‘The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit’ and Screener-based Fan Edits

In my previous post, I wrote about the anticipation for fan edits of The Hobbit trilogy as a single film and I characterized them as “inevitable edits.” Last week I encountered TolkienEditor’s The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit, which is the first of these recombinations to be publicly released. Culture bloggers and journalists picked up on it this week and they have already published a handful of brief articles on the project (e.g. Jaworski 2015; Bogos 2015; Adams 2015; Bricken 2015).

TolkienEditor’s work is the first of several book-inspired fan edits of The Hobbit trilogy likely to appear — today, reddit user skyofcoffeebeans announced the completion of a similarly conceived edit, and in the comments section of TolkienEditor’s website Dustin Lee directed readers to his ongoing project, JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which does not draw from the leaked DVD screener. There is also The Hobbit: Dwarfed Edition, a work-in-progress by Austen “Gorman Korkskrew” Halpern-Graser and Anthony “Bartek the Unkind” Ceceri that presently contains The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). Although not strictly book-based, fan editor Kerr has reportedly conceived of his forthcoming edit of The Hobbit trilogy as the first part in a newly revised quadrilogy of the Tolkien film saga. For some fans, the anticipation for these fan edits has eclipsed Peter Jackson’s original films. Even as The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) marched toward cinemas last month, fans were clamoring for a fan edit to “fix” Jackson’s film series. It’s also likely there were some who were just waiting for the final episode of this adaptation to get released so fan editors could complete the revisions they had already begun with the first two films.

Screener-based Fan Edits

As of this writing, news coverage on The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit has neglected to mention that its scenes taken from The Battle of the Five Armies are actually derived from a DVD screener (designated “DVDSCR”) that was recently leaked onto torrent sites along with nearly all 2014 Academy Award nominated films. Ernesto (2015) reports that of all the titles made available by torrent release group CM8, The Battle of the Five Armies is the most popular with over 2 million downloads in a week. It has been widely reported that CM8 was able to purge the visible and invisible forensic watermarks from the screener by removing frames, which I recognize as a subtle re-editing of the film. This process, and perhaps some problematic video compression, appears to have caused slight stuttering during playback of the pirated copy which is still present in The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit. This fan edit also bears a CM8 signature during the end credits:

Screengrab from TolkienEditor’s THE HOBBIT: THE TOLKIEN EDIT depicting the CM8 release group’s signature.

Fanedit.org has a community rule that everyone should own a legitimate copy of a given film before downloading any relevant fan edit discussed in the forums or listed in its extensive Internet Fanedit Database (IFDb). This is the expectation for any work shared in that creative community and it is essentially a stance against associations with media piracy. However, fan edits like The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit defy this rule by being based on material that is not commercially available to the public. This is reminiscent of the first fan edit of The Lord of the Rings film series, The Two Towers: The Purist Edit (2003), which was also based on a leaked DVD screener. That anonymously released edit is excluded from the IFDb. In both cases, these edits represent a response to an intense demand from fans to see a film transformed by any means possible. Given advanced access to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies in the form of bootlegged DVD screeners, it’s not surprising that some fans are unwilling to wait until they can recut sanctioned, higher-fidelity copies of the films. On the contrary, Dustin Lee and Kerr are two fan editors whose recombinant versions of The Hobbit will not be completed until the extended edition of The Battle of the Five Armies is released on Blu-ray later this year. At approximately 4 1/2 hours, The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit feels a bit overlong, but it is not without merit. As the first of its kind, it gives viewers a glimpse at the shape of Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy as contained in a single, more literary reverent film. TolkienEditor has removed much of the superfluous expansions to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original story, including the prologue featuring Frodo and the elder Bilbo Baggins, all the appearances of Radagast, Saruman, and Galadriel, as well as the love triangle between Kili, Legolas, and Tauriel. Many of the changes in the fan edit are well executed but there are a few exceptions. For example, by diminishing (but not eradicating) the role of Legolas in the film he seems strangely absent when his father, Thranduil, leads an army to the gates of Erebor. And although some characters were removed in this fan edit, their profiles still appear during the end credits. Also, by removing the scene in which the dwarves temporarily trap Smaug under a flood of molten gold, it is bewildering that the dragon emerges from the mountain dripping with gold on his flight to raze Lake Town. These are some rough edges that TolkienEditor might refine in subsequent revisions.

The Hobbit: Dwarfed Edition

Alternatively, the current version of The Hobbit: Dwarfed Edition restrains the first two installments of The Hobbit trilogy to a mere two hours. Its structure is largely in step with The Hobbit: The Tolkien Cut, but its cuts and trims are more bold: the dwarves do not sing together at Bilbo’s house on the night before their journey, the barrel chase sequence is reduced to a swift escape with no orcs in pursuit, the presence of Bard the Bowman and the drama in Lake Town are significantly trimmed down, and Smaug resolves to attack Lake Town directly after meeting Bilbo instead of encountering any of the dwarves or molten gold. Not all of these cuts are seamless but it is impressive work.

Poster for THE HOBBIT: DWARFED EDITION, designed by Michael Tomaszewski.