I saw the first of Peter Jackson’s three Hobbit films last week on opening day, and since then I’ve been reading the reviews and reactions to it–some glowing, some scathing. Over on Facebook, I posted my own brief review (I was utterly charmed by it), but the rather polarized response this film has received got me thinking and has inspired me to write this more in-depth blog entry. Before I can adequately convey what I want to say about the film, however, I should give a little background about where I’m coming from with Tolkien–what his work has meant to me.
I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings some time around the age of eleven and The Silmarillion soon thereafter (since then I’ve reread each of them more times than I can say, the only books I’ve ever read more than twice). They struck me like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky, for some of the obvious reasons people are drawn to the books but also for deeper reasons I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. They simply resonated with me in a way nothing had before or since.
Almost immediately after reading them, I began forcing my family to engage in elaborate celebrations of Hobbit Day every September 22. I spent hours after school and on weekends hand drawing poster-sized color reproductions of the maps from the books and even created an authentic-looking scroll version of Thorin’s map with “aged” edges achieved by holding the paper close to a candle flame. In that pre-Internet age, I somehow managed to track down the addresses of Tolkien special interest groups around the country and signed up for their newsletters, devouring every xeroxed copy of Beyond Bree that appeared each month in the mailbox chock full of essays on Middle-Earth history and the like. I read biographies of Tolkien, tried teaching myself Elvish, and avidly studied the Middle-Earth atlases by Karen Wynn Fonstad and Barbara Strachey.
Perhaps driven by the same impulse that inspired Jackson to bring Tolkien’s work to the silver screen, I gathered together a group of friends in junior high school and formed a Tolkien appreciation society calling ourselves The White Council. Our first order of business was an attempt at recording a radio dramatization of The Hobbit complete with music and sound effects. We never got any farther than the opening scene in which Gandalf gets “good-morninged” by Bilbo, but I still have a cassette tape of our effort packed away somewhere in a box.
Throughout my childhood, whenever I found myself walking in the woods or in a lonely field, a part of me was always waiting … waiting for the veil between the worlds to fall away and for me to find myself staring at a hobbit peering back at me over a rock or some bit of vegetation. Somewhere along the way, I stopped waiting, but I never forgot what it felt like to wait.
Now I’m 40, and I still make a point of adding mushrooms to my menu on Hobbit Day. Tolkien’s words still move me when I read them–his world-building is breathtaking and on a line-by-line basis I find his writing absolutely beautiful.
Much more uneven has been my reaction to Tolkien in cinema… Although the Rankin/Bass cartoon films of the 1970s will always hold a special place in my heart and childhood memories, and although they actually do a rather good job of capturing something of the tone of Tolkien’s work, they are also a bit overly whimsical in a way that can’t fully do justice to the material being adapted. Then there’s Ralph Bakshi… On one of those aforementioned Hobbit Day celebrations in the early 1980s, back before my family owned a VCR, I convinced my parents to rent a video player from our local video store and had them sit down with me to watch Bakshi’s animated version of The Lord of the Rings, a film I myself hadn’t yet seen. As the cinematic train wreck unfolded, I felt a cold lump growing in my belly… Oh God, Mr. Bakshi, I thought, what have you done? Worse even than the disappointment I felt personally from being subjected to his absurd, disjointed, visually awful evisceration of the book was the awareness of my parents’ increasingly bored squirming alongside me in our living room. For they had never read The Lord of the Rings (and still haven’t to this day), and this film must have only cemented what I suspect was their belief about Tolkien’s work–that it was all just silly nonsense. I felt betrayed. Sickened and betrayed. Overcoming my impulse to cast the video cassette into the fire chasm from whence it was forged, I returned it to the store, did my best to put it out of my mind, and to this day cannot speak of it without my blood pressure rising.
Long years passed…
Enter Peter Jackson. I remember going to see The Fellowship of the Ring with my wife on opening night while living in Brooklyn, NY, and sitting nearly stunned in the theater for three hours. The film was wonderful. I loved it from the opening credits to the end credits. That’s not to say I agreed with every choice and change Jackson made, but overall the film was a triumph. And best of all was the simple fact that a film maker had at last given Tolkien’s books the serious treatment they deserved. It was something I’d always wished might happen but on some level never believed would. Now everyone–even those who’d never read the books, those who’d dismissed them as some sort of hippy-dippy fairy tale nonsense would see through the medium of the films how much more the books were. Many of those people would even go on to read the books themselves.
To a certain extent the film’s success was a double-edged sword; something that had always been deeply and personally meaningful to me, nearly spiritual, was now part of the wider public discourse–there would be action figures, collectibles, and media tie-ins galore. But as much as this rendered my own love affair with Tolkien less precious, I could not help but be pleased, for the world had come to embrace and respect something very deserving. The Two Towers and The Return of King films followed suit, albeit with less success with each successive film in my opinion, as Jackson made some greater missteps as he went along. But as a whole the film trilogy was magnificent and ranks high on my list of the greatest films of all time. Significantly, it could well have gone another way–the way most fantasy films seemed to have gone up until that point. But it didn’t go that way, because Jackson very obviously loved the source material as much as I do, understood what Tolkien was doing, and did his best to respectfully translate the books into a different medium.
Now here we are–eleven years after Fellowship hit the screen and a little over a week after the opening of the first of Jackson’s Hobbit film prequels. My hopes were high, but I was nervous once I learned it was being broken into three lengthy films. Happily, I needn’t have worried, as the film exceeded my hopes and expectations. I understand some of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at the film, but I think the key to enjoying it is going into it with the realization that it’s not The Hobbit book per se; rather, Jackson has crafted a cinematic prequel to The Lord of the Rings that presents a glimpse into some of Middle-Earth’s history and mythology by drawing on Tolkien’s appendices to The Lord of the Rings and other notes and source material and only uses The Hobbit as a framework for presenting that. That being said, nearly every major and minor episode from the first part of The Hobbit was rendered in loving detail, and the movie as a whole remains incredibly true to the wider source material. And while I love the book, the first Hobbit film actually manages at times to better illuminate character motivations and smooths over some plot twists that always previously danced close to feeling contrived to me in this earliest of Tolkien’s books–one he initially wrote for his own children. Again, there are some regrettable missteps: some cartoon physics, one or two clumsy segues into backstory, perhaps one too many overblown chases, but the overall result is…
Well, as I sat in that darkened theater last week, something magical happened. The veil between the worlds did indeed fall away, and I found myself transported, wandering through Middle Earth, with hobbits and elves, orc and goblins, dwarves and eagles all staring back at me. It was a journey not just through the parade of scenes and set pieces one might have expected from the rather linear book Tolkien wrote for his children, but rather into Middle Earth in all its lush beauty, bleak sadness, and boundless joy. Into all the hidden corners of Tolkien’s imagination, wherein are to be found rare gems from the aforementioned appendices, the hills and valleys over which I stared as a child with my nose between the pages of the atlases. All of it lovingly brought to life through Jackson’s directorial vision.
It’s The Hobbit as Tolkien might have written it had he not written it as a children’s book but rather for the adult audience toward which he geared The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, in many ways it is The Hobbit Tolkien did write, albeit retroactively once The Lord of the Rings had unfolded on the page.
I’ve taken the first of three new journeys to Arda.
I’m glad to have gone there, and I look forward to going back again.