Is this the same ‘Hobbit’ that Tolkien wrote?

From Reuters:

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Peter Jackson’s two upcoming movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit have been given official names and release dates.

The first of the two films, which are currently being filmed back-to-back in New Zealand, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, arrives in theaters on Dec. 14, 2012.

The sequel, opening Dec. 13, 2013, will be known as The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Both will be released through Warner Bros.

The two prequels to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy follow the adventures of Bilbo Baggins — to be played by Martin Freeman, with Ian Holm reprising his role as the elder Bilbo — in his quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug.

The sprawling cast includes a number of other Rings veterans: Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey; Cate Blanchett as Galadriel; Orlando Bloom as Legolas; Christopher Lee as Saruman; Hugo Weaving as Elrond; Elijah Wood as Frodo; and Andy Serkis as Gollum.

Er – I already have a bad feeling about this.

First, in The Hobbit, Bilbo did not have a personal quest to ‘reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor from Smaug’. Rather, his services were engaged as a burglar (the word is used many, many times in Tolkien’s story) to assist the thirteen dwarfs led by Thorin Oakenshield in stealing their lost dwarf treasure back from Smaug. The motive is entirely and unabashedly materialistic.

But secondly, and even more alarmingly – what’s with this list of characters? Galadriel, Legolas, Saruman and Frodo do not appear in Tolkien’s story in The Hobbit! True, in the retrospective on the ‘Hobbit’ story that we get in places in The Lord of the Rings it turns out that Gandalf, Saruman, and Galadriel have been involved in a meeting of the White Council to discuss the identity of the Necromancer – but Saruman and Galadriel are not mentioned in the much simpler account we get in The Hobbit – and in the LotR Frodo is far too young to have even been born at the time of the earlier book.

Thirdly, it is somewhat misleading to describe The Hobbit as a ‘prequel to The Lord of the Rings’. This is to interpret it backwards from the perspective of the later and much more complex work. The Hobbit as Tolkien originally wrote it was a simple fairy story for children involving dwarfs and their treasure, a wizard, a dragon, and a rather unadventurous hobbit. When Gollum’s magic ring first makes its appearance in the pages of The Hobbit it is not the ‘one ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them’ that it becomes later in the reinterpretation found in The Lord of the Rings; it is simply a magic ring to make the wearer invisible. Tolkien actually began The Lord of the Rings as a sequel to The Hobbit, not the other way around, and the early chapters of the LotR are decidely Hobbit-like (indeed, in Tolkien’s first drafts of these chapters ‘Strider’ was called ‘Trotter’ and Bilbo’s nephew was not ‘Frodo Baggins’ but ‘Bingo Baggins’).

I am very much afraid that Jackson is going to give us, not The Hobbit on its own terms, but rather The Hobbit as it is re-interpreted in The Lord of the Rings. And since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is already significantly different from the story Tolkien wrote, we are going to be even further away from the original in this so-called ‘prequel’. In my review of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings I wrote the following:

Tolkien started out to write a children’s book, a sequel to The Hobbit, but his older mythology got pulled into it and he ended up writing an epic saga. Some of the saga remains in Jackson’s movie, but he has seriously perverted it, importing into it elements of both the modern psychological novel and the shoot ‘em and kill ‘em action movie.

I then concluded:

I hope that people who see these movies will go on to read the books. My fear is that Jackson’s story line and characterisations will be established in the minds of most people as definitive; that when they think of Frodo and Elrond and Arwen and Galadriel, it will be Jackson’s characters they will think of, not Tolkien’s. To me, this would be a shame.

I already have similar fears for Jackson’s The Hobbit, and the movies haven’t even been filmed yet.

6 thoughts on “Is this the same ‘Hobbit’ that Tolkien wrote?

  1. Hello Tim,

    Firstly thank you for a very engaging blog post. However, I do feel that it’s only natural that Peter Jackson gives us ‘The Hobbit’ reinterpreted at least in part through The Lord of the Rings. He’s the director of an immense work of cinema, worked on for several years by hundreds of people passionate about bringing Lord of the Rings to film so more people can appreciate the genius of Tolkien.
    I think that the majority of people realise that films interpreted from books are never absolutely true to the word, so I believe that there is no need to be concerned that Jackson has done a bad job – he’s worked incredibly hard to be as true to Tolkien as cinema can allow. It’s just impossible to translate every aspect from book to film and the vast majority of people know this.
    The nostalgia and feeling of ‘family’ working on the project, while irrelevant to the story, has had a deep impact on Jackson.
    In an ideal world, The Hobbit would be treated as a different entity, probably with entirely different actors and director, but the millions that make up the fan following for the LOTR trilogy will want to see the connection between LOTR and The Hobbit.
    I suppose we can only wait and see for the result – nearly 18 months! I’ll certainly be coming back to see your opinion of it! 🙂

  2. Tim Chesterton

    Terri, thanks for your comment.

    You said, I believe that there is no need to be concerned that Jackson has done a bad job – he’s worked incredibly hard to be as true to Tolkien as cinema can allow. It’s just impossible to translate every aspect from book to film and the vast majority of people know this.

    I’m sorry, but I just do not believe that to be true. As I said in my review of the LotR, there are huge differences between the book and the movie. For one thing, the proportion of battle scenes to the rest of the story is hugely increased, and the proportion of time (and significant dialogue) in places like Rivendell and Lothlorien is much less. This gives us a much, much darker story than Tolkien wrote (and his was dark enough!). Second, much of Tolkien’s dialogue has been cut and replaced by new dialogue. This especially applies to Tolkien’s humour, almost all of which is gone – and this is a sad loss because Tolkien was a great humourist.

    Third, Jackson has imported major plot lines that are not part of Tolkien’s story. There’s the imported conflict between Elrond and Arwen about whether she should marry Aragorn. There’s the self-doubt and hesitancy on Aragorn’s part to embrace his role on Isildur’s heir, and the fact that he does not actually take up the reforged sword of Isildur until three quarters of the way through the story, whereas in the book it is a major part of his battle prowess all through. There’s the episode with the illness of Arwen, and the wounding and temporarily presumed loss of Aragorn at an entirely new battle scene between Rohirrim and wolf-riders on the way to Helm’s Deep. There’s the youthfulness of Frodo (in the book he is 51 at the outset of the story) and the fact that he is so full of angst throughout. There’s the physical and magical combat between Gandalf and Saruman at Orthanc when Gandalf goes to consult him about the Ring. And so on and so on. There are so many divergences from Tolkien’s plot that I just think it’s not true to say that Jackson ‘ worked incredibly hard to be as true to Tolkien as cinema can allow’. I can’t see how any of these changed are required by the demands of modern cinema.

    As I said in my review, there are many things I like about Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, but I think it’s cavalier attitude toward Tolkien’s story line is a fatal flaw. He has taken a heroic saga and turned it into a cross between a modern psychological thriller and a shoot ’em, kill ’em action movie. That’s not what Tolkien had in mind.

  3. From the above I too would share your concerns about this, Tim. Way, way back, when the world was young (or at least, I was) I remember reading first The Hobbit then LotR. The first hundred or so pages (it might have been more like 80 or 90) of LotR read very like The Hobbit in style – light-hearted fantasy. But then there is a very distinct change within a couple of pages, where things become much darker and far more adult.

    From the above report it sounds as though there is quite a lot of retro-fitting going on to harmonise what Tolkien wrote later with the earlier work. Of course, Tolkien himself developed a whole “prequel” mythology through the Silmarillion and other work, so perhaps we sholud not be surprised that Peter Jackson wants to import some of this. But, as you point out, there is the very real danger of taking some rather great liberties with the texts and importing some extra-Tolkien narratives, as happened in LotR.

  4. Nick

    I don’t really buy the whole ‘Frodo wasn’t in the Hobbit’ criticism. Since Sir Ian Holm is featuring as the older Bilbo, would it not be obvious that Elijah Wood is appearing as the older Frodo? Maybe the film opens with the two of them making final edits to the books they produced between them… the flash backs start and the film beings….

  5. Pingback: Apprehension | Faith, Folk and Charity

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