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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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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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First things first (part 2): why Peter Jackson should have made Lord of the Rings after The Hobbit

Last time, I explained why, in an ideal world, Peter Jackson would have tackled The Hobbit first (before The Lord of the Rings). But what would this have meant for The Hobbit’s bigger, more serious older brother?

Of course, much depends on how well The Hobbit performed at the box office. But let’s assume that audiences responded as enthusiastically as they did to LOTR. Here’s the scenario, then: freshly flush with Tolkien Bucks™, the studio clamors for Jackson to adapt Lord of the Rings. The suits loosen their purse strings, eager to wring every penny from the franchise. They give the (now-proven) director more than three films to tell his Rings story.

Despite any naysayer’s complaints,[1] this is a Very Good Thing. Unlike the simple, spare Hobbit novel, Lord of the Rings boasts more than enough material to fill out multiple films. Even the shortest book of the trilogy—Return of the King—outweighs The Hobbit by some 40,000 words.

So… imagine Jackson has six films to flesh out his epic. Characters given short shrift in the current incarnation develop actual personalities. Two examples: Denethor’s more nuanced portrayal earns the audience’s sympathy (instead of its unmitigated scorn). Or Jackson offers some context for understanding why Faramir struggles to resist the Ring.[2]

Even the books’ main characters—the hobbits themselves—benefit from more screen time. Jackson can establish the hobbits’ relationships more organically (as things stand, Frodo has hardly a single conversation with Merry or Pippin). Including the excised Old Forest and Barrow-wight sequences provides an effective bridge from the Shire’s bucolic safety to the hobbits’ dangerous journey. Even old Bilbo gets one last heroic beat at the Council of Elrond, where he courageously offers to carry the Ring to Mount Doom himself.

Making Lord of the Rings after The Hobbit offers logistical advantages, as well. For one, it makes the actors’ ages an asset, rather than a liability. In An Unexpected Journey, efforts to de-age an eighty-year-old Ian Holm fail to disguise how differently he speaks and moves than in Fellowship. Ian McKellen, thought still quintessentially Gandalf, appears noticeably older (despite the character’s younger age). Even Elijah Wood, still a teenager during LOTR‘s production run, looks strangely angular in the Hobbit prequel. Watch the trilogies back-to-back, and these incontinuities can’t be ignored. If the movies had been filmed in order, however, these problems take care of themselves. Of course Gandalf looks older; it’s been sixty years!

Another logistical advantage to making Lord of the Rings last? Better handling of locations shared by both The Hobbit and Fellowship. Both books follow the same geographical path, after all: Bag End, the Shire, the Trollshaws, Rivendell, then the Misty Mountains. In An Unexpected Journey, the characters spend hours visiting locales the audience has already seen.

Flip the movies around, though, and the audience shares the characters’ emotional responses to these locales. Like Bilbo in *The Hobbit*, we look down, astonished, at Rivendell’s beauty. We better appreciate Gandalf’s satisfied smile when he pulls up to Bag End in Fellowship. And the Fellowship’s ordeal on Caradhras rings true—echoing as it does the dwarves’ failed attempt to scale the same mountain range.

I loved the Lord of the Rings films. But had Peter Jackson filmed The Hobbit first, Rings could have breathed. In addition, the sequels could have built on the prequel’s events (rather than re-hash them).

Unfortunately, legal wrangling prevented this hypothetical scenario from unfolding. Still, it’s fun to imagine what might have been.

  1. Some non-Tolkienites consider Jackson’s Rings trilogy bloated and over-long. Adding (say) three more films would drive them batty. There’s no accounting for taste.  ↩

  2. Count me among the Tolkien fans who applauded Jackson for making Faramir more human. Still, his motivations weren’t entirely clear from theatrical cut. A deleted scene from Two Towers (Extended Edition) goes a long way towards giving an underdeveloped character like Faramir some much-needed depth.  ↩

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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.  ↩
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Christopher Tolkien on Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies.

The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has gone too far for me. Such commercialisation has reduced the esthetic [sic] and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: turning my head away.

Christopher Tolkien, describing how Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth adaptations have tarnished his father’s legacy. From an interview in Le Monde. Translated by Sedulia’s Translations. Via

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?