This is the first of what will probably be too many posts about the upcoming The Hobbit film. Ever since The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, I had hoped for Tolkien’s first novel to make it to the big screen. Like many from my generation, my familiarity with The Hobbit preceded my reading of Lord of the Rings. When I was about 10 and my brother about 8 or 9, my dad insisted on reading a bit of The Hobbit to us each night before we went to bed, even though we were slowly getting, in our minds, too old for that sort of thing. Although, like with every Tolkien work I’ve encountered, it would take a few readings to love it, the book intrigued me instantly. I loved Bilbo, the fastidious fish-out-of-water indulging his Tookish side on a grand adventure. Then there was Gandalf, sharp and abrasive, but wise. Add in slippery Gollum, some loutish trolls, noble Bard the Bowman, and the stubborn Elven King, and you have some singular characters who bridge the gap between children’s fairy tales and the serious literature of maturity very well indeed.
But more than these, I loved the dwarves. The lineages hinted at in the book, later elaborated on in the Return of the King appendix. The small and minute differences between Bilbo’s 13 companions. Their intriguing blend of wanton greed with flashes of nobility, heroism and genuine camaraderie. In fact, when I first read Lord of the Rings I felt saddened and even a little bit betrayed by Balin’s off-screen death at the end of Fellowship‘s Book I. When I played Middle Earth: The Wizards, a collectible card game from the 1990s I will write about in a future post, I loved collecting the dwarf character cards, and using the game to send some of them on quests of their own. In 8th grade, I even wrote an extra credit piece for my English teacher about Balin, Oin and Ori starting their journey into the lost Dwarven kingdom of Moria.
All this is to say that it was with great personal interest that I watched Peter Jackson and his WETA workshop reveal how these dwarves would appear when The Hobbit’s first installment hits the silver screen in December of 2012. Two weeks ago, they revealed seldom-remembered Dori, Nori, and Ori.
Upon looking at their picture, several elements of Jackson’s intent become clear. The dwarves will not be undifferentiated with only small, subtle differences between them, but will have fleshed-out personalities of their own. This is a remarkable change from the book; if I remember correctly, several of the thirteen dwarves don’t even say a single line as individuals besides things like “me too” or ordering a pork pie and salad from poor Bilbo in the first chapter. Oin, Bifur, Bofur, Nori, and Ori are all non-entities, ever present yet rarely speaking or exhibiting agency, rather like Judas son of James or James son of Alphaeus or Bartholomew in the synoptic gospels. In the press release, Nori is described as a scoundrel, always up to something “dodgy,” and has a distinctive pointed hairstyle. Ori looks quiet, gentle, and monklike, while Dori seems gruff and protective.
Over the next week or so, other groups of dwarves were revealed to the public. Battle-weary Balin and Dwalin, gruff and formidable Oin and Gloin, blue-collar Bifur, Bofur and Bombur, and finally, their leader, regal Thorin Oakenshield.
Many of these dwarves were received warmly by Tolkien fans spread across the internet. Others were greeted less enthusiastically– Balin was too Father Christmas-y, Bofur looked too much like James Nesbitt, Nori’s hairstyle was starfishlike and silly. But it was the portrayal of the two youngest dwarves in Thorin’s Company that was by far the most interesting: Fili and Kili.
Fili, played by Dean O’Gorman was close enough to how he is described in the book: a yellow goatee (not quite a beard, though), and a youthful, mischievous grin. But sweet heavens! Kili, played by pretty boy Aidan Turner, unleashed the floodgates of fan wrath. Most of the other dwarves had rough hair filled with elaborate braids; Kili’s was long and straight. The others had fearsome weapons for close-quarters combat– a short sword, a battle ax, a war hammer; Kili has a decidedly elvish bow and arrow. But most damningly of all, Turner’s Kili was not bearded, but had what might be most generously described as “five-o-clock shadow,” lying in that shaky middle ground between Aragorn-like scruff, and Nixon’s stubble before resorting to Lazy Shave.
How the fanboys howled at TheOneRing.net, where many Tolkien fans congregate online, and where many followed The Hobbit‘s pre-production travails with bated breath. Some comments called Kili ‘the illegitimate offspring of a dwarf and an elf”, while others put forth sarcastic references to the film becoming a L’oreal ad, and even damning accusations that Kili was an “Elvish impersonator.” To hone these arguments, citations of the text were made: in The Hobbit, Kili’s beard is referenced. Another noted that female dwarfs are said to have beards in the Return to the King‘s appendix. Surely, then, even a young male dwarf like Kili ought to sport a beard. Collectively, there was anger that Jackson had deviated so strongly from the text of The Hobbit, even on one feature of one secondary character.
It did strike me as a bit odd that people were getting worked up over the visual representation of a race that doesn’t actually exist. But more than this, it was a teachable moment, at least for me, about textuality, authenticity, and religious doctrine. I came to understand the nature of fundamentalism just a little bit better by following how Tolkien fans reacted to having their favorite characters translated from the printed page to the silver screen. Ringers (as I shall call Tolkien fans from here on in) are a religiously diverse bunch. Many are devoutly faithful– both Tolkien’s fellow Catholics as well as evangelical Protestants– and inclined to see allegory in the One Ring and original sin, Gandalf and Christ both rising from the dead after vanquishing a foe, a “return of the king” and so on. Others are resolutely atheist. Yet regardless of their religious beliefs in the ether, many ringers show an unswerving devotion to the book’s text. While on the surface, this suggests fidelity to and reverence of the breathtaking legendarium that J.R.R. Tolkien imagined, this is also more about their own bona fides, their own street cred, as ringers. In the same way that the Bible has been used by fundamentalists and televangelists “putting on the pious” for their own aggrandization, in a similar if less malignant way, Tolkien’s text becomes the site of discerning one’s own authenticity for these fans. All of this verifies what my own studies on fundamentalism have suggested– it is an unswerving devotion– not to the text itself, but to one’s own interpretation of the text. Despite protestations, it is ultimately not about the text at all, but rather about the interpreter.
Nor has the portrayal of Kili been the only time this has happened. Sharp, often doctrinaire, battles over canon can rival the Council of Nicea in other nerdcore franchises. Do the Star Trek animated episodes from the 70s count as canon? When the Star Wars collectible card game was released in the 1990s, its publisher, Decipher, was assured that it’s flavor text on the cards was tantamount to Lucasfilm canon, a privilege revoked when they lost their publishing rights. What happens when X-Men First Class seems to contradict X3: The Last Stand, a bad film that nonetheless established that Xavier could walk well into his 40s? To be fair, though, this isn’t entirely a new phenomenon. Shakespeare scholars to this day quarrel over whether the slapdash, poorly-written Falstaff of his disastrous Merry Wives of Windsor counts as the same boisterous, mischievous, brilliantly-written canonical Falstaff of Henry IV.
What is missing here is what is precisely what is missing from the theology of 20th century fundamentalism: an appreciation of context, intent, and genre. It confuses exegesis— what the text meant to its original readers– with hermeneutics, what the contemporary reader ought to take from it. To go back to our example here, the genre, and indeed the entire medium, has changed. In the rich visual context of cinema, many of the elements that made The Hobbit such riveting literature cannot appeal and cannot translate without burdening or confusing the moviegoer. An audience which is largely young and doesn’t interact very often or very well with the old might require a Thorin who appears younger and more energetic, as Richard Armitage does. Much of the book’s unique narration– in which the origin of proverbs are discussed, where characters frequently break out into song, and where didactic qualities seep in, are probably not transferable to cinema. In their place will likely be more battle scenes (Tolkien did not like writing these; the Battle of Helm’s Deep is over in 6 pages in The Two Towers and around 40 minutes in the film!) and interpersonal conflict, so much more amenable to both the demands of a movie and Peter Jackson’s own directing style. Similarly, one has to account for time as well; The Hobbit was originally published in 1937, fully 75 years before the release of the first film. If memory serves, not a single female character expect perhaps a shrill Sackville-Baggins has a speaking role in the entire length of the novel. Such a sausage-fest could not possibly past muster in today’s age, hence the addition of a female wood elf to the movie’s cast. The book’s emphasis on manners and propriety (such as when Bilbo struggles to greet dwarves or eagles or Beorn properly) are similarly difficult for today’s viewer of more casual and egalitarian demeanor to appreciate.
There you have it, then. Whether it comes to Thorin or Thessalonians, the Bible or beards, doctrine or Dwalin, we should perhaps check ourselves when we are so devoted to a text that small liberties taken by a proven film director like Jackson raise our dander and arouse our ire. Let us put new wine into these cinematic new wineskins. We might be better served if we were more open to interpretation, and more willing to consider the time and circumstance and genre that make such efforts as much a product of our time as Tolkien was of his.