Monday, July 30, 2012

Torturing Tolkien: The Hobbit as a Trilogy

"Art or cash?" This question confronted J.R.R. Tolkien way back when contemplating the potential for film adaptations of his works. Despite wishing to preserve his integrity, he couldn't deny the appeal of selling the film rights for a substantial fee to better provide for his family. Unfortunately, it seems like the Professor's worst fears have been realised. The Hobbit is a relatively short novel, especially as Fantasy stories go, and a year ago it was a little difficult to imagine the book as the two films it was being split into. Then came the news that much of the backstory was going to be fleshed out, that the films would effectively be a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Here my fears were heightened. It seemed that we were going to get a fair bit of the film devoted to what Gandalf and his chums were up to while Bilbo was in the Gandalf-less parts of the adventure, and we'd see them dealing with the Necromancer, who as you hopefully know is Sauron. None of these were sections of story which the Professor described in any particularly great detail, and certainly not with any kind of immediate narrative or dialogue, so it looked like Peter Jackson and friends were getting onto the task of "fleshing out" the bits the Professor hadn't fully developed in order to make a bulkier film. It looked like, by and large, we'd be distracted from Bilbo, that the tone was going to focus much more heavily on anticipating the events of The Lord of the Rings and that overall what we were going to get wouldn't really be The Hobbit at all.
It's becoming increasingly well-known thanks to the publication of the History of the Hobbit, a compendium of the Professor's draft material and commentary edited by John D. Rateliff, that Professor Tolkien himself once sat down in the Sixties and attempted to entirely re-write The Hobbit from scratch. He was dissatisfied with its occasionally childish tone as well as its periods of inconsistency with the more rigorous geography and history he had devised for The Lord of the Rings. Ultimately, however, he gave up when a friend reading over the material told him that as good as it was, it just wasn't The Hobbit anymore.
Apparently that was enough for Professor Tolkien; The Hobbit could stand on its own, and was a success in its own way. Indeed given how successful it had been upon its original publication it was clearly independently sufficient. This is clearly however not good enough for either Peter Jackson, or for Warner Bros. who stand to make a colossal windfall from these films should they reach and maintain something equivalent to the absurd hysteria achieved by the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings adaptations. Peter Jackson I don't know about. Is he a greedy bastard or just kind of incompetent? I get the impression of a bit of a bumbling director who makes these Tolkien films with a sort of hazy, vague understanding from reading the source material once decades ago and keeping a synopsis close at hand. Boyens and Walsh, moreover, come across as just not knowing what they're talking about half the time, deriving most of their knowledge of the texts from a relatively rigorous but ultimately superficial reading of the Professor's published work, with emphasis on what bits can be teased out and made into something Hollywood-digestible and letting the more archaic elements go hang. What disturbs me the most is that people seem to think that these filmmakers are die hard Tolkien fans when by their own admission their knowledge of the books is sporadic and far from intensive.
Given that so much of Professor Tolkien's work is concerned with the futility of preservation and the inevitability of change it disturbs me that adaptations of his books are now being spun out as endlessly as possible. I think he knew as well as anyone how tempting both answers could be to the question: "Art or cash?" As much as I think Peter Jackson is happy to draw his own conclusions about the integrity of the project I think Warner Bros.' stance is obvious. It's cash for as long as possible.
Basically what I'm saying is that the people making these films are both Smaug and Sauron.

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