freeman was brought in. Holm still plays the older Bilbo at the beginning and end of the Hobbit trilogy, and while this fits with the way he looks in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it does create a bit of a plothole.

See, one of the powers that the One Ring possesses is immortality, which prevents its bearer from aging for as long as they carry it. This is said to be the case with Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring, but in the Hobbit films, he clearly doesn't look the same age sixty years after finding the Ring. In fact, if you listen closely to the dialogue from Fellowship that's replayed at the end of The Battle of the Five Armies, Gandalf's line about how Bilbo hasn't "aged a day" is omitted from it.

The argument could be made that the Ring in the movies doesn't stop the aging process so much as it slows it down; after all, Gollum's appearance doesn't stay the same throughout his time with the Ring. However, it's still apparent that having Bilbo played by two different actors was not in the equation at the time that The Lord of the Rings was filmed. This is evidenced by the fact that Ian Holm does play the younger Bilbo in a flashback at the beginning of Fellowship, where we see him finding the Ring.

This leads to some other minor issues. Not only does that version of the younger Bilbo look and dress differently from the one in the Hobbit films, but the entire riddle game with Gollum is removed in that flashback. The scene jumps right from Bilbo picking up the Ring to Gollum screaming that his "Precious" is lost, something that Gollum doesn't realize until after the riddle game concludes in An Unexpected Journey. Future audiences will probably be able to tell that both scenes are depicting the same plot point, but the inconsistencies between them are bound to be a little jarring.

Gollum is another character who differs between the trilogies. Since Peter Jackson's team was still perfecting CGI motion capture in the early 2000's, Gollum was mostly kept out of sight in Fellowship. By 2011 though, his scenes were pretty easy to shoot and render. As a result, people who watch the six films in chronological order will get a Hobbit film where Gollum is shown as clear as day, a Lord of the Rings film where he's suddenly shrouded in mystery, and then two more Lord of the Rings films where he's plainly visible again.

This doesn't really detract from watching the films in that order, though. It just slightly lessens the impact of Gollum's reveal in The Two Towers and makes it easier for viewers to tell which order the two trilogies were made in. Gollum's buildup in The Lord of the Rings might even still work, since viewers are given two whole films to forget what he looks like in between his appearances in An Unexpected Journey and The Fellowship of the Ring.

There are other things that can play out strangely to viewers, especially when watching the Extended Editions. It's odd to hear Bilbo calling for Frodo in Bag End at the beginning of Fellowship's Extended Edition when he clearly saw Frodo leave Bag End at the beginning of Journey, and it's ironic that viewers don't get a clear explanation of what a hobbit is until after the Hobbit trilogy is over. A lot of major characters like Radagast, Thranduil, and Tauriel disappear with no explanation halfway through the series, and no mention of Balin's conquest of Moria is given prior to the Fellowship's decision to go there in The Lord of the Rings. People who forget what Moria is from all the way back in Journey might get confused about this plot thread. Once again though, these are minor issues.

With that said, let's discuss how the two trilogies do flow into each other.

As I've said before, the Hobbit films do a very good job of making the book's story and setting more consistent with The Lord of the Rings. Showing things like the One Ring's effect on Bilbo and Gandalf's relationship with other authorities in Middle-earth go a long way in connecting the trilogies, as does the more fleshed-out Necromancer subplot that foreshadows Sauron's return. It's important to illustrate that such dark powers exist in a prequel that is meant to set up a story about those powers. The lack of resolution with Bilbo's "magic ring" by the end of The Battle of the Five Armies also makes a strong case for watching Fellowship soon after.

The Hobbit's mentions of characters from The Lord of the Rings further help to bridge the gap between the film trilogies. Some feel that those mentions can be forced at times, but they do help to establish those characters' relevance in the long run. In case we forget who the minor character Gloin is by the time Gimli is introduced as "Gimli, son of Gloin" in Fellowship, we might remember Gimli's name from its prominent mention in The Desolation of Smaug; in case it seems odd for Legolas to be such good friends with a non-elf like Strider in Fellowship after watching the Hobbit trilogy, we'll remember his father telling him to seek out Strider at the end of The Battle of the Five Armies. Screenplays have to be a lot more tight-knit than books, so it's usually good practice for films to elude to story elements that way.

Lastly, it helps that the Hobbit films get darker and more serious to match the tone of The Lord of the Rings as they go on. This was partly by design and partly by necessity, since the Battle of the Five Armies and all of the major character deaths that result from it really couldn't have happened offscreen in the films like it did in the book. Because of this, the Hobbit films give us a comfortable transition from their light-hearted source material to the more grisly Lord of the Rings films.

And that brings us to our final verdict. At the end of the day, it's pretty obvious that the Hobbit film trilogy, while having its own identity, was meant to be viewed in order with the Lord of the Rings and not as a stand-alone series. The inconsistencies between the trilogies are all fairly minor, and they cease to be a problem roughly halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring

It's doubtful that Peter Jackson will ever go back and make changes to Fellowship to better match it with The Hobbit, and most fans of the series likely wouldn't want him to anyway. And really, he shouldn't. As far as prequels go, the Hobbit trilogy is a strong followup that ties in very well with its predecessors, and its shortcomings in that regard should be left intact just to highlight how few of them there really are. If the perfect prequel is unachievable, then the Hobbit films are three of the closer attempts at reaching that.


  1. Fantastic! In fairness i think that there aren't many 'prequel' movies around for people to watch and there are a number of reasons for that of course but also i think that i'm not biased in saying that i agree with the notion that the Hobbit trilogy is possibly the closest attempt to telling a story that is one out of two and being made many years later than the later one it is supposed to start off, in terms of one, two and three out of a series of six.
    Ultimately though in theory it doesn't have to fall short of the story that comes after it the problems is that the fans who have enjoyed the second tale for a long time will always find it hard to see the Hobbit movies as equals; Imagine making the Harry Potter movies at The Goblet of Fire and then going in to tell the stories that came before it, just because that movie seemed better to make first or they had no way of being able to even make the ones before it. Personally, i think that the film-makers have done a good job in making the Hobbit sit as the first three and don't bombard the viewer when they watch them in a way that that they should be really thinking about what is to come in four, five and six while caught up in the story of Bilbo.
    The problem is with the previous knowledge of watching four, five and six - one, two and three in some ways will always feel like getting slightly less because it has to develop over the series of which half is already known extensively.
    Also i think its fair to say that its done well that with each film it gets more darker, grander and 'epic'; Which became to be the film-makers intentions and looking at the posters just above it is clear to see them like that but also as two different stories, different in type and creation(exactly like the books for one is more of a Faerie story and the other an Epic tale rediscovered and translated for everyone who wishes to, to read.) And in that sense they are individuals in their own trilogies which can never be fully combined because of how their sources have the same inconsistency. Yet one thing the six movies do well is to cement them in the same world, Middle-Earth, which is not the case, but adds to it charms on the pages, in the books, for The Hobbit is clearly different but we are given a great way to understand it - as Bilbo (a single hobbit) is how we get the story; In a way that can be good to see and understand(and how i often do) the movies and in part the book as Bilbo writing a faerie story on a adventure, which it is labelled as, in the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings. And that in many ways is what would have separated the trilogies completely if they had made them in the way that the books present them.

  2. I guess my point is that i love the books and the movies; The most common problem is that it is hard to be disappointed with a book one loves and its easy to be when it has to be cut down or changed just to fit on the screen; Yet i think all of these movies do a mighty fine job at just that, even if adding is a third change that film-makers decide to do. However, even though some may say that there are parts in all six that are there and shouldn't be especially when something else could have been, it is obvious from watching and reading about the creation of this movies that nothing is in them that doesn't serve what the film-makers were trying to use it for. For someone who loves the tales enough to know them and how they were created and what they like about them, then they will be able to see and mostly understand the decisions that make them up both on paper and on screen. Although, in truth it will always take time for things to feel like they belong somewhere and even with me i'm at times hard to label them all as one, but that is just perhaps i really enjoy the differences that will always make them feel like two separate tales from different perspectives as is the wonderful variety at hand when one enters the stories of Middle Earth.
    Anyway, great article and as usual a very poignant concluding paragraph. Looking forward to the next ones.
    (Also by the way, I'm not sure if you agree but when you mentioned Ian Holm's Bilbo asking for Frodo in the EE of The Felowship of the Ring reminded me that in An Unexpected Journey he also says that "Is it today?" in response to Frodos reminder of the Party; So perhaps the film-makers might have recognised this, or just luck, that it seems very much like the Older Bilbo is getting a little forgetful - most like it looks because of attention which now seems very strongly draw on that particular day towards remembering the journey he took 60 years ago. Right before that very evening when he will head off again in search of woods and mountains and a place to finish his book.)
    Sorry, went to publish and was utterly denied so its split in two, funny really as the whole topic is about two trying to be presented at one!

  3. Just published both and saw them together; "Whoa, Damn! Thats quite a bit" was what literally went through my head. Sorry.

  4. That's perfectly alright. I'm flattered that my article gave you so much to say. :)

    Bilbo's forgetfulness about Frodo leaving Bag End the day of his 111th birthday does make sense, now that you mention it. Writers do tend to get lost in their work like that, and the line in An Unexpected Journey about him forgetting that his party was that day helps to establish that.

    I also agree with you that all six movies are pretty good adaptations and that just about everything in them serves a purpose, even the things that weren't in the books. Both film trilogies are self-contained enough that each can be enjoyed on its own, and even if they don't fit together perfectly, they do still clearly take place in the same universe.

    What you said about the Hobbit films seeming like lesser movies after seeing LOTR is also interesting. If someone who's never seen any of them before were to view them in chronological order, the six-film series would improve in quality as it goes on. That's what you would want really, so it's alright for the Hobbit trilogy to not be on the same level with LOTR.

    Thank you again for all of your feedback. It's very much appreciated, and the points that you bring up add a lot of depth to the subjects in the articles. Thanks again!

  5. No problem, they're just simply so insightful that it feels hard not to respond in some kind of way.

  6. Bilbo wondering for Frodo is just a small inconsistency, I think. He is probably deep in his book for hours. Also - if you want to make a fuzz out of it - there is this line in AUJ: "[Gandalf] doesn't approve of being late", indicating he expects him to arrive early and it is still morning when Frodo leaves for Eastfarthing Woods. Later, in Fellowship there is Frodo's line "You're late!" to Gandalf and it also seems like it's afternoon. So, Bilbo clearly expected Gandalf early in the morning, but he did arrive in the afernoon. Bilbo, while he was calling out for Frodo, was probably equally wondering about Gandalf... if you want to make a fuzz out of it.

  7. Very interesting article. It shows that you actually paid attention to the small details in the movies that would only come by watching them time and time again. I believe that this film series is the best ever made and I am disappointed that they cannot do more movies in the Tolkien universe (Strider's/ Gandalf's adventures?). I agree with the point that Bilbo is getting forgetful. I mean the hobbit is 111 years old. Anyone would be forgetful at that age! I also enjoy that the movies do get more serious and intense as the stories move along, as they should. Bilbo, I think, viewed this adventure as almost all fun and games. But he soon realizes that there are dangers out in the world. And when Thorin, Fili, and Kili die, I think he finally knew what he had gotten himself into. Heck maybe even before that. While in contrast, Frodo, growing up with Bilbo and hearing all of his stories, maybe had a better understanding of what he was getting himself into. I do have several questions though. When Gandalf gives Bilbo "Sting" he tells him that the blade is of Elvish make and will glow blue when orcs or goblins are about. Now Gandalf and Thorin also have Elvish blades, why do their's not glow blue as well? Also what is the deal with Gandalf losing his staffs? By my calculations hes lost three staffs (one to Sauron when it was disintegrated, another when he fell in Moria and the last when the King of the Ringwraiths shattered it) throughout the six movies. Magic staffs don't grow on trees right? My last question also involves Gandalf. Is the sword that he picked up in the troll cave the same sword that he carries throughout the LOTR trilogy? If so, how? He was captured by Sauron and I imagined that they took his sword then, then he fell in Moria and lost it there too. How did he get it back? Thank you for writing this I thoroughly enjoyed the article and the comments.

    1. Thank you very much! I agree with you; while I don't think this film series is flawless, I do think it's one of if not the best ever made, and it's certainly the most consistent in quality throughout all of its installments. If you're curious to see more Middle-earth films, there are actually a few really top-notch fan films on YouTube that you can watch. One in particular is called "The Hunt for Gollum" that centers around Aragorn tracking down and capturing Gollum prior to the Council of Elrond like he did in the books. The actor playing Aragorn even has a really close resemblance to Viggo Mortensen.

      To answer your questions, I'm not sure why Thorin's elvish sword doesn't glow in the movies since it's said to do so in the book (except that maybe the filmmakers thought it would look silly with Thorin or else they wanted Sting to be more unique). I don't think Gandalf's ever glowed. It could be that his sword was made in an older era than Sting where that "feature" hadn't been invented yet, or else the elves don't find it necessary to make war swords glow since those are meant to be used in open battle where you generally don't need help locating the orcs. As for Gandalf losing his sword in Dol Guldor, it's possible that the White Council found it while rescuing him and Radagast had it on his sleigh when they escaped. It is supposed to be the same sword throughout all six films. You do see him grab it in midair as he's falling in Moria at the beginning of The Two Towers, so that's how he didn't lose it then.

      As for Gandalf losing his staffs (I actually think he's lost four, since he also didn't have it when he escaped from Saruman's tower in FOTR) I've read in movie guides that he gets at least one new one made for him by the elves in Rivendell, so he probably gets them replaced that way when he has time. Seriously though, this guy loses his signature weapon more often than Jedi lose their lightsabers. How the heck did he get promoted to a white wizard? ;)