Site traffic must be falling off at Salon. That was my first thought when columnist Andrew O’Hehir boldly ventured forth to declare that he didn’t think it such a hot idea to have Guillermo del Toro direct a film version of The Hobbit. And if O’Hehir thought that riling the rubes — or, in this case, goading the geeks — would bring hordes of fans storming in to defend the honor of del Toro and Peter Jackson, who is producing the thing, he must be disappointed. As of this morning, I saw a mere 62 comments in response to his article after a week online. For a man who wanted to strike a mortal blow to the very heart of geekdom on earth, that’s pretty small potatoes. Why, the Tolkien fan sites do better than that in the first five minutes after posting such questions as: “Ian McKellen, Boxers or Briefs?”
The problem, I guess, is that O’Hehir’s argument is rather lame:
First of all, hasn’t anybody noticed that del Toro has repeatedly said he doesn’t like Tolkien, and that he never finished reading “The Lord of the Rings”? Here’s what he told me in Cannes in 2006, when I asked him about the influence of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on his own work: “I was never into heroic fantasy. At all. I don’t like little guys and dragons, hairy feet, hobbits — I’ve never been into that at all. I don’t like sword and sorcery, I hate all that stuff.”
Let’s see, he doesn’t like “little guys and dragons” or hairy-footed hobbits, and “The Hobbit” would be a movie about what, exactly? Seriously, I think del Toro was speaking from the heart, and I think he’s right. His aesthetic is darker, more Gothic and more grotesque than the Tolkien-via-Jackson universe; it derives more from the medieval mire of middle-European fairy tale than from the high-toned, pre-modern northern European epics Tolkien was channeling. And I’m riding a major bummer if del Toro is shelving “3993” (the third of his Spanish history-fantasy trilogy, after “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”), his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” or his “Doctor Strange” blockbuster. All three of those projects are vastly better fits than the hairy-footed little guys and dragons.
Oddly enough, the news that del Toro isn’t much of a Tolkien fan convinces me he’s the perfect director for The Hobbit. If love for the source material was all it took, then Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly would be the masterpiece too many Philip K. Dick think it is. Give me a filmmaker who combines respect for the material with clear-eyed understanding of the structural and narrative demands imposed by film. Del Toro’s movies may be closer in spirit to the Brothers Grimm than the Icelandic sagas, but his understanding and appreciation of fantasy will carry him over that gap.
Lest we forget, Peter Jackson and his screenwriting partners were pretty ruthless when it came to reshaping Tolkien’s baggy epic, and the three films of The Lord of the Rings came out all the better for it. I never much liked the books either — they had great scenes and characters in them, buried in great stretches of dreariness and inert plotting — but I’m a complete fool for the movies. Getting rid of Tom Bombadil, amping up the fear-factor for the Ringwraiths and turning Aragorn into a self-doubting hero rather than a confident king-in-waiting brought The Fellowship of the Ring to life, and while The Hobbit is a more focused work than its elephantine sequel, I’m sure Jackson’s team will do it the same service. And the skill with which they rescued the Arwen love story from the appendices and made it a significant part of the main story bodes well for the planned follow-up film, which will troll through Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings.
So, bring on The Hobbit and its hairy-footed sequel. I’m pumped. And this time, I’ll be able to take my kids to the theater with me. Bring it on.