Sunday, January 6, 2013

Storytelling ("The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkein)

[With 2012 having seen both the 75th anniversary of Tolkien's The Hobbit and the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in theatres, I thought it was time to sit down and, for the first time in my life, actually read the book.]

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, a cornerstone of modern fantasy literature, lends itself nicely to cinematic adaptation. For one, its scenes of intensity and action are balanced nicely by chapters of prose that develop the story and introduce elements of Middle Earth without completely undermining the suspense that has just been built up. (Even the most unskilled screenwriter would have little problem keeping either aspect of the storyline in check.) Similarly, the extensive original mythology Tolkien uses to nurture much of the tension and conflict in his novel is balance rather skillfully with the storyline's familiarity: at its heart is the story of an everyman who transcends his ordinariness, engages in a seemingly impossible quest, and comes to recognize his own significance in a world that threatens to make him seem infinitesimal. It's Joseph Campbell cross-cultural myth-sharing at its most basic and pure--a fantasy homage to not only the story of Christ and his disciples, which Tolkien would further employ in The Lord of the Rings, but ancient epics and medieval texts that concern themselves with tales of ordinary men who must take up the mantle of warrior, sometimes to supreme results and sometimes to incredible, humbling failure.

Nevertheless, my fawning over these aspects of the novel doesn't mean that I found Tolkien's work to be all that good. In fact, after finishing it for the first time, I have to admit that I don't particularly like The Hobbit, nor do I find it that well written, its literary heredity aside. I have no issue with Tolkien predicating his novel on the idea that 13 dwarves, 1 hobbit, and 1 occasional wizard must journey to fight a talking dragon and reclaim the dwaves' lost kingdom, which that very same dragon took from them; it's his novel, he can do what he wants, and I'm the last person to begin treading on the freedoms and possibilities that come with being The Author. And truthfully, it's a concept ripe with possibility, much of which Tolkien does explore. But if it's that's the case, if you are an author making your own educated choices, and you choose to write a book about travellers journeying to slay a dragon, you cannot then resolve this conflict--the dragon slain, the kingdom restored--with 20% of the novel, or sixty-some pages, still to go, which you then fill with a new and until then completely nonexistent conflict.

But again, Tolkien is the storyteller, so perhaps--just perhaps--he's introducing this new conflict to serve as a lesson to the characters and readers alike. That would be fine, and there's actually a character--Thorin, rightful heir to the long-lost dwarf kingdom--who demands a little education before the novel concludes. In those last 60 pages, he becomes filled with inexplicable greed, refusing to return the riches pillaged from surrounding villages by the dragon Smaug until certain strange and childish requests are met...and even then, there is a suggestion that he'd much rather wage war to protect those plundered riches than hand over what amounts to 1/12 of the dragon's horde and preserve peace. He is also suddenly and maddeningly desperate for power, as symbolized by his search for a gem known as the Arkenstone--the Heart of the Mountain--and that power and greed corrupt him so thoroughly that he disowns Bilbo Baggins, the figure most responsible for the dragon's defeat and reclamation of his kingdom. These last 60 pages should have been a chance for Tolkien to explore the corrupting influence of money and power, which would not only allude back to the dragon itself--Thorin, in a sense, becoming his own personal Smaug--but also the character of Gollum, a hideous creature whose internal obsession with his precious ring could be seen as manifested in his hideous appearance.* Instead, Thorin is wounded in a battle with goblins, who have been absent for much of the novel, and makes up with Bilbo in less than a page without any sense of shame, awareness, or understanding of his errors. (The dwarf who succeeds Thorin, who just so happens to have been summoned by Thorin himself to defend the kingdom's vast wealth, wastes little time or energy returning the plundered riches.)

There are other aspects of The Hobbit that I found bothersome--Tolkien's constant breaks in the narration, for example, which he uses as opportunities to speak with the audience, are a pet peeve of mine but, in retrospect, were harmless and often a bit charming--but are ultimately not worth dissecting at length, as they mean very little to the novel as a whole. Overall, as much as I didn't take to the story, I will admit that I see where others might find something enjoyable, if not affirming and wonderful. However, it's some of those same people who'd I'd like to now discuss, as their interest in Tolkien and his novel are, without a doubt, a primary reason why I even took up this book in the first place, after casually avoiding it for the last 20 years of my reading-age life.

You see, besides the importance of Tolkien's novel to fantasy literature--and literature in general--and its popularity among readers of all ages, not to mention its place in curricula throughout the world as a novel that nourishes creative thinking and an appreciation for character and mythology in students, I was determined to read The Hobbit after seeing the first installment in Peter Jackson's trilogy...a cinematic endeavor that, from the moment it was announced, brought forth a level of vitriol that was astounding in its depth and persistence. More astounding, however, and the impetus for my making The Hobbit the first book I read in this new year, were the shouts of disloyalty, greed, and bastardization leveled at Jackson, his actors, and his crew. He would, these voices claimed, ruin The Hobbit by so departing from the original story that it irrevocably poisoned Tolkien's greatest literary legacy. And while I had never read the book of which these voices were so protective, I began to feel as though their reasons for attacking the film were, shall we say, shit. Empty, flat, hypocritical shit.

Before I explain, let me just confess: gripes like these are inevitable, and I understand that. In fact, I myself have done the same thing about film adaptations in the past, especially when they're books that were important parts of my life--more than just ink on paper, I guess you'd say--which I'm guessing is a major reason as to why Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit received such an unusually high amount of scrutiny. After all, this is a book most people read when they're younger, and it's also probably one of the first full-length, adult-sized books they read, too--a major step in any reader's move towards adulthood and away from the Children's Corner of their local libraries and book stores. Not only that, it's a deeply personal story in that it asks young children to engage their minds fully in imagining these wild characters and their mythical, magical world. (There are, after all, no illustrations in Tolkien's book, apart from the maps of Middle Earth.) Children reading about Bilbo also may find strong similarities to their own lives; after all, Bilbo is an innocent, shy little hobbit who seems woefully unprepared for the terrifying journey ahead of him, a journey for which there is no preparation and no turning back. Any adolescent on the cusp of change, and especially the awkward changes of teenagedom, can identify completely with how Bilbo feels, especially when he confesses his feelings of worthlessness and inferiority around dwarves and wizards who are older, braver, and wiser...and who spend much of their time taking Bilbo for granted and denouncing him as an unprepared burden. It could make any preteen cry out in relief that someone, even a fictitious little halfling with big feet, could finally understand what they're experiencing.

So yes, a cinematic adaptation of The Hobbit has a much greater potential to offend than another, less significant book might. Had critics of Jackson cited these reasons, as I'm sure some did, as their primary cause of alarm, then there'd be no need for me to address it--I'd be sympathetic to their cause. However, these voices have raised another problem that, with book-to-film adaptations, gets raised a lot: that Jackson will change the original story in such a way that it will not be the same. Having seen the first installment of the trilogy, I can say that, yes, Jackson's changes do distort Tolkien's original story in ways that would probably have sent the author fuming in rage had he lived to see it. Some of these changes are done for obvious reasons--the inclusion of Radagast and his rabbit-sled, for one, helped organize some of the plot and add moments of action, regardless of how ridiculous it all was, and the character of the Necromancer was expanded beyond its place as an afterthought used to explain away Gandalf's lengthy but important absence--while others, like the pale orc, seem inexplicable or downright opportunistic.**

Even before Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Hobbit had been released in theatres--in fact, even before Jackson had committed even one moment to actual film--a crusade was launched against everything associated with the as-yet-a-trilogy. These crusaders were varied in their reasons: some were steadfast Tolkien loyalists disenchanted since Jackson's Lord of the Rings films; some were those who believed in the purity and superiority of literature itself, regardless of author or genre; some took the opposite approach, believing in the inferiority of film regardless of its source material. And while a discussion about each of these different camps could be fruitful, it misses a point that these very crusaders also seemed to miss: Peter Jackson, in adapting Tolkien's novel rather than just filming it as written with no changes, was following the example of--gasp!--Tolkien himself, who borrowed heavily from ancient literature and the stories of ancient cultures and civilizations in writing The Hobbit and, in doing so, gave them a new life while preserving their original importance.

When we read The Hobbit, we are also reading the books of Tolkien's life and work. He lived in the classics, especially those of the Norse, and their influence permeates every clause, phrase, and paragraph of his fiction. You cannot follow Bilbo and the dwarves on their journey to defeat Smaug without also following behind Beowulf and his men as they fight Grendel, Grendel's mother, and eventually the dragon that claims Beowulf's life. (Any doubters may feel free to Google "The Hobbit and Beowulf," which will open the doors to at least five decades of academic research on the subject. In fact, this area of research is so old that much of its foundational work was published during Tolkein's life.) You cannot stand beside Bilbo without also standing beside King Arthur, the legendary sword-puller who Tolkien was writing about even before he wrote his novel about Bilbo. You cannot read about wizards and goblins and dwarves without reading also the early fairy tales that Tolkien would not have been able to avoid growing up a child of European history and literature. Even the names that so brighten Tolkien's mythology--Gollum, Gandalf, Dori, Fili, Kili, Middle Earth--owe themselves to a diverse collection of literary works, from old Norse sagas and mythological stories to 19th-century fantasy novels and children's tales. Every author borrows in their own way, consciously or not--we write in the inky veins of our ancestors--but Tolkien did so shamelessly...and for good reason: it was intentional, his ode and homage--and an expression of utmost love--towards the literature he so cherished.

But wait, those voices might say, that's completely different. Jackson isn't adapting The Hobbit into something different--he's making the exact same thing. There are no lose adaptations here, no Beowulf-becomes-a-halfling-style transformations. And those voices would be correct--this is not a fair comparison. But claiming that a film adaptation of a book, no matter how loyal to the source material, is not in itself a bastardization of that same material is foolish. After all, the practice of reading is a mental, illusory one: our minds construct the entire novel based on nothing more than ink and paper, and when the book is concluded, those fantasies are all we have--nothing physical beyond a well-worn collection of pages. We create the characters, how they look and sound and speak; we even imbue them with personality and motivation and complexity that a writer may only hint at or even ignore altogether. We imagine the landscapes, the homes, the food; we decide how the air smells, how blue the sky is, the length of the beards and hum of singing voices. Every paragraph is a thousand small, unthinkable decisions that our minds make without our conscious input, and those thousand little decisions build over the course of a book to create a tapestry of information so rich and thorough we can picture every tiny detail if we so choose.

Take, for instance, the moment when Smaug first reveals himself fully to Bilbo. Tolkien keeps his adjectives in check, offering us a very basic description of the creature...but that does not stop our  minds from filling in the gaps. As I read, Smaug's scales became a golden brown--the color of a sunflower that's been dried by time and the sun. His voice was deep and familiar, most likely inspired by Christopher Lee's Jabberwocky, even though Tolkien does not offer one syllable explaining the tempo, timber, or range of Smaug's voice. And the jewels that encrusted his chest, I could picture all of them--read, green, blue--all shimmering across the span of his massive underside. Some were rectangular, some were trapezoidal, some round, some triangular...and there were dozens, if not hundreds. His head sprouted horns--four, two on each side, one big and one small--and his teeth were perfectly white, a contrast to the dirty-muddy-black of his claws. I imagine it all--Smaug himself, as well as the mountains of gold around him, the ashen gray pillars of the mountain castle, the darkness of the empty hall, the dust that clung to the air--and only later realized how little actual conscious input I had in the whole process.

When a book is made into a film, all of those small details--the dozens or hundreds or thousands of them--become irrelevant, almost as though we'd never actually read the story. We no longer have control over the color of the sky, the length and shade and style of the beards, the sound of a song being sung, the foods that are laid out upon a hobbit's table. We are told now how the dwarves sound, what their personalities are like, what motivates them...and if we don't like it, we have no recourse in the matter other than to stand and leave the theatre. Which is never the option of choice. The very act of making a book into a film is the first step of disloyalty towards a text, regardless of how "loyal" the finished product may be towards its original source.

To claim that Peter Jackson, in making changes to The Hobbit for his film version, is corrupting Tolkien's novel is, technically, correct; to say that those changes are a reason to avoid the film and disparage those involved in its creation is idiotic. We do not avoid the reproductions of great works of art because they someone take away from the original work; instead, we accept them as their own individual works of expression and interpretation, maybe even offering us a new perspective on a painting or sketch we thought we'd become familiar with, and we appreciate the original anew. We do not avoid poetry readings because the speaker may recite a favorite poem in a different way, emphasize the wrong word or pause for a second too long at certain points; instead, we accept that each lover of poetry interprets their favorite poems in their own way, sees the rhymes and beats and line breaks through their own sense of creation, and we smile along at the beauty of the written word without feeling as though the entire event denigrates the poems. And yet, the act of taking the written word and making it visual is seen by some as a travesty beyond compare. Are there aspects of Jackson's film worthy of scorn and ridicule? Of course there are, just as there are issues to be found in every film. But to see his desire to interpret The Hobbit in his own way as an attack on Tolkien's work, or as an undermining of what his literature is supposed to stand for, is to reveal that you understand nothing at all. In doing so, you become little more than a tiny hobbit standing at the foot of a dragon you hope to slay. But the kingdom you hope to reclaim is not yours, the king who once stood in its doors has long since left its halls, and you fight for a treasure that is merely a fantasy. A rich, interesting, and personal fantasy, yes, but a fantasy nonetheless.

Interesting additional sites:


*It would also have, coincidentally, foreshadowed the internal struggles of Frodo Baggins in Tolkien's future novel, which he hadn't yet begun writing.

**Another change, the inclusion of Saruman, has absolutely no apparent purpose to the story other than to give Christopher Lee another chance to appear in Jackson's adaptations, which is all the reason I'd need to be fine with it, to be honest. I'm a die-hard fan of Christopher Lee, who is now in his 10th decade and still possessing the gravitas--and thundering voice--that has made him such a long-lasting and long-respected actor. Besides that, Lee is a fan and ardent defender of Tolkien's work, and his exclusion--especially after the indignity he suffered after his scenes were cut from The Return of the King--would have been sacrilegious.