“The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read them.” The Sunday Times
When J. R. R. Tolkien, professor of Anglo-Saxon and Literature at the University of Oxford, wrote the children’s story The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (commonly referred to as The Hobbit), he never expected it to become popular. Yet, contrary to his beliefs, it attracted enough attention from children and adults alike to render it a hit and force a sequel.
Thus, one of the greatest sagas of all times was born.
An Unexpected Party
The Hobbit starts off in an area called the Shire, in a legendary land called Middle-earth. Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, lives a quiet life there, in the village of Hobbiton. Bilbo is a typical hobbit who preoccupies himself with food and comfort, not bothering with outsiders, never venturing outside his homeland. He’s neither curious about the rest of the world nor brave and daring in any kind of way.
Or so you’d think. See, one day, Gandalf the Grey, renowned wizard and old friend, pays him a visit, offering him a part in an adventure. A party of dwarves is to set out to reclaim their stolen treasure from the dragon Smaug who lives at faraway Lonely Mountain, and they need Bilbo to serve as their burglar. Bilbo surprisingly accepts the offer and gets entangled in a journey that changes his life forever.
In a nutshell, on the way to Lonely Mountain, Bilbo is separated from his party and finds himself in an underground cavern where a strange creature dwells. This creature has a secret possession. A very prrreciouss item, of which Bilbo dispossesses him.
But that’s just an aside. Bilbo rejoins his party in due course and travels through strange terrain and mystical lands on their way to Lonely Mountain where they’re forced into a battle of both arms and wits. I won’t give away the ending, though I probably don’t have to, it’s obvious. What counts is the journey, from there and back again. It changes Bilbo’s life in ways he could never have anticipated. His is a tale of self-growth and heroism, courage and camaraderie, greed and spite, animism and archetypes, all told through the delightfully magical and accessible prose of professor Tolkien.
The book was a success with both children and adults. Tolkien, it seemed, was on to something.
Pressured by the publishers to come up a sequel, he went back to the story, as writers do, and re-imagined it, gave it depth, backstory, scope. He expanded the characters and made a geography out of the locations, a history out of the backstory. He isolated the ring, gave it a legend, forged a mythology to accommodate it, assembled a cast around it, conjured up a world war, kickstarted another epic journey – this time by a colorful and culturally-diverse fellowship made up of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits – and the rest is history. Middle-earth history.
Lord Of The Rings aficionados, of both the book and the silver screen versions alike, are probably familiar with The Hobbit‘s tale and have been waiting a long time for the much-anticipated series of films, directed by none other than Peter Jackson, director of the successful LOTR trilogy. It’s a fitting conclusion to a spectacular franchise, delivered in true millennium fashion, prequel-style.
A Warm Welcome
The Hobbit, short as the novel is, isn’t as simple as it seems. Its story will be delivered in two separate movies. One is titled An Unexpected Journey (a wordplay on the book’s first chapter title, An Unexpected Party), and the other There And Back Again (the original long title to the book).
Telling the story in two feature-length (Jackson-length) instalments means that some sort of visual license will be taken by the filmmakers, bringing to life Middle-earth through their extensive signature cinematography and art direction. It also signifies an homage to the entire Middle-earth mythology, which Tolkien created from scratch, influenced as he had been, of course, by his extensive knowledge of folk history and epic sagas of the North. The extended mythology he created includes the back stories of Middle-earth as well as its tongues, a series of languages that Tolkien invented for the purpose of the saga, and for which he wrote not only original texts but also grammar and pronunciation manuals.
The entire bulk of Tolkien’s astonishing creation was brought to light in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, both of which were published posthumously, edited by his son Christopher. Rights issues may prevent Jackson and the producers from drawing direct reference from these books, forcing them to stick to the material explicitly mentioned in The Hobbit itself. But knowledge of the entire legendarium (Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology) will make it easier for them to focus and elaborate on specific areas in the book, adding substance and depth to the story.
The prospect is tricky. On the one hand, this elaborate approach may work to the films’ advantage, making for a rich and intriguing plot line. On the other hand, it may render the plot convoluted and hard to follow, or self-indulgent and thick. It’s a risk that, nevertheless, Jackson and the producers are going to take.
In fact, the entire idea behind the film adaptation of The Hobbit is a risk. Fearing the shadow of the LOTR trilogy, the studios were disinclined to greenlight this project for a long time, not willing to gamble hundreds of millions of dollars on the golden goose that may have already maxed out its egg supply. They were glad to have gotten away with it the first time. The LOTR film trilogy had been a monumental risk itself, a super-complex project that somehow paid off, and how, making the decision to double down on a similar project even tougher.
But The Hobbit adaptation came shrouded in the legendarium’s magic, alluring and simple at the same time, the story that shows how it all began, how the ring was stolen, setting off the chain of events that changed the world – it’s a tale that captivates people’s minds and enthralls our imaginations, working on so many levels, it’s almost uncanny. And it’s no stranger to adjustment. Back in the days of the story’s creation, while writing the LOTR saga, Tolkien went back to The Hobbit repeatedly and amended parts of it to make the story tight and coherent.
On December 20, the first trailer of The Unexpected Journey was released. It looks every bit as mesmerizing as its LOTR predecessors, with added crispness, care of new production technologies and higher resolution formats.
It also reveals the effect the Great War had on Tolkien’s literature, as well as the shamanic undertone so prevalent in the saga. The insight is offered subtly, through an incantation the unexpected party sings by the fire at night, prior to their expedition, under Gandalf’s watchful presence.
Like so many fans, I’m looking forward to it!