Let’s get this out of the way first: I hate Peter Jackson’s treatment of the Lord of the Rings in general, and "The Hobbit" in particular.
It’s not because I hate adaptations on principle. I didn’t start collecting Iron Man figurines because I’d ever read any of the comics, and I honestly prefer the TV version of "A Game of Thrones" to "A Song of Ice and Fire."
It’s because, to me, creating an adaptation or reboot of something that already exists is like having a conversation with the original work. What themes or messages have made the story so beloved? What new territory in the series can be charted now that you have access to sophisticated special effects? And how do you deal with the often blatant racism, sexism, or other -isms inherent in a work?
When I saw Desolation of Smaug, I felt like the main thing Jackson took away from The Hobbit was “This needs more action sequences and stupid jokes!” This is, after all, the movie that used a bajillion dollars worth of computer animation to make viewers feel like they really were cowering before "Smaug the Tremendous… the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities," and then decided to undermine the whole thing with a slapstick joyride through the dwarven forges.
For The Hobbit movies, Jackson also took the liberty of creating several completely new characters. Arguably, the most controversial of these was Tauriel, an elf who was created specifically to address the fact that, in its original form, The Hobbit has no female protagonists at all.
The actress who plays Tauriel, Evangeline Lilly, has been interviewed extensively about her fears of playing a completely new character. I want to make my intentions for this article completely clear in that this is not about bashing her character’s very existence, or saying that Lilly deserves to get fan hate. What this article is about is how a flood of sexist internet criticism that essentially boiled down to “NO GIRLZ ALLOWED IN THE TOLKIEN CLUBHOUSE” has made it impossible to talk about how the gender problem in The Hobbit could have been handled even better.
What if there was a MORE elegant solution to The Hobbit’s gender problem than Tauriel, one that would also create far more roles for women throughout the three movies?
What if, instead of creating one completely new character, Jackson simply switched the genders of characters that already existed?
If you’re sitting there going, “The fans/producers would never stand for something that drastic happening!” I have good news. This method has already been used in several adaptations which are both beloved and critically acclaimed. Starbuck became a girl in “Battlestar Galactica,” Judi Dench’s “M” was so iconic that I doubt any male actor will ever adequately replace her in the Bond franchise, and Lucy Liu’s Dr. Watson in “Elementary” is a delight to behold.
And then there’s NBC’s “Hannibal”, now airing its second season.
“Hannibal” makes the high-wire act of writing an adaptation look easy, despite its myriad challenges. It’s a prequel of an already-beloved series that doesn’t have a blueprint, since it’s recounting events which are only hinted at in Thomas Harris’ novels. (Just to make things more confusing, it’s actually based on the third book in the series, "Red Dragon"). And they weren’t able to secure the rights to Clarice Starling, not only one of the series’ most beloved characters, but one of the few women in the sea of men that make up Harris’ novels.
Writer Bryan Fuller dealt with this by changing the sexes of half the cast. In the original version of Red Dragon, Dr. Bloom was male, “Freddie” Lounds was male, and forensic specialist Beverly Katz is an expanded version of a few mentions of a female forensics specialist. This doesn’t make the show “perfect” in terms of gender politics (I’m still white-knuckled over how the series is going to treat Jame Gumb), but it’s a vast improvement from the source material.
Now imagine if the same treatment had been applied to The Hobbit. Instead of a single lady elf who had to be created out of whole cloth, we could have had at least half a dozen more roles for women by changing half the dwarves to female (and, depending on what dwarf gender canon you subscribe to, they might not even have had to change the costumes that much).
We could have had sisters Kili and Fili*, a big-bosomed Bombur whose girth may have given her a certain amount of dwarven prestige, and a Thorin who was too proud to ask for directions to Bilbo’s house but was still positive that she should be Queen Under the Mountain.
Imagine if Beorn, whose bear form nearly caused disaster for the dwarves, had appeared the next day as a hairy, lined-faced giantess, the last of her kind.
Imagine if Smaug had taken over the Lonely Mountain because all that gold made the best nest for her eggs.
And nothing would be lost by making Azog incidentally female-- to my knowledge Tolkien doesn’t write anything definite about orcs’ secondary sexual characteristics, so you wouldn’t even have to change the character design. The race of Men could also easily stand to have more women, and we could even solve the “Luke Evans looks too much like Orlando Bloom” issue by making Bard a woman, polling a barge to support her two children in the burned-out shell of a town that should be hers by right.
And what if Bilbo was a girl? Michelle Nijhuis, who changed Bilbo’s pronouns at her daughter’s request when reading her The Hobbit for the first time, says that “Bilbo… makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.”
Of course, Bilbo’s gender was set in stone by the time the first Lord of the Rings movie was made, even though he’s played by another actor in The Hobbit, and Gandalf and Legolas’ genders are similarly off-limits. And it’s this lack of forethought that reveals Tauriel’s creation to be the gender band-aid that it is, rather than the cure. In a better constructed adaptation, Lilly might simply have been cast as Legolas from the beginning.
Because if you really agree that “In this day and age, to put nine hours of cinema in the theaters for young girls to go and watch and not have one female character is subliminally telling them you don't count”, why make just one?
* Despite a wonderful note in Appendix F of the Lord of the Rings where Tolkien talks about how Hobbits would gender names, I’m not enough of a linguist to change every character’s name to its “proper” form along with their gender. (I also expect dwarf language and Elvish may have very different linguistic rules). But I would be delighted if people took on the challenge of figuring out the feminine form of names like “Legolas” in the comments!