On Writing: Book Identity, and Why I Didn’t Like THE HOBBIT Movie

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On Friday night, I finally saw the new(ish) movie version of The Hobbit — the Peter Jackson version that came out earlier this year.  I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings movies, despite their flaws, and I was looking forward to seeing what Jackson did with The Hobbit.  To be honest, I have been excited about this movie since I first heard that it was being made, and my excitement only increased when I learned that the marvelous Martin Freeman would be playing Bilbo Baggins.

I am sad to say that I found the movie stunningly disappointing.  Let me pause here to make clear that I am not a movie purist.  I was fine with many of the decisions Jackson made in his retelling of LOTR, including those that strayed from the books as written by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I do not believe that a movie director need be bound absolutely by the text from which s/he is working, and in fact I thought that one of the strengths of the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games was that it strayed from the book in ways that actually enhanced and deepened the story.  I should also add that I didn’t hate everything about the movie.  I thought Martin Freeman was excellent in the title role, I loved the riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum and felt that Jackson handled that key moment with the perfect blend of humor and menace, and I liked Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield.  But . . .

The problem with the movie adaptation of The Hobbit, as I saw it (and, of course, this is just my opinion), was not simply that it added in scenes that had not been in the book. Rather, it was that the scenes that were added seemed designed to turn the story into something that it isn’t and was never meant to be.  The Hobbit was written as a children’s book.  It was meant to be whimsical, lyrical, and fun.  Yes, there are moments of high suspense and excitement in the book.  But it is not a book of epic battles.  It should not feel like a video game. It is not a story of the dwarf king’s Moby Dick type obsession and blood feud with a hideous albino orc.  And while the book certainly lays the groundwork for The Lord of the Rings, it is not a true prequel to that work and should not be so similar to it in mood and tone.

This is more than the rant of a disappointed fan.  Peter Jackson’s mishandling of The Hobbit points to a larger issue that authors often face in their work, and that aspiring writers in particular grapple with again and again.  No book can be all things for all readers.  When I had you all critique the opening of the third Thieftaker book, I received one comment that basically (and in part) went like this [paraphrasing]:  “I enjoy these books very much, but I wish that your magic system was presented with a greater sense of wonder. The magic system as it is seems consistent and logical, which is good, but it’s a bit too workmanlike.”  This was a terrific comment, and it was dead-on accurate.  Now, the commenter offered this as a criticism and was suggesting that perhaps I do something about this, and it is one thing that I did not change in my revision of the opening and the rest of the book.

I LOVE books where the magic system is wondrous and mysterious and even poetic.  Some of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are like that, and I’m a huge Kay fan.  I think that some of my earlier work, particularly the LonTobyn Chronicle, has that sense of wonder about its magic system.  So I know exactly what this commenter meant, and I sympathize with the reader’s desire to see that sort of magic in the Thieftaker books.  But that is not the kind of book I am writing in this series.  I wanted the magic to be prosaic; workmanlike really was the perfect word.  These are earthy books; Ethan is a homely character in the sense that he is rather plain and unaffected.  There is nothing fancy or wondrous about him or his life. A wondrous magic system would have been out of place with the rest of the story.

And that really is the point.  Obviously when we work on a book we need to know what it’s about, what the lead characters do and want, what the setting is like, etc.  But in a larger sense, we have to know what kind of book we are writing.  This is not to say that a book can’t be more than one thing — the Thieftaker books have elements of mystery, urban fantasy, and historical fiction.  But while they have magic in them, they are not high fantasy.  While there is nothing in them that is sexually explicit or gratuitously violent, they are not young adult or middle grade books.  While they have humorous moments, they are not comical or light-hearted. And while they are, I believe, well written, they are not poetic. It’s not that I can’t write humor, or YA, or high fantasy. It’s not that I can’t write lilting prose.  I can, and maybe I will with my next project.  But the Thieftaker books are what they are:  moody, atmospheric, suspenseful, somewhat dark, and, yes, workmanlike.

I have recently read manuscripts by young writers that were competently written, but that did not work because they were trying to be too many things at once.  The writers had several story threads that fit together loosely, but each thread represented a different story type (memoir, mystery, fantasy, family history, crime caper, etc.) and each seemed to be vying for supremacy rather than blending with the others into a coherent story with a fixed identity.  And that confusion, that lack of story identity, was becoming an obstacle that each project had to overcome.  At the same time, as others had offered critiques of these projects, they had sought to impose yet more disparate identities on the books, and the writers had not idea how to respond to them.

So, as you work on your current WIP, make sure you know what kind of story you’re writing.  A book can have different elements, but it should only have a single identity.  If your WIP feels incoherent or seems to lack direction, it may be because you haven’t yet decided what kind of book it is.  Or if comments from your beta readers seem intended to take your project in directions you don’t think it should follow, it may be because your readers are not working within the identity you have chosen for your book.  Does any of this sound at all familiar?  Let’s talk about book identity.

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://magicalwords.net
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22 comments to On Writing: Book Identity, and Why I Didn’t Like THE HOBBIT Movie

  • David, I think that I had many of the same objections to THE HOBBIT movie — it felt lost to me, as if it couldn’t decide whether to be fish (light comedy) or fowl (epic adventure), with the added confounding factor that a lot of the characters didn’t look as I expected them to look (the dwarves’ hair just kept pulling me out of the story, much as the ents did in LotR…) My biggest complaint with the movie, though, was the feeling that my pocketbook was being fiddled with — this isn’t a three-movie story, but Jackson et al want to squeeze out every penny they can.

    Much more to the (real) point — I love your description of THIEFTAKER as “workmanlike”. I adore craft for craft’s sake, and that’s what you’ve presented with Ethan’s story. No, it won’t be to all taste, but it has the potential to appeal far beyond the traditional fantasy genre. (A lot of the mysteries I love are very workmanlike, as is the non-fiction I enjoy… I don’t think I’m alone out there!)

  • […] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “On Writing: Book Identity, and Why I Didn’t Like THE HOBBIT Movie.” It is about my reaction to the movie adaptation of THE HOBBIT, and the lessons I draw from it for […]

  • David, I am staring down the barrel of a deadline, with less that 72 hours to finish. And I *wish* with all my heart, that you had written this last January.

    Or that I had a time machine and could take it back to me, 4 months ago.

    Or that… well, that I hadn’t written a book with so many disparate threads that I now need to pull together and make work. It would have been so much easier to write one book instead of three. And I fear (yes, I am in that spot, that place, that horrid moment) that this is the book that will ruin the entire series. Nearly done and having dreadful panics that it’s all wrong. Just *WRONG*!

    Going away now to write.

  • Chris Branch

    Okay, not to go off on too much of an extended tangent, but since you mentioned my comment, let me clarify with a couple of examples: Hughart’s Bridge of Birds and Territory by Emma Bull. I highly recommend both to anyone who hasn’t read them – both are absolutely 5 star for me. But while I’d consider both to be historical fantasy, they could hardly be more different.

    In the Hughart book there’s magic flying all over the place; new supernatural stuff is introduced in almost every chapter, from ghosts to immortality to divine interventions. It’s absurd and funny and touching all at the same time. Not to say there isn’t some logic being followed, but there are no clear restrictions on what could happen in this world. Obviously this is not what you’re going for in the Thieftaker books.

    Territory, on the other hand, is much more “earthy” to use your term. The characters are fairly plain and more caught up in their prosaic existence than the supernatural. The atmosphere is gritty and fairly dark. And yet when we do get a hint of the underlying magic of the setting, it has a transcendent quality to it. Sure, the characters know that they have to perform certain “workmanlike” actions in order to make it happen, but there is a mystery and yes, a sense of wonder about it, that nevertheless fits the atmosphere of the story.

    And I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to compare Territory to your book. There are hints of a similar transcendence in Thieftaker – the most important one (could this possibly be a *spoiler*?)… regarding the origin and nature of Uncle Reg. It might only take a bit more exploration of this subject – maybe just some further curious musings from Ethan – to inject an additional spark of wonder into an already brilliantly imagined story.

    And by the way, although I agree completely with your points about The Hobbit movie, I was okay with it in spite of that; I just look at it as a separate work, inspired by the original source. What bothers me more about it is Mindy’s point, that this story could easily fit into a single movie, so the changes that were made seem suspiciously intended purely to drag things out rather than artistic choices intended to make the story work better on screen.

    And one final thing although I know I’ve gone on far too long: this post sparked me to go and pre-order Thieves’ Quarry since I think I recall you saying it helps with the numbers, and I was definitely planning on ordering it anyway. ;)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    What an extremely helpful lesson to pull out of (I agree with you) a rather disappointing movie. When the movie opened, I immediately started mourning for the sweet, discovery-awaits tone that I felt should have been there (and trying to get it to show up a bit later on just *didn’t* work the same). We actually watched it in two sets, and I rather enjoyed that last bit (starting from the riddle scene) better, because it felt more coherent and it’s own sort of story, rather than a re-mash of lotr.

    In any case, oiy. This is so something I’ve been struggling with in my WIP for a long time. Partly because I’ve been working on it for years and it’s evolved somewhat in that time, partly because yes, I’ve got three main story threads and keeping them all focused on the same sort of story while making each an important, unique component thereof…is a bit exhausting. Fortunately, I have seen great progress made in these years, so here’s to mustering on!

  • Mindy, yes, I didn’t even want to get into the whole “why on earth should it take three movies to tell this story?” thing. Because really, if the movie had worked, I would have been fine with more of them. But not of this. As for Thieftaker, thank you very much for the kind words. I agree that the tone and voice of the book is different from much of our genre, and, of course, that was part of what I was going for. Glad to know it worked.

    Faith, I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling, but I also have every confidence that by the time the book is ready for publication, it will be ready, and you will be happy with it. I often find myself hating what I’ve written in those final days, in part because it’s so hard to see the whole coming together. But when you go back through it you’ll find that it’s better than you think. Best of luck finishing up.

  • Chris, thank you for the comments, and thank you again for your comment on the book opening that I have referenced in my post. I hope that you didn’t feel at all put upon by what I wrote for today, because I really do think your comment was an excellent one. And I think you will find in Thieves’ Quarry that Uncle Reg plays a far more active and vital role in the story, and that the magical explanation of who and what he is is teased out more. And then in City of Shades it really comes to the fore. There is also more on the art and technique of magic in TQ, and I think you’ll appreciate that as well. Thanks very much for the book references; I’ll have to check those out. And finally, I’m glad to know that you liked THE HOBBIT.

    Hep, I think that all of us struggle with this stuff at one time or another. Because every idea for a book has the potential to go in any number of different directions, and so a single novel often has many threads running through it, any one of which could be THE one. In my opinion, the author’s job, ultimately, is to impose a hierarchy of importance on those ideas and thus establish the book’s true identity.

  • sagablessed

    I think this post comes at an excellent time. My short story was critiqued by my writer’s group, and one lady said it confused her. I think David, you hit why on the head.
    I am not sure of the story’s identity. The concept and prose and (and…and…and)are all good, but it lacks something. I knew this as I was writing, but could not figure out what.
    Part of this is because my hard-drive died and data is unrecoverable, so 4 years of writing is gone. My head simply was not in the work. But now I have a way to find a locus: a place to relaunch and make the short story better.
    The universe sometimes provides even when you don’t ask. :)

  • Your Q: “Does any of this sound at all familiar?”
    My A: “YES!”

    My current WIP has wandered off down too many intriguing paths. This post is exactly why–I’ve lost sight of the book identity. I actually spent part of the weekend figuring this out, although I never did articulate it as well as you did. I’ve tried to cram everything into this story to make it exciting, and now I realize that I’ve mostly just made it confusing.

    My next task is to step back and re-focus on my book’s identity, and then make sure all the scenes I’ve written stay within those paraments–basically I guess I’m trying to cure my book of multiple personality disorder!

  • With regards to the Hobbit, I personally didn’t mind the Albino Orc subplot. It was unnecessary, but it wasn’t gratuitous. I was, however, pretty disgusted by the Storm Giant scene. It was more than just unnecessary, it was extraneous and, yes, gratuitous. It added nothing to the story. (The Albino Orc at least added to the story, though it can be debated whether what was added was any good.) And, in fact, the Storm Giant opens up something of a plot hole, I think, in the LotR Movie contiguity (namely: if the storm giant thing was real, why wasn’t Gandalf worried about taking the pass through the Misty Mountains in Fellowship instead of going into the Mines… Ostensibly no one yet knows about the Balrog in Moria, but it doesn’t seem worth going up against those giants again. Also… why was no one worried about Sauron co-opting the storm giants in the War of the Ring? Ugh…) By comparison, the Albino Orc thing added a small amount of back-story to Thorin, but ultimately has little impact on the world and story both of Hobbit and LotR. Despite both needless additions, I still enjoyed the movie. (And I definitely enjoyed the addition of the Radagast storyline; I thought he was delightfully whimsical, and I thought the treatment of much of the rest, such as the Troll encounter and the Goblin King and the Riddle Contest were all well-handled with appropriate amounts of humor and danger.)

    Also, I completely agree with your take on Hunger Games.

    As for the topic at hand… The fact that I can’t be all things to all people is something I keep in mind when I’m working with critiques. I recently read a critique of a short story I’d written in which the reviewer complained some aspect of my story, because it didn’t match with his or her preconceived notions about a particular fantasy trope. My thought was: if your imagination is not broad enough to accept a common and cherished fantasy trope tweaked ever so slightly (and certainly not enough even to subvert it; the trope is fully intact), then maybe this story isn’t for you. Most readers don’t have a problem with recasting tropes for the purposes of a story, but for some perhaps the tropes are too precious.

  • Nathan Elberg

    Magic and miracles we are used to are known as “nature.” If we build a world where something magical on earth is considered natural (eg. talking trees), should a writer convey the sense of wonder earthling readers would feel encountering such things, or the everyday attitude of the inhabitants of the fictional world, where the elm in your yard says “have a nice day” when you leave for work?

  • Saga: You didn’t lose Sleepthorn did you? I still have the old copy on my flash drive if you did.

  • quillet

    I think you’ve put your finger on why I was disappointed by the Hobbit movie. It’s not that I didn’t like it or enjoy it. I did, especially the Riddles in the Dark scene, which was brilliant. I just didn’t enjoy it near as much as the LoTR films. Reason? It was trying too hard. Trying too hard to be comedy with the trolls and some of the dwarves. Trying too hard to be video-game-action with the stone giants (they are in the book, but they’re off in the distance, not an excuse for a 3D joyride). Trying too hard to be whimsical with Radagast. Trying too hard to be epic with Thorin. All those tries were too disparate, too discrete. They didn’t mesh for me. Such a shame, because there were some really good elements.

    As for book identity…yes, that does sound familiar. My first thought was, “Uh oh.” But my second thought was relief, because it’s something I think I can fix. I don’t think it’ll be a big fix, because it’s mostly a question of not letting my story’s focus wander away from the main character’s main problem. I think. *crosses fingers, knocks on wood* But I can’t tell you how glad I am you pointed this out now. Your timing for Faith may not have been perfect, but for me it was! Now I’ve got some (more) work to do, and I think it’ll be fun. *crosses fingers, knocks on wood again*

  • David – someone called my dissertation “workmanlike.” It was a tactful way of saying “you’re not incompetent, but you’re not setting the academic world on fire either. ” At the time it stung, but in retrospect, I both agree with the comment and feel that it’s sufficient. Some things are and should be workmanlike – as a born and raised New Englander I appreciate the way early Boston in the Theiftaker books is a very workman oriented city. One of my reservations when you first started writing this series was that I wondered if a southerner could capture the tone of New England with its sometimes drab colors and muted language and dedication to work as a virtue. There’s something very good and satisfying in a job well done without fanfare or sparkle. I like Ethan better because he’s not flashy – he’s a workman, not a mountebank.

  • Razziecat

    I guess I’m in the minority here, having greatly enjoyed the Hobbit movie, and in fact my main gripe with it is that it was TOO light-hearted in a few spots. I don’t have the book handy, but my memory of it is that it starts out light-hearted in tone, and there is certainly a humorous thread that runs through it, but it grows darker, denser, more substantive, and explores themes of greed, arrogance and death (in fact a number of the dwarves, including Thorin, end up dying). Perhaps this is just my take on it.

    I do find that I sometimes have a problem determining what kind of story I want to tell. I may find myself wandering off into humorous incidents that explore two characters’ relationship, or a bit of backstory that brings an element of mystery into the main story. I think one solution would be to note these interesting sidelights as possible short story material, and then concentrate harder on the main plotline (unless those other ideas turn out to be way more interesting; then it’s time to re-evaluate the whole story).

  • The hobbit> I pretty much agree with David, though I enjoyed it. I think Jackson faced a huge problem: The Hobbit is an introduction to the world, but we’ve already been introduced to it. So now Bilbo is behind the audience, rather than slightly ahead (he knows hobbiton better than we do, but after he leaves that, we’re the same). So, all the wonder of the world, we got in LotR. So, he (Jackson) adds in other stories. Plus? We get new stuff to learn and see. Minus? It’s not Bilbo’s story anymore. It’s not all his perspective. That’s hard. I also don’t think it needed to be three films, but I’m not sure it was money that drove it. It’s the same thing that drives authors to stretch out 5 book series into 50. Maybe money, but maybe love of material, etc.

    On the “too much for too many…” I can see how that’s a problem in some things. A lack of surety about what the book is striving to be. Right now, I know what I want it to be, but I can’t get it there, and it is killing me. I also know where the problem is, but not quite how to fix it. Argh. So I’ve elected to ignore the problem, keep writing, and then edit the holy hell out of it later. I need a finished book to figure out what needs to go, what more needs to be there, etc.

  • Well, my first problem with the Hobbit movie arose when I had to poke my husband to wake him up during the dwarves’ slow, elegy-like song at Bag End. It did have some great parts, but you’re absolutely right about it feeling unfocused. The riddles scene was probably my favourite part of the movie.

    I’ve been talking about the identity of my new WIP with my DH, because I want to tread lightly about what sort of message I’m sending about the touchy subjects it deals with. Especially in light of the fact that there is *supposed* to be a thread of humour, even when things get dark. This post also serves as a confirmation – there’s this one part that unfortunately needs to go (but could be saved for a short story if it came up). Thanks!

  • Donald, glad to have been of some help. Book identity is something we don’t talk about a lot here at MW, but it really can be a crucial factor in the success or not of a manuscript. It sounds like you have a direction for rewrites now, and that’s a good thing.

    SiSi, yes! Curing your book of multiple personality disorder is the perfect way to put it. I love that! Glad you found the post helpful; thanks very much for the comment.

    Stephen, there is a balance to be found (isn’t there always) between trying to be too many things for too many people, and leaving room in our work for all the different threads that make up our stories. It sounds like that reviewer didn’t get what you were trying to do, which doesn’t mean that your story didn’t work; it just means it didn’t work for that reader.

    Nathan, that’s a great question, and it gets to the importance of character POV. You’re absolutely right — those characters who live with wonders on a day-to-day basis won’t necessarily respond to them they way we would, or the way our readers will.

    Quillet, I’m very glad that the timing of this worked for you. You’re right — fixing a book identity problem is not necessarily a huge fix. The threads can all remain; it’s just a matter of prioritizing them, of deemphasizing some and placing more emphasis on others. It may be that all the elements are necessary, but that they have to be blended and streamlined more effectively so that instead of feeling like a several separate elements, they become part of a cohesive whole. Best of luck, and thanks for the comment.

  • Sarah, okay first of all (and I feel very strongly about this) I am NOT a Southerner! :) I am a New Yorker, born and raised, and I lived for six years in New England, so I really did have some street cred when it came to recreating Boston and developing Ethan as a character. All three of my older siblings went to school in the Boston area, so from the time I was seven or so, I visited the city on a regular basis. All of that said, thanks very much. I am quite comfortable with the tone and mood of the books and of Ethan in particular. As I said, I wanted the books to be earthy and workmanlike — I’m pleased that they come across that way.

    Razz, I don’t think there is anything wrong with exploring those smaller plot points and tangential threads. When writing a novel all does not need to be absolutely linear. The problem arises when one or more of those threads starts to take over the narrative and the tone, making it seem that the book is not cohesive. Keeping track of such things is part of a writer’s job, for just this reason. Thanks!

    Emily, I think that working through the book to the end and THEN going back to edit makes all kinds of sense. As you say, sometimes you have to look at the finished product in order to understand what it needs more of and what has become superfluous. Best of luck with it.

    Laura, thanks for the comment. Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a book having several threads and blending dark with light, humor with serious stuff, etc. The key, though, is being true to the central themes, elements, characters, plot, etc. of the story you’re telling. If your dark story has humorous moments, that’s great, that works. It mirrors real life. If your dark book has a significant subplot that is funny and light-hearted and totally unlike the rest of the story, that’s when this becomes an issue.

  • @David: that was my take-away. It didn’t work for that reader and that’s okay. I’m okay with the fact that some people won’t like the story. (I’d be less okay if no people liked the story, but then that’s why I’m looking for critiques in the first place. One thing I think good critiques can do is help clarify the audience for a piece.)

  • TwilightHero

    Very late to the party here. Just wanted to say that I too am in the minority in that I enjoyed the Hobbit movie a great deal. Maybe it’s because of the lack of impact the Hobbit had on my adolescence (the time I first read it), or of the difference in tone between it and LoTR. But I didn’t mind most of the the movie version. Yes, the opening in Bag End took too long; I’m with Stephen in that the stone giants were completely gratuitous; and I admit that I loathed Radagast (THIS is supposed to be one of the Istari?). (Though I did like the scene in Dol Guldur.) But overall, I took it at face value: not as a faithful adaptation, but as an attempt to blend the whimsy and spirit of adventure of its namesake with the darker tone and greater scope of LoTR. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t half bad either.

    But I do agree that it wasn’t perfect. And looking back, I can see elements of my own story that don’t quite fit, perhaps, however briefly, having run away with themselves…though I do think the overall tone remains consistent. I’ll have to think on this. Great post, David. Thanks.

  • Stephen, I do think that beta readers can help with identifying an audience, though I think you would need a lot of betas to make that a truly effective barometer.

    Twilight, thanks for the kind words about the post. I think that opinions on the movie are going to vary with people’s experiences with the book, and what it was they were looking for. But I felt that the movie lacked a core identity, and was, in that respect, a good starting point for this post.