Revisiting the Hobbit Graphic Novel and Animated Movie

In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit…

So begins the journey into the epic fantasy world of Middle Earth. The line was written as a fleeting thought by author JRR Tolkien as he graded papers, proving that a) even professors doodle and b) that doodles do have value. As part of our Hobbit week we decided to look back at two of the more well-known adaptations of The Hobbit, the graphic novel (recently re-released) and the animated film for television from the 1970s.

The Hobbit Graphic Novel

This was my visual introduction to Middle Earth. I found the graphic novel in a used bookstore shortly after I finished reading The Hobbit for the first time. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure this was the first graphic novel that I ever read.

If you have a young or reluctant reader who isn’t eager to pick up Tolkien’s full novel and delve into passage after passage of names and intricate descriptions of scenery I might suggest this as a wonderful alternative entry point into the world of Middle Earth.

Originally published in 1989 as a three issue comic series, the book was eventually put together as a trade paperback and released as a full graphic novel. In September of 2012 the book was re-released with some updated changes to the layout, a new cover, and a few new pages of artwork as part of the run-up to the Hobbit film.

The watercolor-esque art style by David T. Wenzel gave Middle Earth a vibrant look that in some ways mirrored the animated film, though with smoother lines and a little more age to each of the characters. Many of the panels literally bleed off the pages and swords, staves and other artifacts often push outside the boundaries of the individual panels to great effect.

The original version had some layout issues with panels appearing a bit distorted or important characters being cutoff, apparently from a desire to have consistent margins on every page. The newly released version solved this issue by allowing for adaptive margins that are based on each individual page of panels.

The graphic novel is a fairly faithful adaptation with all the major characters and events retained from the book, including the visit with Beorn and an elongated retelling of the events in Mirkwood forest leading to the dwarves’ capture by the wood elves. The “Riddles in the Dark” chapter as well as Bilbo’s interactions with Smaug look particularly gorgeous. I can’t think of a better book to have with me at the theater to help pass the time while I wait for the movie to start.

The Hobbit (1977)

This is the movie that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is up against. This is the movie that we will spend hours painstakingly comparing to whatever we see this weekend in theaters.

Well, okay probably not, but up until now this 1977 animated feature (originally for television)  was really all we had when it came to Hobbit films. These, along with the animated versions of the Lord of the Rings were what Tolkien fans clung to right up until the early 21st century when a bunch of people in New Zealand (which really should just be renamed Middle Earth at this point) changed all that.

The film clocks in at a brisk seventy-seven minutes which means that some of the book has been excised completely. Beorn is nowhere to be found, nor is there any extended battling “down down in Goblintown”. All the other major set-pieces like the stronghold of the Wood Elves, Laketown, Riddles in the Dark, the Battle of Five Armies, and Biblo’s conversation with Smaug remain, though in places there seems to have been a bit of hand waving to keep the plot moving.

Smaug the cat-dragon.

Keep an ear out for John Huston as Gandalf – the man responsible for directing films like The Maltese Falcon and African Queen – and Otto Premiger as the king of the wood elves. Yes, the same Otto Preminger that portrayed Mr. Freeze in the Adam West Batman television series.

Yet, the thing to listen for the most – and the real reason this movie remains a true fan-favorite and cult classic – is the music. Throughout the entire film a song “The Greatest Adventure” plays and many of the songs that Tolkien himself wrote into the Hobbit make an appearance as either background music or sung directly by characters.

The music was actually released separately and if you’re savy you could find it and rock out in the car on your way to a midnight screening of the Hobbit this week, or maybe you can get everyone in the theatre to sing “The Greatest Adventure”. That would be awesome.

Watching the movie again several things stand out. First, the movie is a lot shorter than I remembered it being. At just over an hour the story absolutely flies by and I’m not sure that people who haven’t read the book would really get the right appreciation for the material. Second, Smaug looks less like a dragon and more like a cat for some reason which is jarring and distracting for the entire time that he’s onscreen. Gollum looks a lot like a toad or a turtle without his shell.

Also, I forgot that the dwarves were stuck as prisoners of the wood elves for “weeks” before Bilbo devised the escape using barrels down the river, which is crazy. Finally, Gandalf comes off as a real asshole. I know he’s a wizard and he comes and goes as he pleases during the book, but he abruptly appears and disappears and every time he does show up he’s got something bad to say.

Oh and he tells Bilbo to record the events of the adventure so that he can review them and “point out areas where you failed” like he’s some sort of evil middle-manager. Actually, come to think of it, between Gandalf, Thorin, Smaug, and all the various kings and leaders in the book, The Hobbit is filled with some pretty surly characters.

Gandalf is an extremely busy wizard with many important things to do and he does not have time for your crap.

The unfortunate thing about this version of the Hobbit is accessibility. There was a DVD release in 2001, but the transfer from the VHS wasn’t very good and the quality leaves much to be desired.

With the release of Peter Jackson’s new film you would think that perhaps this animated tale would see new life in an updated DVD or even a Blu-Ray release. Sadly that isn’t the case and Warner Bros. appears to just be sitting on the film.

Regardless of some of the flaws and quirks of these two adaptations they are wonderful representations of the possibilities that The Hobbit can bring when the characters are lifted off the page and visual life is breathed into Tolkien’s words.

When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens this weekend you can bet we’ll be there with graphic novel in hand, ready to play a game of Riddles in the Dark while singing “the road goes ever on and on” under our breath.