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 Rings; The Hobbit has already led me back again.