(All images from The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, 2012)
Two winters ago I (along with millions of others) planted myself in a movie theater to watch the first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. For several years, I’d included the book on my English syllabus (Purdue University). My students – many of whom had never read the book previously (or even heard of it – how is that possible??) responded to the story in various ways. [Note 1: my rather old-fashioned pedagogy requires students to arrive at class with a comment, question, or discussion starter – based on that day’s reading – written on a 3 x 5 card. In cursive, preferably. Extra points for using a fountain pen.] [Note 2: I’m not big on deconstructing a text to death and then discoursing in a lofty and snooty and philosophical manner about things that are killed by loft and snoot and philosophizing. I’m big on reading – carefully, enthusiastically, intentionally, thoughtfully, and joyfully – and letting a book be what it is, not what I or some dead French philosopher says it should be. But that’s just me.]
Last week, I stumbled across some of those old-fashioned 3×5 cards in an old-fashioned file drawer and enjoyed a few moments of old-fashioned reminiscing.
“I wish Bilbo and gang wouldn’t act so irrationally. Just do as you’re told!”
“I’ve gotten so attached to the dwarves and Bilbo that I may have shed a tear when Bilbo was saying goodbye. Is that normal?? I can’t believe I teared up over dwarves and a hobbit. They’ve changed me.”
“I wish Tolkien could read The Hobbit to me before bed every night.”
“STAY ON THE PATH!!!”
“I got so upset when they wandered off in the woods that I literally threw the book and didn’t pick it up again for several days. Why, Tolkien, why??”
“These dwarves have taken a terrible beating so far. Between giants, spiders, and being locked in barrels, they deserve a break – and TREASURE!”
“As terrible and disgusting as he is, I always just want to give Gollum a hug.”
“Why do the ponies always have to die??”
Who knew that 3×5 cards could be so enjoyable and that college students could be so endearing? But then, this:
“I really wish that Fili and Kili didn’t have to die. And this is going to be such a sweet movie.”
This, from an A+ student, who really loved the book and really can’t be blamed for having such high cinematic hopes.
But the movie wasn’t “sweet” – regardless of how you define the word – and not because it diverged from the written narrative extensively (which it did) but because in making it, Peter Jackson did that which an adult should never ever do: he stole from a child. From all children, actually.
While sitting in that theater two winters ago, I soon gave up on jotting down all the ways the cinematic experience strayed from the textual (and authoritative) narrative and instead got out my phone (yep – I was that person) and started frantically texting all my Tolkien-loving friends who were planning to take their kids to the movie that night, because, you know, children’s book, duh.
My text: Leave the children at home! Really! Truly! Just do it!
I fumed as I typed because, well, this was not a children’s movie. (And yet people brought their children anyway. What is wrong with people?) And if children couldn’t (or shouldn’t) go to see The Hobbit, then what was the point? (Besides the money, that is.)
Not surprisingly, I skipped installments two and three because, as my students rightly observed, The Hobbit is a story that should be read to children – or by children – at night. And also adults. Of course. Indeed. And though readers of all ages should rightly shudder at the thought of goblins (pony-eating horrors that they are) and Smaug (gentle and tame dragons are a freak of postmodernism) and Wargs (blerrgggh), we should still be able to sleep peacefully because the book is ultimately joyful and entirely eucatastrophic* in a way that honors all readers, and especially the children.
The movie – not so much.
“I hope the movie gives off the same happiness that the book does,” wrote one of my students on his 3×5 card just a month before the release date.
Um, no. It does not. Not in part one. I suspect not in part two. And definitely not in part three where two-plus hours of a large-screen brutally vivid battle does not do justice to Tolkien’s genius of appropriately describing for children, on just a few pages,** the Battle of Five Armies – “and it was very terrible.” (Chapter XVII) Based on reviews I’ve read, neither does it do justice to Tolkien’s genius of narrative construction, which is just so very sad.
I’m a firm believe that the book – any book – is always better than the movie, just because (which isn’t to say that movies aren’t ever good or wonderful or brilliant or delightful.)
But when the movie exists in its present form only by way of being rudely, violently, and quite childishly wrested away from its intended audience – an audience that gives the story its very essence – then things have gone too far. They have perhaps gone there, but then failed to come back again.
Please, please, please – stop it, stealers. Really. Truly. Just write your own stories.
If you dare.
If you can.
*Read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” Now. Really. Truly. Just do it.
**I recently read this comment in an online forum: Did Fili and Kili die in the book, too? They are by far the greatest characters in the movie, yet I don’t have the heart to read the book since it is to[sic] long.
You could read the entire book, cover-to-cover, in less time than it takes to watch the entire movie conglomerate, credit-to-credit. Really. Truly. Just read it, already.
Aah, Crystal….if only I were a college student again….I would love to sit in your classes!! Love your philosophy of reading…used to just drive me nuts when we did that with a text!! Still does if I hear it ever! I think you should lead a reading group online! Would that work? Now I’m just wondering if you teach any online distant classes at Purdue? There’s potential for this girl who is sitting up in the northwoods in January when it’s -20 and needs some intelleectual stimutlation!
Aah, Martha…if only we lived closer, we could read together. I’m in a Lewis group, but would LOVE to read with you. I do think it’s possible online (lots of people are doing it) though I’m sure some things are ‘lost in translation’. We should talk about this. Seriously. My favorite syllabus was called “From the Cradle to the Grave” – we read authors who wrote for both children and adults. PERFECT! Lewis, Tolkien, LeGuin, L’Engle, Dahl. Here’s some “reading group” type thoughts and responses from my students: http://monstersgodsandheroes.blogspot.com
In a Lewis group? Now I am totally green with envy…..but you have spurred me on to attempt to read the whole Lord of the Rings. Here goes!
These comments from your students are hilarious and you’re absolutely right about Jackson stealing from the children. Starting with LOTR, Jackson then tries to recreate the atmosphere of an epic in Tolkien’s children’s story. Completely different genres, these stories. If Jackson wanted something of the same weight as LOTR, there are plenty of other Tolkien stories from which to choose. Also, why did he have to ruin Radagast for me? Ugh.
Scott – PJ seemed determined to make the “adult version” of a book that was perfect for adults as it was. And yes – reading the notecards is the best part of the day.
YEEESSSSSSS!!! At last, someone who accurately expresses the horror we felt while watching the first installment of the Hollywood version of The Hobbit. My husband and I felt, at best, victims of a bait-and-switch scam after our high expectations, brought about by watching The Lord of the Rings movies, were dashed and stomped into the ground. Our first thoughts were, “WHY? Why did they change a story that was already told perfectly? Could they not just stick to the story? What happened?”
Thank you for your thoughts – and for sharing your students’ notes. God bless you.
It was indeed horrifying. (I felt that LOTR was only slightly horrifying — also too many unnecessary narrative alterations — but it didn’t send me into the same degree of angry tailspin as did The Hobbit film adaptation.) Over the years, I found that my students’ comments and notes were the very best part of my teaching role. Bravo for literary engagement and education.