A Beautiful New Version of The Hobbit


I have seen the new edition of The Hobbit illustrated by Jemima Catlin, and I enthusiastically declare that it is a splendid thing! I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins UK) in the mail the other day—and getting it felt like Christmas.

I have many editions of The Hobbit in my collection, from Alan Lee’s handsomely illustrated edition, to the bizarre Rankin and Bass animated film book tie-in, to the one with Michael Hague’s sumptuous paintings. All of them have a place in my heart for one reason or another, along with my favorite Tolkien artist Pauline Baynes’s work. (She created an amazing cover for the Penguin edition of The Hobbit but, sadly, never did an illustrated version).

And now I have this magnificent new version of The Hobbit from Ms. Catlin to sit beside the others on my shelf of Tolkien books.

There’s something about Catlin’s inspired work that filled me with a childlike joy—the same joy that I had the first time I saw an edition of The Hobbit with Tolkien’s own line drawings and watercolors. Catlin has created whimsical pictures that capture the innocent wonder of a reader first entering Middle-earth and going along on Bilbo’s journey. Kids will love these pictures because they’re clever, moving and funny. And adults will love them for the same reason.

And what a Smaug-like treasure trove is to be found in this handsome clothbound hardback! There are 150 of Catlin’s pieces in this book. Most of them are neat little watercolor, ink and pencil pictures that appear in random places throughout the story, oftentimes with text wrapping around the image.

Because there are so many pictures in this edition (the most of any edition of The Hobbit in print) we get to see little tidbits that usually get overlooked by artists—Gollum recalling a vision of “eggses” (Catlin shows blue robin eggs inside a sinister looking thought bubble); goblins picking up Bilbo’s buttons with humorous expressions on their piggy-bat faces; Bilbo dreaming of dancing black bears while asleep at Beorn’s; a flash forward (described by Tolkien) of Smaug’s bones on the bottom of the Long Lake; the crown of red leaves and berries in Thranduil’s hair; a sign announcing the sale of Bilbo’s belongings that you can read in a flowing script “Messrs Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes would sell by auction the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins,” etc.  I could go on and on about these glorious little details.

There are over a dozen full page illustrations too, and they are marvelous. There is one showing the trolls after they’ve been turned to stone that evokes the fanciful work of Cor Blok; and the dinner party at Beorn’s with his animal waitstaff (a sheep’s back makes an excellent stand for a serving tray). The image that I like best is a lovely close up of Smaug, snoozing smugly atop his heaps of gold and jewels, crowns and caskets.

Some of the more unconventional pictures are my favorites. There’s one of Thorin as he’s floating down the Forest River—and we know it’s him inside because we get to see through the side of the barrel, as though with X-ray vision, to the cramped and grumpy Dwarf crammed inside. I also like the way she illustrated Bilbo whenever he puts on the One Ring: he’s drawn in black and white, as though he were a ghost.

Catlin did a masterful job of capturing the personalities of Bilbo and Gandalf. The wizard is especially expressive and I love the picture of him displaying the map of the Lonely Mountain to Thorin & Co. and Bilbo at Bag End. There’s also a cool image of Gandalf in disguise at the camp of the Elvenking, and another of him smoking his pipe and blowing colored smoke rings with a perfectly roguish look on his face.

If I haven’t already convinced you to buy this version of The Hobbit and add it to your collection, then I give up. All I can say is that I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien himself would have loved these illustrations because they are in the same spirit as his own pictures for The Hobbit (and even his Father Christmas Letters). Catlin has done herself proud, and publisher David Brawn of Harper Collins UK made an excellent choice when he picked her to illustrate this beautiful edition.

The Hobbit illustrated by Jemima Catlin will be available in the United States on October 1st.

You can follow Ms. Catlin on Twitter @jemimacatlin

You Had Me At “Smaug’s Tail.”


(Update #2: I saw this again in IMAX 3D and did not enjoy it nearly as much. I’m so glad I saw this in 2D first because if I’d initially seen it in 3D I think I would have really been depressed. The tinted 3D glasses made everything seem dreary and dingy–even the stuff shot in the Shire. My eight-year-old son, however, LOVED it in 3D!)

(Update #1: Really disparate reactions to this blog and the film in general. People seem to either love The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or they feel terribly disappointed. Some have even told me they think Peter Jackson has eviscerated their beloved book. Maybe you have to go into the theater expecting to hate it like I did? I keep remembering little things like the thrush cracking the snail. Anybody who has read The Hobbit will know the significance this scene has for the next film in the trilogy. It’s that kind of subtle detail that makes seeing this movie such a wonderful cinematic experience.)

I saw the movie today in the old school style—2D and 24 FPS. From the opening shot I felt like I was back in that brilliantly realized cinematic world of Middle-earth that so many of us fell in love with almost a dozen years ago. The colors, the feel, the music. It’s all the same as the first trilogy when you experience it at 24 frames per second. But I didn’t really discern the full force of the Wingnut Films movie/storytelling magic in this movie until that shot of Smaug’s fat Dragon tail snaking and flicking as it disappeared through the Gates of Erebor. I started laughing out loud. Not because I thought it was ridiculous. The total opposite. It was because it seemed so real. The little bits we saw of Smaug before this shot showed him to be a badass of monumental proportions (way scarier than the inane monsters in the preview for Pacific Rim that preceded the showing). Smaug’s tail whipping back and forth lazily, like a cat’s tail, as the Dragon sauntered into his new digs…it was just a beautiful and subtle bit of filmmaking.

Surprisingly, this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found myself laughing out loud every couple of minutes during the first part of the film. Martin Freeman has created a character that will become a classic in film history. He is Bilbo Baggins. And I’ll even go so far as to say (and go ahead and crucify me Tolkien purists) that his Bilbo is a way more interesting protagonist than Tolkien created in his book. From Bilbo’s “Good morning” bit with Gandalf, to his interactions with the Dwarves, to his Riddles In The Dark scene with Gollum (a scene that feels like you’re watching two pro-actors in the most awesome black box theatre production of The Hobbit ever staged!), Freeman manages something most actors never accomplish: he lets us see inside his head—see his thoughts—without resorting to pulling a bunch of stupid faces. He’s incredibly subtle in this story of mercy and friendship masquerading as an action-adventure flick. The guy just blew me away. The little vocal hitch he does in his line “I’m a Baggins…(errp) of Bag End” was so perfect. One of those wee miracles of acting that I’m certain he came up with on his own during takes. My god! This guy can even act with his back to the camera! When he wakes up the morning after the Dwarf-party and he’s all alone in his Hobbit-hole, staring down the hall toward the front door facing away from us, you can feel him thinking “Oh crap, what have I done? I need to go on this adventure!” And after he catches up with the Dwarves and realizes he doesn’t have his handkerchiefs and tries to make them all go back to Bag End to get them…so perfect. In the book he merely mentions he’s forgotten them. But in the movie he’s like, “Stop! We have to go back!” Ludicrously pompous. Totally Bilbo.

The Hobbit is a luxurious and beautiful film: the sparks floating out of the chimney at Bag End like magical fireflies, the overhead of Hobbiton as Bilbo races through yards and gardens to catch up with the Dwarves, the pine trees burning on the cliff’s edge…and that last shot of the heaps of gold in Erebor with Smaug shaking himself awake, then revealing his evil cat-like eye (which is basically how I predicted the movie would end in a blog I wrote over three months ago). And what about that scene where Thorin is striding off the felled pine tree, marching into the burning brush toward Azog? It was like a scene from the greatest opera ever staged! (Don’t you wish you could see an opera with Richard Armitage, Orcs and a Dragon? Hell, I’d go.) Should I mention the flight of the Eagles? We’ve seen this before, right? Gandalf’s rescue in The Fellowship of the Ring and Sam and Frodo lifted from the fires of Mount Doom at the end of The Return of the King. But it was way more awesome here. Spectacular. Crazy-ass-fantasy beautiful. That scene where they landed on The Carrock was perfect. And them all gazing across the Wilderlands toward Mount Doom far in the distance. I can’t wait for the next one!

By the way, I know there’s some stupid shit in this movie. Radagast’s bunny sled is simply asinine. But I didn’t care. And there were too many damned scenes with Dwarves and Bilbo on shifting ledges and Dwarves and Gandalf on shifting jerry-rigged goblin gangways and Dwarves and Bilbo and Gandalf on shifting pine trees. Enough with the 3D crap. It doesn’t need it. But still…I didn’t care.

I haven’t had this much fun at a move since…well…since my wife and I got the director’s cut for The Return of the King. And that’s what was so special about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It felt like we were treated to the director’s cut in the theater. I loved hearing the two-minute-long ode to Erebor! I loved the fact we got to see that cool flashback to the Dwarf/Orc battle! (The Battle of Azanulbizar–thanks for this factoid, Tolkien Britta!) I was amazed at how long the scene with the trolls went on. I relished every second of it. And when Gandalf appears and cracks that massive rock with his staff—splits in twain—to conveniently let the rising sun shine forth, thus turning the trolls to stone, I gasped with surprise! That’s movie magic. The writers took a scene from the book and added a clever little twist. “What if the sun were behind the rock. It’s going to be another ten minutes until it’s high enough to shine on the trolls. What would Gandalf do?” Answer: “He’d split the friggin’ rock right down the middle.” Praise to the screenwriters for this cool idea!

I have to say something about the actors. Richard Armitage turns what could have been a stuffy asshole of a character into someone deep and troubled and full of yearning. And James Nesbitt, in what might have been a throwaway roll as the Dwarf-in-the-dorky-hat, turns the raunchily-named Bofur into a sweet yet wicked guy developing a budding friendship with Bilbo. Both Armitage and Nesbitt are rangy men—both over six feet tall. It’s a testament to the skill the filmmakers have achieved with scaling the actors that they appear squat and realistically Dwarfy (yeah, I know that’s not a word) next to Gandalf and the Elves.

I have to praise Andy Serkis for creating the most stunningly realized mo-cap character in the history of film. He should win an Academy Award for best supporting actor even though he’s only on screen for about twenty minutes in this movie. When he falls over after losing the riddle contest—just collapses on his side like a worn out toddler…brilliant! That’s not special effects. That’s acting, dammit!

Oh, and Ian McKellen? He is “Ass-Kicker The Grey” in this movie. Wonderful acting aside, he just plain kicks Orc-arse. The part where he launches the blue bomb in the Goblin King’s Cave was a better weapon than anything I’ve ever seen in a video game. And then he does some serious Orc-smiting. I also loved how they have him be this sort of sheepish guy when he’s sitting across from Saruman at the White Council meeting. It’s like the writers and Peter Jackson said “Gandalf is kind of an f-up at this stage in his life. He’s the Istari who’s always getting into trouble with grumpy Saruman who admonished him for his harebrained schemes.” Gandalf is like Harry Potter trying to get the Ministry of Magic to believe Voldemort is back. It’s hilarious. “Sauron is really coming back!” “Oh, come on Gandalf, he’s dead.” “I dunno, Saruman. We should go to Dol Guldur…Morgul blade…bad feeling…” (I also liked the way Galadriel is already suspicious of Saruman here and speaks to Gandalf one-on-one with her Elven mind-meld.)

Why are critics, for the most part, ripping this film apart? I don’t get it. The production design is stupendous (John Howe and Alan Lee–you guys are masters). I was enthralled. I laughed heartily, I got numerous chills, and I left the theater with a big smile on my face. Maybe the whole 48 FPS thing really is distracting. I don’t know. But I got to go to Middle-earth again, and it was my best trip yet.

What Would Bilbo Do?

Let’s face it. At the start of The Hobbit Bilbo Baggins is a twerp. He’s one of those inveterate (and annoying) bachelors obsessed with his own daily routine. Get up, brush copious foot hair, shine the big brass knob in center of door until it gleams like gold, have tea and pipe on the porch, avoid all contact with mysterious strangers (e.g. door-to-door button salesmen or vagabond Wizards).

He has become his own inner child.

Gandalf, however, senses great things in Bilbo. “There is a seed of courage,” Tolkien wrote about the Hobbits, “hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid Hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow.” The Wizard thinks Bilbo’s seed of courage is ready to sprout, and that’s why he browbeats him into joining Thorin & Co. on their quest to the Lonely Mountain.

Perhaps it is Gandalf’s goading that finally lures Bilbo off on the adventure. Or maybe it’s the rousing Dwarven song that bewitches the poor Hobbit (“We must away ere break of day/To seek the pale enchanted gold.”) Whatever the case, it’s a whingeing, frightened little fellow who dashes away from Bag End, forgetting even to bring his “pocket-handkerchiefs.”

For the first part of the journey to the Lonely Mountain Bilbo is a terrible companion. He’s constantly complaining about their trials. “My stomach feels like an empty sack,” he whimpers to Thorin. And not only that—he’s missing blackberry picking back home! (Bilbo “Berries” Baggins isn’t exactly the toughest burglar to send into the den of a homicidal dragon.)

Bilbo’s “seed of courage” grows throughout the tale, from facing the horde of spiders in Mirkwood (and single-handedly saving all the Dwarves), to freeing his captive companions from the Elven-king’s dungeons, to sneaking into the very heart of Smaug’s lair and facing the monster, albeit wearing a ring of invisibility.

But the most courageous act Bilbo commits in the entire story is not what most people would consider to be an act of valor. It is, in fact, an act of pacifism. When Bilbo sees that his Dwarf friends bewitched by the “pale enchanted gold” he realizes the entire adventure has been mere folly. He doesn’t want riches, anymore. All he desires is the taste of pure water from one of Beorn’s wooden bowls. He just wants to get back home to his snug little hole.

And when he understands that the Dwarves—led by the pigheaded and treasure-possessed Thorin—are going to take on an entire army of Men and Elves (and thereby almost certainly get slaughtered), Bilbo’s true “seed of courage” finally bursts fully to life. He takes the jewel called the Arkenstone—the one thing from Smaug’s hoard that Thorin prizes above all others—and brings it to Thranduil. He presents the jewel to the Elven-king as a peace offering, knowing full well that Thorin will probably kill him for the act. Bilbo willingly gives up his share in the treasure (the equivalent of billions of dollars!) to stop a war. How many people in our world have been tempted by wealth to do the exact opposite?

The enraged Thorin very nearly does commit Hobbit-murder. The Dwarf comes perilously close to throwing Bilbo off a high wall before Gandalf steps in and saves him. In the end, upon his deathbed, Thorin begs Bilbo for his forgiveness. He tells Bilbo, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Bilbo returns to the Shire with more than enough wealth to last him a lifetime. And he spends the rest of his days in peace, adopting his young cousin Frodo (whom he fondly refers to as his nephew). Bilbo is the first stay-at-home single dad in the history of literature! The cheerful, kind and generous master of Bag End is a much-changed person from the callow Hobbit who started out the tale.

He’s become, for lack of a better word, a man.

Hypothetical Hobbit Plotting (Part 1)

There’s been a heap of uproar recently about how on earth (or Middle-earth) Peter Jackson & Co. will manage to stretch out the plot of The Hobbit to three films. Jackson has made it known that he and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (with some Guillermo del Toro tidbits leftover from his earlier collaboration with the Kiwis) are using the appendices from The Lord of the Rings to tell the story of what Gandalf was doing in the four months he was apart from Bilbo and the Dwarves after he left them at “the Gates of Mirkwood.”

This blog is an attempt on my part (and purely speculative) to make an educated guess at the plot of the three films. If you hate spoilers, read no more, because I might just stumble upon a few of those spoilers as I Hobbit-hypothesize, as well as touch upon some of the plot points that have already been mentioned by Peter Jackson and his crew.

First off, I must state that I think three films isn’t enough time to tell The Hobbit, let alone Peter Jackson’s proposed back and forth juxtaposed tale of Bilbo and the Dwarves (with Smaug) on one side and Gandalf and Legolas (battling the Necromancer) on the other. I love long adaptations. In my opinion the greatest adaptation of a novel ever is John Mortimer’s miniseries teleplay for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons (1981). What makes it so great? The dialogue is almost verbatim from the book and nearly every single scene is kept. The running time of Brideshead is over 12 hours for a book that’s about 350 pages. The Hobbit could easily be given a twelve-hour adaption for its 380 or so pages (depending on your edition) and still keep me riveted.

Back to speculating on the story of The Hobbit Trilogy. Years before the action of The Hobbit begins (over 90 years, in fact) Gandalf had been investigating an ancient fortress called Dol Guldur in the southern part of Mirkwood forest. This evil place was rumored to have been built by Sauron after he’d been defeated during the War of the Last Alliance (i.e. after he got his precious Ring cut off his hand by Isildur), and an entity known only as “the Necromancer” was said to be living there. What Gandalf found in the dungeons of Dol Guldur was a Dwarf who had been tortured for so long he’d gone mad. This was Thorin Oakenshield’s father, Thráin. Thráin gave to Gandalf a map to the Lonely Mountain and a key to the secret door that leads to Smaug’s chamber. (How the crazed Thráin kept the map and key hidden in the dungeons of the Necromancer is anyone’s guess. A body cavity search by an Orc would not be a pleasant experience!)

This set piece alone (Gandalf sneaking into Dol Guldur, finding Thráin, battling his way out against a host of Orcs and perhaps even Ringwraiths while discovering an evil entity who may or may not be Sauron) could take up an entire episode of a miniseries. It will probably only get ten minutes of screen time as either a flashback (Gandalf explaining to Thorin how he came to have his father’s map and key) or quite possibly even the prologue to the first film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The first real opportunity in the screen adaptation for Peter Jackson to fit in additional material (that falls within the timeline of the book) is when Bilbo and the Dwarves arrive at Rivendell. In the trailer we get a glimpse of Galadriel speaking to a troubled looking Gandalf, and I can imagine that Gandalf has told her he’s worried that the Necromancer is indeed Sauron and that he’s rebuilt Dol Guldur and is growing an army of Orcs. Perhaps at this point in the film Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel have a little council where Gandalf tells them they need to enlist his fellow wizard for guidance: none other than Saruman the White.

Gandalf might also tell them he’s been drawn, for some inexplicable reason, to the North–to Mirkwood, Dol Guldur, and the Lonely Mountain–thus giving a solid impetus for the wizard bringing together Thorin & Co. and Bilbo: a motivating force that’s missing from Tolkien’s book. Galadriel most likely would agree with Gandalf about the danger of Dol Guldur. We must remember that she lives in Lothlórien. Her Elven kingdom is only a hundred miles away from Mirkwood and Dol Guldur. The far-seeing Elves could observe, from their high treetop flets, the barren hillside rising from Mirkwood forest upon which Dol Guldur is built. Galadriel would be concerned about what is going on in Mirkwood too, and possibly has already made some sort of connection between Sauron and Smaug the dragon.

This is where the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug/the Necromancer comes into play. My guess is that in Peter Jackson’s version of the story the Necromancer (aka Sauron) can possess Smaug the Dragon in the same way Saruman the White possessed King Théoden in the film version of The Two Towers. In Peter Jackson’s version Sauron is using Smaug like a living palantir—a way to view a remote part of Middle-earth that becomes activated by the presence of the Ring. Sort of like a One Ring detector. (The dragons were created by Morgoth, Sauron’s master, to serve as his weapons in the First Age.) In the book Smaug can sense Bilbo’s presence even when he is wearing the Ring and invisible (though the Hobbit reeks of Dwarf and pony which is enough to wake up any dragon). It’s a much more sinister film device, however, if Smaug isn’t merely a big lizard lolling on a heap of gold, but rather a tool of Sauron that has the potential to mesmerize, trap and kill Bilbo and get the Ring back for the Dark Lord. Smaug, in the book, is a clever and fiendish creature. If the voice emanating from his dragon’s mouth is the same as the Necromancer/Sauron, well, this just makes him all the more terrifying.

The next opportunity for the filmmakers to concoct another key scene for Gandalf (using the appendices as a source) comes soon after Bilbo and the Dwarves arrive at Beorn the shapeshifter’s house and Gandalf mysteriously disappears for a spell. Where did he go? Get ready to meet Radagast the Brown, the Istari who has gone native, as played by the great Scottish actor Sylvester McCoy.

To be continued in Hypothetical Hobbit Plotting (Part 2)