Review: The Hobbits

The Hobbits by Lynnette Porter

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I find the art of adaptation, especially when it comes out of a fannish place, utterly fascinating—after all, I wrote my senior thesis on fanfiction. (Did I turn that in? Did that really happen? Oh, man.) Perhaps this stems from the fact that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, a seminal text for me, is an act of adaptation. But however it happened, it’s why I decided to pick up The Hobbits—a book focused on pop culture’s appropriation of hobbitses over the years from someone who has been involved in the Tolkien fandom for decades? Merry Christmas to me! Or so I hoped…

After their publication in 1937 and the early 1950s, respectively, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings have inspired countless adaptations. In The Hobbits, Lynnette Porter focuses on one thread throughout these various adaptations—the hobbits, especially Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry. How do these various adaptations treat the hobbits and introduce new readers to Tolkien’s world? Porter looks at film adaptations (made and unmade), television adaptations, music, and art, as she examines the hobbits’ lives after Tolkien.

I’ve just spent five months on a project similar to Porter’s; after all, my senior thesis focused on Jane Eyre fanfiction, which is a kind of adaptation. So I’m particularly attuned to the more academic side of something like this; the selection process, how one treats one’s selections, and organization. The Hobbits does not start out strong—it essentially has two introductions. Porter, who teaches at Embry-Riddle, writes very academically. Not so much in the sense that the material is unaccessible (far from it! Pop culture is often the best way to introduce people to academic theory or critical thinking), but in the sense that she talks about how the book will be organized quite a bit, instead of creating an organic flow to do so. And I have a few concerns over the texts that Porter selected to critique. She mentions but does not analyze the parody Bored of the Rings, but then devotes several pages to the Veggie TalesLord of the Beans in the same context as non-parodic works. While fanfiction is mentioned (with some errors; oh, I don’t want to explain what PWP actually denotes to Porter…), no specific works are brought up, only general trends. And Porter tries to discuss The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey before the film’s release (and so soon after the announcement of the third film that she occasionally refers to it as two), which doesn’t work out well. (She also doesn’t mention any of the video game adaptations, but that’s neither here nor there.)

But perhaps of more concern is Porter’s dim view of the future of reading. At one point, she anxiously predicts a world where the vast majority of people only know The Lord of the Rings through an adaptation, and only hardcore Ringers will bother to read the book (or read at all). Personally, I don’t think this trend, which is much milder than Porter portrays it, is due to adaptations—it’s due to a cultural shift from a print culture to an image culture. And then we have some theoritical differences—I subscribe to reader-response theory, which posits that meaning occurs when book and reader meet, while Porter believes in a sacred, immutable text. This comes out particularly when she discusses differences in type-setting The Lord of the Rings and mentions her belief that “an error-free LotR, however, is unlikely to be published” (50). The only thing I can take her to task for is not being objective about the texts she’s analyzing; she’s not overly fond of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, for instance. In my own senior thesis, I did my best to be objective about each text—the point wasn’t the quality, but what they said about the original text. Had The Hobbits been less academically structured, perhaps this would have worked, but it feels off.

All that said, however, I definitely learned some interesting things from The Hobbits. One major attraction for me was more discussion of John Boorman’s treatment of The Lord of the Rings; the failure of that project led to Boorman’s Excalibur, which I still haven’t seen. (I even have the DVD! I should get on that.) In discussing Merry’s story arc in the script, she mentions that Éowyn ends up losing an arm to the Witch King. While Porter states, when discussing fanart, that “the best way for later artists to honour Tolkien is to keep their vision of his characters true to Tolkien’s descriptions and characterisations” (191), I was utterly taken by this take on my beloved shield maiden of Rohan (though I seriously doubt I would have enjoyed Boorman’s The Lord of the Rings!) The section on music, Porter’s favored adaptation medium for Tolkien, introduced me to a lot of bands and albums I didn’t even know existed. And I even learned something new about Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings; one of the Weinsteins, cautious about the large cast, wondered if one of the hobbits should die, to make the stakes higher. I did find it quite funny that Porter, indignant about such casual treatment of Merry and Pippin, doesn’t even mention that C. S. Lewis had to talk Tolkien out of squishing Pippin to death at the end of The Return of the King.

Bottom line: Lynnette Porter’s The Hobbits feels a little too academic in its repetitive discussion of its own organization, and I question both some of the texts selected and how Porter treats them. But there’s some interesting information on some of the more obscure adaptations of Tolkien’s work over the years that diehard Ringers might enjoy. A solid meh.

I received this book from the publisher for review.

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