USC professors weigh in on ‘The Hobbit’

jholleman@thestate.comDecember 9, 2012 

  • The book “The Hobbit” remains remarkably popular 75 years after it was first published. The release of the movie version this month has only slightly boosted its popularity at Richland Library. The library system has 19 copies of “The Hobbit” in various forms – standard book, large print, eBook, graphic novel, book on CD and the animated DVD. Waiting lists for those items are common. On Dec. 3, the waiting list for the book had 13 names and the waiting list for the CD had 16, according to library officials. The library doesn’t plan any special programs in conjunction with the movie release, but “The Hobbit” will be included in the main library’s Read It Before You See It display of written works made into recent movies, alongside “Life of Pi” and “Les Miserables.”

The State asked the opinions of two University of South Carolina professors who have done research or taught classes involving the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Here are their contrasting responses:

Scott Gwara, professor of English language and literature

I can hardly wait for The Hobbit movies to be released. I thought “Lord of the Rings” was fantastic, relatively close to the book not only in plot but also in theme and mood. “The Hobbit” is such a classic book but obviously difficult to film after “Lord of the Rings.” For example, Gandalf wasn’t fully developed in 1937. He comes across as a bit daffy and less powerful in “The Hobbit.” I wonder how the filmmakers will treat him and what Ian McKellen will do with this sillier wizard persona!

Another issue is, Tolkien obviously wrote for children but included a lot of mature content. I hope they retain the ambiguity. The big disappointment is obvious: what can they do after The Hobbit? There isn’t much left that would excite audiences. I hope I live long enough to see other versions of these amazing books.

I have a PhD in Old English, taught it for years, and published on it extensively. I certainly am sensitive to nuances in the Tolkien films. I was shocked when Aragorn started speaking Old English in “Lord of the Rings” ... to a horse! The horse’s name is Brego, which means “king” or “prince” in Old English. He says, “your name is kingly.” Also, Eowyn sings a funeral dirge in Old English lifted almost word for word from Beowulf. She has an excellent voice and great pronunciation. But ... few people would know that such dirges were traditionally sung by women and they’re practically considered a women’s poetic genre! Brilliant! The linguistic nuance in the movies was fabulous. They had a lot of scholarly help!

James Cutsinger, professor of theology and religious thought

I’m pretty sure Tolkien himself would have been very unhappy with (the movies). In a lecture entitled “On Fairy-Stories,” he contrasts the element of “fantasy” in such stories (and he would include in this category his own tales of Middle-earth) with drama and stage-plays. Though he’s not specifically thinking of film, it’s clear his criticisms would apply, if anything, all the more to the movies:

“Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature…. It is a misfortune that Drama, an art fundamentally distinct from Literature, should so commonly be considered together with it, or as a branch of it…. Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy. Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in Drama, when that is presented as it should be, visibly and audibly acted. Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited. Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy….

“A reason, more important, I think, than the inadequacy of stage-effects, is this: Drama has, of its very nature, already attempted a kind of bogus, or shall I say at least substitute, magic: the visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand. To introduce, even with mechanical success, into this quasi-magical secondary world a further fantasy or magic is to demand, as it were, an inner or tertiary world. It is a world too much….

“For this precise reason—that the characters, and even the scenes, are in Drama not imagined but actually beheld—Drama is, even though it uses a similar material (words, verse, plot), an art fundamentally different from narrative art. Thus, if you prefer Drama to Literature … you are apt to misunderstand pure story-making, and to constrain it to the limitations of stage-plays. You are, for instance, likely to prefer characters, even the basest and dullest, to things. Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play.”

And a different scholarly approach ...

Devin Brown, who earned his PhD in English at USC and now teaches at Asbury University in Kentucky, has written book entitled “The Christian World of The Hobbit,” which attributes Christian underpinnings to many of the events in the book. On the website hollywoodjesus.com, Brown lists five things to look for in watching the movie that back his contentions.: http://live.hollywoodjesus.com/?p=11028

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