One of my "in real life" passions is for theater, especially for musicals. They're often silly: most people don't break into song when we find ourselves overwhelmed by emotion (whether stressful or positive).
So when I heard the recent announcement that Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit would be a trilogy, I started thinking about recent musical adaptions I've seen (The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Sweeney Todd) and ones I've skipped (Mama Mia, Rock of Ages).
A stretch? Not for me.
The thing that a stage does, with curtains and cardboard houses and lighting instruments suspended from the walls and ceiling, is demand a suspension of disbelief. The cinema doesn't (or rarely) ask for the same level of disbelief- a production on stage will include errors, alterations, and imperfections that movie won't. The version of a film that makes it past the cutting room is (almost always) the director's vision.
Reading is much more like a trip to the theater than a trip to the cinema, which is, in part, why even film critics agree that most every film adaptation pales in comparison to the book. In reading, we snap to attention at words, paragraphs, pages almost without understanding how; we can skim for pages when suddenly we're drawn a level deeper into the book. In film, the director guides us, makes it harder for us to miss the nuance- often, the director gets so heavy handed that we wish we could miss a little (I'm looking at you, Dark Knight Rises).
Which brings me to The Hobbit, which I can't imagine warranting a narrative arc equivalent of the entire Lord of the Rings.
I devoured The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in about a week at age twelve, and I've never re-read them. Maybe I should. Then, a couple years later, I read The Silmarillion when it came out, and the magic just wasn't there. Things that were enchanted became just elements of the world: the elves and dwarves weren't surprising, for the same reason that know who Darth Vader is spoils Star Wars. Knowing how they came to be robbed them of something- in a world so complete, my suspension of disbelief is worth a little less.
Movie musicals are the same way. Part of what makes Phantom of the Opera stunning on stage is the costumes and the set and the innumerable candles. That's hard to do on stage and it requires work on my part not to see the wires guiding the chandelier to the stage, but on film, it's ho-hum.
Maybe The Hobbit can tell the back stories that illuminate The Lord of the Rings without destroying the magic. Maybe Peter Jackson really does have more to say through these characters; I think his role as director is not just transcriber of the films, but as translator- maintaining the intention of the original while imbuing the work with his own cadence.
And I hope a Hobbit trilogy has more to do with the art, with the story that needs to be told, than with the money it will bring in. Is that naive?