(Video on-demand, April 2013) Recasting J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slight The Hobbit into a massive action/adventure fantasy epic trilogy mold means that it’s best to forget about any meaningful book-to-screen comparisons. It’s best to judge it as a follow-up to the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and assume that it’s going to be cast in the same mold. In this light, first film An Unexpected Journey hits most of the expected notes by leisurely introducing the characters, sending them off on a quest and indulging into plenty of action-packed adventures. None of it is presented economically, meaning that fans get a lot for their money and non-fans can find the whole thing overdrawn. Still, much of what made The Lord of the Rings so successful is still visible here: the attention to detail, lavish set-pieces, depth of immersion in Middle-Earth… and the care with which Peter Jackson handles his directing duties. It’s presented with a quasi-reverential respect for Tolkien’s mythology, and a great deal of excess in the way its action sequences are conceived and presented. It fits rather well with the previous trilogy (something that the drawn-out prologues make sure to accomplish), ensuring that whoever expected a follow-up to Lord of the Rings is fully satisfied. It’s not quite as good, but the most accurate comparison is to the countless imitators that have tried to recapture the success of Jackson’s trilogy: An Unexpected Journey is a markedly better work than most of the fantasy adventures that have popped up on-screen in the near-decade since Return of the King, and that’s a significant achievement in itself. This newest trilogy won’t conclude for another two years, but no matter: it’s a safe bet to say that more of the same is in store.
Harper Collins, 1954, 1153 pages, C$95.00 hc, ISBN 0-261-10230-3
It seems strange for a voracious reader such as myself not to have read The Lords of the Rings, one of literary history’s most influential work, in or outside the science-fiction/fantasy genre. Hey, everyone has their blind spots; at least I took the time to correct this one, plunging in Tolkien’s 1000+ pages saga in the waning hours of December 31, 1999.
It took nearly three weeks, but I finally finished The Lord of the Rings. The earth didn’t tremble, the world was not magically transformed to a better place, I was not struck down by a bolt of pure epiphany. Of course, given the amount of hype that preceded the book, I shouldn’t have been overly surprised by a certain letdown. No book can survive this amount of build-up.
But even then, I found The Lord of the Rings a laborious read. The very qualities of the work that made its reputation -the breathtaking world-building, the literary writing, the inclusion of songs and made-up languages, the epic nature of the narration- are the very things that drove me to frustration. Things that could have been told in two pages suddenly took a whole chapter; a rather simple trip from point A to point B became lengthy proceedings punctuated by crises that often didn’t amount to much lasting excitement or dramatic point. I found it strange that Tolkien spent so much time away from Frodo when he is undoubtedly the center of interest in the story.
I skipped the songs, skimmed the most boring passages, read only a few dozen pages per day and generally was bored stiff by most of the book. And yet, I find myself with a generally positive opinion of the book. Certainly, fear of peer pressure certainly accounts for part of this sentiment (being stoned to death by rabid Tolkien fans is a fate that I wish upon no one, lest of all myself) but not all of it. I might have been decidedly unimpressed by the lack of zippiness of The Lord of the Rings, but there’s no disputing that this is a very good, very impressive work.
Nowhere more impressive, of course, in the sheer depth of the world created by Tolkien, which was subsequently mined for endless hidden ripoffs which at least usually improved on the turgidness of the original. Still, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and few authors have been as flattered as Tolkien in seeing a whole publishing genre spring up from their not-so-humble creation.
In the end, however, mere mortals like me can scarcely complain about a work that’s too literary, too complex or too richly-detailed. It’s a measure of how darn good The Lord of the Rings is that even if I didn’t especially like it, I have no choice but to recommend it.
BRIEFLY: The Hobbit, Tolkien’s prologue to The Lord of the Rings, is undoubtedly written for children, but adults will find here a rougher yet perhaps more interesting story than the full-fledged sequel. The story remains focused on a single hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and thus doesn’t have the dyptic structure of the trilogy. The considerably amount of dry British humor also helps.
BRIEFLY: Bored of the Rings, the Harvard Lampoon’s parody of Tolkien’s trilogy, is far shorter (160 loosely typeset pages) and much more strictly enjoyable than its source material. Well, that’s if your brand of humor include snickering at gags like “Boggies are an unattractive but annoying people whose numbers have decreased rather precipitously since the bottom fell out of the fairy-tale market.” [P.XV] Still, the book essentially parodies the first book of the trilogy, plus the conclusion—which either speaks about the non-essential nature of the rest of the Lord of the Rings, or the authors’ laziness. A hoot for fans.