Tolkien’s Bilbo and Jackson’s Bilbo: An Unfavourable Comparison

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (to avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the film as “An Unexpected Journey” and the book simply as “The Hobbit” from here on in) has just been released on DVD here in the UK, which has given me reason to reflect on the successes and failures of the film.

Before I start, I want to point out that overall I think it’s fair to say that I enjoyed An Unexpected Journey. However, in many respects I was also very disappointed, and I think one of the main disappointments I felt is best articulated by means of a comparison between Tolkien’s Bilbo in The Hobbit and Jackson’s Bilbo in An Unexpected Journey. Safe to say, the comparison isn’t particularly favourable to Jackson’s latest film.

The Baggins/Took Dichotomy

Overall, bracketing the additions made by Jackson, the film was fairly faithful to the book. However, probably the most disappointing and inexplicable changes were a series of more-or-less minor alterations to Bilbo’s character that cumulatively made a big (and negative) difference to his overall motivation and character progression. In the books, a key theme is the interplay between the Took and the Baggins side of Bilbo’s character.

The quiet, slightly-priggish, parochial Baggins side predominates for the first few chapters of the book, but as the story progresses, it is eventually ousted by his intrepid Took side, and he learns to love the excitement of adventure. This character progression is both familiar and fairly simple—befitting of a story aimed at children—but nonetheless rewarding, as fables in which a character finds his inner courage (that was, of course, really there all along!) often are, irrespective of the age of the audience.

What is fascinating about The Hobbit, and one of the things that makes it rewarding enough to warrant the devotion it rightly receives, is the subtle interplay of these two elements throughout the novel; the way the character progression is effected by the mutual reinforcement of the two aspects of Bilbo’s character, the way the tensions and contradictions within Bilbo’s character are resolved and the way these resolutions help to drive the plot forward convincingly.

For example, it is largely thanks to his distinctly English, late-Victorian-style politeness, obsession with social decorum, and high concern for the opinions of others that he is swept up on his journey in the first place. The starting point for the whole mess occurs as a result of Bilbo accidentally inviting Gandalf into his house for tea, following the etiquette-challenging exchange that introduces us to the latter of these two characters.

Just as Bilbo doesn’t really mean to ask for Gandalf’s pardon when he (repeatedly) says “I beg your pardon!”, he also doesn’t really mean to ask Gandalf to tea when he does, and immediately regrets doing so. This, as with most of the first interchange between the two characters, is a result of a flustered Bilbo resorting to polite platitudes in the face of someone who actively flouts Shire etiquette. Here is Bilbo at his most Baggins-ish.

I Can’t Get No (Motivation)

Later on, however, after Gloin doubts Bilbo’s ability to complete the task assigned to him by Gandalf—”he looks more like a grocer than a burglar!”—we see the interplay of Bilbo’s two sides start to play out. Tolkien writes:

Mr Baggins turned the handle and went in. The Took side had won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce. As for little fellow bobbing on the mat it almost made him really fierce…
“Pardon me,” he said, “if I have overheard the words that you were saying. I don’t pretend to understand what you are talking about, or your reference to burglars, but I think I am right in believing” (this is what he called being on his dignity) “that you think I am no good. I will show you… I am quite sure you have come to the wrong house… But treat it as the right one. Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.”

Significantly, though it is only thanks to the assertiveness of Bilbo’s Took side that he has the courage to challenge the Dwarves, it is Bilbo’s concern with his dignity, and his attempt to save face, that prompts the outburst in the first place. Without his Baggins side, he would have had no wounded pride; without his Tookish side, he would have simply suffered in silence at the insult. As it stands, the two aspects of his character reinforce each other, making for a satisfying motivation for his agreement to come on the adventure, albeit one that his Baggins side often rues in the hard times to come.

In the movie, however, the line about looking like a grocer is transplanted into the mouth of Thorin as the start of a manufactured tension between the two characters, and Bilbo remains meekly silent in response. In fact, right up until the point at which he signs the contract and runs off to join the dwarves, Jackson’s Bilbo shows almost no intention whatsoever to join them on their journey.

By eradicating the contradictions in Bilbo’s character, removing the interplay between Bilbo the Baggins and Bilbo the Took, we have no satisfying motivation for Bilbo’s decision to join the party in their journey. The only indication Jackson provides as to why Bilbo decides to join the Dwarves is provided by Bilbo’s unexpected disappointment when he wakes up in the morning to find an empty house.

The transition from Bilbo’s slightly forlorn glance around his empty Hobbit-hole to his sprint through Hobbiton to join the Dwarves is utterly inexplicable, and jarring to boot. I feel as if Jackson fundamentally misunderstood Tolkien’s statement that

To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything he usually took when he went out… running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.

In context, it’s clear to us, the reader, how Bilbo ended up this way. Out of Tookish pride, he agreed to join the party, and then when Gandalf arrives the following morning and presses him to go meet them, though his Tookishness has subsided, his Bagginsish demeanour leaves him too flustered and polite to refuse. Jackson seems to take this paragraph as an invitation to have Bilbo consistently refuse to join the Dwarves for the first hour of the film, only to unfathomably change his mind at the last moment.

Of Hobbits and Trolls

Similarly, aside from the role that it plays in explaining Bilbo’s initial motivation, the Took/Baggins distinction plays an important role in pushing the plot forward for at least the first half of the novel. Up until Bilbo’s Tookish side has completely taken over, the principal motivation for Bilbo’s continuance is his stubbornness and desire to prove himself. Furthermore, there are a few specific instances where this desire is the explicit motivation for some action.

For example, in the book, the trolls are sitting around the campfire feasting on mutton, and Bilbo is sent in to investigate. He arrives, sees what is going on, but instead of leaving he has an overwhelming desire to try to prove himself as a burglar:

He had read of a good many things he had never seen or done. He was very much alarmed, as well as disgusted; he wished himself a hundred miles away, and yet-and yet somehow he could not go straight back to Thorin and Company empty-handed. So he stood and hesitated in the shadows. Of the various burglarious proceedings he had heard of picking the trolls’ pockets seemed the least difficult, so at last he crept behind a tree just behind William.

This decision, of course, ultimately leads to Bilbo’s capture by the trolls, and the amusing mess that ensues. Jackson, on the other hand, not having this line of explanation available to him, has to change the scene accordingly. In An Unexpected Journey, instead of mutton, the trolls have taken the party’s horses, and since Bilbo can’t untie them, he reaches for a knife attached to one of the troll’s belts, leading to his capture, where the scene more or less continues on as it does in the book.

Aside from the fact that this motivation isn’t as interesting or compelling as the charming picture of a proud Hobbit risking life and limb just to try and prove his (nonexistent) burglary skills to his new friends, it also makes no sense. In Jackson’s version, the trolls capture the horses, which are saddled up and burdened with packs and supplies, but they don’t bother to search for the owners, they’re surprised to find Bilbo, and they question him as to whether there are more like him about. Trolls are meant to be stupid, but they’re not that stupid.

Bilbo the Brit

Most of all, the decision to remove the Took/Baggins theme from the film bugged me not only because it makes Bilbo’s presence on the journey inexplicable, makes his character more simplistic and less compelling than in the book, and leads the film to make sloppy, un-Tolkien-like mistakes of the sort described above, but also because it removes the distinctively English charm that pervades the book.

The Hobbit is, amongst other things, an extended, but affectionate, jab at a distinctively English attitude, and Bilbo is a distinctively English character. Tolkien begins with a caricature of the uptight parochial English countryman he would have been so familiar with, drops him in the middle of an adventure far bigger than he could imagine, and by the end we have a confident, adventurous, legendary burglar ready to creep into the very lair of a dragon itself.

This picture of a reluctant, slightly uptight hero being dragged along on an adventure because he’s a bit too polite to say no is one of the many aspects of the The Hobbit that gives it its charm. Tolkien’s Bilbo is satire on a particularly English sensibility and attitude, satire of the best kind because it’s so astute. To make the point, take the following illustration from the subReddit-cum-Twitter-account “British Problems”*:

I accidentally rang the bell on the bus at the wrong stop, and instead of explaining my predicament to the driver, got off and walked the rest of the way home.

In a way, Bilbo’s journey is one giant walk home from the bus stop. He accidentally invites Gandalf over for tea because he’s trying to end an awkward conversation and it’s the first thing that pops into his head. He then allows an entire troupe of Dwarves into his home and proceeds to feed them and find them places to sleep because he’s too polite to kick them out. He volunteers for a dangerous mission out of a sense that his dignity has been insulted, and then spends a good portion of his journey doing things that nearly get him killed because he doesn’t want to disappoint his compatriots. Eventually, he gets a taste for adventure, and the mask becomes his real face.

The transformation from stuffy Baggins to proud Took is what gives The Hobbit its heart, and by removing the Baggins/Took theme in the film, Jackson has made Tolkien’s tale less endearing and less charming than the original.

[[*Incidentally, I’m convinced that the person that started this subReddit wasn’t actually British, since it would more aptly be called “English Problems”. An obsession with etiquette, politeness, sarcasm, and tea aren’t stereotypes of the Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish, after all. I think this is probably another instance of the mistaken habit of treating “British” and “English” as interchangeable (see “British accent”).]]