The Rear-View Mirror: The Hobbit (1937)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Honestly, I don’t envy the job that Peter Jackson ended up with when he became the director of the film adaptation of The Hobbit. From what I’ve read and heard, he famously didn’t want the job, having already spent years and years of his life on The Lord of the Rings, he was hired after Guillermo del Toro left the project and given relatively little time to get the show on the road, and he was told to change a two-film plan into another big fantasy trilogy. Never mind that The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, is a slim volume that cannot really be compared with the big, fat doorstop that is The Lord of the Rings.

Just as much as this, though, The Hobbit isn’t the fantasy epic that the production company wanted. I read The Hobbit first and liked it well enough, but it is very much a children’s book, with silly characters, scenes and jokes. It may feature some of the same characters as Tolkien’s later epic, but in terms of style and tone it’s very much its own thing. Jackson’s adaptation did acknowledge this to some extent, especially in the first film, An Unexpected Journey, but it is clear that there was creative pressure to move the rest of the story closer and closer to The Lord of the Rings. Tragic characters, big, drawn-out battles – there are battles in the book, but they are barely presented – and a Big Bad with a Big Burning Eye: that’s not what Tolkien had in mind when he wrote The Hobbit.

While I don’t really dig up my Tolkiens on a regular basis any more, neither The Hobbit nor The Lord of the Rings (and one read of The Silmarillion was definitely enough, thankyouverymuch), I do hope that people who only saw the films give Tolkien’s children’s book a chance, in particular if they’ve got children of their own – The Hobbit is a great book to read to someone. It’s charming and fun, and Bilbo is still a great character that readers can indentify with more readily than with many of the more tragic, mythical figures of The Lord of the Rings. Where Jackson’s second fantasy trilogy is in need of a fan edit that strips it of much of its flab (though it would be difficult to work around the overblown, unintentional silliness of much of the action), the novel doesn’t need such an edit. The Hobbit may be somewhat old-fashioned, but on a cold, dark day, you could do worse than to make yourself a hot chocolate, grab a blanket, make yourself comfortable on the sofa and begin reading: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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