What Are You Tolkien About?

Article excerpt

First of three HOBBIT movies opens today after a nine-year gestation

Way back in 1937, war-devastated British author J.R.R. Tolkien penned a children's novel with a simple opening line: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

The intended audience was Tolkien's children, who loved the simple book about a diminutive little dude who turns out to be a hero.

The Hobbit marked the start of a profound publishing career for Tolkien, who became the planet's pre-eminent fantasy author, as well as one of the most influential writers of any stripe. This was remarkable, given the stolid, clunky nature of his prose as well as his tendency to see the world in black and white.

Tolkien never would have imagined Hobbit meals on the menu at Denny's, a hobbit tourism craze in New Zealand or geeks wearing fake foot fur on the way into movie screenings of a $250-million version of the first third of the simple story.

When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens today, it may very well be the biggest box-office success since The Avengers made a different sort of geek happy last summer.

The only limiting factors are a handful of questions about the production, which has been nine years in the making for producer Peter Jackson:

1. Can a tiny children's novel sustain three full-length fantasy movies?

At 310 pages, The Hobbit is a piddly book by Tolkien standards. The Lord of the Rings, which inspired a trio of three-hour movies (for a total of 12 hours of film, if you watched the extended editions), clocked in at a mammoth 1,216 pages. The grand mythology of LOTR, which is one long metaphor for the triumph of good and decency over darkness, translated well on the big screen.

The Hobbit, published 17 years earlier, is much more playful and child-friendly -- not to mention a great deal simpler, as Tolkien had yet to create the massive Middle-earth back-story contained in the dense and barely readable Silmarillion.

According to various reports over the years, Jackson initially thought about making two Hobbit movies. In one incarnation, the narrative from the book would be told in two parts. In another Jackson would attempt to fill in the blanks between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, the first segment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Notes from the back of The Return of the King would help provide the detail, but essentially Jackson would be interpreting J.R.R. Tolkien's intentions almost four decades after the British novelist died.

After the departure of original director Guillermo del Toro, two movies became three. The first chunk, An Unexpected Journey, chronicles how the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, returning from the LOTR movies) tricks the naive hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, as a younger version of the same character played by Ian Holm in LOTR) into joining 12 trolls on a mission to reclaim a treasure from a dragon, Smaug. This hits theatres today.

The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, will deal with most of the rest of the book when it comes to theatres next December. Film No. 3, There And Back Again, will attempt to pull off the tricky feat in 2014 of joining the two Tolkien works, most likely with ideas extrapolated from Tolkien's notes concerning the wandering of Gollum (Andy Serkis again, doing the CGI-capture thing) into Mordor and the rise of the ultimate baddie, Sauron.

On paper, this may sound horrifically dull to anyone but a Tolkien geek -- and even then, they may not be happy.

2. Will Tolkien purists accept

Jackson's liberties with the text?

Generally speaking, geeks will accept anything the big Kiwi does on screen, as Jackson proved himself with LOTR a decade ago. But there is some concern about characters that don't exist in any print edition of The Hobbit, yet manage to show up on screen.

For starters, Elijah Wood will return as Frodo Baggins, who wasn't alive during the events of The Hobbit. …