I have read The Hobbit four times. Once when I was in Grade 4, once in Grade 12, once aloud with friends in between degrees, and once again during my Master’s at U of T. I am likely to reread it again this September, along with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.*
The Hobbit is one of my favourite books. I used to say that it was my favourite, but as the years go by and I read more books, it becomes harder to say which of them ranks number one. It depends on the day, really. Nonetheless, it is one of my favourite books, and it is a novel. A magnificent novel, in fact.
Some people think certain bits of it childish. And what of it? That is part of the charm of The Hobbit. This is an adventure story set in Tolkien’s mythic world, and it ties into that world in a few ways, but it is largely about the adventure — it gives us a hobbit’s-eye view from Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain and back again.
And the heart of a good story is the story (Tolkien said so, in ‘On Fairy Stories’). Tolkien has provided us with a wonderful, fun story. High adventure is all the novel was meant to provide. And it does so with aplomb. And the centrepiece, if you ask me, is the Lonely Mountain. It is Smaug, the wyrm.
Not central to this story is where on earth Gandalf has got off to. Something to do with some person called the Necromancer who lives in Mirkwood. This is part of the wider world of the setting of the novel, but it is non-essential to the action and plot of The Hobbit.
If Peter Jackson wishes to include the Necromancer in his films, that is all fine and well with me. It will help draw the connection with The Lord of the Rings, as will, of course, gollum, gollum — who is an integral part of The Hobbit.
But to use the 125 pages of appendices to take a face-pasted, high-flying adventure that Tolkien was able to tell in less space than any of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings and make it into a film trilogy is no longer to tell the story of The Hobbit. It is to take the prelude to The Lord of the Rings and make it a prequel, giving on-screen, visual answers to questions we already know the answers to.
As well, three films will give him unwarranted opportunity to expand the Battle of the Five Armies, an event that takes fewer than 20 pages (10? I forget) in my copy of the novel. The battle is not the most important part of the story. Bilbo is, and he is unconscious throughout most of it. But we have already seen in The Two Towers and The Return of the King that Jackson likes to draw out his battle scenes unnecessarily.
What I think we are seeing here is not simply a difference between the ‘mature’ storytelling of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit with an attempt to reconcile it with the whimsy that guides so much of The Hobbit, but a difference between types of Tolkien fans.
There are those who are Middle Earth fans. They read the original four novels and gobbled up The Silmarillion when it appeared. Unfinished Tales and The Book of Lost Tales kept them happy. They read every volume of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth and then The Children of Hurin. These are the fans who learn Elvish and probably write fan fiction. These are a good breed of fan, and I am happy to have them around. They are absorbed in the world of Tolkien’s mythology and very clever, with an eye for detail and precision in interpretation that is often unrivalled by other readers.
I am one of the other readers. I am a fan of Tolkien’s writings, especially his novels. What The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit do that none of the other Middle Earth writings do, is set a story, a modern novel, an adventure, in the midst of a grand sweep of epic proportions, blending verse and prose, high adventure and deep themes in a tight, well-knit plot that has been worked and reworked, both in terms of story and of style. This love of the writing itself drives me to read Farmer Giles of Ham, Tree and Leaf, and Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I also read The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (I blogged about it here), partly for Tolkien’s poetic ability, partly from a love of Norse mythic/heroic tales.
As a member of the second of these two categories, what matters to me is the story of the novels, not the rest of the history of Middle Earth. To say that The Hobbit is sparse on these details and needs supplementing is like saying that Captain America was sparse on details about Hitler and WWII and needed supplementing.
Nonetheless, I believe that a two-film version of The Hobbit would satisfy Tolkien fans of both types, whereas a trilogy would satisfy the first and leave the second type saying, ‘Well, I know this a story Tolkien wanted to tell, but it’s not The Hobbit anymore.’
*The important thing about rereading a book before a film is not to read it less than a month prior to the film. The experience will ruin both film and novel.