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11 Dec 2012

Some thoughts in anticipation of The Hobbit – In just a few days, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s latest fantasy trilogy, The Hobbit, will hit cinemas around the world. It is one of the most anticipated films of the year—but will it live up to the hype? I can see several ways that The Hobbit as a whole and An Unexpected Journey could end up being disappointing, and I thought they would make an interesting entry. It might not be interesting for everyone, though; if you have no experience with the wrath of a Tolkien nerd and/or are of squeamish disposition, you may want to come back next time. You have been warned.

Dwarves, glorious dwarves!

In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there was only one dwarf of any consequence: Gimli, son of Glóin, played by John Rhys-Davies. Even if we broaden our scope beyond the main “hero” characters (that is, the members of the original Fellowship), we see no other dwarves except at the Council of Elrond. There are plenty of men, of course, and numerous elves, but the dwarves are given rather short shrift. Granted, this is not Peter Jackson’s fault—dwarves were the most poorly represented of the races even in the books.

So you have a single dwarf surrounded by men, elves, hobbits, and ents—heck, there are even more main Maiar characters than main dwarf characters! What, then, do you then do with this single dwarf? Why, you make him the comic relief, of course! In the LOTR films, Gimli is not a heroic warrior but a bumbling buffoon who fells most of his enemies by mere luck. When the Three Hunters track the Uruk-Hai in their efforts to rescue Merry and Pippin, Gimli is constantly lagging behind, huffing and puffing like an overweight midget. And yet he boasts of his skills at every opportunity, making him less a hero and more an impotent braggart.

What exactly was it about Gimli that caused him to become the brunt of so much slapstick humor? Was it the fact that he was the odd dwarf out? Is there something inherently funny about short, fat characters? And I can’t help wondering if John Rhys-Davies was cast as Gimli because he has excellent comedic acting skills and the character had already been written as such, or if his personality somehow influenced the development of the character. Whatever the case, you could count on Gimli to provide levity—whether needed or not—even in the darkest of situations.

Not that Gimli is the only bumbling character in the fellowship, of course. Pippin screws up all the time simply because he is a hyper-inquisitive hobbit—in other words, it’s in his nature—but his mistakes drive quite a bit of drama in the film. He wakes the goblins and cave troll in Moria, ultimately leading to Gandalf’s death, and he nearly dooms all of Middle Earth when he reveals himself to Sauron through the palantír. Yet Gandalf is resurrected to become even more powerful than before, and Pippin’s encounter with the palantír gives Gandalf valuable information about the enemy that might have otherwise cost the Fellowship dearly. And, of course, Pippin later saves Faramir’s life when the insane Denethor attempts to burn him alive. What does Gimli do? He kills a bunch of orcs. In the books, his perhaps sole act of heroism was to pull Merry out from under a dead troll after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but he was robbed of even this in the films. Guess who gets to do this instead: Pippin, of course.

But enough of LOTR. Now we have The Hobbit, which features not one but thirteen dwarves (including Gimli’s father). Just going on what I have seen in terms of previews and trailers, it is unlikely that all of the dwarves are going to be bumbling buffoons—Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the group, is depicted as a haughty and brooding character, as he should be. We have seen little of the other dwarves yet, but I am desperately hoping we don’t get a dozen Gimlis led by John Thorton (there’s an obscure reference for you!). The worst thing that could happen, in my opinion, would be to set Thorin up as the stick in the mud, Bilbo as the innocent and bewildered outsider/straight man, and the remaining twelve dwarves as a traveling burlesque troupe.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, though, and say that’s probably not going to happen. As I was at great pains to point out above, Gimli was the only main dwarven character in the LOTR films, so it was easy to single him out as the comic relief. In The Hobbit, Bilbo is the odd hobbit out, but Jackson can’t make him a complete buffoon because he is ultimately going to be the hero. It’s more likely that we’ll see one or a few of the dwarves act as comic relief for the company. In fact, I’m going to go out even further on this limb here and say that Bombur is going to be the go-to dwarf for comedy relief. Gimli was the fall guy in LOTR because he was short—Bombur will be the fall guy in The Hobbit because he is, in Tolkien’s words “immensely fat and heavy.” It’s always the short and fat kids that get picked on, right?

One thing I should say before moving on, though, is that The Hobbit is a far more lighthearted book than the LOTR trilogy. There are some moments in LOTR when things get really dark, but The Hobbit is, even in its most tense moments, still a rather cheerful tale. So it would not be entirely out of keeping with the original material to see a good deal of humor in the telling (if, of course, the film remains as lighthearted as the book—but more on that later). I think Tolkien himself saw the humor in the dwarves as well. But he also respected their courage and heroism, and I hope we see more of that in The Hobbit than we saw in LOTR.

Three films to rule them all

It was only natural that LOTR be three films. After all, there were three books (well, six if you want to be completely accurate). If you have watched the five million hours (rough estimate) of special features on the extended edition DVDs, though, you will know that LOTR was, in fact, almost two films instead of three. It sounds ridiculous now, but Jackson had originally pitched the project as two films to Miramax. Miramax later wanted to cut it down to a single film, at which point Jackson took the scripts to New Line, where a trilogy was suggested instead.

The Hobbit, on the other hand, followed the opposite course. In the original conception of the films, The Hobbit was to be a single film, followed by two LOTR films to complete a trilogy. Later, though, it was decided that it would be a two-part film. And then, this summer, Jackson announced that The Hobbit would in fact be a trilogy.

The reason that LOTR was not originally planned as a trilogy is fairly obvious: the studio did not want to sink money into three untested films. In the end, Miramax didn’t even want to sink money into two untested films. It would be easy to assume that the same logic is at work in The Hobbit’s growth from one to three films; we now have a tried-and-true product, and the studio wants to make as much money from it as possible. However, while I’m sure this is part of it, I’m not cynical enough to think that that’s the only reason we have three films. I’m willing to believe that Peter Jackson loves Middle Earth enough to want to spend more time there.

Whatever the reason, though, the question remains: is it really a good idea to stretch The Hobbit out over three films? I have my doubts. When it comes down to it, The Hobbit contains far less material than LOTR. In fact, The Hobbit is less than a quarter of the length of the LOTR books. To stretch The Hobbit into three films means adding a lot of material that’s not in the original work—probably an entire film’s worth, if not more. It is this extra material that worries me. More specifically, I am worried about how this extra material will change the character of the story.

It is fairly common knowledge that Jackson is drawing heavily on the material found in the appendices (which were published at the end of The Return of the King). In his Facebook announcement that The Hobbit would be three films instead of two, he said: “We know how much of the story of Bilbo Baggins, the Wizard Gandalf, the Dwarves of Erebor, the rise of the Necromancer, and the Battle of Dol Guldur will remain untold if we do not take this chance. The richness of the story of The Hobbit, as well as some of the related material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, allows us to tell the full story of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the part he played in the sometimes dangerous, but at all times exciting, history of Middle-earth.”

If you’ve read the original work, you know that the story of Bilbo Baggins and his adventure with Thorin Oakenshield & Co. refers to many events that are not explicitly part of the tale. The Necromancer is mentioned, but he does not play a significant role in the story, except to take Gandalf away from the company for an extended period of time. It may seem like a good idea to bring all of this background (that is, the information we get later in the LOTR appendices) into the foreground—after all, the more we know, the better, right? But I think we need to ask ourselves a question: if this information is so critical to the story of Bilbo Baggins, why wasn’t included in the original work? The simple answer is that Tolkien had not yet fully fleshed out these elements of the backstory yet. After all, the appendices were only published some 17 years after The Hobbit hit the bookshelves. So why didn’t Tolkien flesh out the backstory while he was writing the Hobbit? The answer to this question is also simple: he didn’t have to.

Let me elaborate a bit on that simple answer. After staying with Beorn, Gandalf announces to the company that he is leaving them, as he has “some pressing business away south.” He says nothing about what exactly this business is, even though he warns them the next morning to stay away from the lands of the Necromancer in the South. Then he leaves the company—and the narrative—and does not return until the very end of the tale. Now there is no doubt that what Gandalf did during this period of time ultimately became a critical part of the lore of Middle Earth, but I think it is a mistake to assume that including this backstory will necessarily make for a better tale. Seen from a lore perspective, the conflict between the Necromancer and the White Council functions as a very good reason for Gandalf to abandon the dwarves and Bilbo just as they were about to enter a very dangerous forest. But seen from a character-development perspective, there is an even more compelling reason for Gandalf not to be there: if Bilbo is to step up and start being the hero we know he will eventually become, he needs to be put in desperate situations where there is no Wizard around to save him. And if it were not already obvious enough, Tolkien himself once mentioned in a letter his “quite casual reference to the Necromancer... whose function was hardly more than to provide a reason for Gandalf going away and leaving Bilbo and the Dwarves to fend for themselves, which was necessary for the tale” (from a letter to a Christopher Bretherton, 16 July 1964). In other words, while the Necromancer may have become important later, attempting to make him into more than what he was at the time is ignoring the needs of the story at hand.

Ultimately, The Hobbit is the story of a single hobbit who finds within himself a strength and courage that he never knew existed. There are scenes of action and adventure, with goblins, wargs, trolls, spiders, and a clever and dangerous dragon, but the scale of the story is much smaller than the later world-spanning epic of The Lord of the Rings. We do eventually find out what Gandalf’s “pressing business” was, once the story is complete and we are in the denouement—or, to use a hobbit expression for end-meal snacking as a metaphor, “filling up the corners” of the story. We are not, however, given a grand tale of adventure. The whole matter is summed up in just one matter-of-fact sentence: “It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and they they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.” And that is as it should be! The matters of Wizards and the Wise are a story best saved for another time, and I fear that they may overshadow the courage of our unlikely hero.

And since it seems this extra material will mostly deal with matter of a much grander scope, we also run the risk of changing the tone of the story. When I read The Hobbit, I very clearly hear the voice of the storyteller. By this I do not mean that I hear an actual voice in my head, but that the story sounds very much like it is being told to you by a skilled weaver of yarns, and this narrative voice has a very strong and very distinct personality. The tale of the War of the Ring, on the other hand, is much more distant, like you are reading historical chronicles rather than hearing a tale told in front of a roaring fire. The story of The Hobbit fits very nicely with the storyteller voice, and, as I noted above, it also lends itself to a more humorous telling. But I can’t help wondering if the addition of all this extra material will not change the story from a heroic but lighthearted tale to a somewhat confused epic.

The curse of the prequel

As the first part of this entry ties into the second, so the second part ties into the first, because not all of this extra material will be straight from the appendices. Of course, not every line of dialogue will be straight from Tolkien—that wasn’t the case with LOTR, so why should it be the case here? And just to make this clear: I don’t have a problem with dialogue not being taken straight from Tolkien. I think it would be unnecessarily restricting were that the case. My real concern here is that all of the extra material required to turn The Hobbit into three films will not only function as filled-in backstory, but as a way of tying the films into the LOTR trilogy.

In an episode of the Colbert Report last week (which was “Hobbit Week” on the show), a clip was shown of the scene where Gandalf gives Bilbo the sword Sting. Never mind the fact that Gandalf does not actually give Bilbo the sword in the book—what bothered me was what he said in the film when he gave the sword to Bilbo: “True courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” Gandalf never says anything of the sort to Bilbo in the book, and I think it is a great disservice to Bilbo that Gandalf does so here. It dilutes the importance of the decision that Bilbo makes later on when he encounters Gollum; instead of deciding to spare Gollum’s life on his own, now he has the wizard’s words ringing in his head. (In fact, I won’t be the least bit surprised if the film features a voice-over of Gandalf repeating the line at this point.) Here is the passage as it is in the book, when Bilbo is invisible and has Gollum at his mercy: “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.”

Note here that he does not think back to anything that Gandalf said to him—he comes to this conclusion completely on his own because he is able to empathize with Gollum. But Gandalf’s statement in the film brings me back to the scene in Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf talks about “the pity of Bilbo” with Frodo. When I first watched that scene, I assumed that Gandalf was defending and praising his old friend. Who knew that Gandalf was the one to put the thought into Bilbo’s head in the first place? Perhaps this line in the new film is meant to tie everything together thematically, but I think it actually weakens the impact and makes Bilbo less of a hero.

That is just one tiny example that jumped out at me, and it may or may not be a harbinger of more such changes. My concerns go beyond lines like these, though. I realize that there should be some connection between the two trilogies (even Tolkien later rewrote Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum in order to bring it closer to the LOTR mythology), but the fact remains that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit without fully realizing the role that the events of the story would later play in the War of the Ring. Like I said above, The Hobbit is a lighthearted adventure, a tale of a small hero becoming great. When Tolkien wrote it, neither the Necromancer (as noted above) nor the Ring itself were what they would later become. In a letter that Tolkien wrote to W. H. Auden in 1955, he says that he had the “main idea of the story” from the very beginning but he “had no conscious notion of what the Necromancer stood for (except ever-recurrent evil) in The Hobbit, nor of his connexion with the Ring.”

And this, of course, is the crux of our problem. Much could be said about smaller details of continuity between the two trilogies, but these all pale in comparison to the problem of the Ring. When Bilbo found it, it was “just” a magic ring—which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important, of course, and Gandalf rightly warns that magic rings should not be trifled with, but it was nowhere near the One Ring. And the Necromancer was hardly the figure he would later become: Sauron, the forger and master of the Ring. But although Tolkien may not have had a clear idea of the importance of the magic ring and the Necromancer, we have already been through the events of LOTR. How can we go back and pretend we don’t know what is going to happen?

There are obvious problems with the ring not simply being a magic ring but being the One Ring of Power, forged by Sauron in the fires of Mount Doom. As I mentioned above, Tolkien did realize that Gollum’s behavior in the original version was problematic. When The Hobbit was first written, Gollum not only offers Bilbo the ring as a prize, he is genuinely apologetic when he discovers it missing, and their parting is friendly. The original version is retconned (a neologism that combines “retroactive” and “continuity”) as a fib told by Bilbo to justify his possession of the ring. This would seem to give the filmmakers some leeway in retooling The Hobbit to be more in line with later mythology, and I think Tolkien himself would have approved of the idea. But while Tolkien simply made changes to a single chapter so that Gollum’s behavior would make more sense, the extra material in these films and the fact that everyone has already seen LOTR will likely mean even more and broader changes to the story.

In the end, this is a fundamental problem with prequels in general and there is no real way around it. On the one hand, we can’t ignore the history of LOTR, which, even though it happens later in the timeline of Middle Earth, has already been ingrained into the public memory. But on the other hand, we cannot retcon The Hobbit enough to accommodate all of that without making it a much different story. But it does have to be one or the other. I would prefer the former—just treat The Hobbit as a tale from a simpler time—but the inclusion of all of the extra material that relates to the War of the Ring tells me that we may be in for the latter. If we are not—that is, if the filmmakers attempt to introduce all of the surrounding Ring lore into the story but maintain the tone and voice of the original work—then we are in for one bumpy, disjointed ride.

Expect the unexpected (journey)

A lot more could be said about the pitfalls The Hobbit may find itself at the bottom of. For example, I haven’t even touched on aspects of cinematography (mainly because I don’t really feel qualified to discuss them). I just wanted to focus on some of the story-related hazards from the perspective of a Tolkien nerd. To be honest, I originally conceived of this entry as a bit of a lark; the title was going to be “Why The Hobbit is going to be a disappointment.” I thought it would be fun to have a sensationalist title and then talk a little about my thoughts on the upcoming film. As I wrote, though, I realized that my concerns were very real, and that the entry wasn’t a lark at all. Thus the more sober title.

But I am going to end this the same way I had originally intended to end it, because although I have voiced some pretty serious concerns above, I still feel the same way about the film: I can’t wait to see it. We have already reserved tickets for a Saturday morning show (it opens here on Thursday evening, but I won’t have time to see it until Saturday morning). I have been looking forward to this ever since the project was first announced, and nothing (within reason) is going to stop me from being in that cinema when the opening sequence rolls. (And I’ve heard that Peter Jackson has a cameo in the first six or seven minutes, so I will looking hard for him.)

So, you ask, what about all those concerns you had above? Well, I still have them. In fact, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that I will be disappointed by some aspects of The Hobbit. The same thing happened with LOTR. When Faramir did not let Frodo go at first, but instead elected to take him back to Minas Tirith, I was dumbfounded. My jaw literally dropped open as I sat there, and all I could do was whisper dazedly to my wife, “That’s not what happened!” When Gollum drives a wedge between Sam and Frodo, and then Frodo actually tells Sam to go home (and he does—or at least starts to), it took every ounce of willpower I possessed to not jump out of my seat. When Treebeard came back after the Entmoot and told Merry and Pippin that the Ents would not, in fact, enter the War—only for them to pass by Isengard later and decide on the spur of the moment that they would attack—I was apoplectic with rage.

Later, though, I watched the special features of the extended edition and heard the writers talk about the need for Faramir to have a character arc—that is, for him to actually have a journey of his own, rather than simply being this avatar of righteousness—and I had to begrudgingly agree that they had a point. I also heard them talk about how important it was that Frodo enter Shelob’s lair alone, and I was forced to admit that, yes, it was much more dramatic, and it made Sam’s return that much more heroic and triumphant. (In the book, Frodo begins running when they are finally free of the lair and is ambushed by Shelob before Sam can get to him. In retrospect, it seems far less dramatic, although I still understand why Tolkien wrote it the way he did.) Finally, I heard them explain the treatment of the Ents by saying that Merry and Pippin needed to have “something to do”—and that was the limit of my patience. The whole point of the Ents is that they are thoughtful and deliberate creatures, and disregarding the most important aspect of their personalities for the sake of giving two of our hero characters something to do (what, killing the Witch King of Angmar and saving the life of the future Steward of Gondor aren’t enough?) is an offense I still can’t quite forgive. But you know what? Even though this continue to bug me a little when I watch The Two Towers, my heart still soars when I see the awesome spectacle of the attack on Isengard.

Ultimately, though, it all boils down to one simple truth: the films are not the books and the books are not the films. It was difficult to separate the film version of LOTR from the original books at first, but I have since come to see them as separate entities. They are based on Tolkien’s work and I believe they (mostly) stay true to that spirit, but in the end they are just one interpretation of the original. It is not my interpretation, of course, so Peter Jackson & Co. do things a little differently than I would have done (a minor example is how Aragorn treats the hilt of the Witch King’s blade on Weathertop—in the books he guards it carefully, because it is a principle of primitive magic that the giver of a hurt is an instrumental part of curing that hurt, but in the films he flings it to the ground as if it burns, and never touches it again), but I recognize the love and care that went into producing the film, and I love them for what they are, warts and all. And, let’s face it: they’re just a lot of fun to watch.

I suspect things will be much the same with The Hobbit. At first, I will inevitably compare the films to the book (and the appendices of Return of the King), but over time they will come to stand on their own. I will always have the original book, but I will also always have the films. And who knows—maybe my worries above will prove unfounded, or at least misguided. I’ve seen some brief glimpses of scenes in trailers and teasers, and I have to admit that the dwarves look like they are going to be a lot of fun. I am particularly looking forward to the gathering at Bag End. As for The Hobbit being three films instead of one or two, yes, it will probably change the tone of the story, but it also means that I get to go back to Middle Earth for three more films! For all the worrying I did above, I must say that I am pretty excited to see the White Council go into action against the Necromancer, and to see the Battle of Dol Guldur on the big screen. Lastly, retconning The Hobbit so that it fits more smoothly into the LOTR mythology may not turn out to be as devastating to the original story as I fear. And who is to say that reimagining the story in this way would not be in keeping with Tolkien’s attitude toward the world he created? He changed only a single chapter because The Hobbit had already been in circulation for years, and sweeping changes would not have been practical. Had Tolkien written The Hobbit after LOTR, he may very well have incorporated a lot of the things that Peter Jackson & Co. are incorporating.

So it is with very mixed feelings that I look forward to this Saturday. On the one hand, I know that the films will be different, and they are not going to live up to all of the expectations that have piled up over the years. On the other hand, though, I’m pretty sure that the films will be a lot of fun. It will be interesting to see how I feel after seeing the first film, and to see where I was right and where I was wrong. I will be pretty busy over the weekend, but I will try to come back and put together a review at the beginning of next week. Until then, the road goes ever ever on.

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