Finally Filming the Red Book

Co-written with the lovely Suzanne Walker. You can find her over at Cognitive Recalibration

It seems fitting, somehow, that our first post on this blog is going “There and back again”--back to Tolkien, Jackson, and Middle-Earth. It’s a place

we never really left--but with the production of the Hobbit, suddenly everyone is going back.

Though we didn’t know each other back then, both of us were lucky enough to have been bitten by the Tolkien bug as Peter Jackson’s films were being released--films that proved to be the highlights of our misbegotten middle-school years. I, for one, can remember obsessively watching Two Towers and Return of the King trailers in horrible quality with my slow, dial-up Internet--the process for watching a 2 ½ minute length trailer took about fifteen minutes. And yet, we did it. Every day. We checked forums, read fansites, learned Elvish, and made more pilgrimages to the theater than we care to admit.

Time has proven that stories such as Tolkien’s have a power over us far, far after the movies are over and their initial popularity fades away. Even as particular chatrooms died out and the trickle of fanfiction slowed, our love for Middle-Earth’s sagas never diminished. But it was a different kind of love. It was the love of discovering the Silmarillion, re-reading the trilogy, and--in Laura’s case--writing college papers about Gandalf. Of course, this has happened with all the stories we truly love--Harry Potter, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica have all had their finales, even as they have never faded from our hearts. Still, the days of active excitement and anticipation were done.

With the long (loooooooooooooooong)-awaited beginning of filming The Hobbit, however, we are given an opportunity we so rarely get with the stories that we love. We get a chance to go back. In the past week alone we’ve had more discussions about Middle-Earth than we’d had in the past five months--and it’s been great. The old excitement is back. It’s one thing--and a continuously beautiful thing--to re-read the books and re-watch the films (and scour DeviantArt for pretty fanart). But to be following a brand-new creative process, from the same people who brought us the magic of the films, is so, so special. And it’s an opportunity many people didn’t get the first time around.

And suddenly there are discussions! And debates! And theories!! And we have things to say.

New (and old!) Characters
To begin with, there has been a lot of discussion regarding both the creation of new characters for the film and the fleshing out of old ones. There exists great potential and possibility in the creation of new characters, though there is the danger of falling to what we shall call the Wrath of the Fans, particularly regarding the potential character of Itaril, a female Elf-warrior of Thranduil’s realm. Itaril has already been greatly maligned in forums and journal-posts, and people seem to be generally mistrustful of a “gratuitous” female character—nightmares of a steamy, unnecessary and ridiculous romance between Legolas and Itaril likely surfaced in many people’s minds.

I see both sides of the issue. On the one hand, the creation of Itaril sounds dangerously like that Mary-Sue character we all thought of when we were thirteen or so. On the other hand, the Hobbit is quite lacking in female characters, and if the writers can introduce a female character with depth and personality—who is, essentially, more than just another blandly badass chick with a sword—than Itaril could wind up being a pleasant surprise.

If the rumors are true and Itaril will be joining the ranks of Mirkwood, we have but one plea: don’t center her storyline on a romance plot. Please. The addition of a female character just to add in a bit of kissing would fulfill so many stereotypes that we wouldn’t know what to do with them all.

As for the addition of other new characters, Ainu Laire has written a brilliant post on on this subject in which she concludes that the addition of new characters can only serve to flesh out the lives of characters we know and love--the introduction of Bard’s family members, for example, would be a lovely insight both to his character and to Lake-town itself. The addition of new characters can only serve to flesh out the world that we already know and love—and the re-introduction of old characters such as Radagast will only make fans cheer with glee.

Two movies, don’t forget!
It seems the state of the two movies question, and particularly the split, is rather uncertain. The only real information we have comes from Guillermo del Toro, an interview that he did with TORn back in 2009. We’re going on the assumption that the script has not drastically changed since his departure. Here is a transcription of the relevant part of the interview, from the forums:

There is only one place to do it. And everybody instinctively knows that place. I mean, I know that everybody knows because there's not a lot of alternatives. There's one place where the narrative comes to a certain conclusion, there is an assertion, there is a moment in which you logically find a moment of repose. And certain storylines among the characters, it's not that they conclude but that they evolve enough that you can do it. And I think that people keep forgetting that aside from the main plot … and the geopolitical situation … there is a very strong dynamic among the dwarves and Bilbo and there's many things to be resolved.

So maybe I’m out of touch with my telepathy training, but it doesn’t seem to me that there’s “only one place to do it.” And in attempting to gauge the reaction to this interview, and the general opinion on the split location, I’ve come to a conclusion - there isn’t a place that “everybody instinctively knows.” That’s not to say that GDT was being less than honest with us, or just making it up. He was teasing us, and teasing us well, judging by the amount of discussion this extremely ambiguous answer has generated. And if he was genuinely trying to give us a hint - well, all I can say is that at the time, he seems to have been too close to the forest to see the trees.

Contrary to what GDT says, we know there are options, and plenty of them. Plenty of plot points have been thrown around for the location of the split, some with more support than others. Just before the entry into Mirkwood has some support. The dwarves capture by the elves in Mirkwood is also a favorite. So is their escape from the elves stronghold via barrels floating down the river. Or the death of Smaug. What does GDT’s hint support? Well, it could support any and all of them. You could argue that any of those points bring the story to a conclusion and a “moment of repose” and the dynamics between Bilbo and the dwarves “evolve enough” to bring them to a rest.

Personally, I like the idea of the first part ending after the float down the river to Lake-town in the barrels. The romantic in me likes the idea of the first part ending with a possible view of the Lonely Mountain, their goal for so long, yet not a goal that seems immediately achievable for a group of grumpy, squashed, wet, and hungry dwarves - they’ve come so far, but they realize just how much farther they still have to go, which feels like a nice moment to end on. Bilbo’s relationship to the dwarves has changed immensely during their time imprisoned in Mirkwood. To me, it feels like splitting the movie before the politics at Lake-town and the actual arrival at Erebor will give a good balance to the two movies. It gives the first part a lot of substance, but not so much that it feels rushed. And there’s a lot to expand on in the second part, in terms of the attack on Dol Guldur by the Council, the lead-up to the battle, and the Battle of the Five Armies, which could be quite long if our perspective isn’t limited to Bilbo, who gets knocked out five minutes in.

But would I be ok with another split? Absolutely. This is an adaptation, after all. This story could be capably told in one movie, and it could be told in a variety of different ways with two parts, depending on where they split it, and how that focuses the movie.

Spirit, tone, and context
In a way, where they decide to split the movies is perhaps less important than how they decide to do it. I think purists might be disappointed with these movies - yet aren’t purists always somewhat disappointed? Most of us, I believe, are not purists. We understand that a movie is a completely different beast than a book is, and know that changes will happen. We know that this will not be a scene-by-scene adaptation of The Hobbit. Yes, it’s a simpler story than the trilogy, but we have to be prepared for changes to the plot, changes that might be as drastic as the re-structuring of the end of The Two Towers movie.

At the end of the day, I believe most fans will be happy with changes made to the plot if it remains true to the spirit of Tolkien’s story - if it captures the tone of the book. Yet in some ways this sets off a debate of its own - what is the spirit of this story? What is its tone? And how flexible are they?

It seems to be a question of context. Some people love The Hobbit for being a children’s story, a story of a simple There and Back Again, a story of adventure. But although I have always loved the feeling of adventure, of a good story, when I read it after reading the trilogy, it always paled in comparison. It seemed to be too light, too happy. Everyone goes home at the end of the day, and nearly no one dies. Ok, there are deaths. Thorin, Fili, Kili - but in the grand scheme, their deaths aren’t really important. At the end of his adventures, Bilbo waltzes home, certainly a changed hobbit. But not completely different. He reclaims the lifestyle of a comfortable hobbit. He may visit with strange folk, translate Quenya, and have a large amount of gold stashed in the tunnels of Bag End, but on the whole he returns to his old life, and spends the next sixty years reminiscing about his trip to Erebor, his one adventure. His story, when set next to Frodo’s quest for the future of Middle Earth, has the possibility to seem so trivial, so small.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love The Hobbit for what it is. But I also love the big picture. At the end of the book, I think it was Gandalf that put it best:

“You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

This is certainly Bilbo’s story, and indeed Tolkien had no idea of its larger ramifications or its place in the history of Middle Earth, even that Middle Earth had a history of its own, at the time he wrote it. But we know all that now - and not just about the Ring. We know about Gandalf’s acquisition of the map from Thrain while he was investigating Dol Guldur, we know about the White Council, and their attempts to drive Sauron out. It was “a chance-meeting, as we say in Middle Earth,” that led Gandalf to give Thorin the map, hook him up with Bilbo, and send the party off to the Lonely Mountain. Yet for all its chance, it turned out to be a key element in the War of the Ring, for without a secure North held by the Men of Dale and the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, victory on the Fields of the Pelennor would not have been possible, and there might not have been good left in the world to be preserved. In the end, The Hobbit isn’t trivial, in the slightest. There is something very real, very big at stake - perhaps not as big as in the trilogy, but important nonetheless. There is such potential to tell not just the story of a hobbit and his friends on an adventure, but the story of why that adventure happened, and why in the years afterward, it would prove so important. And all evidence suggests that Peter is completely will fulfill that potential to its fullest, and give this story the spirit, tone, and context it deserves.

By fans, for fans
I don’t know about you, but I trust Peter Jackson and his team. Completely, one hundred percent. Why? Well, they did the trilogy so beautifully, so wonderfully. It’s about the only book I have loved that I can look at the movie, straight in the face, and say, without any lie, that it was just as amazing. But deeper down, the reason that they did the trilogy so beautifully, and that they’re going to do The Hobbit complete justice - they are fans themselves. It’s almost never the case with directors and producers. Sure, they like the book, they see the potential the story has, but it’s very rarely that they have spent years being just as geeky about it as we have. And Peter has. He may not show himself on the TORn forums like Guillermo del Toro did, but he’s just as geeky as we are. He knows how we feel, and what the story really is, what’s really important.

And he knows what we want. The best example of late being of course, his recent behind-the scenes Hobbit video. He knows the fans. He knows the rollercoaster ride we’ve been through for the past eight years, waiting for this movie to be made, wanting to know that it’s really happening. And so he reassures us. And not only did he reassure us, he bypassed our wildest dreams. Never did we imagine that we’d get a full video not even a month after filming had begun. A full ten and a half minutes. We get to go inside Bag End, Rivendell, Gollum's Cave. We get to sneak into rehearsals, costume departments, tone meetings. We actually see Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan. I won't lie, I cried in excitement and happiness the first time I saw this.

Sure, he wants these movies to be a big success. Sure, it will be the general public that will make the box office numbers. But we’re the ones waiting. And Peter knows - and he shows us his appreciation. His fanboy side. So we’d just like to take this opportunity to thank him. For all that he’s done for us, and all that he will do, for us and for everyone. We trust you, PJ. We leave our tale in your hands.