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The Many Lives of the Hobbits

January 25, 2013

Porter HobbitsChristina writes: When Wayne and I saw The Hobbits: The Many Lives of Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin by Lynette Porter (I.B. Tauris, 2012) among the plethora of titles due to be published in advance of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit film An Unexpected Journey, we hesitated. There had been several books already which dealt with aspects of Tolkien’s works in media, and yet this one claims to be the first ‘to focus on the adaptations made to Tolkien’s hobbits by creative scriptwriters and directors, animators, actors, artists, composers and singers during the characters log and sometimes convoluted journey into popular culture’ – a wide field indeed, and mostly on the fringe of our interests. But in the end we decided, on the basis of a Web preview, that the book seemed to have enough substance to add it to our shelves.

Compared with earlier attempts, Porter’s book is more narrowly focussed, being concerned primarily with the treatment of the five hobbits named in her title, and on Hobbits as one of the peoples of Middle-earth: how adapters choose to present them, to dress them, to distinguish them from Men or from each other (especially Merry and Pippin). But it also spreads its net wider in terms of the adaptations considered. There are no illustrations; Porter relies instead on verbal descriptions for the many visual items she discusses, but provides references in notes to DVDs, YouTube, and so forth. She is particularly interested in the choices made by adapters to omit or change parts of Tolkien’s story or to add new material, and how these decisions alter the characters and the relationships of the hobbits, sometimes strengthening one at the expense of another.

Porter’s introduction and first chapter provide a general survey of the matter to be discussed later in more detail. Her second chapter, ‘Tolkien’s Revised Hobbits’, discusses revisions Tolkien himself made during and after the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; in this she draws on John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit, Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth, and Douglas A. Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit. She notes how the names and characters of the leading hobbits went through many changes and revisions before Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin finally emerged in their published forms.

The third chapter, ‘The Lord of the Rings in the Movies – Almost’, examines unused screenplays, by Morton Grady Zimmerman for Forrest J. Ackerman in 1958 (some details of which are well known from comments written by Tolkien and included in his selected Letters), by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg in 1970, and by Chris Conkling and Peter S. Beagle in the early planning stages of the 1978 Ralph Bakshi film. Porter comments that ‘Zimmerman’s script features caricatures of Merry and Pippin as pesky younger cousins, without differentiating between the hobbits or offering any depth to their characterisation’, and that later screenwriters also ‘often presented one-dimensional hobbits instead of Tolkien’s more complex characters’ (p. 52). She notes the important part played by the ‘Conspiracy Unmasked’ chapter in Tolkien’s book in establishing the characters of Merry and Pippin, and that its omission in scripts is detrimental: ‘Their planning and forethought, as well as their steadfast loyalty to Frodo, are greatly diminished when they merely follow Frodo on a whim, instead of [after] months of planning to accompany their friend and cousin’ (p. 57).

The fourth chapter, ‘Hobbits on Radio and Television’, comments on The Lord of the Rings on BBC Radio (1981) and on the Rankin-Bass films of The Hobbit (1977) and The Return of the King (1980) on American television. Although the BBC production rearranged the story to present scenes in chronological order, it remained close to its source, retaining many scenes omitted in other adaptations as well as many of Tolkien’s own words. Porter thinks that its success lies partly ‘in its varied depiction of the hobbits, producing a story in which each hobbit sounds and acts differently from the others and is true to his book character. The love and compassion the hobbits feel for each other, as well as their new friends specifically and Middle-earth more generally, clearly come through, and the hobbits as a group reveal a complete range of emotions’ (pp. 72–3). The Rankin-Bass films, in contrast, are less close to their originals, though more so than Veggie Tales: The Lord of the Beans (2008) with which Porter ends the chapter: a wholesome tale for children’s television in the U.S.A., promoting a virtue and illustrating a lesson with vegetable characters, based on the Jackson films.

In her fifth chapter, ‘Hobbits on the Big Screen’, Porter deals with the Bakshi Lord of the Rings (1978), Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films, and the response of fans and the general public. For both of these productions, she discusses the depiction and development of the five hobbits separately and in relation to each other. Bakshi provides them with individuality, and they remain close to the book, though all seem rather young. Jackson’s hobbits diverge from what Tolkien wrote: Merry and Pippin ‘become much more elevated in status’ and ‘develop into more important characters’ (p. 124), perhaps not surprising as Frodo not only seems (indeed, is) much younger than Tolkien’s character but is often ‘out of his depth’ (p. 121), though the film omits some of book-Merry’s more meaningful contributions. Although she is not uncritical of Jackson’s trilogy, Porter is largely supportive of his choices.

Chapter six, ‘Those Musical Hobbits’, begins by describing the stage performances in Toronto and London (2006–8), which necessarily had to make drastic cuts in the story but chose to concentrate on the hobbits, especially Frodo and Sam. Porter then comments on Fellowship! (2004), another musical, but this time a parody; on Johan de Meij’s Lord of the Rings symphony (1987); on Dean Burry’s The Hobbit as an opera to be performed by children (2004); on soundtracks for the various television and film productions; and on other Tolkien-themed musical compositions.

Chapter seven, ‘Hobbits as Art’, discusses Tolkien’s own pictures (with incorrect descriptions of the contents of both J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and The Art of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien); artists who have contributed to calendars (saying little about the use of their art on covers or as illustrations for Tolkien’s books) or who were involved with developing visual aspects of the Jackson films; and unofficial art based on the films, including cartoons such as those published in Mad magazine.

Finally, in ‘Making Meaning of Hobbits: The Road Takes Some Strange Turns’, Porter turns from professional adaptations to political interpretations and fan fiction, including the ‘slash’ variety.

While I was reading Porter’s book, I divided the adaptations discussed into those I knew well, those with which I had at least a minimal acquaintance, and those completely unknown to me. I was also mentally ticking off items in our Tolkien collection.

I know the material discussed in the second chapter very well, not just from the many editions of the relevant books on our shelves, but from many hours spent with the Tolkien manuscripts at Marquette University. When I attended Mythcon in Milwaukee in 1987, I arrived ten days early to spend time with the Tolkien manuscripts, and have made many visits since then, together with Wayne, for research connected with our books. Of the third chapter topics, I have some knowledge of the Zimmerman film scripts from Tolkien’s letters to Rayner Unwin and to Zimmerman himself published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien and from others in the Allen & Unwin archive and the Zimmerman papers at Marquette. I have looked at the Zimmerman scripts briefly, but my knowledge of the other scripts previously came only from the paper Janet Brennan Croft gave at Mythcon in 2004, ‘Three Rings for Hollywood: Scripts for The Lord of the Rings by Zimmerman, Boorman, and Beagle’. I find these scripts quite interesting, and often amusing, though almost certainly my feelings would be very different about any actual films based on them.

l have listened to the BBC Lord of the Rings many times, in both its original half-hour and its later one-hour broadcasts. It had a great influence on my life, since it was the broadcasts and related displays of Tolkien books in shops which turned me into a collector of Tolkien books and ephemera, a Tolkien scholar, and a member of the Tolkien Society, through which I met Wayne. I agree with Porter about the vocal qualities of the actors – for me, Michael Hordern is the voice of Gandalf, which is perhaps why, though I quite like Ian McKellen, for me he is not really Gandalf. Porter reports BBC script writer Brian Sibley’s regret at having to omit Tom Bombadil from his adaptation, but makes no mention of Sibley’s later radio dramatization of the missing chapters as part of the BBC Tales from the Perilous Realm.

Curiously, Porter makes only a passing reference to the 1968 BBC radio play of The Hobbit, and says nothing about the American ‘Mind’s Eye’ audio adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I wrote an article comparing the Mind’s Eye and BBC versions, ‘Middle-earth on Radio: Tapes from Both Sides of the Atlantic’, for Amon Hen (no. 95, January 1989, pp. 10–11), in which I noted that all of these versions followed the books quite closely. I preferred the Mind’s Eye Hobbit, partly because it allowed more time for the work and therefore could take a more leisurely approach. The two dramatizations of The Lord of the Rings are comparable in length, but because the Mind’s Eye producers include several scenes not included by the BBC, they had to make cuts throughout, missing subtle points. For this, I definitely prefer the BBC version. We have copies of all four versions on commercial cassette and CD. I also have a vague memory of hearing at least one episode of BBC radio’s Return of the King broadcast in 1956, but only that it concerned Pippin’s arrival at Minas Tirith. It is sad that those early BBC radio dramatizations seem not to have been preserved.

I probably first learned of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit television film when in the early 1980s I acquired a copy of the Abrams large format Hobbit (1977), lavishly illustrated with stills or production art from the film. Neither the Rankin-Bass Hobbit nor the same producers’ Return of the King was shown or available in Britain for copyright reasons. I managed to acquire a copy of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit to show privately during the Tolkien Society’s seminar in 1987. Later that year, after attending the Mythopoeic Society conference in Milwaukee, when I stayed with Gary and Sylvia Hunnewell near St. Louis, they showed me The Return of the King. I was still recovering from Mythcon and rather sleepy, but Gary made sure that I was awake for such gems as the Orcs’ song ‘Where There’s a Whip There’s a Will’ and Pippin’s exclamation to Gandalf that ‘Denethor’s gone loony’. Wayne and I own copies of both films on video and DVD, but I have only vague memories of them, as I have never watched them since my first viewing. As for Veggie Tales, I had never heard of it before reading this book (one can find parts on YouTube).

I did not go to see the Bakshi film of The Lord of the Rings when it was released in cinemas, as advance pictures from it put me off – and as I have said elsewhere, I am not really a film person, preferring live performances. In the mid-1980s, Rayner Unwin gave permission for the bibliographer of the Tolkien Society and me to photocopy Allen & Unwin’s collection of Tolkien press-cuttings. This included many reviews of the Bakshi film, after which I felt that I ought to see what it was actually like and, perhaps desensitized by the many images from it, found it better than I expected – but once was enough. We also have this on both video and DVD.

Wayne and I saw each of the Jackson films once in the cinema, and as mad completist collectors bought the DVDs, CDs of the score, and some of the ‘making-of’ books, most notably those on the art, but we have hardly looked at them. (We have been much more selective in our media-related collection since then.) We began to watch the extended DVD of the Jackson Fellowship, but at the point when Merry and Pippin erupt from the maize (!) field, we looked at each other and agreed that we had better things to do. It was also, of course, a time when publishing deadlines were beginning to loom for us. Later we watched The Two Towers, but only so that we could give an opinion asked of us, not for entertainment. I was somewhat disappointed in Porter’s coverage of Jackson’s adaptation: I had expected a more detailed study of choices which drastically changed the characters of the hobbits. In particular, though she correctly sees film-Frodo as weaker than book-Frodo, she does not comment on the part played in this diminishing by the absence of the Barrow-downs scene and Frodo’s resistance to the Black Riders at the Ford, together with the inserted episodes of him offering the Ring to a Nazgûl and believing Gollum rather than Sam. These among other things made Frodo seem to me wimpish and not very likeable. I agree with Porter that film-Merry was not the responsible, thoughtful character of the book, and that Pippin was given a stronger presence in the film. Unfortunately, I actively disliked the cocky film-Pippin and was further put off by his accent, not only unpleasant to my ears but wholly out of keeping with the speech of the rest of the film-hobbits.

Wayne and I didn’t see the musical in either Toronto or London, but did buy The Official Stage Companion by Gary Russell and a CD/DVD with excerpts. Fellowship! and the Burry Hobbit are new to me, but we have several performances of de Meij’s symphony on CD and cassette, part of a large collection of Tolkien-inspired music. This, however, is another area in which we are no longer collecting so actively, as there is so much of it. I have seen several stage productions of The Hobbit, including an operatic version by Robert Hammersley in Oxford Town Hall in 1987, with a woman playing Bilbo (we even have an audio tape of it). I have seen and enjoyed several performances of Graham Watkins’ The Hobbit, beginning with the first production in Leicester, in June 1984, which included all of the riddles (over the years, the number of riddles was gradually reduced). I saw Rob Inglis give his one-man performances of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at the 1992 Centenary Conference in Oxford, and have a recording of the former. We have an archival box full of theatre programmes and ephemera, not all relating to performances that Wayne or I attended, or all in English. Our book collection includes copies of four dramatizations of The Hobbit published by the Dramatic Publishing Company, Chicago, 1968–96, and a musical version from the Performance Publishing Co. of Elgin, Illinois, 1974. These vary greatly in how close they stay to Tolkien’s story or use his words.

Our collection includes all of the calendars published by Tolkien’s official publishers, as well as many produced by fan groups. Porter is selective in the ones she mentions. The most surprising omissions are Inger Edelfeldt, whose illustration Long Expected Party, teeming with hobbits, is particularly memorable, and Michael Hague, whose calendar accompanied a commission by Tolkien’s official publishers to illustrate The Hobbit. I am also a little surprised that Porter says so little about the editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings illustrated by Alan Lee, since Lee’s pictures and their widespread use in translation made his work familiar to fans long before the Jackson films appeared. Recently, foreign publishers have tended to base their editions on those of HarperCollins, whereas earlier they usually commissioned covers and illustrations from local artists, one of the main reasons that I was attracted to collecting translations of Tolkien, of which we now have a very large collection.

I found Porter’s final chapter the least interesting. I am not interested in fan fiction; I don’t collect it or even read it if it turns up in a periodical to which we subscribe. The few examples I read early had none of Tolkien’s ability, and I felt that the writers were projecting their own often contemporary interests onto Tolkien’s world, making any suspension of disbelief impossible. I might point out that I am equally unhappy about historical novels whose authors know very little about the period in which they are set!

  1. Robert permalink
    January 26, 2013 1:54 am

    Had you never heard of the Veggie Tales series before or just The Lord of the Beans?

    What do you and Wayne think of Alan Lee’s art? I think I like his style better than any other artist inspired by Tolkien. It fits very well with how I envision Middle-earth. But I’ve gotten the impression some artists are more faithful to the books than he in specific details.

    • January 27, 2013 7:49 pm

      Wayne had heard of Veggie Tales but had never seen it. (We’ve just watched a few minutes of Lord of the Beans on YouTube, and that’s all we want to see of that!)

      Alan Lee is a good artist for Tolkien, appropriate style and reasonably true to the text. We find his figures often more effective than his landscapes, which rarely convey a sense of wonder. His watercolour wash technique works nicely for some subjects but has little variety; though in one respect this isn’t bad for Tolkien as it leaves more to the reader’s imagination. We suspect that his pictures lose a lot in reproduction: many are quite dull and limited in colour. Some of his tonal (non-watercolour) pictures are quite nice.

  2. January 27, 2013 8:08 am

    I’m interested in the 1956 Lord of the Rings BBC radio play. The BBC are very interested in finding recordings that people have made of lost programmes, and these may still exist.

    I am not aware that the BBC have actively looked for copies of this series and I am going to see how to get it added to items they are looking for.

    The best hope of finding these copies are if the BBC syndicated the series to other countries, who may have a copy of it still in their archives, but individuals may have recorded the series and be unaware that they have the only copy.

    • January 27, 2013 7:53 pm

      That’s a good idea to look beyond the BBC archive itself. We understand that a great deal of early Dr Who material, for example, has been found as transcriptions in far-flung places. Private recordings from 1955–56 will be less common though not unheard-of.

  3. Andrew Wells permalink
    January 27, 2013 10:53 am

    Thank you for that very detailed review (except, possibly, for The Lord of the Beans!)

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