Friday, September 21, 2012

My life among the hobbits, part 1

When it was announced a while back that Peter Jackson was going to turn his already bursting-to-the-seams two-film adaptation of The Hobbit into a three-parter, a friend of mine texted me and asked what I thought. This friend, along with a number of others, had attended first-night showings of each of the Lord of the Rings installments. I'm sorry to say that after glancing at the text and mentally making a note to think about it and reply to him when I had time, I promptly forgot about it, and have never given him a reply. Chad, you can consider this a sort of beginning to a rambling answer, as well as a way of personally commemorating the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. I may need to negotiate making it in three parts.

A couple of things I read recently made me start thinking about Jackson's movies, and what I expect from the forthcoming Hobbit trilogy. First was a blog post by a former English professor of mine, Joseph Bentz, in which he explained "Why I Don’t Watch Movies Based on Books I Care About". He opens the post with the following statement:
I have never seen The Lord of the Rings movies and probably never will. Whenever I have mentioned this to anyone, the most common response is, “But they’re so good.”

The fact that they’re good makes me want to see them even less.


I read the books many years ago, and the experience was so powerful that I walked around for days only partially aware of my own reality. Scenes from those novels played in my mind almost as vividly as my own real memories. I don’t want anyone else’s scenes to replace the ones in my head, any more than I would want someone’s film adaptation of my childhood to replace memories of my actual childhood.
The second was a remark by Jeffrey Overstreet in a blog post linking to the new Hobbit movie trailer, and recommending a book by a friend of his titled, A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. In a parenthetical closing remark, Overstreet notes that, "The more you understand and appreciate the accomplishments of J.R.R. Tolkien, the more you’re likely to see just how badly Peter Jackson’s movies have misinterpreted and misrepresented their source material!"

When I was about 8 or 9, my father gave me his worn paperback copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (the Ballantine paperback editions with the lion and ostriches on the cover of The Hobbit). It was a gift that would have an incalculable effect on my intellectual and spiritual development.

My father's gift of the books was probably occasioned by the airing of the Rankin Bass adaptation of The Hobbit. Still being fairly young and unsophisticated in taste, I loved it, and had no quibbles with issues of fidelity to the source. I even owned a record of an audio adaptation of the show, and still recall John Huston's irascible take on Gandalf, and Otto Preminger's constipated take on the Elf King.

Since that time I have read The Hobbit perhaps half a dozen times or more, and The Lord of the Rings at least a dozen, if not more, including once aloud to my wife when we were still dating, and once to our children. When I learned of the existence of The Silmarillion in the late , I made sure I got hold of a copy. We were living in Saudi Arabia at the time, and while on a two week vacation to Egypt and Cyprus, I immersed myself in the high, tragic legends of the First Age.

I'm not sure when I first became aware of Ralph Bakshi's sort-of-animated adaptation of Lord of the Rings, but while sitting through an 8-hour layover in some Middle Eastern airport, either Dubai or Bahrain, possibly at the end of our Egypt/Cyprus trip, I was scanning the racks of paperbacks at a gift shop, and spotted this "Fotonovel" of the movie . So, being 11 or 12, consumed with Tolkien, and needing some reading material for the layover, I convinced my dad to buy it. I was mostly impressed by the visual style, with Bakshi's blending of live action and animated elements, disappointed with the representation of Boromir (the Barbarian?), and puzzled that it ended so abruptly halfway through the story. Still, it was Tolkien, and it was probably worth it just for the cover.

Throughout my teens, I continued to immerse myself in anything Tolkien-related, including newly published unfinished works, the Humphrey Carpenter biography, linguistic references, encyclopedias, calendars, etc. For a junior high English project I created a travel brochure for Numenor. I recreated the maps and hung them on my bedroom walls. I made my own, rather poor, sketches of scenes from the books. Tolkien was also a gateway to other fantasy literature, Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons, Norse mythology, a deep interest in historical linguistics, C.S. Lewis, and Christianity.

While over the years I have greatly reduced my collection of Tolkien-related ephemera, I do still have nearly two shelves' worth of Tolkien books, including several copies each of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Whenever I wander a bookstore, I'm liable to find myself in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section, seeing what Tolkien books they have in stock.

Um, the History of Middle-earth series
is in the other room.
Perhaps because I have read the books so many times, or because I sought out any type of representation of Tolkien's world that I could find, no particular one, perhaps with the notable exception of Alan Lee's watercolors, has been able to take hold as *the way* I see Middle-earth and the characters who inhabit it in my head.

I guess all of that is prologue to the point that, aside from any general questions of films adapted from source material I love, when it comes to The Lord of the Rings, I tend to see Jackson's films, along with the incomplete Bakshi film, and Rankin Bass's not-without-charm Hobbit, and deserves-to-be-forgotten Return of the King, as artistic interpretations of much the same sort as the paintings and sketches of the visual artists who have attempted to put their vision of Middle-earth on canvas -- the Brothers Hildebrandt, Ted Nasmith, John Howe, Alan Lee, Princess (now Queen!) Margrethe II of Denmark, and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien himself. When I heard that a film (no, three films!) were going to be made, I was excited, and my only real concern was that Jackson would at least read carefully Tolkien's long letter to Forrest J. Ackerman that dealt with a proposed film treatment in the late 1950s, and would at least take care to treat the overall vision of the work with respect.

Next time: How Jackson's Lord of the Rings films succeed and how they fail -- for me.