The Hobbit's gory battles don't just pad out its run-time. They contradict the story's message about mercy.
"True courage is knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one," Gandalf tells Bilbo in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.*
Gandalf's homily doesn't appear in Tokien's original novel The Hobbit. Still, the sentiment has some textual support. Specifically, in the book, Bilbo, having discovered the magical ring of invisibility, has a chance to kill the sneaking, loathsome creature Gollum—but instead spares him.
Bilbo almost stopped breathing, and went stiff himself. He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. it meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword. Gollum had not actually threatened to kill him, or tried to yet. And he was miserable, alone, lost. A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo's heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering. All these thoughts passed in a flash of a second. He trembled.
Bilbo then (in both film and book) leaps over Gollum's head, leaving the creature despairing but unharmed. Later, in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf suggests that Bilbo's pity for Gollum "may rule the fate of many." At the end of Rings, it is ultimately Gollum who, inadvertently, destroys the ring and saves Middle Earth. Mercy is ultimately salvation, and Bilbo's decision not to use violence is at the heart of the quasi-Christian moral order of Tolkien's world.
If Jackson meant for Gandalf's comment to highlight Tolkien's nonviolent ethic, though, the rest of his film undercuts it—and, indeed, almost parodies it. The scene where Bilbo spares Gollum in the movie comes immediately after an extended, jovially bloody battle between dwarves and goblins, larded with visual jokes involving decapitation, disembowelment, and baddies crushed by rolling rocks. The sequence is more like a body-count video game than like anything in the sedate novel, where battles are confused and brief and frightening, rather than exuberant eye-candy ballet.
The goblin battle is hardly an aberration in the film. I had wondered how Peter Jackson was going to spread the book over three movies. Now I know: He's simply added extra bonus carnage at every opportunity. The dwarves, who in the novel are mostly hapless, are in the film transformed into super-warriors, battling thousands of goblins or orcs and fearlessly slaughtering giant wolves three-times their size.
Given this vision of dwarves-as-ninjas, it's not entirely clear why the expedition needed Bilbo along in the first place. And, indeed, the focus on uber-violence and heroism shifts the focus of the narrative decisively away from our hobbit, and towards Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves. Thorin is even provided with an archenemy antagonist, the pale orc, Azog, who generously provides the requisite movie-villain cliché bellowing, blustering, and gratuitous execution of minions, all of which Tolkien somehow failed to include in his text.
As for Bilbo, Gandalf tells the elf-queen Galadriel that it is not great power but rather the everyday deeds of ordinary folk that defeat evil. It's a nice sentiment, but not one that the film buys into even for a moment. On the contrary, with its fixation on hyperbolic action sequences, the film has real trouble figuring out how to value the unwarlike Bilbo.
In the novel, of course, Bilbo saves the dwarves many times—not only through his cleverness and his magic ring, but through his greater nerve. In Jackson's story, though, the dwarves are utterly fearless and possessed of sufficient battle prowess that Bilbo's cleverness, or lack thereof, is largely beside the point. Rather desperately, the film simply falls back on making Bilbo an improbably competent swordsman who somehow, without training, holds his own against whatever infinitely superior antagonist the film decides to throw at him. The dwarves embrace Bilbo not because of his pluck or smarts, but because he turns out to be a great warrior who can stand shoulder to shoulder with them and slaughter their enemies. So much for the true courage of sparing lives.
To be fair, the film's confusion around violence is to some extent Tolkien's confusion as well. At the end of Tokien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, Frodo basically becomes a pacifist, refusing to fight under any circumstances, and insisting on mercy even to the utterly corrupt and unapologetically vicious Saruman. And yet, despite this apparent sympathy for nonviolence, Tolkien throughout his work presents sentient antagonists like orcs and goblins as utterly evil; subhuman monsters who provoke, and deserve, utter extermination. On the one hand, then, Tolkien advocates peace; on the other, he appears to embrace a logic of genocidal violence.
In the novel version of The Hobbit, these conflicting impulses towards peace and war are worked through and emphasized by the book's narrative pacing. Sequences of violent tension alternate with oases of calm, so that the allure of tranquil rest—Bilbo's hobbit hole, or the joyful glades of Rivendell—are contrasted with the adrenalin rush of terror and smiting one's enemies. The film too makes occasional rhetorical tributes to home and peace, but it is constructed according to the familiar Hollywood logic of ADD and remorseless action. You can rest when you get out of the theater. While your butt is in the chair and the 3-D glasses are on your noggin, you're going to be treated to triumphant swelling strings and bloody spectacle after bloody spectacle. Tokien's novel saw virtue in little things, but An Unexpected Journey is too obsessed with its own bigness for mercy.
*This article originally referred to Bilbo as Frodo in its first line. We regret the error.