Tolkien Geek

Blogging J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and other aimless pursuits.


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. 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


UPDATE: 1/5/13
Having seen the first film, we can revisit Chapter One here.


A Project (Formerly) In Limbo

One whole year. And nothing. Nada. Goose-egg.

Well, that can describe the forward momentum that the “Hobbit” film project has taken. But it can just as easily summarize the output here at Tolkien Geek.

What can I say, I’m embarrassed. Life is complicated and while I certainly had the inspiration back on August 2 of last year to move this thing along, too many other forces were pulling me in multiple directions both personally and professionally.

Before I continue let’s take a look at where the film project is one year later.

MGM is up a creek…and heading towards the Falls of Rauros.

Why are we even talking about MGM anyway? Well, MGM/United Artists bought the film rights for both “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” from Tolkien back in 1969. It's a complicated tale, but suffice to say that, in the 1990’s, the rights to “The Lord of the Rings” ended up with New Line Cinema after changing hands several times. MGM, however, is still legally connected to the filming rights for “The Hobbit”, making the studio an integral part of this project.

Back in 2009, everything appeared to be coming together for Peter Jackson and company. However, it soon became clear that the future of MGM studios, currently weighted under a mountain of debt, was in doubt. Not only was “The Hobbit” in limbo, but the James Bond Franchise has been mothballed until the studio can figure this thing out. For almost a year anxious creditors have been pressing the studio to reorganize and liquidate some of its operations.

Recently, Spyglass entertainment (a studio which often pairs with other studios and has co-produced such recent films as "Dinner for Schmucks," "Get Him to the Greek," and "Star Trek." ) made a bid to purchase much of the ailing entertainment icon in a pre-packaged bankruptcy plan due to be filed sometime this month:
“Under Spyglass' proposal, the company’s co-heads, Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum, will get a 4 to 5 percent stake in the company following the restructuring…Spyglass would continue to operate independently, while MGM will produce a handful of movies each year, among them Bond and ‘The Hobbit.'"
One way or another, MGM seems certain to file for bankruptcy very soon and this issue should (though it’s not guaranteed) be resolved.

Del Toro is Out.

Honestly, when I first read about this development I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I had no real issues with Guillermo Del Toro sitting in the director’s chair since this was Peter Jackson’s project, with final say on the finished product. But in the time since the announcement of the films we’ve heard precious little from Jackson and whole lot from Del Toro. It seemed to me that he had at least inferred from his dealings with Jackson that he was going to have more creative control than I was comfortable with. Whether or not this was PJ’s intention or not it’s difficult to say.

In the beginning when this was supposed to be two separate films – “The Hobbit” and some kind of bridge movie to “The Lord of the Rings” – Del Toro was pretty clear that he felt like the first film was his baby. He expressed that the second film would require him to yield to Jackson’s vision but that the first film – all Hobbit – would be different in tone. He explained in an interview in Premiere magazine in 2008: “I plan to change and expand the visuals from Peter's, and I know the world can be portrayed in a different way.”

Change and expand, huh? Now Guillermo Del Toro has a body of work on which we can gather what these kinds of changes might look like. It’s hard to imagine Del Toro’s current palette of visual effects working their way into a more light-hearted story like “The Hobbit”. Do these ghastly things look like they belong in Middle Earth?

While it was encouraging that he met with the two Tolkien design experts that gave the trilogy such an authentic look and feel, Alan Lee and John Howe, it was clear he also wanted to bring on board Mike “Hellboy” Mignola and Wayne “Blade” Barlow. Frequent Del Toro actors were expected to be associated with “The Hobbit” (Ron Perlman as Beorn, Doug Jones as Thraduil perhaps). Also, Del Toro is a man – like Peter Jackson – who is used to wearing multiple hats (writer, director, producer) for his films.

It's worth noting that it was reported early on in the pre-production phase of Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban that Del Toro was approached to direct but was quoted as saying that he considered the film "so bright and happy and full of light, that [he] wasn't interested." Now, anyone familiar with the Harry Potter series can attest that the third book of the series turns a remarkably darker tone than the first two volumes in the series so either he hadn’t read Prisoner of Azkaban or it just wasn’t dark enough for him. And The Hobbit has potential here? Mmmm.

When it was announced that Del Toro was leaving the project this past June he cited the various delays and conflicts with schedules. This makes sense as he could be making other films while the production sits in development hell. However, I am left to wonder whether of not his departure had more to do with creative differences with Jackson. It looks as if the big “Tintin” project Jackson was producing with Steven Spielberg is mostly finished and due for release sometime next year. It’s my understanding that the script (at least the original draft) for the two films is complete. Perhaps at this point Jackson has had second thoughts about relinquishing the directing duties? We probably won’t know the real story for some time.

But suffice to say, if the project appears to now be freeing itself of delays it would difficult to believe that Del Toro’s schedule wouldn’t allow him to hold on a little longer. As we progress through the chapters I expect I will be unable to resist raising my concerns from time to time about certain aspects of the story that would worry me had Del Toro remained involved.

Red Light, Green Light.

Officially, the project has not been officially “green lit”. In other words, nobody’s committed to write the checks that are needed for setting timetables and production schedules.

There have been mixed signals from the producers, the studios, the media and even some of the actors (i.e. McKellan, Serkis and Weaving) as to whether or not this project has been given the OK to move forward. On the one hand, the official talking point is that, no, it hasn’t. On the other hand, some of the news bits leaking out from various sources (i.e. and others) is that a lot of the pre-production work is being done. Only Jackson and company know the real story. And once the MGM issue is settled, activity may very well “officially” hit its stride. Who knows?

Tolkien Geek...Reloaded.

So where does that leave us? Frustrated and a little angry. None of these developments seem to make any sense but most of us don’t live and work in Hollywood so what else can we do besides wait and hope? Nothing, really.

That being said, the reality of “The Hobbit” on film seems much closer and much more likely than it did a year ago. So, this increased anticipation has breathed new life in this current blog project for me and I’m committed to seeing through (I actually have the first draft of Chapter One completed). A warning, though. It will take a long time, longer than I had hoped. This is because of the amount of time I am able to give to it. But I’m hoping to make each entry worthy of your patience and only ever give it my best effort.

Based on my experience in creating this blog I can confidently say (to paraphrase Treebeard) that writing something that is worth reading takes a long time, so I prefer not to write anything unless it is worth taking a long time to do it.

Let's Go (take two)! - Chapter One: An Unexpected Party