Peter Jackson Is Not Making The Hobbit; Or, The airing of random thoughts

It’s Sunday, the first day of the week. Specifically, the first day of Hobbit Week, the first of three weeks (assuming the world doesn’t end on December 21st) surrounding the release dates of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy. Film 1, An Unexpected Journey, has had its world premier and advanced screenings around the world are legion, making it increasingly difficult for the hobbit-fancying audience to avoid spoilerish comments and influential reviews. I am doing my best to avoid the media barrage. I have read no reviews, apart from those that declare their basic opinion in the title. Much as I love behind-the-scenes footage, and will relish the hours of content available online and in the inevitable extended edition of the films, I’m practicing the art of self-control by abstaining from the copious interviews and film clips available. I do this in the probably naive hope that I can come to this movie clean and free to let it be what it is. Frankly, there are a lot of expectations riding on this film, for myself and countless others, maybe more than almost any other film in history. Not only must Jackson satisfy the notoriously picky Tolkien fans (something he experienced in making The Lord of the Rings) but he now must manage the expectations of the film-going audience. He must be true to both Tolkien’s and his own vision of Middle-earth, and I’ve got news for you folks: These are often contradictory things. Oh, and make a good film that stands on its own. This is a fine tight-rope to walk, and I don’t envy him the task.

In the interest of full disclosure, I thought I would write down and publish for the webs my own pre-viewing ideas so that I can come back and see just what it was I expected, vs. what I thought I expected, and how reality lives up to those expectations.

The first and most important thing to remember, especially for non-Tolkien-obsessives, is that PETER JACKSON IS NOT MAKING THE HOBBIT. Lather, rinse, and repeat until that is fully soaked into your brain. Full discussion of this point could and does occupy the space of many hours, as Corey Olsen has proved in his Riddles in the Dark podcast (essential listening for those who relish pre-release speculation). Now, this is obvious in a common sense sort of way. Movies do not, nor should they, equal books. They should not be a cinematic equivalent of novelization. To be successful in a new medium, a story must adapt and change, just as stories adapt and change over time through retelling. As Shakespeare adapted Hamlet from the Ur-Hamlet, which was adapted again by Tom Stoppard with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, each tale grows in the telling.

Now obviously PJ isn’t going to do anything as radical as set the movies from the point of view of, say, Woodelven guard #3. From what I can tell, PJ’s films will follow the spine of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but they face a very different challenge than his earlier trilogy. LOTR was faced with the problem of compression, The Hobbit will be all about expansion. Think about it. In expanding to three films, PJ will have roughly the same amount of screen-time to tell a story seven hundred pages shorter. It will be interesting to see which is the more difficult hurdle for the screenwriters to overcome. Though there were the complains about the loss of Tom Bombadil, The Scouring of the Shire, and the Glittering Caves of Aglarond, by and large most reasonable viewers understood the need for compression. Will die-hard Tolkien fans, and even more casual viewers, feel the same about the necessary expansion? We know that in order to fill out the story, PJ has included material from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings, adding in peripheral storylines such as the White Council’s attack on Dol-Guldur and exposure of the Necromancer, and the definitively-peripheral Radaghast the Brown. If I were to make one suggestion to movie-goers in this week before they see The Hobbit, it would be to echo Corey Olsen‘s advice to read The Appendices and “The Quest of Erebor” in detail. In a sense, PJ is still adapting The Lord of the Rings in conjunction with The Hobbit. This means that we should not be surprised when the new films feel more like LOTR tonally than TH. For a successful film, and for a satisfied audience, PJ will have to find a way to do both in a way that feels organic. My advice would be to remember the first rule of film-making: Show, don’t tell. For example, if PJ wants to include more detail about dwarven culture, he needs to show the Battle of Azanulbizar. He should include those details which are so very Tolkienian, but which would inevitably be cut in any more compressed version, such as the mentions of “burned dwarves” and the detailed differences between Tooks and Baggins (or “Bagginses”). PJ has given himself the luxury of time and space, but he must endeavor to fill it with those lovely touches which make Tolkien’s work such a joy to read.

Now, apocryphal material is one thing, but it remains to be seen how viewers react to the more substantial additions. The most notorious example, now delayed until 2013, is the new character of Tauriel, played by Evangline Lilly. The filmmakers are being understandably cagey about their revelation of this character, and one hopes that the success of film 1 will help them ride the wave through the controversy. While I understand the trepidation of the purists, I am cautiously optimistic about this particular change. I really like Lilly as an actress (I don’t “hate Kate” as many LOST fans do, and I think most haters let their dislike of the character unfairly inform their opinion of the actress), and I think The Hobbit would receive as many criticisms for its lack of female characters as it will for having invented them. It’s a Catch-22, and the writers made a reasonable and defensible choice. The difficult part will be folding Tauriel and the other “invented” or expanded elements in so that they feel natural and part of the whole, rather than tacked-on additions to make the story more conventional. These additions should add richness and reality, but should not distract from the main thrust of the story.

Even as I look at my own words, I realize the enormous difficulties this movie is facing. No story can be all things to all people, and it will inevitably find the nuances of each viewer’s expectations far too much. And so, I will try to take the zen position. What will be, will be. PJ is a solid director, and he has an amazing creative team behind him, and so I have little doubt that I will enjoy this movie, and even more enjoy discussing it with others. As much as I hope that The Hobbit knocks it out of the park, it has already done its part in my life by reminding me of why I fell in love with Tolkien in the first place and in introducing me to so many others who feel the same way. PJ’s Lord of the Rings films changed my life by leading me to Tolkien’s Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit has already led me back again. 

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About Katherine Sas

I graduated from Messiah College in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. I'm a student of all things arts and humanities, in particular Tolkien, the Inklings, and the fantastic and imaginative tradition in storytelling.
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12 Responses to Peter Jackson Is Not Making The Hobbit; Or, The airing of random thoughts

  1. Mary Doane says:

    Amazing analysis (or pre-nalysis), Katherine. How long did it take to knock out this little gem? Hope this week goes well and that you really enjoy next weekend. Looking forward to hearing about it all. Love, Mimi

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Kat says:

    Thanks so much Mare! I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say.

  3. Jeff Chapman says:

    Great post summarizing the issues about the film. Looking forward to your thoughts after seeing the film. What’s awful is that we’ll have to wait years before the film experience (three acts with year-long intermissions) is complete.

    • Thanks Jeff! Yes, the wait is always hard, but fun at the same time (and we had plenty of practice with LOTR). I really recommend listening to Corey Olsen’s Riddles in the Dark podcast series and playing along with the prediction game. It passes the time, and gives unique insight into the challenges of book-to-film adaptation. What will be interesting to see is how the critical and audience reaction to An Unexpected Journey may (or may not) influence the course of the following two films. Unlike LOTR, this was not a planned trilogy from the start, so I feel as if they are being much more flexible with making changes late in the game. Hopefully this helps rather than hurts, but I guess we’ll find out in a few years.

  4. Kelly Orazi says:

    Wonderful! I agree, Turiel’s role will be an interesting one (I personally think she will lead the escape from the Elvenking’s prisons- maybe by giving Bilbo the keys). But I really like what you said about it being a catch 22. We gotta give PJ the credit for putting in a female character where Tolkien did not. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about the film once you’ve seen it! (I’m waiting an extra 10 days or so to see it with my family. AHHH!)

    • Thanks for the kind words, Kelly. Sorry I won’t be meeting you in Baltimore this weekend, but I’ll definitely post my thoughts on the movie afterwards, and I hope you’ll do the same on your blog. And of course we’ll still have our last class session later this month!

  5. I am leary of Turiel. Must we alter everything to fit politically correct biases?

    • No, but I hope you’re not implying that including female characters is necessarily a politically correct bias. I am perfectly open to the reality that Tauriel may be an unnecessary and even harmful addition to the film. But having not seen it yet, I am also open to the idea that there was an opportunity for a supporting Wood-elven character, and that seeing as the story has plenty of testosterone to go around, making that character female is a more-than-legitimate choice. She may be utterly superfluous, but I don’t think that her being female automatically qualifies, which is the way many fans seem to have reacted. Fans may react negatively to other added elements in the story, but it bothers me that if in this case it happens to be adding a woman to the cast it is labelled “politically correct,” as if the only reason to add one would be to satisfy diversity requirements. I’m not saying that this is your opinion – I too am cautious about any added elements to the story – but I think the knee-jerk outrage by many fans was bothersome and needs to be addressed. I also think that a lot of the strong feeling is left-over “Kate-Hate” from LOST, which is a whole other ball of wax.

      • My opinion would be: I would avoid adding a character to something with as much prestige as LOTR. If you are going to add a character just to get a woman in there, you are adding it for the wrong reason. There is nothing wrong with an all male cast in a movie, as there is nothing wrong with an all female cast. Regardless, I don’t know the “real” reason they added the character.

        Including female characters is not necessarily a PC bias, but it could be. And when it is, I think it’s kind of lame. That said, if its a case of “let’s add a character” and it turns out making it female works with everything else, then fine. It’s just the going-out-of-the-way to add a female character that I find annoying, particularly for a classic. But, like I said, I don’t know the real reason they did it; but doing it for PC reasons was my first inclination. Maybe I’m wrong.

      • Yup, I think the proof will be in the pudding, as they say. The final product will make apparent whether it works or not. Even then, however, I often don’t mind their reasoning for changes I’m not a huge fan of. For example, the changes to Faramir’s character in The Two Towers were a shame, but I absolutely understand why they were made. I don’t think they really ended up working as intended, and they probably should have let the original character do his thing, but I really think that they rarely make any totally gratuitous changes.

      • Why did they change Faramir? I thought that was like the biggest screw-up in the whole series. I was really irked.

  6. Pingback: A Long Expected Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” | ravingsanity

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