Lengthening Good Stories

bayeuxWe’re all familiar with the saying “too much of a good thing.” Because it’s a cliché, most reviewers wisely avoid the phrase, but in reading a fair number of reviews of The Hobbit, I’ve heard this very thought expressed in a number of ways.

Everyone is familiar with Director Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. Most fans were thrilled when it was announced he would also film J.R.R. Tolkien’s much “smaller” tale of The Hobbit. Some were surprised when they learned he would divide it into two parts. Still, the general sentiment was “the more the better” (another tired phrase). However, when it was ultimately announced that Jackson intended to stretch the modest novel into a trilogy of its own, many fans were incredulous.

There is a tad of irony in transforming Tolkien’s beloved adventure of a hobbit assisting dwarves in a regional quest into an epic to rival the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings with its conflict enmeshing every corner of Middle Earth.

As I write this column, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is doing well. It is ranked sixth at the box office, and held the number one position for three full weeks, against tough competition.

In order to discover sufficient content to expand the story, Jackson has incorporated a number of Middle Earth tales Tolkien had written about its history in other sources. The primary sourcebook was The Silmarillion, a collection published posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977. Some regard the importing of these elements as a sort of corruption of the simpler story of the single volume. Others welcome the elaboration on the essential story, since the additions are certainly “genuine Tolkien,” and they provide a more elaborate portrayal of Middle Earth.

The reactions to the expansion have been mixed. I don’t have strong feelings either way, but I treasure my time in Middle Earth so highly, that I would likely pitch my tent in the camp of those who approve of the increase. (Not to the point, of course, where I would behead those who objected, as we see on the fragment from the Bayeux Tapestry above.)

In the energetic conversation about the expansion of the saga, people frequently interject the name of the author, and offer suppositions about how he would have reacted. I find this interesting, but somewhat futile. Frankly, there is far too much that we simply don’t know about Middle Earth to authoritatively render Tolkien’s judgment on these things. Yes, we know that he was reluctant to see his work on the screen, but he did sell those rights to his creations. Of course we are aware of his lack of confidence in material originating in the colonies.

In a 1937 letter he writes about a possible publisher in the United States: “As for the illustrations: I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce.” It is in this same letter that he offers his criticism about a Disneyesque presentation: “It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do as seems good to them—as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartful loathing).”

In an essay entitled “On Criticism,” C.S. Lewis described the limitations of outsiders attempting to discern the intent of authors.

Nearly all reviewers assume that your books were written in the same order in which they were published and all shortly before publication. There was a very good instance of this lately in the reviews of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Most critics assumed (this illustrates a different vice) that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must “be” the atomic bomb.

Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible. Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children’s story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false. Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don’t know they don’t know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess.

Learning from Lewis, I won’t hazard a guess about Tolkien’s ultimate attitude towards the cinematic portrayals of his works—which will now, I assume, come to carry greater weight in the public psyche than the novels themselves. Well, at least until the current mode of motion pictures becomes obsolete. Then, once again, the words as Tolkien wrote them will reign supreme.

For those who are interested, I created the faux Bayeux Tapestry scrap at the top of the column using a program that allows manipulation of a variety of the hand-stitched images. Then I simply added the text in a simple graphics program. The Historic Tale Construction Kit is available here.

There is also a more sophisticated software interface that I haven’t tried called the “interactive” Bayeux Tapestry.

8 thoughts on “Lengthening Good Stories

  1. Great graphic!
    I’m not sure Lewis was right, 100%, about reading into an author. But he was right (I think) about our psychologizing of that project, and you are right about the danger of doing that with Tolkien. Danger isn’t the right word.

  2. I have issues with the pacing of this first film, but I don’t object to the inclusion of Silmarillion material on principle. ;) On the whole, I enjoyed the film, with only a couple (though one of them pretty major) objections.

    “I won’t hazard a guess about Tolkien’s ultimate attitude towards the cinematic portrayals of his works” Very wise.
    I have, on occasion, referred to authors spinning in their graves… usually Jane Austen when her satire is sacrificed on the alter of vapid period romances *growls and grumbles* but with deceased authors, there really is a lot of doubt as to what they would think of adaptations. I have no idea what Tolkien would like or dislike about the films. No doubt he would surprise us all.

  3. Good article. The movie definitely has a different sense of scale than the book. I just reread The Hobbit while one of my kids read it for the first time for a school project. Even with Tolkien’s revisions that brought the tale more in line with his concept of Middle-earth, the book is still very much a prelude. Jackson’s handling (I didn’t mind it either) is so different: Same story, but he turns it into an equal complement to his movies of the main trilogy. In a few years, at Xmas-time, I bet we’re going to see a six-movie box set of the entire saga.

  4. I saw all three Lord of the Rings movies on opening day, but held off on the Hobbit until later (to finish rereading the book first and to use as a reward for finishing a project of my own). Now I’m not sure whether to go see it or not. Have you seen it yet?

    Also, I love the construction kit you shared. Thanks!

  5. My favorite (to read) of the series is The Hobbit and look forward to seeing the film. I don’t see the problem with “tampering” with the story on the screen, since the purists have the book with which to consult.

  6. 1sparrow

    Rob, I discovered your site today as a result of you “liking” a post on mine. Coincidentally, I saw The Hobbit yesterday and found the story stretched out a bit too much. Maybe the light tone turned me off a bit also, compared to the intensity of the the trilogy which I loved. Since I haven’t read any of the books (! inconceivable !), I can’t join in on a debate about the additions.

    Your site is beautiful and very interesting. Glad to have discovered you.

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