A baker's dozen short

On “The Hobbit,” dwarves and why Peter Jackson is right to deviate from Tolkien’s classic

As a fan of literature, I rarely root for a film adaptation to make wholesale changes to a beloved book. And yet strangely, for among my most-beloved books, those of J.R.R. Tolkien, I’m in the position cheering for major changes to plot, theme and tone in the upcoming adaptations of “The Hobbit.”

I was a huge fan of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” both books and movies. Peter Jackson’s movies took a lot of liberties with the books, generally focusing more on action than the often meandering travelogue of Tolkien’s prose, and cutting out sequences both extraneous (Tom Bombadil) and cool but probably unworkable (the Scourging of the Shire). Characters were tweaked and plots rearranged, with battle sequences extended far beyond Tolkien’s brief descriptions and characters given extra adventures and conflict.

While some purists complained, I largely didn’t mind. For the better part of four years I obsessed over the films, tracking news as they were shot and produced and then watching them multiple times, in theaters and on DVD, after release.

But anyone who thought Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” played fast and loose with the original had better hurry up and hook up a dynamo in Wolvercote Cemetery, because Professor Tolkien is about to be spinning madly in his grave.

“The Hobbit,” Tolkien’s first novel, was written as a children’s story, and it shows. For most of the book, the tone is light and fanciful, with the main characters bickering and singing and getting into trouble and out again without much more to show from it than a little discomfort. Tricks solve most of the obstacles the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his companions face, not force of arms, and all the main characters except Gandalf are marked by varying degrees of folly.

When “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arrives in theaters in December 2012, viewers will not see a film for children. Instead, they’re likely to see something more akin to the adult “Lord of the Rings” movies Jackson directed a decade ago. Compared to the novel, the tone will be grittier and the action more violent. Moreover, massive sections of plot not in the novels will make up the film, filling in the gaps around the adventure wherein Bilbo Baggins finds a magical ring and a dragon’s treasure. In the book, the wizard Gandalf disappears for long chunks of the novel, pursuing other schemes; we readers only learn what he’s up to at the very end of the book. In films, Jackson will reportedly cut back and forth, showing the struggle of Gandalf and others against the Necromancer of Mirkwood while Bilbo and his companions trudge east towards the Lonely Mountain. (This is why “The Hobbit” is going to be two movies, not one.)

I don’t mind this. It’s a little disappointing that the production of “The Hobbit” won’t be the great children’s movie it could be, but in doing so I fully expect Jackson to produce a worthy companion to his epic “Lord of the Rings.”

Earlier this year, I wasn’t so sure.

In my mind, the biggest unknown — and biggest concern — about Jackson’s “Hobbit” adaptation was how he would handle the characters who set off with Bilbo on the quest to slay the dragon Smaug: 13 dwarves.

This was cause for concern for a number of reasons. For one, simple logistics. Thirteen is a LOT of characters to introduce and develop. I knew Tolkien novices who couldn’t keep the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring straight, and they were all different shapes and sizes — dwarves, elves, hobbits, humans, and wizards.

The company of Thorin Oakenshield are all dwarves. That means they’re all short, stocky and bearded, generally hard-working but proud. Even in the novel, Tolkien didn’t spend a lot of time giving the dwarves individual personalities. There was Thorin, the leader (and most competent); Bombur, the fat dwarf; Balin, the kindly, older dwarf; Fili and Kili, the younger dwarves — and then they start to blend together.

That worked in a children’s book. But in a movie that’s ostensibly a prequel to the epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the dwarves would swiftly become a laughingstock. The dwarves will provide plenty of comedy, that’s for sure — much of it is written into the plot, and in the Lord of the Rings Jackson used the dwarf Gimli as his go-to comic relief source. Comedy, though, can’t be their raison-d’être.

And I wasn’t certain that Peter Jackson would successfully steer the dwarves away from comic relief. That was my second concern — Jackson’s increasing misuse of the dwarf Gimli in the Lord of the Rings. In the first Lord of the Rings movie, Gimli provided some laughs by virtue of his fierce pride. But over the next two films, that pride slowly became less noble and more clownish, as Gimli has Aragorn toss him into battle, hops up and down because he can’t see over the Helm’s Deep battlements, and (worst of all!) loses a drinking contest to Legolas, the graceful elf warrior to whom Gimli was increasingly relegated to being a foil.

This galled me because as a fantasy reader I’ve always been a fan of dwarves. This was and is distinctly a minority opinion — by far the most popular fantasy race are the elves. Graceful, beautiful, intelligent, skilled craftspeople and artists, lovers and defenders of nature, it’s no wonder so many fantasy fans love elves. (Just look at Tolkien. The great philologist invented two distinct elven languages, but didn’t even fully flesh out his one dwarven tongue.) Dwarves, in contrast, are stubborn, gruff, hand-working, greedy, insular, clannish, and prone to being the architects of their own destruction. (Dwarves ALWAYS delve too deep…) Instead of living in verdant forests, they carve out their homes in caves. And then there’s the beards — dwarves all have them.* Things may have been different in the mid-19th Century, but this day and age, people consistently express aesthetic preference for clean-shaven men.

*All dwarf men have them, at any rate. The question of dwarf women is one that fantasy world-builders can’t agree on. In some versions, dwarf women are bearded just like the men. In others, dwarves share the human trait of women not growing facial hair. In either case, it’s rarely an issue because of all the fantasy races, dwarves are the most male-centric in their portrayal. This is one of the less attractive aspects of dwarves.

Elves are perfect. Dwarves decidedly imperfect. It seems no contest.

And yet, it’s the imperfections that make them so compelling. Angels are boring; watching people with flaws, who make bad decisions, is where real drama comes in. Dwarves make incredible things — whole cities carved out of the insides of mountains, weapons and crafts of surpassing beauty, mines tunneling deep into the earth with medieval technology. But in true dramatic fashion, it’s their very greatest gifts that prove their downfall. The accumulated wealth from dwarf craftsmanship lures raiders, none deadlier than the great dragons who, like Smaug of “The Hobbit,” pillage dwarf strongholds and seize their treasure. And their deep mines awake fell powers like Moria’s Balrog, which rise up from the depths to wreak havoc. Even in the best case scenario, when the dwarves don’t die, they inevitably turn inward and cut their underground cities off from the rest of the world.

I once heard a shorthand description of the classical genres of comedy and drama. In a comedy, everyone gets married at the end. In a drama, everyone dies at the end. (Which you laugh at more is a matter of taste…) Well, in this sense, elves are comedy. Dwarves are drama. The elves fall in love and have parties and eventually get bored and sail off into the sunset. Dwarves all die, or bury themselves in the earth — cursed from the start by the very things that make them distinct.

A monument to this conception of dwarves is the esoteric computer game Dwarf Fortress. This is a simulation game where you control a colony of dwarves and guide them to carve out a city from the mountains, mine for precious materials, and fight off enemies from goblins to dragons. The game is infamous for having perhaps the steepest learning curve ever — what passes for graphics in Dwarf Fortress are simply ASCII characters spilling over the page, like the screen of text from “The Matrix.” But like “The Matrix,” if you stare at the text long enough, the jumble of symbols begins to take on meaning — this letter “d” is a dog, that solid tan block is a rock wall, that cross is a gate. It’s not a game for the faint of heart. (For a look at the game and the philosophy behind it, read this New York Times Magazine article.)

The second thing Dwarf Fortress is infamous for is its difficulty curve. Most computer games you play to win. In Dwarf Fortress, that’s not going to happen. In true dwarven fashion, every dwarf fortress inevitably collapses. If dragons or demons from the deeps or orcish armies don’t crush the fortress, the ordinary feuds and conflicts of your growing society will lead to civil war, or your population will outstrip its food supply and mass famine sets in.  The game’s unofficial motto is “Losing is fun” — you’re going to lose, so you might as well lose amusingly.

Fans of the game have posted all sorts of recaps and summaries of their adventures that capture this spirit. For an accessible look at the spirit of the game, take a look at Bronzemurder, a dwarf city that an artist illustrated so you don’t have to pore through the Matrix to follow along. The basic story of Bronzemurder is a small, thriving fortress gets slaughtered in a comedy of errors by a slumbering monster awoken by an engineering flaw in the fortress’ water pump system. It’s tragic and morbidly hilarious and even a little uplifting at the same time — and that’s what dwarves are about.

But is the same filmmaker who brought us Gimli the clown going to capture that spirit when tasked with an adventuring party of 13 dwarves? I didn’t think so until Jackson released pictures of his dwarf characters to the world this summer:

The twelve supporting dwarf characters from Peter Jackson’s upcoming “The Hobbit” films. Image from http://www.geektown.co.uk/2011/07/16/see-12-dwarves-from-the-hobbit/.

The first thing that does is satisfy my worry about the dwarves being distinguished. Yes, plenty of people will still have trouble keeping them straight because there’s a lot of them. But this isn’t going to be 13 Gimli clones wandering around. You’ve got dwarves with axes, dwarves with hammers, dwarves with swords and dwarves with polearms. Some are fat, some are thin. Some old, some young. Some have a working class demeanor, others a noble bearing. Some have long, flowing beards, others neatly trimmed beards or goatees. (One appears to just have a five-o’clock-shadow, which I’m not the biggest fan of, but whatever.) Just from the visual design, their character traits come through — this one is bookish and shy, that one old and wise, this one a badass warrior, that one a slightly odd duck.

And that more or less allays my secondary concern. From this one photo, you’ve got more thought put into character background than Gimli got in three whole films. These are characters with history, with personalities. You’ve got, in other words, great building blocks for a movie in these characters. Now, the script could do great things with them, or mediocre. But Peter Jackson is starting in the right spot, and it’s a lot harder to end up in the wrong spot with a good start. He had to deviate from Tolkien to get there, but seeing these images makes me confident that “The Hobbit” will live up to the spirit of the Lord of the Rings movies I love so much.

The first “Hobbit” movie will be released in December 2012. The first trailer for the movie premieres in front of the Jackson-produced “The Adventures of Tintin” tomorrow.