The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey trailer debuted online last night. You can see it here on the YouTubez. This is a trailer for the first of the two movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved children’s book and quasi-prequel to The Lord of the Rings. The first movie comes out next December, and the second movie, called The Hobbit: There and Back Again will follow in 2013 if the Mayans are wrong.
The Hobbit is one of my absolute favorite books, so I’m both excited and a little nervous about the movie(s). Excited because this first trailer seems to capture the humorous and adventurous spirit of the book pretty well, a spirit which is very different than the grimmer, sadder Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is children’s adventure story first and foremost, and one of its most impressive feats (besides having characters wander thousands of miles across the earth without once encountering a woman), is that it manages to maintain its wry, witty voice even while subjecting Bilbo Baggins and Co. to numerous unpleasantries like goblin slavers, evil wolves, giant spiders, and dragon fire. It’s fantastic.
In fact, let me be blunt: The Hobbit is not only a great book, it is better than The Lord of the Rings. It is by far Tolkien’s best fictional writing. LOTR is often clunky and cumbersome. The Hobbit is fleet of hairy foot and perfectly written. Not a word is wasted, or out of place. Even Tolkien’s mythology is used better in The Hobbit, since the legends of Middle-earth (like the Fall of Gondolin) are briefly alluded to in The Hobbit, in intriguing glimpses like flashes of heat lightning, while in LOTR they are spelled out explicitly and at-length in the form of history lectures and pages-long songs all but the most ardent nerds skip when reading the trilogy.
The Hobbit tends to get less respect than its brawnier brother, since it’s lighter in tone, less sweeping, and more for children. But it’s a cultural trap to assume that the grimmer, more epic, more violent, and ostensibly “adult” a thing is, the better the quality. LOTR is a classic, no doubt, and changed the face not only of fantasy, but of literature as a whole and, thanks to Jackson’s movies, has now transformed Hollywood into the nerd-dreams factory. But as a work of prose and literature, The Hobbit has it beat.
So, what worries me about the movie version of The Hobbit is that director Peter Jackson, who did a masterful job with the LOTR movies, will make them too much like LOTR. I’m happy to see the same sets and costume designs, and of course the cast, because all that worked really well in the LOTR movies and it’s nice to have continuity.
BUT, The Hobbit is tonally different from LOTR and I worry that, given the success of the original movie trilogy, the impulse will be to make it too much like the older movies, and the trailer seems to indicate that will be the approach (especially given Galadriel’s presence), though Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins is pitch perfect and I have a feeling he may save the movie from its own LOTR-impulses.
Making The Hobbit more epic and serious is a tempting approach, one Tolkien himself almost gave in to. After the success of LOTR, he went back to re-write The Hobbit in the style of LOTR and clear out the fun, but pesky details that made it less narratively cohesive with his larger mythology (like the aside about Bilbo’s ancestor inventing the game of golf by knocking the head of goblin named Golfimbul into a hole). Fortunately, he abandoned the pursuit when he realized that The Hobbit was a distinct work and those pesky details are part of the fabric of the book. He realized, as I hope Jackson does, that The Hobbit doesn’t need to be LOTR. It just needs to be The Hobbit.
Still, it will be good to return to the Shire, Rivendell, and other odd corners of Middle-earth again. To once again take those paths that run West of the Moon and East of the Sun.