Drawing the Hobbit (Update)

Hobbit 2012 movie posterThe purists among my colleagues, blogmates, and digital friends are horrified at Jackson’s adaptation, for the most part. Many of them are still angry about The Lord of the Rings, which they felt betrayed Tolkien’s artistry, majesty, and, ultimately, his agency. Some are encouraged by the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug. But even then, most are not satisfied. I am a member of a sleepy little myth listserve which lights up with Jackson and anti-Jackson debate each December as the films prepare for release. 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 Jackson’s 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.

bag end inside hobbit

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 J.R.R. Tolkien’s 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 The Hobbit by JRR Tolkiencolour 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 Tolkien's illustration of Bilbo Baggins's homeof 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).

Bilbo Baggins 2012 Hobbit

I am, for good or ill, not a purist. For all the limitations of the film adaptations, I will see them and judge them on their own merits. But it seems to me that Jackson, in 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. He hasn’t been able to pull it off again, but I am still hopeful for the consummation of the trilogy.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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17 Responses to Drawing the Hobbit (Update)

  1. Nicely said, as always! And (I forget) do you now listen to The Tolkien Professor’s “Riddles in the Dark” podcast? He’d be proud of your balanced approach.


  2. Marie Anne says:

    I definitely lean more towards being a purist. But I don’t think anyone could’ve done Tolkien’s writings justice on the big screen better than Jackson has. I expected to hate Tauriel, but when I gave her a chance, I loved her. Her character was well done, and she felt like a natural fit in the world. My biggest peeve was the “Kingsfoil? Ah, it’s a weed!” sequence. Anyway, without Jackson’s vision, it’s unlikely we would’ve been given any glimpse into Middle Earth.


    • I quite like her character, Tauriel.
      There are all kinds of awkward moments in the films, aren’t there? The key–if you want to enjoy them–is to jump in and forget it. We do this with romance films. How awkward to watch a couple kiss. But when we throw ourselves into the story, no problem! Same with Jackson’s epics.


  3. L. Palmer says:

    Regardless of the weaknesses of the two Hobbit movies so far, Jackson and his crew have done an impossible and fantastic job portraying Middle Earth on screen. I think is the main factor that holds the two Hobbit movies together.


  4. I wonder if it makes a difference who you take to see the film. I was the driver for my 16 yr old daughter and friends and found myself getting bored by Jackson’s predilection for the following sequence:
    1) Our Hero is in trouble! Doesn’t matter which hero, any will do.
    2) At the last possible moment the “rescuer” turns up to save the day.
    Try counting how many times that happens!
    Also how happy Jackson is to give as much time, and more, to every action sequence that he can. Take Smaug chasing Bilbo and the dwarves around the mountain for instance. Here I thought I must be getting old, or that I spend too much time with savvy 16 year olds! I got bored.
    Still I do agree with L.Palmer that the artwork is incredible. I wonder if there is a really fine 2 hour movie to be cut from the three eventually?


    • I like this new nickname: Happy Jackson!
      I liked the action scenes, but I went with a half dozen guys. And I had popcorn. I went in with low adaptation expectations, hoping to enjoy it. And it was better than #1. The filming was better too, I think–the 1st being too bright, too yellow.


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