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‘The Hobbit’: Children’s Book? Children’s Movies?

The idea was brought up that The Hobbit is a children’s book, but the Hobbit movies are decidedly not children’s movies, and therefore ruined the story in some way. Since I seem to have become the resident Tolkien authority here at NoE, I was asked for my thoughts on the matter.

Let’s start with the first question raised here – is The Hobbit a children’s story? Let me divert slightly, then I’ll come back and try to answer that question. One of my favorite worship leaders and songwriters is a guy named Glenn Packiam. Last year he tweeted this:

He’s talking about songs in general, and worship songs in particular, but I think the idea is true for any work of art, really.

Is The Hobbit A Children’s Book?

Tolkien himself always disputed that The Hobbit was a children’s story. Many biographies will say that he bristled or became very agitated when people referred to it as a children’s story. He himself always called it a fantasy story, or a faerie story. Of course, the descriptors “fantasy” and “children’s” are not mutually exclusive. And I think that’s where the contention and confusion comes in. Tolkien did not set out to write a “children’s book,” and he never considered The Hobbit to be one. But even the initial reaction to the book was mixed. Here is an except from a time.com (TIME Magazine) article commemorating The Hobbit‘s 80th anniversary:

“When the first edition of The Hobbit: or, There And Back Again was first published — 80 years ago, on Sept. 21, 1937 — C.S. Lewis famously called the book a “marvellous” classic-in-the-making, and the New York Times called it “freshly original and delightfully imaginative.”

TIME Magazine, meanwhile, called it…nothing. The book did not receive a review in the magazine’s pages in 1937, nor when the first U.S. edition arrived the following year.

That omission, while an obvious oversight in retrospect, is also a telling detail in the history of J.R.R. Tolkien’s first Middle-earth masterpiece. In fact, it took decades for The Hobbit to make the transition from being a well-reviewed children’s book to a work seen as one part of a classic, culture-shaping narrative.”

So it seems that, despite his insistence to the contrary, Tolkien sort of wrote a children’s story. At least it was viewed as a children’s story from the very beginning by at least some of his contemporaries.

Stylistically, it does feel more like a children’s book. Especially when you compare it to Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. I’d go so far as to say that a good analogy might be that LOTR and The Silmarillion are like The Illiad and The Bible, and The Hobbit is like the first Harry Potter book. There’s a fair bit of humor in The Hobbit, found in everything from silly songs to Cockney-accented trolls to drunken elves. The story is a serious journey into danger and strange lands, but told in a light-hearted manner. The danger never feels as real and pressing and final as it does in Lord of the Rings.

So maybe there’s that gap that Glenn Packiam was talking about – Tolkien meant it to be one thing; it actually became something slightly different; and a few generations of readers now have read it as even something slightly different from that.

Are The Hobbit Movies Meant for Children?

Then there’s the question of the movies. I need to be totally honest right up front – I loathe the Hobbit movies. If you don’t even factor in the source material, I think they’re terrible. And when you do factor in the deviations, additions, detours, etc., in relation to the source material, they’re on the far side of unwatchable to me. I literally can’t stomach the second or third movies at all. I like to say that the Lord of the Rings movies were Peter Jackson’s love letter to the source material, and that the Hobbit movies were Peter Jackson’s love letter to his bank account. Blech…

Let me try to be objective, though. I think that, among the movies’ many weaknesses, possibly their greatest weakness is that they don’t know what they want to be. Let’s look at some elements that lean towards them not being children’s movies, and then some that do:

The Hobbit films are Not Children’s Movies

  • Lets start with the most obvious – each of the three Hobbit films clocks in at a little over 3 hours. That’s about an hour longer than you’re likely to get kids younger than middle or high school age to sit still for a movie. The average Pixar movie, for instance, runs around 100 minutes.
  • Not only are there lots of strange and fantastical people, places, names, creatures, etc., in The Hobbit, there are EVEN MORE of all that stuff in the films. It’s more than your average elementary schooler will be willing to keep up with.
  • Because there’s so much extra nonsense garbage pointless crap content jammed in there, the story in the movies is super disjointed and often hard to follow. Maybe it wouldn’t be as difficult for someone who isn’t familiar with the source material, but I doubt it.
  • They are not quite as gory and brutal as the LOTR films can be, but they do stray into that territory from time to time. As a dad, I’m not sure I would want my young son to see some of the battle scenes, especially.

The Hobbit films are Children’s Movies

  • They’re often quite goofy. Some of the dwarves, especially, seem like they’re only really there for comic relief. This is true in the book, too.
  • For older kids who are just hitting on puberty, there’s a Twilight-esque forbidden love triangle between two elves (who aren’t even in the book!) and one of those elves and a member of Thorin’s party (which would NEVER happen in Tolkien’s world!). This love triangle is only there for these early-puberty kids, because younger kids wouldn’t care, and adults tend to just be bored by it. (An aside, because I can’t help myself: I am a huge Evangeline Lilly fan, and have been sort of in love with her since LOST, but her character only exists in this movie so that there is at least one female character. And then the fact that they couldn’t think of anything else to do other than put her in a contrived love triangle… Blech…)
  • The overall tone is pretty light, despite Peter Jackson’s attempts to make a 250-page book into 10 hours worth of movie. This actually matches the book fairly well. Even the heavier stuff, like one of the dwarves recounting Thorin’s history with the main goblin villain, is told with the air of grandpa telling ghost stories around the campfire while you roast marshmallows. There are moments (I’m thinking Necromancer’s lair in Mirkwood, Battle of Five Armies, etc.) that stray into cover-your-eyes territory for younger kids, but overall there’s much less of that than in the LOTR films.

But the initial question was, “Was The Hobbit a children’s book, and the movies botched that and ruined it for everybody?” My answer to that is that I think that the book is so good, and the movies are so bad that it’s more likely that they ruined movies for everybody. It’s much more a case of The Hobbit being a good book, and the movies ruining everything about it, mercilessly turning it into a trilogy-cash-cow whose main resemblance to the source material is that a hobbit named Bilbo found a ring. There’s just not anything redeeming about them to me, except Martin Freeman. British Jim can do no wrong…