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Regendering bedtime stories

When Michelle Nijhuis reads The Hobbit aloud to her five-year-old daughter, she doesn’t quite recite Tolkien’s original prose. There’s one major change: Bilbo is a girl-hobbit. As she explains at Slate:

You know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

Someday, when my daughter is old enough, I’ll read her some of my favorite stories. Although Kat is just two months old, I’ve already started to plan. I’ve picked out a few beloved books: The Hobbit. Narnia. Harry Potter. I’ve even considered charting out distinct voices for each main character; if I get started now, I can perfect my dwarvish brogue.

And thanks to Nijhuis, I’ve made one more decision about Kat’s bedtime stories: Bilbo must change genders. Middle-Earth desperately needs girl power—in fact, there are no female characters of note in The Hobbit. I don’t want my daughter to detach from the hobbit’s adventure—or worse, downgrade her own—because the book’s heroes are all male.

This live “translation” poses some challenges. First, it requires quick thinking. When Gandalf tells Bilbo, “You are only quite a little fellow,” for example, I’ll have to improvise a revision. Something like “quite a little person” instead? In other places, Bilbo’s reimagined gender could cause confusion. In Tolkien’s world, female hobbits are typically named after flowers or jewels: Primrose, Marigold, Pearl. Why, my daughter might ask, is Bilbo so different?

Another problem: what will my daughter think when she inevitably discovers Bilbo’s true gender? Will the weight of the world’s patriarchy come crashing down on her head? I suspect not; for one thing, she’ll know that her papa cared deeply about her self-worth—and that counts for something. And second, I hope that adapting Tolkien will train her to “rewrite” a few other inhospitable details in the world around her.

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Bilbo > Frodo.

I’ve always preferred The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. The first book may be silly, but it’s fun. It doesn’t demand a fortnight to read. It doesn’t get bogged down in faux-history. Most importantly, The Hobbit boasts a more interesting main character.

Yes, Bilbo is ridiculous and stuck-up and pretentious. But he’s also likeable and interesting. Bilbo is someone special—someone worth Gandalf’s time, someone worth recruiting for an adventure, someone chosen by the gods to find the Ring.

Frodo, meanwhile, has none of that going for him. He strikes me as over-serious, un-hobbit-like, and somewhat aloof. His claim to fame? He happens to have an interesting uncle.

These distinctions show up on film. In Peter Jackson’s movies, Bilbo brightens up any scene he’s in. He’s delightfully quirky, self-conscious, irritable, and intriguing. Ian Holm (as older Bilbo) and Martin Freeman (as his younger counterpart) do fantastic work, but they’ve got a lot to work with. His evolution—from gentrified stick-in-the-mud to thoughtful adventurer—is a fun assignment.

Meanwhile, while Elijah Wood handles the role of Frodo admirably,[1] he’s restricted by the character’s arc. The actor seems quiet, depressed and exhausted because Frodo is quiet, depressed and exhausted.

Along these lines, it’s probably unfair to blame Frodo for his antiseptic personality. We’ve only just met him when his psyche starts disintegrating under the Ring’s corrupting influence. He declines from page one, and it’s hard to mourn someone we’ve barely met. In fact, we almost welcome his deterioration; at least it lends the character some bite.

As Tolkien himself explained the differences,

Frodo is not intended to be another Bilbo. Though his opening style is not wholly un-kin. But he is rather a study of a hobbit broken by a burden of fear and horror—broken down, and in the end made into something quite different.[2]

Even after the Ring is destroyed and Frodo recovers a bit, he still seems dull. Tolkien has an explanation for that, too: “Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest.”[3]

As Tolkien observes elsewhere, Bilbo is “the genuine hobbit:” a resilient, plucky, naive homebody, thrust unwillingly into the wider world. Frodo seems more elvish: flat, steady, and over-wise. In short, he’s just a bit boring.

Give me the elder Baggins, any day.

  1. I’m no Wood-hater. When the cast was announced, some Anglophiles sputtered; how could an American play one of Britain’s most familiar characters? All things considered, Wood did well.  ↩
  2. Letter to Hugh Brogan, September 18, 1954.  ↩
  3. Letter to Christopher Tolkien, Christmas Eve, 1944.  ↩
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Extra Elrond

As he did with his Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson will soon release an extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The box set will include “making of” extras, along with a longer cut of the film itself. This past summer, a single scene from the extended version was released to the web.

In it, Elrond (lord of the elf enclave Rivendell) joins Bilbo on a picturesque balcony. Bilbo complains about bad vibes from his dwarvish companions, and Elrond offers some consolation—even offering to let Bilbo remain at the Last Homely House.

The scene nicely captures Bilbo’s internal conflict: risk his neck with Thorin (who disrespects him) or return to a safer, more comfortable life. It also helps explain why Bilbo loves Rivendell (he seeks to return later in the film, and he retires there in Fellowship of the Ring).

I like other things about the scene, Weaving tosses some delightful little details into his performance. For example, Elrond throws a contemptuous glance toward the dwarves as he chews the word “companions”. Likewise, he offers Bilbo a gentle, bemused smile when describing hobbits’ fondness for creature comforts.

Another reason to enjoy this moment? The scene continues Jackson’s predilection for repurposing Tolkien quotes. This time, Bilbo’s whispered aside (“It’s not wise to seek the counsel of elves…”) steals a line from Frodo in Lord of the Rings.[1]

The scene has some hiccups, however. The entire conversation is shot from Bilbo’s height, forcing us to stare up into Hugo Weaving’s nostrils. In addition, Martin Freeman’s interpretation of Bilbo Baggins (usually spot-on) falls short. In particular, his delivery of the “counsel of elves” line borders on hammy, and it’s hard to hear for anyone who doesn’t already know the aphorism.

Still, the scene seems like a worthwhile addition. Maybe, just maybe, this extended edition can redeem An Unexpected Journey, a disappointment as a theatrical release.

  1. Frodo recites the saying for Gildor, who had just offered conflicting advice about whether to wait for Gandalf before leaving the Shire.  ↩

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Not quite convinced

For decades, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered “unfilmable.” The Professor himself doubted that any director could successfully adapt the work. Chief among the challenges? Middle-Earth’s major races come in all shapes and sizes. Men and elves wouldn’t pose a problem, but how could an actor play a four-foot-tall hobbit? Or a dwarf—built like a tank?

To create the illusion of different-sized races for his Rings adaptation, Peter Jackson combined a variety of techniques: green screen compositing, forced perspective, and “little people” as body doubles. At points, he even resorted to the oldest trick in the book: make one actor kneel, or stand another on a box.

Considering all the different tricks used, the composite effect proved remarkably convincing. Most of the time, you forget that Elijah Wood isn’t four feet tall.

But every once in a while, things don’t quite jive. While the characters’ relative heights remain consistent, their girth doesn’t. When you “shrink” actors via green screen composition or forced perspective, they retain their natural proportions. The result is slender, miniaturized humans. But when you film “little people” (as Jackson often does in wide shots), you capture those body double’s stockier proportions. Finally, stand an actor on his knees, and you can dial in the appropriate height, but his head and shoulders don’t scale (compared to the other, “full-size” actors in the scene).

Ideally, Jackson would have selected a single proportion—in both girth and height—then adjusted each technique to maintain that ratio. Perhaps the lead actors could have packed on a few pounds (Elijah Wood always seemed too skinny for a hobbit). Or the film’s digital wizards might have “pinched” the stouter body doubles, slimming them down in post-production.

But given the tools available at the time, it’s understandable that Jackson couldn’t quite “hide the seams.” Fortunately, the technology has improved dramatically in the decade since Rings debuted. Jackson’s Hobbit films feature more convincing character scales.[1] The only hint of trickery? Dialogue delays and eye-line mismatches occasionally make me doubt that Gandalf and the dwarves were filmed together (they weren’t).[2]

  1. One happy side-effect of shooting The Hobbit in 3D? Many of the old techniques (particularly forced-perspective shots) don’t hold up. As a result, Jackson has opted for green screen far more often. Presumably, this allowed his digital compositors to dial in a single, consistent proportion.  ↩

  2. Ian McKellen (who plays Gandalf in both trilogies) found Jackson’s compositing techniques for The Hobbit to be frustrating. Since wizard scale differs from hobbit/dwarf scale, McKellen was forced to work on a smaller Bag End, separated from his fellow cast members. At one point, the actor even shed some tears and protested, “This is not why I became an actor!”  ↩

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Ian Holm as Bilbo through the years

Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins at various ages.
Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins at various ages. Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

I was thrilled when I learned that Ian Holm would reprise his role as Bilbo for the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit. Holm’s quirky, temperamental portrayal in Lord of the Rings was uncannily spot-on.

Recent Hobbit trailers have given us a glimpse of Holm in Baggins attire once again (see above). Considering the actor’s health problems and the intervening years, he looks remarkably like his younger self. For continuity’s sake, that’s a good thing; Holm’s Hobbit cameo takes place on the exact same date we met Bilbo in Fellowship of the Ring.[1]

The most striking changes to Holm’s appearance may be filmmaker tweaks. For one, they’ve exchanged the old Judi Dench wig with one that’s more Frodo-esque. They also may have de-aged Holm’s face with CGI.[2]

  1. I’m not positive of this. But based on his identical attire (and various Internet rumors), it seems like a safe bet.  ↩
  2. A la Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the third X-Men film.  ↩