Don’t watch The Hobbit

The book is perfectly formed – the film can only spoil it

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

Once, I met Priscilla Tolkien, the daughter of J.R.R. Tolkien. It was at the Oxford Catholic chaplaincy, and she was giving a talk about her father. She was charming, something of a hobbit herself with her neat figure, and an engaging talker. But she seemed taken aback by some of her audience. It was divided into two distinct parts. Some were the ordinary Tolkien admirers, the normal, slightly shabby young people you get at chaplaincy talks, and the others were, well, a bit scary. They almost all had black T-shirts, pale faces and intense expressions, and there was a weird sort of obsessiveness about their questions. They read all sorts of things into the books, symbolic meanings that had never occurred to the rest of us. At one point, I remember Miss Tolkien saying, with great emphasis, about The Hobbit: ‘It’s a story.’

In a funny way, the audience at that talk reflected the fate of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best-known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There are those of us who love The Hobbit as a story. And then there are the members of the extraordinary world of fantasy it generated, with plastic orcs, computer games pitting men in cloaks against warty things with clubs, an entire world of good vs evil as imagined by awkward adolescent males. And now, in the culmination of all that, there’s the film — the premiere is next Wednesday. That’s when the cult of The Hobbit finally parts company with the book.

I shall, myself, be passing on the film, 3-D natch, with the greatest gathering of British celebs since Harry Potter — hello Ian McKellan, Billy Connolly and, oh God, Stephen Fry — in favour of reading the book in the bath. And I’m trying to persuade my friends to join in this modest backlash, with the simple and sufficient aim of getting us back to the story, which the author began on an unexpected piece of blank paper that turned up in a pile of examination scripts he was marking for the Schools Certificate. There he wrote: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ He told the story to his children. Eighty years ago, in 1932, he finished the book.


It’s a wonderful story, perfectly formed, with all the gaiety and compactness that The Lord of the Rings lacks. It’s a combination of disparate things: saga and myth and larders with seed cake, and dwarves and goblins and the things of fairy tales, along with pocket handkerchiefs — which fairy tales rarely feature. There’s a great deal of learning, as you expect from a professor of Anglo-Saxon, but carried ever so lightly. Parts of the description of the dragon’s lair read as if they’re lifted straight from Beowulf, for the excellent reason that they were, but Beowulf’s dragon was fought and slain, not burgled. Tolkien took the names of Gandalf and the dwarves from The Poetic Edda, a collection of Norse poems, but The Hobbit’s Gandalf is more sublime: he blows smoke rings. Even the minor things, like the way Bilbo Baggins and Gollum play at riddles, come from a very old, Anglo-Saxon tradition. And, as a reviewer of modern children’s fiction, I can tell you there are enough subplots in the quest story of The Hobbit to sustain a dozen contemporary narratives.

The genius of the thing was evident at the time. C.S. Lewis hailed ‘a world that seems to have been going on long before we stumbled into it’ and observes that it is a children’s book only in that the first of many readings is undertaken by children … ‘only later, at a tenth or 20th reading, will they begin to understand what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it’.

But what, you might ask, if the director, Peter Jackson, has made an enjoyable film — or three? I don’t care. It’s still doing what Tolkien, as storyteller, would have hated: it makes explicit everything that the mind previously imagined. He only sold the film rights to pay off his debts.

Tolkien, of course, did his own illustrations for the early editions of The Hobbit, with firm, bold lines and nice clear topography. But the pictures don’t get in the way of the reader’s imagination; they’re not explicit. You still have your own conception of what Bilbo, Balin and Gandalf look like, what Mirkwood felt like, which the illustrations never really displace.

You can never fully recover your own ideas about a book after you’ve seen a screen version, good or bad. Already, I can’t get my own idea of Gollum back from the film image of Andy Serkis all over the papers. Take it from me: in the time it takes to see the film, you can get through several chapters of the book. Don’t watch. Read.

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Show comments
  • applepie44

    good grief

  • terence patrick hewett


  • joe docherty

    Don’t bother reading it either. It’s rubbish.

    • kevinlaw1222

      Then why did you bother first reading this article and then commenting on it?

  • Count Boso

    If Steven F*****g Fry’s in it I’m not watching it

  • http://twitter.com/Harry_ca_Nab The Elderking

    I agree with everything you say but, I have to admit, will not be able to resist sneaking into the cinema.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.efstathiou Steven Efstathiou

    Humbug – I’m going to a special screening on Saturday. I read the book as a kid, and now I’m taking my own children to the movie, and not just the usual small screen in Streatham, but Leicester Square. I won’t, Melanie, be giving you a passing thought…

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.platt.3386 David Platt

    Charming- but utterly wrong. The film is simply a cinematic interpretation of Tolkien’s story and not a replacement for it. Jackson is a genius in a different discipline. So go see it – even in what is a bifurcated environment for you.

  • Phil Ford

    It’s a silly argument. I’m reading The Hobbit right now (on my Kindle as it happens) and I will definitely be going to see Peter Jackson’s film of the same. Jackson has a masterful visual grasp of Tolkien’s universe – I personally cannot wait to see how he has visualized the world of The Hobbit. His Lord of the Rings films were absolutely magnificent – and having them in mind’s eye as I read the original texts actually heightens my enjoyment of the books. His interpretations of character and place were spot-on for me.

  • Dr Crackles

    I will resist the urge. Jackson took liberties with LOTR and turned Frodo into a pathetic junkie. Instead of pity for the animal Gollumn we were encouraged to have sympathy for him. Very post-modern. Even the redoubtable Sam was reduced to an over-emotional fool. He made sure Arwen got an equal-rights role at the expense of Glorfindel. Jackson is a bearded lefty shill.

    I will treat myself instead to the 1968 BBC radio adaptation instead.

    • roger

      Surely the 13 part radio series was from the 1970s, my boxed set of cassettes is so worn I can’t read the date. It is radio drama at its best, close your eyes and Michael Horden and Co. transport one into Middle Earth wonderfully.

      • Dr Crackles

        The BBC radio series for LOTR was 1981. The cast of Holm, Horden and Bill Nighy is excellent and I love Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum. The BBC radio series for The Hobbit was much earlier.

        • copywriter

          I loved it, too… and still have the tapes, I think!

      • Daviejohn

        LOTR on CD is a much better bet than the tapes

    • fishspouse

      Jackson a lefty?
      Are you aware of the lengths he went to to keep workers on The Hobbit from being unionised? The threats of withdrawing the film from New Zealand, the pressure on the Prime Minister to change the country’s employment legislation?
      If anything, Jackson is a stooge of Hollywood corporations.
      That being said, he knows his film-making craft and if anyone can make an entertaining film or two (or three) out of this creaky, overblown 1930s kid’s story, he can. Mind you, in accordance with his own nature and the demands of Hollywood’s marketeers, it’ll be a blockbuster aimed at adolescent boys, as they all are.
      Well worth avoiding. But not for the reasons your columnist suggests.

      • Sage McLaughlin

        You speak as if being “a lefty” and being “a Holly wood shill” are in any way conceptually at odds, when in fact practically every Hollywood shill is a leftist, as are the many, many college administrators who routinely attempt to keep graduate students from organizing. The fact that leftists are nearly always hypocrites doesn’t mean they are not still leftists.

        Your assumption that corporations and monied interests are somehow by definition non-leftist reveals an almost charming silliness.

  • kevinlaw1222

    File this article under ‘pointless’

    • http://twitter.com/ianwalkeruk Ian Walker

      Under what would you file a comment on a pointless article? Or a reply to a comment on a pointless article?

  • http://twitter.com/WilkinsonMH WilkinsonMH

    Funny, I watched Ralph Bakshi’s version of LoTR back in 1978, and yet still managed to form my own ideas of characters when I first read the book in 1981. Perhaps my relative youth back then allowed my mind an elasticity that yours lacks. Or perhaps I’m just better at compartmentalising.
    A word of advice: personal experiences are not always universal. Human beings are a diverse bunch and we don’t all have the same capacities.

  • philodoc

    The film of Lord of the Rings added an extra dimension to the story in the form of Howard Shaw’s magnificent music; truly Tolkienesque. However many unforgiveable liberties were taken with the story, including over sentimentalisation of some of the roles (eg.Boromir is truly pathetic in the film). Fortunately the story is so powerful in its written form that the film pales into insignificance.
    The Hobbit is a much more delicate story and there is a risk that it will be savaged. Incidently I seem to remember that there was a cartoon version of the Hobbit (from Czeckoslovakia as it then was?); well worth a look if it is still around.

  • puss-in-plimsolls

    Enjoyed the article and think your argument valid, despite what the scoffers below say. (And very rudely, too!)

  • Jebediah

    A work of art on film based on a work of art in print, does not diminish the print work of art. If you cannot see the two as separate then the problem lies with you.
    I wonder if the writer of this article has ever enjoyed a movie based on a book she had already read, I expect she has, and as such would invalidate her entire argument.
    This article is just a derivitive form of snobbery.

    • puss-in-plimsolls

      Did you actually read the article or did you just imagine the content?

      • Jebediah

        As my comment relates directly to article and some of the points the author raises, then yes, it’s clear to most people that it’s related. Given your own blatherings on your own post, it’s clear you came to spout nonsense and not to address either the article or the content of the posts.

  • thelonghaul

    Never understood how Martin Freeman hit the big screen.
    He wasn’t anything special in ‘The Office’, that ordinary comedy that gave him the break.

  • Chris Morriss

    I guess many others as well as me were horrified by the liberties taken by Jackson on the film version of LOTR, removing whole swathes of meaning from it. The Hobbit is a much more straightforward linear narrative, so hopefully it won’t be messed about as much. (fingers crossed)
    But a book is a work of art: a film is merely entertainment.

    • penruddock

      “But a book is a work of art: a film is merely entertainment”. Crikey. You don’t know much about the history of the cinema, evidently.

  • Daviejohn

    One more or less won’t matter, it will still be a success.

    • puss-in-plimsolls

      I don’t think that’s the point — do you?

  • puss-in-plimsolls

    My two proverbials…. I haven’t read The Hobbit (merely bought a facsimile edition for my husband). I did read LOTR, in my 30s, and read it with interest right to the end, which is more than I can say for Moby Dick. (In the latter case, the feeling that life’s too short finally overcame me.)

    I don’t know anything remotely like LOTR (except possibly the much more frivolous Lewis Carroll Alice books) — in the sense that for me it is, and simultaneously is not, powerful literature. On the one hand, it’s what I believe is called a tour de force. Its depths of imagining and stylish inventive prose are magnificent. On the other, it’s still not a fully adult work because adult problems as such don’t really arise: to the extent that literate children can comprehend them, they are *universal* human problems or fears, rather than adult ones. What is really missing from the book, in my judgement, is transcendent or erotic longing (erotic in the classical sense, which is more comprehensive than our current stunted idea, and involves notions of virtue). I am not suggesting that LOTR should have been a bodice-ripper. I do think that underneath the awesome battle set-pieces and personal striving, there lies a profound innocence and a certain bloodlessness.

    • Jebediah

      Did you read the article? Or are you just projecting your own inane non sequitur?

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.efstathiou Steven Efstathiou

    Having seen the movie this morning, I have to say that it’s excellent. Neither myself nor my brother could remember much about the book’s plot but it made absolutely no difference to our enjoyment of the film. If you loved the ‘Ring’ trilogy, you’ll adore this.

  • Albin

    Here’s the publisher on the effect of the films on books sales, i.e. that the film deal

    “paid off for Houghton Mifflin.

    “In the history of the company, there have only been two million-copy best sellers,” Harper says. “One was Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in 1977, and the other was The Lord of the Rings in 2001.”

    What has happened since this has been “phenomenal,” he says. “Because the movies come out late in the year, the sales spill over into the next. The books just keep selling, and we’re not done yet.”

    Google for the source.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bella.pease.75 Bella Pease

    I was going to espouse my derision for this article, for daring to tell me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t watch this film!, until I read that Mr S Fry will be involved.

    God save from his insincere bonhomie, veiling a creepy need for constant public adulation. Bilbo he is also interested in your ring, just not the one you wear on your finger!

  • Hugh

    Why should someone go to see a film if they don’t want to? It is an unfortunate and boring world if we are all required to do the same things, especially just because everyone else is, for heaven’s sake. It’s not very good anyway, in the scheme of things.

  • J.R.R.T

    What a pointless article, thanks for wasting my time!

  • AKMom

    The movie loses everything that makes the Hobbit wonderful. Ignore the movie. Read the book.