Article by David Freeman
The “Lord of the Rings” films are among my favorite films. But whether you liked “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” or not, one thing is certain:
The script could have been better.
This article will go over thirteen problems with the script for “The Hobbit,” and how these problems could have been fixed.
I do my share of script consultations. You might say that this article is, in a way, my “script consultation” for “The Hobbit.
1. The motives of the dwarves are shallow
Instead of trying to save Middle Earth, the noble cause that fueled the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the driving force in this film is: the dwarves want their gold back. It’s hard to care about their mission.
HOW TO FIX THIS:
There’s already a hint of a solution in the film –– but no more than a hint.
Remove the focus on gold. We could see that, after fleeing their castle home in the Lonely Mountain, the dwarves have been emotionally decimated. Scattered around Middle Earth, their spirit has been broken.
We should see that their lost home represented much more than wealth — it represented their heart.
Think of the dwarves as American Indians like the Sioux and other plains tribes, and recall how they fell apart as a people when they lost their lands and way of life.
Perhaps the dwarves wanted their gold back once, but, scattered to the winds, they’ve found that gold was never the thing that brought them happiness; it was having a home.
Make it clear that they can only feel strong and whole and have a sense of belonging if they return to the Lonely Mountain.
There’s all ready one little hint of this idea in a line by Bilbo (Martin Freeman) that the dwarves deserve a home –– but his line doesn’t correspond to what we see in the film. What we see is that the dwarves want their gold back, the gold that the Smaug the dragon is hording.
2. The film is slight
The first problem then produces the second problem: “The Hobbit” isn’t really about much, since neither the dwarves nor Bilbo have profound motives for their actions.
HOW TO FIX THIS:
Just as with problem one, there’s a hint of the solution already in the film. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) expresses concern that the worrisome things that are happening around Middle Earth might be connected, and he’s concerned.
The writers don’t do nearly enough with this idea. We should have glimpsed the size of the stakes in a much more impactful and profound way.
Why not show that the ring is at the center of everything?
There’s no need to introduce Sauron, but the moment that Bilbo first tries on the ring, we could have seen a number of quick cuts around Middle Earth to know that his slipping on the ring is part of a much bigger and much more frightening picture.
In the sequence where he slips on the ring, it’s like a shockwave shoots through Middle Earth. We see:
A. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), napping, bolts upright in terror.
B. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), walking, clutches his heart as if stabbed by a sharp blade.
C. In the Mirkwood, where Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) lives, dark clouds roll in, blotting out the sky. As Radagast watches in fear and horror, the large dark spiders emerge from their hiding places and swarm in a frenzy.
D. The Necromancer surges with energy and roars with newfound power.
Then we’d very concretely see that this thin story is connected to much bigger and more serious events –– and it would seem thin no longer.
3. Gandalf asking for Bilbo’s help in joining the quest makes no sense
Bilbo is just an ordinary hobbit, with no special powers. That we learn he was quite adventurous as a child doesn’t justify bringing him on this perilous journey. After all, many kids are adventurous.
Thus Gandalf’s selection of Bilbo seems completely arbitrary. It lacks any logic.
And as Bilbo has no history of being a burglar, and as the dwarves have no need for a burglar, enlisting him as a burglar makes no sense either.
HOW TO FIX THIS:
Give Bilbo some skills that would genuinely be helpful on the quest, so that it makes sense that Gandalf and the dwarves would want him along.
For instance, what if he was a polished amateur magician –– his slight of hand entertains the adults and children of the Shire.
And then let’s see, later on during the quest, how this ability is useful in the scrapes the dwarves get into.
Also, Bilbo’s book-knowledge about countless things could be of great value. (See the next point.)
The bottom line: give Bilbo valuable skills that causes Gandalf to enlist his help.
4. Bilbo isn’t interesting enough
A major character needs between three and five major personality traits, in a non-cliché combination, to be interesting enough to engage us for an entire film.
In the film, Bilbo is:
1. Fussy / Prissy, and
That’s it. He’s got one personality trait: fussy / prissy.
We’re supposed to assume he’s an intellectual because of all the books around his house. But he never says a single thing that reveals intellectual knowledge or insights. (Just compare how he speaks to any true “intellectuals” you know.)
There are many possible personalities that could have been created for Bilbo, but one way or another, to make him a memorable, compelling, and moving protagonist, he’d have to be significantly reinvented. A tweak of what his character already is wouldn’t do.
Here’s one possible radical reinvention:
We learn Bilbo’s father & mother died when he was young. They were away from the Shire, exploring or vacationing –– something Hobbits never do –– and they were thought of odd for doing so.
On their travels, a band of orcs found and killed them. This left a scar on Bilbo’s heart.
Bilbo’s emotional defense against the unknowns of the world was to become very learned. He wants to understand everything –– that way things can’t catch him unawares and hurt him.
Of course, we in the audience would connect the dots; he’d never be aware that his propensity toward learning was tied to his parent’s death (although it could be written so that he was well aware. That would work too.)
His intellectual knowledge wouldn’t need to be of the dry, stale variety. He could be quite excited about knowledge, the way Edison was. (Giving him a bit of excitement would make him more interesting.)
For instance, everyone else would see a tree –– but Bilbo would know all about different tree species, where they grow in Middle Earth, the medicinal qualities of their leaves (if there are any), etc.
He’d also be terrified of ever leaving the Shire. And especially terrified of orcs.
We’d need to not just see piles of books in his home, but he’d also say intellectually observant and insightful things.
Here’s the other consequence of losing his parents:
If you don’t love, you can’t lose anyone you love. So Bilbo grew up a loner. Thus he’s somewhat socially awkward around people, and his conversations with fellow Hobbits would have a forced quality that makes others uncomfortable.
However, just to make him more interesting, as mentioned earlier, I thought it might liven him up if he also did amateur magic to entertain the children of the Shire during festive occasions. (This also is already paid off near the start of the “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship if the Rings,” when Bilbo does a little “magic.”)
As I mentioned earlier, his amateur magic and his book smarts could make him valuable to the dwarves on their quest.
So, instead of having one trait as he does now (and an annoying one at that), he’d have several:
1. He’d be intelligent, observant, well read, and intellectually curious.
2. He’d be socially awkward.
3. He’d have a sadness beneath the surface from a loss he never overcame, that propelled him not just into book learning, but into the fact that:
4. He never really lets anyone get too close to him.
He’d be liked/appreciated in the Shire, for his periodic magic shows. But people wouldn’t linger long afterward to speak with him because he’s awkward and a bit of a misfit.
Contrast this “Bilbo” to the one that currently exists in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
You may say, “Wait a minute –– you can’t just go adding backstory that doesn’t exist in the book.”
Yes you can. You just can’t change major plot points without triggering a minor revolt.
A small group of purists would squawk –– but isn’t that a small price to pay for having much more engrossing, rich, and memorable leading character? Not to mention the vast majority of the American and international film audience will not have read the novel.
Let’s also remember that after “The Lord of the Rings” was completed, Tolkien revisited “The Hobbit” several times, making changes to integrate it with the later books and make the more serious. He did not regard the original text as sacrosanct.
The personality I described here for Bilbo is, of course, just one of many possible solutions. One could come up with many alternatives.
The key point is that, for a major character to be interesting, he/she needs three to five personality traits in a non-cliché combination.
5. Bilbo is shallow
He’s got no emotional or psychological depth. By contrast, compare him to Gollum, with all his emotional layers and psychological complexity. Or compare him to any cinematic character with depth, such as the protagonist in a film that came out at the same time as “The Hobbit”: Abraham Lincoln, in Spielberg’s film
HOW TO FIX THIS:
There are almost a hundred of what I call “Character Deepening Techniques” one could draw upon to fix this problem.
I’ve already provided a few that could work with Bilbo:
1. He’s lonely, although he’d never admit it.
2. He’s got unresolved issues from the loss of his parents.
3. Because he’s socially awkward, he doesn’t feel truly “at home” in the Shire. This is why he’d relate to the Dwarves’ quest to have a home.
4. Being erudite and insightful, he sees the complexities of life.
5. He could also be insightful into other people, even Gandalf.
Building these qualities into Bilbo would make him a much richer character than he is now.
6. Bilbo has no character arc
In the film, he leaves his home because he’s bored and wants an adventure.
With a motive like that, no character arc is really possible.
Supposedly he learns courage, but this is handled clumsily in the film. For instance, when he sneaks up on the trolls, he doesn’t even act or look frightened. How can you gradually become courageous when you are never afraid in the first place?
HOW TO FIX THIS:
If one went with the characterization suggested earlier:
If orcs killed Bilbo’s parents, and if he’s uncomfortable around others, he would have a lot of room for emotional growth.
By the end, for the first time in his life, Bilbo has “become himself.” In battling the orcs, he’s overcome the biggest fear of his life. And among strangers who love and admire him, for the first time he has true friends and has found a home.
The reason he comes to the aid of Thorin (Richard Armitage ) when it looks the orcs are about to kill Thorin is because Bilbo considers him family.
7. Bilbo isn’t empathetic
We don’t identify with Bilbo for most of the film.
There are at least 90 distinct ways to make an audience care about a character, or identify with him/her.
It would be off topic to enumerate the entire list here, but in the earlier discussion on how to make Bilbo more interesting, a few “Empathy Techniques” were also included:
1. He’s got pain in his past from losing his parents.
2. He’s lonely.
3. He is clever and smart in ways that help the Dwarves.
4. He has to, with great effort and emotional courage, gradually grow past his emotional wounds.
By the way, on the homepage of “Beyond Structure” –– is a video clip showing 13 techniques used in one scene from “Wall-E” that causes audiences to identify with the character. It’s fascinating to see Pixar’s artistry in action.
That clip shows how Empathy Techniques, artfully used, are quire powerful in their ability to cause an audience to identify with a character.
8. The film has no theme
What’s this film about? Adventure? Gold?
With no theme, the action feels more random than it should have been. (More on this later).
A theme –– a central issue –– should be echoed through as much of the film and as through as many of the characters as possible.
HOW TO FIX THIS:
As I’ve already hinted, the theme should be “finding your home.”
This would be echoed in the various characters in the following ways:
BILBO: He’d learn that “home” isn’t the Shire –– it’s wherever you are loved and wanted.
THE DWARVES: They were scattered across Middle Earth and lost their spirit. They were at home nowhere.
Now that they’re on the offensive again to regain their home, they feel renewed vitality and self-esteem. Thus they’d learn that “home” isn’t just the Lonely Mountain –– it’s sate of mind. When you’re centered, powerful, causative, and shaping your destiny instead of being shaped by it, you’re at home.
GANDALF: Gandalf wouldn’t learn “to be at home” –– after all, he’s at home everywhere in Middle Earth. He already embodies the “home” theme, for he’s the one who realizes that “home” –– all of Middle Earth –– is threatened. And saving “home” is his reason for him joining this journey.
As I’ve said, the writers have already put all this about Gandalf in the script. It just isn’t linked to a larger theme that connects all the characters.
9. Thorin has very little in the way of a personality
Right now he’s sort of an uninteresting knock-off of Aragorn from “Lord of the Rings.”
With no great lines and with not much of a personality, Richard Armitage, the actor who plays Thorin, has to do the best he can with strong, soulful stares.
HOW TO FIX THIS:
I won’t spend the time to create an entire new personality for Thorin, the way I did for Bilbo. But the same laws apply:
For a major character to be interesting, he or she needs three to five personality traits in a non-cliché combination.
10. Thorin lacks a character arc
Not only did Bilbo not have a character arc — no one else did either.
Thorin’s conclusion that Bilbo wasn’t such a bad guy after all didn’t represent a character arc — it was simply a statement of fact based on his observations. It didn’t involve any kind of painfully-won character growth.
HOW TO FIX THIS
Thorin could be a bit of a racist, valuing Dwarves most of all, seeing elves and men beneath them, with hobbits far below.
By the end, he could see that a person’s race is not important; each individual needs to be judged on his or her own merits.
A question worth pondering:
This film is long and the first 3/5ths are very slow. With all that time passing, and with just intermittent action, shouldn’t we have at least gotten to know the characters quite well?
In fact, how is it that, by the end of this long film, we know almost nothing of the various dwarves, nor even much about their leader Thorin?
11. Some of the action is arbitrary
I call this the “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” syndrome. Even Steven Spielberg admitted he wasn’t particularly proud of that film.
It was filled with action sequences, but they were arbitrary and interchangeable. You could have rearranged the order and it wouldn’t have mattered. Or you could have removed an action sequence and swapped it out for another and it wouldn’t have made a difference.
Action sequences become arbitrary when they’re not intimately tied to what’s going on internally to at least one character we care about. This is especially true if there are many action sequences.
The case in “The Hobbit” where this particularly applies the fight of the mountain creatures made out of stone.
The sequence was fun and inventive, but it had no emotional resonance. It had nothing to do with any of the characters. The sequence didn’t impact any of their character arcs, nor was the fight caused by any of them. It was just “there.”
It could have been replaced by any one of dozens of alternative action sequences. This is what I mean when saying it was “arbitrary.”
HOW TO FIX THIS:
At the very least, one of the dwarves, or Bilbo, should be terrified of the mountains, and we should learn this long before he gets there. So the fight of the stone creatures would be an utter Worst Case Scenario.
Or: the dwarves could have some kind of nature-worship religion, honoring the spirits of the mountain (like the Lonely Mountain), which one of them flaunts –– and this in turn sets off the battle of the stone giants, as one of the giants tries to kill the dwarves and another (perhaps a friend of Gandalf) tries to save them.
12. There are problems with set-ups and payoffs
Definitions: A “set-up” is something introduced early in a film. It could be an action taken by a character, or an object, or a color, or a phrase someone speaks.
A “payoff” is when that thing introduced early on is revisited in an interesting way.
One of the dwarves’ main set-ups is never paid off –– their superhuman dexterity, that we see when they’re tossing dishes around Bilbo’s home.
HOW TO FIX THIS
It was a wasted opportunity.
At the very least, we should see the dwarves’ dexterity paid off. There could have been a battle scene (with the orcs) where the dwarves are tossing around weapons –– deadly blades that if you catch them wrong, you lose an arm ––– with the same ease with which they tossed around Bilbo’s dishes.
Of course, in this context, their dexterity would be used in a very serious, threatening situation. But it would have been a good payoff.
In general, this film doesn’t have nearly as many set-ups and payoffs as most films.
Why use set-ups and payoffs? They’re a sign of tight, professional writing. Especially when done well, they give a story depth.
13. The biggest wasted opportunity: we learn little new about Middle Earth
1. We learn that the dwarves are dexterous and that they sing.
2. And that they once were prominent in Middle Earth, with a large palace, and with influence across the land.
3. The most interesting thing we learn is that Gollum likes riddles, and even has a strange sense of honor: if Bilbo wins, he goes free.
4. And we learn there are six wizards in Middle Earth, and meet one we hadn’t met before.
And, in 2 hours and 40 minutes, those four things are about all we learn in terms of expanding our knowledge of Middle Earth.
HOW TO FIX THIS
This was a huge squandered opportunity. Tolkien wrote voluminously about all the different races of Middle Earth and their cultures.
By the end of the film, we should have learned all sorts of things about elves, dwarves, hobbits and wizards that we hadn’t known.
I won’t expand this already long article by putting in facts about the residents of Middle Earth, but if you’re interested, here are some Wikipedia Pages that are packed with information about the world Tolkien created. In these pages are all sorts of information of which could have helped enrich the film.
Once you finish this article, you might find it interesting to come back to these links and explore a few.
The exception that proves the rule:
Of course, there is one strong exception to the problems that beset the script that are delineated here.
That’s the scene where Gollum (Andy Serkis) makes an appearance. That writing in that scene is completely on par with the writing in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
That scene is so good that it stands out, and in doing so, highlights the problems in the remainder of the script.
When it comes to writing, intuition is not enough. This is why some of the greatest writers of our time –– writers whose work has amazed us and enriched us and whom other writers aspire to emulate –– can sometimes stumble badly when working from intuition alone
This is the situation with “The Hobbit.”
Expand your palette by knowing the techniques that go into creating unique, memorable, and emotionally layered characters, scenes, dialogue and plots, and you can’t make any huge mistakes, like forgetting to give your lead character a character arc.
I’ve put quite a few of such techniques in the articles on this website, and some more are offered in the video on the homepage.
Please be sure to sign up on the email list so you’ll know when I’ll be offering “Beyond Structure” in a city near you.
And feel free to drop me an email with your thoughts about this article.
David Freeman is a WGA (Writers Guild of America) screenwriter who has sold or optioned scripts and Ideas to Paramount, Sony, Columbia Pictures, MGM and others. He also teaches “Beyond Structure” around the world.
Be sure to sign up on the email list to ensure you are informed of future “Beyond Structure” Master Classes, and free teleseminars and webinars that David holds from time to time (the sign up form is located in the top lefthand corner of this page).
David also does script consultations where he doesn’t just tell you what needs to be fixed in your script, but gives you numerous specific suggestions on how to do so, just as he has done here.