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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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I was an elderly hobbit.

Once upon a time, I was an elderly hobbit.

Or, at least, I played one online.

ElendorMUSH is an Internet-based role-playing game set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe (familiar from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). The “MUSH” stands for “Multi-User Shared Hallucination.” Each new user creates a character, choosing a race (e.g. hobbit, elf, orc) and a name that fits the selected culture. Over time, the character’s details get fleshed out, as the player decides on an appearance, a backstory, and a weapon of choice. Then, game time is spent “role-playing”–that is, acting out Tolkienesque scenes with other players.

The twist? MUSHes are entirely text-based. Elendor boasts no slick graphics, no beautifully-rendered landscapes, and no orchestral soundtracks. The entire game experience is mediated through the written word.

If that seems needlessly ascetic, consider the fact that the MUSH’s heyday was the mid–90s. Broadband hadn’t yet been widely embraced, and most users had piss-poor Internet connections. Text consumed far less bandwidth than graphics; a text-based game could be played even over the slowest dial-up connection.

Fifteen-year-old Matt would fire up our wheezy old Apple IIgs, dial into the local university’s network, and sign into ElendorMUSH. There, I acted out a fairly mundane hobbitish existence. I played Osmbise Bushet, of the Shire Bushets.[1] Osmbise had left his Northfarthing home and moved to Bree to escape a suffocating family life. He served as a police constable in that frontier town, keeping rabble-rousers and drunkards in line. He spent his off-hours drinking tea–never ale–at the Inn of the Prancing Pony.

It didn’t take long for Elendor to take over my life. I role-played for hours on end and soon earned a reputation as a good writer. To my delight, no one on the MUSH knew (or, likely, cared) that I was a gangly, awkward teenager. Before long, I was invited to become a local administrator over the Bree user group. Excited, I upped my commitment and connected even more often. Often, I wouldn’t crawl into bed until just before dawn.

My virtual obsession may seem lame. But, in my defense, I felt that I was contributing to something communal and artistic. No, Elendor’s role-playing transcripts wouldn’t compare to Tolkien’s inspired prose. But the shared writing experience encouraged improvisation, literacy, and creativity. I can think of worse habits.

More importantly, Elendor represented a sanctuary from a disjointed, dysfunctional family life. In the wake of my parents’ divorce, things had fallen apart. Addiction, abuse, and mental illness reigned. MUSHing offered a safe, predictable alternative to the (frightening and uncontrollable) real world.

And, although I didn’t realize it at the time, my “Osmbise” character embodied my emotional response to this fractured home life. My hobbit abstained from alcohol; I wished for my parents to overcome their own addictions. Osmbise fled the Shire to avoid his family; I wanted to get away, too. And Osmbise served as a constable, keeping the peace; I had desperately tried to establish order at home, caring for younger siblings and cleaning far more than a fifteen-year-old ever should.

Soon after my promotion to local admin, connecting to Elendor grew more challenging. My dial-up connection frequently flaked out, booting me off the MUSH and interrupting my role-playing sessions. Other times, I’d be forced offline by real-world demands; we only had one phone line, and my mom didn’t appreciate me hogging the connection with weirdly cultish Internet games.

Eventually, the local university cancelled the old student account I used to connect to the Internet. I was forced to quit Elendor, cold turkey. I managed to detox and eventually moved onto more typical teenage pastimes: part-time jobs, dating, sports. By the time we finally got broadband at home, the virtual world held less appeal for me. In college, I never even owned a computer. My MUSHing days were done.

Elendor itself never went away. It’s still kicking out there on the Internet. But, like Middle-earth itself, the virtual world was doomed to diminish with time. By the mid–2000s, the broadband revolution had arrived, and online gaming exploded. Graphics-heavy MMORPGs like World of Warcraft siphoned users away from the text-centric games. Elendor’s virtual population plummeted. Today, you’re lucky to see a dozen players logged in at any one time. Back in the late 90s, hundreds of users joined the game each evening.

Last year, I reconnected to the MUSH for the first time in decades. I was instantly transported back to adolescence, with all its hurt and happiness. And, to my surprise, several players there recognized me immediately. There are still a few Elendor diehards who remember the grey-haired hobbit with the funny name.

  1. Don’t ask me where the name came from. I invented the most ridiculous, un-hobbit-like moniker I could think of, hoping to stand out.  ↩
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You got Aragorn in my Bilbo!

Recently, Daniel Wood suggested that Peter Jackson’s next two Hobbit movies should feature cameos from Aragorn, Gimli, Denethor, Arwen, Merry, Pippin and Sam.

This is a terribly dumb idea. First of all, at the time of The Hobbit

  • Aragorn is 9.
  • Denethor II is 12.
  • Merry, Pippin and Sam are –40, –48 and –38, respectively.

But even leaving aside the impossible chronology, why not let The Hobbit be The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings be The Lord of the Rings? Peter Jackson’s first prequel, An Unexpected Journey, already suffers from too much cross-pollination. Take for example, the film’s recycled music (Jackson re-uses “Concerning Hobbits” from Fellowship rather than incorporate Howard Shore’s excellent new motifs) and recycled characters (the Frodo-and-old-Bilbo prologue never should have made the theatrical cut).

The Hobbit’s story doesn’t need filler. It stands quite well on its own two feet, thag you very buch. In fact, it’s more entertaining and better-constructed than its over-serious big brother. Here’s to hoping that Peter Jackson resists the temptation to stuff the next two films with fan service and Rings cameos.

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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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First things first: why Peter Jackson should have made The Hobbit before The Lord of the Rings

Back in the mid-nineties, Peter Jackson had a problem. He (and his creative partners) had unveiled plans to film J.R.R. Tolkien’s most celebrated novels, using their native New Zealand as a stand-in for Middle-Earth. They hoped to make The Hobbit—chronologically, the series’ initial book—first. But Jackson’s producers failed to secure rights for The Hobbit. Undeterred, Jackson shifted gears. Rather than start at the story’s start, his team would adapt Tolkien’s massive, rambling follow-up to The Hobbit: The Lord of the Rings.

The rest is history; Jackson & Co. convinced the studio to finance three separate LOTR pictures—one for each book. Each proved spectacularly successful (both commercially and critically). A decade later, The Hobbit finally escaped development hell; the first film, An Unexpected Journey, was released in December 2012.

What’s done is done. Still, I can’t help but wonder: what if Jackson had obtained the rights to The Hobbit, way back in 1996? What if he adapted that book first? How might this version of *The Hobbit* differ from the one now in production? And what effect might this have had upon the subsequent Rings sequels?

My next few blog posts address these questions. Next time, we’ll consider Lord of the Rings. Today, I explain why The Hobbit should have come first.

The Hobbit is a short book. Quick readers can plow through the entire novel on a long Sunday afternoon. So when Peter Jackson announced that his adaptation would span two films, fans scratched their heads. Would the material stretch that far? And then, just a few months before the first film’s completion, the studio agreed to a Hobbit trilogy. Fantasy nerds began to fret; the expansion felt like a cash grab, rather than a creative imperative.

The December release of An Unexpected Journey has done little to allay those fears. This first Hobbit film takes far too long to do far too little. Nearly every scene would have benefited from ruthless edits, and many sequences should have been cut altogether. To borrow Tolkien’s words, the movie felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

But if The Hobbit had come first, things might have been different. It’s unlikely that the film’s corporate backers would have green-lit two Hobbit films (let alone three). An unproven director like Jackson (whose earlier films were low-budget and small-scale) wouldn’t enjoy that sort of leeway. Instead, the studio would minimize its risk by demanding a shorter run time. Dependent on their funding, Jackson would have been forced to trim down his Hobbit, streamlining the narrative and paring down any excess.

What padding might Jackson have stripped? First and foremost, he’d face no temptation to stuff The Hobbit with Middle-Earth footnotes. In his ongoing Hobbit trilogy, Jackson extends his screenplays by mining the Lord of the Rings appendices for relevant subplots. A shorter Hobbit offers no room for such additions. Specifically, the entire Necromancer storyline would have been cut. Since this clunky subplot revolves around characters the audience has never met (Sauron, the Ringwraiths, Saruman, Galadriel, Radagast), including it makes little sense.

With this one move, Jackson drastically improves his movie, since An Unexpected Journey’s most cringe-worthy scenes never even get filmed.[1] And good riddance! Consider: Tolkien had reasons for banishing this material to the Rings endnotes. First, it’s tangential to the story’s heart (i.e., Bilbo’s wide-eyed introduction to the world). Second, it lacks the book’s charm and whimsical tone (Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for juvenile readers).

If this hypothetical Hobbit had no time for Tolkien’s canonical glosses, it certainly couldn’t have fit Jackson’s own plot inventions. Journey’s framing device—an older, nostalgic Bilbo, badgering his nephew Frodo—wouldn’t have made the cut. With no *Lord of the Rings* for context, the audience wouldn’t care about these characters. The “orc hunting party” wouldn’t make it in, either. Why bother resurrecting Azog (in The Hobbit book, he’s unmentioned and long-dead)? Smaug the Magnificent provides all the fierce villainy you need for a shorter movie.

Make these changes, and you’ve saved ninety minutes from the bloated first film. With a few deft rewrites, you’ve made room for an abbreviated, thrilling adaptation—all contained in a single film. Or, if Jackson somehow convinced his handlers to approve two movies, these cuts set up an epic final act: the barrel ride to Lake-town, the glorious, dragon-centric climax, and the Battle of Five Armies as a stunning, poignantly tragic denouement.

Had Jackson secured the rights and made The Hobbit first, fans would’ve enjoyed a tighter film that better respected its source material. But what might this have meant for The Hobbit’s vast, sprawling sequel? Next time, we’ll explain why The Lord of the Rings would have worked better as a follow-up to a successful Hobbit adaptation.

  1. I expect that we’ll see fan edits of these films emerge soon after each DVD release. It’ll be interesting to see how well the film holds together when Jackson’s excesses are excised.  ↩