Six impossible things

Thinking about “The Hobbit”

Do people actually need spoiler alerts for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit? If so, consider yourselves alerted.

So my sister decided she wanted to see “The Hobbit” before she goes off on vacation with my Dad, and we rounded up the usual suspects and made arrangements for Friday, two days ago. After much discussion we all decided to meet in the middle (geographically speaking), which had the significant benefit of allowing us to go have Indian food at the good spot four blocks away from the movie theater.

Lois and I had seen the movie the week before (and our reaction was to immediately come home and watch “The Fellowship of the Ring” on Lois’s TV). Setting aside technical questions about frame rates and the desirability (or not) of 3D filming, the discussion brought up a lot of interesting things about working with a series in both literary and visual formats, and the difficulties inherent in translating from one to the other.

The first interesting point is that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first, and at the time it was first published he did not know the significance the ring – and Gollum – would have in the later books. The movies were made in reverse order: The Lord of the Rings came first, and now we’re getting The Hobbit.

This difference creates some interesting storytelling problems. The first is in tone. The Hobbit was written as a children’s book; it became an introduction to the epic trilogy that followed, but that was later. Moving from the tone of a children’s book to that of the adult fantasy is a little tricky, but only a little. It does, after all, follow the natural chronological flow, from child to adult, from children’s story to adult sequel.

You don’t get the same effect, obviously, when you go the other way (from adult epic fantasy to children’s story), as the films do. The movie-makers chose not to try: the movie The Hobbit is filmed in much the same tone as The Lord of the Rings, and I can’t really see it working any other way.

he question of tone blends into the question of continuity. The makers of the movies opted for continuity of tone and presentation movie-to-movie, rather than for consistency of book-to-movie tone and presentation.

I’ve heard people grumble about this, but do bear in mind: the movie-makers had the choice. They had all four books right there in front of them before they ever started working on the first movie. Tolkien did not have that choice, because when he wrote The Hobbit he hadn’t yet made up all the things that came up later in The Lord of the Rings. Yes, he made some continuity changes to later editions of The Hobbit, but he could not have chosen to change the tone without doing a complete, massive rewrite of the book.

It is, of course, possible that even if Tolkien had known the story was leading to The Lord of the Rings and the end of the age, he would still have chosen to write The Hobbit as a lighter children’s book. I take leave to doubt it, but authors have done stranger things. That choice, however, remains firmly in the realm of speculation, because Tolkien did not know. And I personally do not think that it would be right for a modern movie-maker to pretend that he is in the same position as Tolkien – that he’s making a children’s movie that those other books and movies don’t inform.

Series continuity, whether in film or in print, is always a tricky business. Whether you write in chronological order, as Tolkien did with The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings, or whether you tell one story and then back up and write a prequel, as Tolkien did later with The Silmarillion, there will be people who encounter the story out of order. I read The Two Towers first, because it was the only fantasy on the airport book rack when my family was heading out on vacation (I knew perfectly well it was the middle book of a trilogy; I simply didn’t care). I then galloped through The Return of the King, followed up with The Fellowship of the Ring, and only then discovered that there was an earlier book called The Hobbit.

Similarly, one very-much-not-a-fantasy-fan acquaintance heard that The Return of the King had been nominated for Best Picture Oscar, so he went blithely off to see it without having seen (or read) The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. Needless to say, he was deeply puzzled by the experience.

There is nothing whatever that a writer or a movie-maker can do to prevent this. You don’t have a choice in the matter. The only choices you have relate to how you tell the story: whether you try to make it accessible to people who may not have all the background, or whether you don’t.

7 Comments
  1. Have you read Wool yet? It’s fascinating to see how Howey’s tone changed over the course of the stories. The first one is bleak, mature, seriously depressing, grown-up sci-fi, but by #5, he’s gone into action-adventure dramatic fun. But it works really, really well.

  2. I think this is why some authors include a whole lot of backstory in books #2, 3, etc. They are expecting some readers to come late to the story, and this sometimes can be annoying to readers who have been there all along. I’ve found that if I’m reading a story as it is published (usually a year or so between books) then I don’t mind the reminders. But, if its a series that I’m coming to after they’re all out, the reminders get a little tiresome (depending on how they’re written). It’s a hard thing for authors to juggle.

  3. It’s worth noting that Tolkien did revise The Hobbit after the release of The Lord of the Rings – the Gollum chapter was re-written to be much darker (in the original edition, Gollum agrees to give the ring to Bilbo, and they part amicably). Tolkien also began a full revision of The Hobbit to match the tone with The Lord of the Rings, but gave up when the publisher wasn’t interested.

  4. What is really fun is when they slither the backstory into every story in a sequence.

    Then they collect them. It can be wearisome in a collection.

  5. Another writer’s blog I follow is currently having an interesting discussion of the issue of how to deal with backstory in a series: http://thezoe-trope.blogspot.com/2013/01/you-decide_28.html

  6. I think perhaps the zoe-trope has ignored a third possibility: stand-alone books in a series. No matter where you start with your first book, there’s going to be backstory, and you figure out ways to weave *exactly* what’s necessary into the story, and leave out the rest.

    Nobody needs to know what your hero ate for breakfast as a child. And nobody *really* needs to know about this epic battle that scarred our hero way back in book 1 — the reader only needs to know that our hero is scarred.

    Some authors have a really cute self-promotion thing, where they put a footnote sending the reader back to book (1, 2 or whatever it is). Amelia Peabody books spring to mind (I have to admit, though, I thought it was a fake footnote for atmosphere when I was reading Crocodile on the Sandbank — I was so delighted when I found out it was a real series!).

    The point is, the reader often doesn’t really need the backstory. They need the action to happen NOW.

    I’ve heard there’s a lot of interesting choices the movie-makers have made with The Hobbit. (-: I don’t know whether to wait and watch ’em all together, or watch it bit by bit. (I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy yet.)

  7. Tiana, I agree with you. I do like it when there is a separate “What Has Gone On Before”. I can skip it or not. when the summary is embedded in the story, I do not have that option.

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