In a couple of weeks the new Hobbit movie will open worldwide, and I have to say, I’m anxious. It’s not the kind of thrilled anticipation I felt over the release of the first Lord of the Rings movie (the making of which I had monitored closely for months). That was sheer excitement, this is something closer to simple worry, with a little skeptical bafflement thrown in.
Let me begin with two disclaimers before the goblin hordes start pelting me with angry e-comments:
1. I loved the LOTR movies; I thought they were wonderful imaginings of the novel and remember emerging from the first one ready to line back up to watch it all over again. I was speechless, and felt the kind of deep satisfaction I rarely feel after movies, the kind that makes you want to immerse yourself in the world of the film and live in it. So no, I’m not some grumbling academic who thought the whole thing a failure because they cut Tom Bombadil (about whom more later).
2. I loved The Hobbit as a kid and think it a great and formative work of fantasy and children’s fiction.
But I’ve just been rereading it and the experience has taken me back to my gut response when they first announced that the Hobbit movie(s) was/were a go. I felt then, and I’m starting to feel again, uneasy.
I hope I’m wrong. Really.
But if I am, I think there will be a lot to say—far more than there was with LOTR—about the generic shift from the book to the film.
Paradoxically, one of my concerns stems from the very strength of the casting. McKellan returns as Gandalf! Fantastic! Ian Holm returns as old Bilbo and the wonderful Martin Freeman (of Sherlock) plays the younger version! Speaking of Sherlock, the voice of Smaug is non other than Benedict Cumberbatch (who must be one of the best actors to have ever had a truly silly name) and Andy Serkis is back as Gollum. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel is also (somehow) back, as is Hugo Weaving (Elrond), while the rest of the cast is stuffed with quality actors from Stephen Fry and Billy Connelly to Sylvestor McCoy and Barry Humphries. Christopher Lee is back, so is Elijah Wood… How can I possibly be anxious about so sterling a cast?
But this is a blockbuster cast for a big, serious, epic movie, a massive, gorgeous, heart-rending film like… well, like LOTR.
But The Hobbit isn’t LOTR. Not even close.
The Hobbit is a kid’s book and—sorry, but it’s true—a dated one. Rereading it I was amazed at how often it sounds almost exactly like Winnie-the-Pooh. The narrative voice, the version of the world it describes, the playfulness with which problems are dealt with, the nature of those problems in the first place are—like Pooh—redolent of England in the nineteen thirties. I’m not alluding to the casual racism and classism of the period, though those are pretty cringe inducing to a modern eye; I mean the sense of story and the sense of what children are.
I don’t want to take anything away from the achievement of the book which is clearly a classic and—more importantly—gave rise to other and (to my mind) better books, LOTR among them. I’m just wrestling with how a modern movie which has been cut from the cloth of LOTR is supposed to approximate this far more naïve and wooden story in ways that will please its audience.
LOTR is an entirely different kind of story, more mature as a novel and not just because its target audience is older. There are glimmers of what the Hobbit was in LOTR, especially early on, but the book evolves away from them as its epic scope and sense of weight richens.
Take Tom Bombardil for instance. If you recall in LOTR, Tom saves the hobbits from Old Man Willow and from trouble with wraiths on the barrow downs. He is an outlandish figure in yellow boots, whose wife is called Goldberry, and who speaks in homely doggerel verse. He is a species of fertility spirit, a jolly and distinctly English Santa Claus, whose power is supposedly great (as is his age) though he does not concern himself with the ring or the coming war. He is a curiosity straight out of The Hobbit (resembling Beorn, a little, who serves a similar function in the earlier novel).
Tom Bombadil was cut, tellingly, from the BBC radio LOTR, the (under appreciated) Ralph Bakshi animated film, and the Peter Jackson movies. He was cut for a couple of reasons, one of which is that he does little to advance the larger plot, particularly if you are also prepared to lose Old Man Willow himself, but the other reason is, I think, one of tone.
Tom Bombadil doesn’t fit in Jackson’s LOTR because for all his implied power he is quaint in a thirties English Green World kind of way which now looks, to be honest, kind of hokey. Treebeard is dangerously close to being similarly a bit daft looking/sounding too, but he is caught up in great events and—especially—large scale combat, so the epic approach works for him. Tom Bombadil, not so much.
And this is why I’m worried. Because tonally Tom is straight out the Hobbit, tonally akin to Bilbo’s goofy teasing of the spiders, and the Punch and Judy talk of the goblins. Think of the way the two different books represent trolls. Trolls in LOTR are terrifying, speechless monsters. In The Hobbit, they are faintly Dickensian ruffians who turn to stone if you keep them talking. They make sense in the novel (if you can read it without the hindsight of LOTR) because The Hobbit, though large, is not epic fantasy adventure so much as it is episodic fairy story.
Fairy stories can make great movies. No question. But is that what we’re going to get? The casting, the scale, the hype suggests otherwise. We’re going to get a prequel to LOTR. This alarms me because however much the two stories depend on shared characters and plot lines, they are essentially different animals entirely, and they sit uneasily in the same pasture.
Now, I’m the first to embrace the idea that a film of a novel (like a theatrical production of a printed playtext) is a generic shift which invents an entirely new art object, so carping about differences between the two makes no real sense at all. Of course they are different. They have to be.
But if the new film is to please the LOTR movie fans, what we are likely to get—however glorious it may (and I suspect WILL) be–is going to be something quite different from the book we read as kids.
I’ll say no more and will withhold judgment till I see the film, except to repeat what I said when I started. I’m anxious. Interested, for sure, even hopeful, but anxious.