Some of you may recall my earlier rant about the way the term “young adult” is more and more being used to describe books that are for children. Well, I think there is something of that same sensibility going on with the new Hobbit movie trilogy. The source material is a children’s book, The Hobbit, written long before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and with the style and tone of a book for kids. There is a narrator that makes little comments now and then, a classical fairy tale bumbling hero who turns into something more, moments of cleverness that are typical of fairy tales, plenty of whimsy and humor to mediate the scary moments, and a — yay!– dragon.
I like fairy stories, especially those known as literary fairy tales of which The Hobbit is very much one. Such books for me are different than those of high, high fantasy — those that seem to follow heroes like Arthur, Beowulf, or Odysseus. Stories like The Hobbit are smaller, set on smaller stages, with smaller stakes, and smaller protagonists (literally in the case of The Hobbit). Say trying to get one’s family gold back from a dragon versus saving the world from a ring that will destroy everything.
My appreciation of Tolkien’s fairy tales goes all the way back to high school when I fell in love with one of his called “A Leaf By Niggle.” So much so that I made around thirty drawings of it (as I was an aspiring illustrator back then). Sure, I read Lord of the Rings, but it never did for me what Tolkien’s smaller stories did for me. And so when I began teaching decades ago I also shared The Hobbit with my students. I had them read it, but more and more I read it to them, with enormous pleasure on all sides. Recently, in preparation for seeing the movie, I took a quick refresher read of it and enjoyed it once again. Now I do know that Tolkien, years after first writing the book, after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, was interested in reworking it to be more a prequel to that epic. But for me it still reads as a story along the lines of the Narnia stories, those by George Macdonald, and other literary fairy tales for children.
So I went to see the movie with a fair amount of baggage, but also with an understanding that movies are not books and that there is no need to stick overly closely to the original text when making a movie. Filmmakers do need to be free to make their own art after all. And I knew that there was a huge LOTR fan base to make happy. So I thought I was prepared and expected to like, if not love the movie. However, I ended up highly disappointed, to the point where I have no enthusiasm about seeing the next two movies (well maybe the last one just to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug). Perhaps it works for the LOTR fans and those who enjoy epic stuff. Unfortunately, even with my expecting changes, it didn’t work for me, a member of a presumably teeny audience who would like to have seen a film adaptation of what is truly a delightful children’s book for children, not young adults. Oh well.
The original story is that of Bilbo, a very reluctant hero, a lovely stand-in for child readers. And so I did like the brief glimpses of that character in the movie, say in the early scenes with the dwarves barging into his tidy and comfortable hobbit hole, the absolutely splendid “Riddles in the Dark” sequence with Gollum, and a few teeny tiny ones peeping out among all the ponderousness, added exposition, and battles. Too bad other opportunities were squandered. Say when Bilbo in the book, eager to prove to the dwarves that he can be their burglar, tries to pickpocket one of the trolls with very unfortunate results: the wallet calls out a warning and Bilbo is caught. Equally frustrating for me was how that situation was resolved. In fact, it sort of typifies the way movie is altered from the book. In the book Gandalf throws his voice so that each troll thinks one of the others is insulting him and so they begin to fight, lose track of time, and turn to stone when the night is over. But presumably to accomodate viewers looking for awesome instead of fairy tale cleverness there is Gandalf magically cracking open a rock that lets the light in.
And, oh, that lovely time they have with the elves at Rivendell, the Last Homely House. It always sounded so peaceful and fun. But in the movie a tension has been created between the dwarves and the elves so it becomes something very different. Not to mention all the talk about …political…stuff. And Gadriel and… well it sure ain’t the Last Homely House of the book, a place of pleasant refuge. I mean, just look at that name! Then there are, sigh, the orcs. I admit I hated them in the earlier movie series so more of them was absolutely not for me. Ugh. I found the endless battles with them tedious beyond belief. And they also made the other battles that are in the original book — those with the goblins and wargs— also endless for me as they probably wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t so sick of battles after all the orc ones.
I could go on and on, but there is no point. This Hobbit movie series is simply not for children. It is yet again another situation of a children’s book being taken and turned into YA. Sure, there are kids who will love the movie just as there are kids who love LOTR and World of Warcraft. But there are many who will not, who won’t even be taken to this. And so, indeed, here is yet another case of something that is still very much for children being turned into something else.
A variation of this is also at the Huffington Post.