I am ashamed to admit I have yet to see Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit, and it has been out for four days. The purists among my colleagues, blogmates, and digital friends are horrified at Jackson’s adaptation. Many of them are still angry about The Lord of the Rings, which they felt betrayed Tolkien’s artistry, majesty, and, ultimately, his agency. I am a member of a sleepy little myth listserve which has now lit up with Jackson and anti-Jackson debate. I’ve avoided it–not wanting to spoil the movie. But as one member entitled his post, “Can one spoil a film that is so rotten?”, I think I know the purist consensus thus far.
Honestly, though, I loved The Lord of the Rings. I have read the books numerous times and watch the movies every Christmas break. I thought his treatment of Hobbiton was marvelous, and I revel in that twenty minutes or so that we are in hobbit environs. Peter Jackson’s first hobbits on film took up my reading experience and filled it out with colour, shape, form, and humour.
I cannot imagine the process that Jackson went through to conceive of the hobbits, pressed as he was between competing fan expectations and historical matters. As it turns out, Jackson was not the only one to struggle to create a visual that would complement the story. Much to his own surprise, the first edition British publisher of The Hobbit used many of Tolkien’s own drawings, and the edition I have now includes Tolkien’s original cover design.
The adaptation of Tolkien’s sketches was not a simple matter, and took up much of 1937. This months-long conversation began when an American publisher requested more illustrations for an edition with colour plates. Tolkien expresses doubt in his own hand, but also sets some limits.
“I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce…. It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them–as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing” (Letter to C.A. Furth, Allen & Unwin, May 13, 1937, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #13, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, 1981).
Tolkien finds out that this letter was forwarded to the American publisher with the Disney dig included, and is “perturbed.” He said, “It was not intended for American consumption unedited: I should have expressed myself rather differently” (To Allen & Unwin, May 28, 1937, Letter #14). This publisher miscue made Tolkien even more anxious about “posing as an illustrator.” Still, he kept submitting photos of the cover, Mirkwood, and various aspects of Bilbo and asking for some remuneration in an Aug 31, 1937. Money was tight, and he spent much of his research time that year proofing The Hobbit and drawing pictures for the American audience.
Tolkien was still confirming these details with his own publisher at Christmastime, and in the spring of 1938, the American publisher asked for more pictures. Once again, Tolkien is anxious about his ability: “I am afraid, if you will need drawing of hobbits in various attitudes, I must leave it in the hands of someone who can draw.” But in this letter we have a wonderful description of how Tolkien imagined his hobbits.
“I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of ‘fairy’ rabbit as some of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and ‘elvish’; hair short and curling (brown). The feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak (belonging to a dwarf).
“Actual size–only important if other objects are in picture–say about three feet or three feet six inches…” (To the Houghton Mifflin, March or April, 1938, Letter #27).
I am, for good or ill, not a purist. I a pleased to see the adaptation and judge it on its own merits. But it seems to me that Jackson, it the task of picturing Bilbo, Frodo, and the little folk of Hobbiton, has at least avoided the concern that was utmost for Tolkien: avoid anything that looks like Disney. I think this, at least, Jackson has done. Moreover, there are features that I think are drawn out better on film that Tolkien’s (admittedly) limited sketches. Beyond capturing the hobbits well, I think Jackson did an exceptionally beautiful job carving the landscapes of middle earth. And, taken by themselves, The Lord of the Rings was a good film. I can’t wait to see if he is able to pull it off again!