Anxious about the Hobbit.

A J HartleyA J Hartley
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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.

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19 comments to Anxious about the Hobbit.

  • I’m expecting the Hobbit movie to be done as if Tolkien had written it after the LOTR to tell the backstory of how Bilbo ended up with the ring. Had Tolkien cone up with it then it might have been more Epic Fantasy and not Children’s Fairytale.

  • I share some of your concern. I really worry that it is THREE MOVIES. That seems way over the top, since 3 books were 3 movies with LOTR. I worry about pacing, too, with such a thing. The other problem is that, in a way, The Hobbit is our introduction to Middle Earth. We hang out with Bilbo, who, with the exception of the starting chapter(s) hasn’t been anywhere the plot takes him, just like us. But we’ve all been there now. And we know more than he does (and how he ends). So rather than experiencing the world along with him, we’re waiting for him to catch up. (Just like reading a series–even if each is stand alone–out of order). So, as an audience, we might not be suited to the movie, either.

    A word on Bombadil–I think you’re right that he’s a bit out of place in tone in LOTR. But I’ve always seen him as really important. The throwback isn’t a slip, it’s on purpose. I’ve read him as a stand in for the world itself. He has the last untouched-by-evil place in the world (granted, it is still a fallen world, so “untouched” might be overstating). We’re told he’s the “last” and when the world goes all Sauron, it will be the last to go (though it will go). Like the earth itself, it doesn’t really have an opinion on what we do to it, and will last a long time, but will go. (I think it works in a religous sense, as well, and while Tolkien was very clear there were no allegories in his books, I think Bombadil represents a kind of moral position, too, but I’d have to spend a lot more time thinking about it to make the argument.) That said, cutting him was a lot easier (and probably the right choice) than actually making his innocence profound and moving. I think, worst case scenario, Tom Bombadil could have ended up in the vein of Jar-Jar Binks. Definitely cringeworthy.

    But yeah, I’m worried about the Hobbit too. I hope it doesn’t disappoint. :)

  • I share some of your concerns, A.J., and certainly agree with Emily that three movies for the story is ridiculous. I believe that what we will end up with is a version of the Hobbit narrative that has almost nothing in common with the book other than basic structure, but that has a great deal in common with the movies. That can mean a couple of things. Best case scenario, the Hobbit movies are reminiscent of the film version of THE FELLOWSHIP, which is my opinion was far and away the strongest of the three LOTR movies (Academy Awards notwithstanding) — blending the whimsy and pastoral feel of life in the Shire with the larger, Middle Earth-threatening issues that lie at the heart of the story. Worst case scenario, the Hobbit movies all feel like the second Star Wars trilogy: a commercialized, frenetic, and incoherent attempt to recreate something that cannot be replicated. Naturally, the truth will probably fall somewhere in between. But I can’t say that I’m anxious about it. No matter what happens with the movies, the book will remain a classic, the LOTR movies will remain a singular (albeit flawed) cinematic achievement, and this will be, if nothing else, a fun way to spend a few hours during the holidays.

  • AJ, This is one time when I am hoping the move looks nothing like (or very little like) the book. I am hoping that the writers took the concept and the characters and dumped the rest of the story, creating a new one of their own. While I usually decry the loss of the book’s story when film makers toss it and keep ony the idea, like you, this is one time when I want it to happen.

  • Normally I’d respond to everyone individually, but I actually think we’re all on a similar page and I find myself agreeing with Faith, that I want to see a great movie inspired by the book rather than a filmic treatment of the novel. And yes, LOTR prequel or whatever it winds up being, I’m pretty sure the thing will be good on its own terms. Pea, I think everything you say about Bombadil is right, but I still find him kind of embarrassing, a version of a golden age of rural England that always raises my hackles. Maybe that’s my industrial working class roots speaking: the idealization of the pastoral always struck me as inherently conservative, a dodge of how living close to the land really is, and an essentially aristocratic fantasy, but maybe that’s just me being cynical :)

  • Ken

    I can’t bring myself to feel anxious…only excited. At this point, let me admit that for movies (much more so than for television…and even books) tripping my suspension of disbelief is as easy as throwing a light switch. I’m there for a good story…the more fantastic the better (Time Traveling Delorians included). As such, books and movies for me tend to get compartmentalized in my head. I’ve got the LOTR movies in my movie box and the books in my book box and the two boxes only meet occasionally even though they both sit on the same shelf of awesome.

    So, yes, I’m completely Geeked for the movie and if there is any uneasiness, it’s of the generic “Gods, I hope it doesn’t suck.” variety, that quickly gets washed away under my optimistic side.

  • I’m apprehensive about the prospect of three movies, but ultimately I’m more excited, and that trumps my apprehension.

    Everything I’ve read and seen about the Hobbit (with the exception of the fact that there will be three movies instead of two and the warnings that the 48FPS version may actually look cheaper and not better than a classic 24FPS) has really helped me to feel at peace with it. I’ve read and seen several things that suggest the Hobbit movies will be lighter in tone than the LotR movies, which seems about right. I’ve seen some pretty good justification for the added length/padding (introducing plotlines from the Appendices which are not covered in the text of the Hobbit… essentially making this a Prequel in Fact and not just an adaptation of an earlier book – for instance the question about why, exactly, Galadriel is returning to this version is put to rest when one considers the Appendices material). And… when the dwarves started singing in the first teaser… it sent shivers down my spine.

    So I recognize that there’s reason to be anxious and apprehensive. But given how fantastically the LotR movies came out under Peter Jackson’s watchful eye, and given these various reassurances, I feel justified in looking forward to them with child-like glee.

  • I got to talk to some people at LosCon last weekend and they said the 3 parts are because Jackson is including all the stuff that Gandalf is off doing (meeting with the Council of the Wise, driving Sauron out of Dol Guldur) while the Hobbit’s story is going on. In other words, all the stuff that ISN’T in the book, but gets alluded to in LOTR. I am both thrilled and horrified.

    Because AJ’s right. The Hobbit is different in narrative voice, tone, structure, oh my gosh so many ways, from LOTR. I love them both, but they both hold very different places in my heart and imagination. So I’m nervous too. I don’t really want the Hobbit movie to lose the cozy bedtime story feel it has, though I don’t know how to translate that to the big screen. As I’ve been teaching both books this semester I found that I wanted to read LOTR out loud as if it were an epic lay. But reading the Hobbit was like reading a story to my inner child, including the happy little side jokes and winks that go on between child and adult reader in a good bedtime story reading.

  • kdoylekeenan

    While Tom Bombadil’s removal was OK with me, I nonetheless loved what he stood for. I never saw love of the natural world as embarrassing or an aristocratic fantasy. I think people NEED a connection with nature, and we are losing it with increasing rapidity. Tolkein was a pioneer who inspired a lot of people in the “green” movement through his writing. Of course, not being British, maybe the cultural implications are wasted on me.

    That being said, I am just praying that “The Hobbit” movie is just as wonderful in its own way, and as true to the writing, as LOTR was.

  • Vyton

    A J, I am anxious as well. I have been since the first when Peter Jackson was not involved. And I remain anxious even with him behind it. I’m hoping that the first installment maintains the innocence of the book: the ring is not known to be evil. Goblins, spiders and dragons are the worst. The problem seems to me is how do you transition from that to the prequel and to a still fairly high level of innocence at the opening of LOTR? And through two more movies yet. I guess we have to trust to Peter Jackson to treat it with the same respect as he did LOTR.

    I understand what you’re saying about Bombadil. I still like that interlude of the hobbits with him (although I have had trouble reading through some of it each time). It would have taken an age to film it if it had been included. But it was in the barrow downs that Bombadil gives the hobbits their blades. And it is that “sword” forged by the men of Westernesse that allows Merry to dispatch the head Nazgul. Maybe a minor point, but I was bothered when the movie didn’t address it.

  • @Vyton: I had the same notion about Bombadil and how that relates to the Witch-king of Angmar. I’d wondered how Jackson was going to address that problem without including Bombadil. I knew he’d have to address it, though, because I knew that Bombadil was almost certainly the first thing on the chopping block when looking for ways to trim the story down to fit in a movie’s time restraints, for all of the reasons already mentioned. In the end, I wasn’t terribly bothered that Merry took the Witch-king down with just any old dagger… since, after all, the focus of that scene is really on Eowyn, and her role was well-played.

  • Vyton

    Stephen, you have a good point about the focus of the scene. She did do a great job. I thought Merry deserved more credit than he got even so.

  • Razziecat

    OK, I’m a purist where Tolkien is concerned. The main thing that bothers me about The Hobbit is that they are including an “original” character, an elf named Tauriel, who was not in the book, simply because “there aren’t any women in the story.” I’m a feminist, but the book is what it is. I love the story as it is and don’t like things being changed for reasons that have nothing to do with the integrity of the story (which is why I hated what they did with Faramir in the LOTR movies).

    Re: Bombadil, I believe his importance has been overlooked by most people. He is not only a nature spirit, but a reminder that all of human (or elf, dwarf, what-have-you) striving is a minor thing to the world as a whole. Much of Tolkien’s work was about the fact that civilizations come and go, we play out our little dramas that mean so much to us, but eventually it all passes away and life/nature/the world goes on, renewed. Also, Bombadil was Frodo’s first mentor, Bilbo notwithstanding. I read somewhere (can’t recall which book) that Frodo’s encounter with the barrow-wights was the first time he stood up to the evil that endangered him, the first time he truly showed the courage hidden inside of him. This was in a sense his real “coming of age.” Up until then, he was running away. And in fact he continued to expect Gandalf to save him, pretty much until Gandalf fell in Moria, but he also continued to show courage and daring.

    Re: the tone of The Hobbit, the story begins very much as a children’s tale, but by the end of the book it has become more mature in tone, dealing with much more serious ideas (war, death, greed and so on). I hope that shows in the movies. I’m very much looking forward to Smaug, although I think we don’t get to see him until the second movie (or third?)

  • Pretty much in agreement with what everyone else has already said. The three movies raised a brow for me, too. I hope they become an excellent set of prequels, even if that means they’re more true to the tone of LOTR than the original Hobbit book.

  • I agree with all who thought the announcement of the three movie split was troubling and–again–suggests the scope and scale of LOTR n ways not clearly fitting The Hobbit, and I agree that a case can be made for Bombadil’s narrative importance. That doesn’t change the fact that I find him embarrassing to read and was glad to see him cut from the film/radio adaptations Internal narrative logic is trumped, I think, by effect, doubly so in film when you can’t assume an audience committed to the larger project from the outset. And if you aren’t sure why I’m concerned that there’s quite a bit more of the ‘Bombadil effect’ in Hobbit, go back and read the troll scene and imagine trying to put that on camera as written. Yikes.

    But let me be clear. I’m not bemoaning alterations to the book in the making of the film. I actually don’t really care about that and think that a “purist” approach finally doesn’t make sense because the medium of the two are utterly different. Any film, however “straight” as a telling of the story introduces millions of new details and cuts others. It can be no other way and I’m fine with that (which is why I actually prefer the more adaptive Harry Potter films to the ones considered more faithful to the books).

    My concern here, then, is simply that I don’t know what I’m going to get, and that is unsettling. I’ll go further: the further the films push away from the book, the less I can anticipate what they will be (of course) but the better I suspect they will be as films. The closer they stay to the book, the more I can anticipate them but the worse I expect them to be as films.

  • The Hobbit is indeed primarily a childrens’ tale. If the movie would be made — movie, not movieS — with that in mind, rather than trying to ride the coattails of LOTR success, it might please more people.

    There’s really no need to tinker a whole lot with it if you just accept that it is NOT what LOTR is. The Hobbit wasn’t intended to be an epic high-fantasy drama. Yeah there are places where heavier themes come out, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. That keeps the story from being merely a “kid’s story”, IMHO.

    I too like the book as it is, for what it is.

    Still, Peter Jackson is the only director I’m happy with to do this. I have some problems with how the LOTR movies turned out but overall I like them a lot. I’m expecting The Hobbit movies to be at least enjoyable, recognizable as The Hobbit. I’m disappointed that Jackson fell for expanding it but IMHO other directors would really mess it up. So here’s keeping my fingers crossed.

    And I do seriously wish this site had a “preview” button for comments *sigh*

  • I never thought about it like you’ve pointed out. I doubt that Jackson is going to make it child-like. When I was in Wellington, New Zealand, earlier this year I went on a LOTR tour. Peter Jackson’s from Wellington and WETA is there (which is the company that does all the special effects for the movie). I got to see some of the scenes from the Hobbit while at WETA and they were all great–stellar acting, beautiful images, etc. But from what I saw I think the tone is going to be closer to the LOTR movies than The Hobbit book. Since I only saw small little scenes, I can’t be certain. Either way, I think the movie is going to be good.

  • quillet

    Like you, AJ, and many other commenters, I’m excited yet a little anxious. I’m also trying not to prejudge (which is harder to do than it should be) because I really ~want~ to like these movies. I hope they’ll be magical in the same way that the LOTR movies — especially Fellowship — were for me.

    I’m a total Tolkien geek, so I’ll just point out something: After the publication of LOTR, Tolkien himself attempted a retro-fit of The Hobbit, trying to turn it into a more serious/fitting prequel with the same epic tone. He gave the first few chapters of his rewrite to some friends & family, and their judgement was pretty much unanimous: It’s good, but it’s not The Hobbit, which they loved as it was. So he gave up on the idea — but clearly he didn’t object to it in principle. So if PJ & co. have indeed brought The Hobbit more into line with LOTR, I don’t think it’s sacreligious or anything. I’m just hoping for good films!

    @ jqtrotter: You got to visit WETA??? I think I just died of envy.

  • Megan B.

    I have had some concerns, too, but after seeing the previews I’m totally jazzed. It looks like it will be great. I am expecting it to follow the main plot of the Hobbit (plus the added stuff with Gandalf and company), but make it more mature and dark. I do think three movies sounds excessive, but Jackson earned my trust with the LoTR trilogy, so I am pretty hopeful.

    I suppose I haven’t said anything that wasn’t already said, but I’m so excited for the movie that I had to chime in. And I did think this post was very interesting, and put voice to the vague concerns I felt. You are absolutely right, these films will be very different from the book in many ways.