Okay, when hit with the preview for the upcoming movie in front of the IMAX of Raiders of the Lost Ark (still the greatest action adventure film of all time, for my money), I will finally bow and write up my long-promised take on the iconic story.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney, New Line, Release Date December 12. Part 1 of a three film series based on the book and various appendices.
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, originally published in 1937.
Six and up. Unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit truly is a piece of children’s literature, told very much like a bedtime story. Some of the language may be complex for younger children, and there are battles a-plenty, but the levity, song, and general general silliness remove any real feeling of danger or dread from the book.
I actually read this book as my own bedtime story, mostly on my iPhone. I bought the enhanced version for $11.99 which has links to audio files of Tolkien himself singing some of the songs, and alternative photos. Frankly, I just wanted to read it, so unless you are a huge Rings-o-phile, save the two bucks and get the regular version that’s available for around $10 on both iBooks and Google Books. Hardcopy available pretty much everywhere.
Quickie Plot Synopsis
Between the Dawn of Faeries and the Dominion of Men lived a group of peaceful, earthy little folk called Hobbits. But despite their general antipathy toward the complicated and dangerous world of the big folk, a Wizard named Galdalf the Gray chooses a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins to go on the adventure of a lifetime.
After reluctantly hosting a band of 13 Dwarves (take that Snow White!), Bilbo discovers that he has been chosen as the “thief” to help them recoup the treasure stolen from head Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield from the dastardly dragon, Smaug.
At Gandalf’s urging, Bilbo reluctantly leaves the comfort of Bag End to join the dwarves on this adventure. The group is almost immediately beset by danger, from hungry trolls to vicious goblins. After being lost in a Goblin’s cavern, Bilbo stumbles on a creature called Gollum, and a simple but attractive gold ring. He tricks Gollum into helping him escape with the added aid of that magical invisibility ring.
Bilbo puts that ring to good use in order to outwit hungry giant spiders, greedy and mistrustful elves, and Smaug himself. But pride and avarice bring men, elves, and dwarves to the brink of war with one and other. Only the common enemy of a massive attack from the forces of evil are able to bring them together to defend the treasures of the Lonely Mountain. Redemption is found, for some, found in death, and Bilbo finds himself back at Bag End, but forever changed by the experience.
It’s funny, for my own grown-up pleasure I’m currently reading A Dance With Dragons, the latest in the Song of Fire and Ice series (better known as the HBO series Game of Thrones). You can so easily see Tolkien’s influence on George RR Martin’s writing, everything from the grand descriptions to the breaking out in song. For when it comes to the fantasy genre, you are hard pressed to find an author who isn’t a Tolkien prodigy in some way, shape or form.
But while Martin’s series is extremely adult, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is an epic work that is also quite adult, The Hobbit is a bedtime story, and is written in that exact way. He in his style will set up side plots, but dismiss them as “a story for another day.” He will come out of the narration and made editorial statements about the characters, and he uses poems and song to add the kind of improvisational levity to the story that you would absolutely expect with milk and cookies.
I will admit that I am not a huge Tolkien fan. I believe that is because he spends a tremendous amount of time giving me the lore of his huge and imaginative world, but I believe it is at the expense of the story (indeed, I find the same fault with Martin’s work). This is definitely a personal taste, as I know many fans who absolutely adore the rich and insanely imaginative world Tolkien created with Middle Earth. But I find if you’re not interested in geeking out on the histories of elves and goblins, many of the details can be ponderous and clash with the child-like narrative.
I also have to say that the 13 Dwarves killed me. I simply could not keep up with which character was which. Given their names weren’t Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, etc., they became mix-and-match to me and made me simply not care about any of them. I also found his use of song, which is even more pronounced here than in the LOTR books, to be extremely heavy-handed and took away from the drama.
The one part I did LOVE was Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum. Extremely well paced and you really feel the sinister, pained character from beginning to end. The riddle contest which ends up being Bilbo’s salvation is a lot of fun (some of those riddles actually made their way into Gus’s LOTR party).
So if you’re looking for tightly written and gripping fantasy tale, I don’t think this is it. But as prologue to an epic adventure, helping to establish the iconic world of Tolkien, I believe this is a book worth reading. Okay, Tolkien fans, flame away…
Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Opportunities for Discussion
Doctoral theses have been written on the meaning(s) contained within The Hobbit. So I’m going to keep it a bit more simple and invite others to add to the conversation.
Everything Changes: At its essence, Bilbo’s story is about a man who fears change learning to embrace it. Kids have these feelings all the time, mine most recently when going to a new school. Bilbo’s story can help you to parallel times when your kids faced a new experience. This can either add empathy for your kids to the story, or by using Bilbo as a guide help them to see change as a positive.
Fun With Riddles: As I mentioned, I think the most cleverly written part of the book is Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum. If your kids feel the same, what a wonderful way to get them hooked on riddles. Brain-stretching riddles are excellent cognitive, social, and linguistic development tools. From problem-solving, to understanding the art of word play, to the development of that all-important funny bone, Gollum will do your kid a big favor if these get her/him jazzed to riddle me this. Especially if you are reading to your children, you can take the opportunity to stop at the riddle and work with them to figure out the answer to the riddle before you move on with the book.
Greed Ain’t Good: Perhaps this won’t sit well with the Ayn Rand set, but from Trolls to Dwarves to Dragons to, yes, even the sainted elves, Tolkien tells the tales of comeuppance for those who only want more. What is good in this is that greed is not the exclusive providence of the wicked. Thorin Oakenshield himself succumbs to it much to his own downfall, and, yes, even the woodland elves’ leader Thranduil was known for his greed. It’s a good basis for discussion about how avarice can blind you to more important things in your life.
Big Things… One of the most obvious things, yet still perhaps the best lesson of the Hobbit and the whole LOTR saga is that even the smallest of creatures can have a major impact on the world. Bilbo’s journey goes from him feeling very small and useless to finding the full extent of his courage and usefulness. This story is a great gateway for discussion on how everyone can have a voice and an impact on the world, and no one should be underestimated or discounted in that regard.
Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.
What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you probably know at this point that director Peter Jackson has decided to turn this tale into not one, not two, but three movies. From the trailers, I think you can see that he is very much attempting to keep with the darker, more adult tone of his LOTR trilogy, though he does say that he has attempted to keep some of the whimsy of this children’s story intact as well.
It seems that the first film, An Unexpected Journey, will be Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain. The second, The Desolation of Smaug, will focus on the rise and fall of the dragon, and the third, There and Back Again, will climax in the Battle of the Five Armies. Seems like a reasonable way to split them up.
I actually preferred the LOTR films to the books, as I felt Jackson kept to the spirit of the books but cut a lot of expositional fat that I did not enjoy in Tolkien’s writing style (though I’m still fuming at the removal of the man and the myth, Tom Bombadil). It will be interesting to see what happens here, as this trilogy seems to be less The Hobbit and more a piecing together of Tolkien’s appendices with The Hobbit’s story meshed in to try and paint a fuller picture and more direct bridge between these films and LOTR. In many ways, this will likely get compared to Star Wars with a prequel trilogy. I’m hopeful that Jackson will succeed where Lucas failed, but he is definitely more out on a limb this time from a storytelling perspective than he was with the Rings trilogy.
After all the back and forth about New Line itself, and potential changes in directors, I’m very glad it ended up being Jackson himself that took this on. It will be fun to see his whole vision played out on screen. I think Martin Freeman, who is amazing as Dr. Watson in the new Sherlock! series on BBC was an inspired choice, and, especially with the added layers to the story not seen in the book (most notably, the story of the Necromancer) we should see a lot more of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Gray (rather than the more stick-in-the-mud Galdalf the White). That in itself will be worth the price of admission.
So hit the book, then get that Fandango App warmed up, as I have no doubt this is going to be a great ride, and a lot of fun to compare to the book because there will be a lot of changes. Happy reading!