Chapter 1: An Unexpected Party
Now visualize this: You’re sitting in a theater that darkens a bit more after the endless parade of trailers wraps up. A black screen. Music written by Howard Shore begins filtering in and…wait for it…”Wingnut Films Presents: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: Part One. A Film by Peter Jackson.” Applause!!
I can’t wait for that moment. And I suspect that neither can you. But alas, for now, that is all we can do.
Before I get started, let me share with you my original thought process on each of these entries. At first I was planning on breaking down several elements of each chapter and addressing them in separate sections in terms of inclusion v. exclusion, vital iconic visuals and dialogue, critical themes, etc. But I realized in composing this first entry that it would come across as too formulaic and perhaps a bit too analytical – in a word, “boring”. So instead I will describe the translation of text to film as I expect it based on Peter Jackson’s prior treatment of “The Lord of the Rings”.
This is not going to be about my vision for “The Hobbit” with me acting as a back-seat director and telling Jackson what he should do but rather what I think we will likely see if he strives for consistency with the larger trilogy. There will be sidebar discussions into which I will infuse my own opinion - topics such as overall tone, talking animals, minor inconsistencies between the books, songs, etc. But even these will be more in keeping with creating as complimentary a story and presentation with “The Lord of the Rings” as possible.
Let’s keep in mind that when Jackson and his writing crew (Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) sat down to create one unifying thread to the trilogy they decided that it should be – first and foremost – Frodo and the Ring. Everything else, now matter how important was secondary. Even the smaller plot threads had to ultimately support this concept and move it forward. It was the standard by which Jackson decided whether or not to cut material.
In “The Hobbit”, I believe the central idea is the character arc of Bilbo Baggins – that is, his development from a timid, placid hobbit to a brave, loyal and cunning hero. As such, the world of Middle-Earth should be presented from Bilbo’s point of view as he experiences this wider world for the first time (this is supposed to be the audience’s first time as well). So the standard here (assuming Jackson takes the same approach) would be that if something in the story doesn’t help illustrate this character development then it should be either downplayed or removed altogether.
Now I just know some of you are screaming your monitor “No! No! We need it all! It’s two movies for criminy sakes, there’s room for everything!!!” Trust me, there isn’t. And even if there were you need to remember that this film needs to make money – a lot of money. This means that they need non-Tolkien Geeks to plop down their $10.50 (or if they go 3-D, their $14.00). Die-hard fans will undoubtedly be disappointed as they were with aspects of “The Lord of the Rings” but, as in that case, you can’t weigh down a film version of “The Hobbit” with miscellany and minutiae that mean nothing to the casual fan or the average movie going audience. I’m not going to belabor the point. It’s not worth arguing over. It’s just realistic. Film and books are two completely different media.
Assuming that the two films will be about two and a half hours each (or five hours total) for their theatrical releases, you have to consider pacing. For example, this material for this chapter shouldn’t consume more than the first twenty minutes of the film. Anything more is too long. That being said, let’s take a look at how those twenty minutes might play out on screen.
I would guess that a good way to open the film is a little narration as the cameras give us a view of Hobbiton – the rolling hills, the old mill, Bywater and at last Bag End. As the camera pans the scenery we might hear: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”
Continuing on with the rest of that opening paragraph, it ends with the words “and that means comfort.”
Who should this narrator be? I’m thinking perhaps Sir Ian McKellan’s Gandalf. Now I can see that argument for using Bilbo’s voice. After all, it was Ian Holm’s voice-over introduces the Extended Edition of “The Fellowship of the Ring” (after the prologue). And “The Hobbit” is essentially Bilbo’s tale (i.e. “There and back again”). But I think McKellan’s voice would compliment Tolkien’s famous words here. Now Bilbo emerges from his large round green door at Bag End and lights a long pipe and surveys the land around the Hill, thereby demonstrating his love of the Shire as well as his complacency and contentment which is about to be thrown into upheaval. [Editor's Note: On January 11th Warner Bros. officially announced the inclusion of Elijah Wood to the project, re-prising his role as Frodo Baggins. TheOneRing.net is convinced - based on its sources - that the purpose of Frodo would be as narrator, reading from Bilbo's Red Book of Westmarch].
Continuing with this scene we will be introduced to Gandalf. Here we return to Gandalf the Grey (having last seen the White incarnation in “Return of the King”). In the first film of the trilogy, Sir Ian McKellan played Gandalf as a more easy-going and almost playful version of the wizard in stark contrast to the bolder, more assertive leader who commands the army of Minas Tirith against the siege of Sauron’s forces. Here McKellan (and Jackson) needs to be mindful that in this story we are being introduced to the character through the eyes of Bilbo.
Though they would become great friends, right now Gandalf is mysterious and curious – not quite malevolent yet somewhat foreboding. Though he knows of him, Bilbo isn’t quite sure what to make of him at first. And we are supposed to be as unaware of what the Wizard is up to as Bilbo is. To that end, I feel the entire opening conversation between the two characters should remain exactly as it was written in the book. Here we must see everything from Bilbo’s first “Good Morning” to the introduction of “I am Gandalf…and Gandalf is me.”
It is interesting to note here that in “The Annotated Hobbit” one of the notes explains that in the original 1937 text Tolkien described Gandalf as “a little old man with a tall pointed hat” and it was only many years later that this was changed to read “an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat.” Even in the early drafts of the Lord of the Rings (See “The History of Middle Earth, Vol VI: The Return of the Shadow”), Tolkien saw Gandalf as “little”, probably only slightly larger in stature than the hobbit or perhaps little for a man. Just as Aragorn/Strider was originally a wooden-shoe wearing hobbit named Trotter in the early development of the story (though Tolkien had not yet worked out exactly what Trotter’s role would be), we see here how some of the author’s characters begin as whimsical and almost comical which was more fitting to the children’s story that “The Hobbit” was intended to be.
But back to Gandalf’s portrayal for a second, I think McKellan has a fine line to walk here. On the one hand, we need to return to the Grey Wizard who is more familiar and down to earth and lower in rank among the Istari. On the other hand, he and Bilbo are no where near as close as they will become by the start of the trilogy and there needs to be an element of wariness with the audience as it tries to determine whether or not we can trust him. Again, we the audience will be sharing Bilbo’s perspective. When Gandalf leaves we should be just as bemused as Bilbo.
On a side note, it is not necessary - through narration or otherwise - to bring in any of the descriptions of hobbits or hobbit culture at this point. For example, any references to Bilbo’s lineage (i.e. The Old Took) might be best either to be removed altogether or moved to a discussion between Gandalf and Bilbo or Thorin later on. The dichotomy of the hobbit’s adventurous/cautious nature is an important aspect of Bilbo’s development but it would be better focused on at some other point.
The scene would likely fade out and back in to the next day and the arrival of the Dwarves. Now to this point, our current cinematic familiarity with Dwarves in Middle-Earth is primary based on Gimli. The Dwarves in “The Hobbit” should be recognizably distinct in order to avoid confusion over who is who. The particular pairs and trios should be similar within these groupings but very different the others.
In other words, Dwalin and Balin should probably be similar in appearance just as Fili and Kili should be. In fact, these younger Dwarves should have something about them that sets them apart from their older counterparts. They might have significantly shorter beards, for example. Gloin should look a lot like Gimli since they are father and son. It goes without saying that Bombur should be exceptionally fat. And Thorin Oakenshield in particular must stand out from the other twelve. [Editor's note: As of January 2011, all Dwarf roles have been cast.]
I expect the arrival of each Dwarf will be handled with measured comic relief and the party scene on the whole should not be too long in the theatrical version. Much of this material can be restored to the DVD extended edition (which there will surely be). Some of the exposition needs to be cut while some of it can be moved to conversations along the journey. Information about Gandalf's finding of Thrain in Dol Guldur could even be presented in flashback as Gandalf recounts his gaining possession of the map and key. Additional material here can be taken from “The Quest for Erebor” which appears in “Unfinished Tales”.
The “clean-up song” (“Chip the glasses and crack the plates”) is short enough to include here. The breaking out of the instruments and playing of music will probably be cut here but it should definitely be filmed for later DVD restoration. And the song “For Over the Misty Mountains Cold” could probably be moved to the journey phase, perhaps over scenes along the East Road.
The big moment here is Thorin’s speech which should be kept dark and somber in tone but shortened. Thorin’s style as “an important Dwarf”, the heir of Durin, should be emphasized. Jackson should present his has haughty but nonetheless worthy of respect. We will grow to like him over time but right now he should be a bit standoffish.
As far as character development, it would be natural for Jackson to focus on two other Dwarves besides Thorin – Balin and Gloin. Balin’s tomb is memorable scene from The Fellowship of the Ring and would establish a connection to the trilogy and his importance among Durin’s Folk. Gloin is not only Gimli’s father but it is actually Gloin who first questions Gandalf’s judgment in recruiting Bilbo for the adventure, not Thorin. Bilbo’s friendship with Gloin could develop throughout the films as much as his relationship with Thorin.
A few notes on visuals. In “The Return of the King” Extended Edition, Peter Jackson includes a scene to help the audience better orient themselves to the parts of Middle-Earth that are seen in the various story threads. He uses a map of the areas South and East of the Misty Mountains and has Faramir point out various locations (Isengard, Mordor, Minas Tirith, etc.). I think something similar can be done here to establish certain reference points in the story – The East Road, Rivendell, Mirkwood, Esgaroth and the Lonely Mountain. Obviously, to achieve this Jackson would need to have the party refer to something more like the map of Wilderland, which is included in most editions of "The Hobbit".
We could get the chance to see a little more of Bag End than we saw in the trilogy, maybe a look at some of the pantries, cellars and the kitchen. In his interaction with Thorin, Gandalf could give a hat-tip to the advice he gives Frodo with the Ring by saying “Keep it safe” just as he does in the book. Wouldn't it also be cool for one of the Dwarves to call out to Bilbo for some “taters” with their dinner. This would make a memorable reference to Sam Gamgee in “The Two Towers”.
Much of the remainder of this chapter (the last 3 or 4 pages) can be excised up to the point where Bilbo and his guests go to sleep.
At this point I’d like to weigh in on the casting of Bilbo. I’m a big advocate for consistency but Sir Ian Holm is simply too old to play the younger version of himself – who is about 50 years old (actually as old as Frodo is in the books when he sets out for Rivendell). A big fan favorite seems to be Martin Freeman who is best known for starring the original UK version of “The Office”. I personally like this choice as his current body of work shows that he can handle both the drama and subtle humor needed for the role.
Recently, there was a rumor that Freeman had been offered the role but had to turn it down because he had accepted the role of Dr. Watson for the BBC television series “Sherlock”. However, on September 8, 2010 it was reported that sources close to the production said that accommodations were proposed to allow Freeman the flexibility to stay on with the show and still be able to film the part of Bilbo in New Zealand. Unlike U.S. television programs, a British series comprises very few actual episodes. The current round of episodes for “Sherlock” is complete with the next season (or “series”) scheduled to be aired next August. So it is entirely possible that he could commit to both projects.
As of the date of this post, nothing has been confirmed but everything I’m reading indicates that this is the direction Jackson would like to go. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. The two actors – Holm and Freeman – look enough alike to be related. [Editor's note: Freeman has now been officially announced as Bilbo]
So, as the party fades and Bilbo collapses into sleep, we fade back in…to the next chapter.
Next: Chapter Two: Roast Mutton
Having seen the first film, we can revisit Chapter One here.