This piece by my good friend Timothy Boyd is the first in what I hope will be a continuing series of posts by guest authors. Dr. Boyd teaches Greek, Latin, and World Civilizations at the University of Buffalo.
I have now seen Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (I) twice. Owning and having viewed the extended version of his The Lord of the Rings a number of times, and having read and heard various things about this new film, I went with some hesitation. From the previous films, I knew something of what to expect: the story would focus more upon movement than upon discourse — most of the original dialogue would disappear — or reappear, sometimes in the mouths of others, or at other moments — and there would be scenes missing, at least some of which I, for one, would trust that the author had considered important enough to have included in his telling. It is possible, of course, to explain small changes here and there by the nature of adaptation: after all, novels and films are different media and the length of focus demanded by a 1000-page-plus series of books would be impossible in the compressed — and action-focused — world of film. If the previous films were anything to go by, it might also mean that there would be larger changes, deviations from the printed text as Professor Tolkien had written it. While I might accept some things as being part of the adaptation, others might be difficult to accept, mostly because they would seem to me unnecessary, such as, in The Lord of the Rings, a clownish drinking contest at Edoras, Sam being dismissed by Frodo at Cirith Ungol, the over-the-top presentation of the Paths of the Dead, with its cascading skulls, among others.
And so I went, as I’ve said, with some hesitation. Because I wanted to be as fair as I could be, however, I went to a showing with all of the technology: 3D, 48fps and did so for both viewings. I’m not sure how I felt about what I saw in terms of that technology: at times, I had the odd sensation that I was watching one of those BBC TV series from the 1970s, in which indoor scenes were filmed on a set and outdoor filmed on location. Some moments jumped out, but others seemed oddly flat.
It was not by those effects, however, that I found myself disturbed: rather, it was by what seemed to me to be radical changes to the text. We see a character named “Azog”, for example, who appears to have some sort of family feud with Thorin and who pursues the dwarves and hobbit throughout the entire movie. Who is Azog, I wondered, and how, in several recent readings of The Hobbit, had I missed him and this relentless pursuit? In fact, he was rather easy to miss, occurring only in a single sentence, spoken by Gandalf to Thorin in the 1966 revision: “‘Your grandfather Thror was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin.’”1 In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, we are given more information, being told how Azog dealt with Thror and almost did the same to Thrain, before he was killed, then beheaded, by Dain Ironfoot.2 A difficulty here is that of chronology. Dain had killed Azog at the battle of Nanduhirion, in Third Age, 2799, and The Hobbit begins in Third Age, 2941 (see Appendix B 1088–89). Thus, we are seeing in the film a major plot element which involves what is, in fact, a minor figure engaging in an activity not only not in The Hobbit, but seemingly impossible, seeing that that figure has been dead for nearly one-hundred-and-fifty years. What are we to make of this?
I believe that an explanation lies in an interview by Ethan Gilsdorf with one of the adapters, Philippa Boyens, on wired.com. Gilsdorf begins his interview with the words,
If you have quibbles or major beefs about how The Hobbit was adapted for Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, Philippa Boyens has answers.3
Boyens, in her initial response, says,
It is episodic. That was a big challenge. You do tumble from one adventure to the next, not necessarily building on each other and not necessarily interconnected, either … a little bit disastrous in terms of the film grinding to a halt. But having to take that chance as a screenwriter when you’re adapting a novel, and figure it out and to make it work, it does mean that you take liberties.
The question is, of course, what is a “liberty”? Is a slight abridgement, for the sake of giving the story a faster pace, a liberty? Is the introduction of a character who is no longer alive at the time of the story? Is having that character turn into a major adversary of one of the protagonists? Is, as we know from studio and fan gossip, the invention of a character out of whole cloth, the elf-warrior “Tauriel”? And how far can one take liberties before one is no longer simply an adapter, but someone who is coming dangerously close to becoming a usurper, who begins to ignore the original text and substitute for it one’s own creations? When is what we are viewing no longer an adaptation of “The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien”, but rather something more like “An Impression, with Many Improvements, of The Hobbit by Philippa Boyens and her Collaborators”?
And here I am reminded of Tolkien’s description of Isengard:
But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived — for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr.4
These adapters of The Hobbit aren’t evil, as Saruman becomes, but they may be misled, just as Saruman was. In his arrogance, he had been tricked into believing that he had become the rival, rather than the main Istari opponent, of Sauron, which is why Isengard had become so different from “A strong place and wonderful … and long it had been beautiful…”. 5 Are the adapters turning Tolkien’s work into their own “child’s model”, blinded to the worth and skill of the original work by their pride in the fact that they have been so commercially successful with their earlier films? I would hope not, although the movie I saw certainly seemed to me at times to have become more the work of the adapters than the author. And then there was this remark, later in the Boyens interview:
So, in the end, there’s always going to be naysayers. There’s always going to be people who have imagined they understand how these things work and how storytelling works. But in the end, you have to accept that they don’t. You have to trust yourself and that’s what we did. 6
Surely the person to trust is Professor Tolkien? But perhaps this is Saruman speaking (less grammatically than the original) to us. Certainly that claim of ultimate wisdom and the rejection of other opinions sounds like him when he says to Gandalf:
You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for friends, … I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice…. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order.7
It is clear that Saruman trusts himself. But then, these adapters are the same people who changed the story of the latter part of Saruman’s life, rejecting Tolkien’s cautionary tale of how, just like Sauron, Saruman had attempted a comeback in Middle Earth, ruling — and ruining — the Shire and dying for it. Perhaps, then, we should reply to Ms Boyens’ claim of superior authority with Gandalf’s reply to Saruman:
I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.8
To which we might add, “and eyes”.