Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
One day in the early 1930s, an Oxford don, Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, was grading exam papers, when he was inspired to write on a sheet of blank paper, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
The rest of the story is still unfolding.
J.R.R. Tolkien published “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in September, 1937, with a print run of 1,500 copies, which sold out by December.
Further editions followed, and translations into other languages. In 1938 he received a letter from a publisher in Germany who was producing a translation, asking if his ancestry was “arisch.” (In fact the name is German, though not typical.)
Tolkien answered, “Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”
That probably tells you as much about Tolkien as anything. Witty, learned, upright, honorable, and fearlessly outspoken.
“The Hobbit” was followed by “The Lord of the Rings” and volumes and volumes of Tolkien’s notes and unfinished manuscripts put into some kind of order by his son Christopher after Tolkien’s death in 1973.
In 1977 “The Hobbit” was made into an animated film by Rankin/Bass studios. It wasn’t terrible, but in spite of some high-powered talent it just wasn’t what we’d been waiting for.
Then along came Peter Jackson and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Jackson proved he’s the guy who can do it, so this time around there was no anxiety about “The Hobbit” on film.
Well… maybe a little.
“The Hobbit” is being released as a trilogy at least as long as LOTR. “An Unexpected Journey” will be followed by “The Desolation of Smaug” (2013), and “There and Back Again” (2014).
Jackson filmed both 2D and 3D versions, and used new digital technology with double the frames per second of conventional film. Three-D I can take or leave, but the visual effects did seem somehow more vivid.
So how are they going to stretch one book into a trilogy?
“An Unexpected Journey” didn’t actually seem overlong, even at 2 hours and 50 minutes, even at the midnight premier. And it ended in precisely the right place, right after Bilbo acquires the ring that figures so prominently in LOTR.
The film is faithful to the book, with some additions. Familiar characters from LOTR are retrofitted into “The Hobbit”: Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (Christopher Lee). Not to mention a cameo by Frodo (Elijah Wood) and old Bilbo (Ian Holm) that sets the stage for the whole story to be shown as a flashback.
For young Bilbo, Jackson cast British actor Martin Freeman, an inspired choice.
The role of Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), mentioned only a few times in the cannon of Middle Earth, is expanded greatly and equipped with a chariot pulled by rabbits. More non-canonical characters are going to be interpolated into the trilogy such as elf warrior maidens.
What Jackson is doing is basically the same thing Tolkien did to the second edition of the book after he had fleshed out LOTR. Tolkien rewrote just enough of “The Hobbit” to make it a consistent introduction to LOTR. Likewise Jackson is fleshing it out with material from the appendices in LOTR to make it a more of a prequel to the LOTR trilogy.
Now say this very, very softly, but in some ways Jackson has improved on the books.
Lin Carter (1930-1988) a very bad writer but very good editor of fantasy fiction, once incurred the wrath of fandom by pointing out “The Hobbit” and LOTR taken together, is a very good work – with serious flaws.
One of them is that Tolkien couldn’t write female characters worth a damn, and hence potentially fascinating roles are relegated to walk-ons. Odd given the inspiration his mother and his wife gave to his work.
The temptation of elf-queen Galadriel is an important and moving scene, but that’s pretty much it for her in LOTR. Jackson gives her more screen time in “The Hobbit” and a role in events worthy of her stature.
Bilbo is given dialog telling why he’s sticking with Gandalf and the 13 dwarves, though he’d very much like to cut and run home, which shows real nobility of spirit. The kind ordinary English people showed in the dark days of WWII when LOTR was written.
I think Tolkien might have liked it.