'The Hobbit': A Geek's Take

This film image released by Warner Bros. shows Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a scene from the fantasy adventure "The Hob
This film image released by Warner Bros. shows Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a scene from the fantasy adventure "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (AP Photo/Warner Bros., James Fisher)

I think of myself as a Tolkien geek. I've read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) more than a dozen times each. I've seen the Peter Jackson's LOTR's trilogy almost as many times. I'm a staunch defender of Ralph Bakshi's 1978 Lord of the Rings film. I've made my pilgrimage to The Eagle and the Child pub in Oxford where Tolkien, Lewis, and the other Inklings met to discuss their work. I've been to New Zealand and done multiple LOTR tours near Queenstown, as well as, on my own, climbing Mt. Tongariro (which portrayed, quite magnificently, Mt. Doom in the films--I'd add that I had the sound track from Fellowship playing in my iPod as I climbed, but fear that would cross me over from geek-dom to weirdo-dom). And once, while driving in New Zealand, I gave a ride to a hitchhiker who said he had played an orc at the Battle of Helm's Deep.

All that being said, I don't view everything that streamed from JRR's pen to be unadulterated genius. The Silmarillion reads like a textbook written by a very boring machine. There are stretches of LOTR and The Hobbit, which I will skim over in rereading, particularly anything that looks like a song--man oh man do I hate when people put songs in books (I say that, of course, having put a song in my last book).

So, I'm a fan, but with some critical faculties still functioning.

Now, a new Hobbit movie is coming out, so how do I feel?

Equal parts excited and terrified. Excited because Peter Jackson's last three Middle Earth movies were just about as awesome as awesome can be. Choosing to shoot as much as possible in the real world instead of against a green screen, to have the characters be muddy and tired and sweaty, to make them look real, gave a great grounding to the fantasy--it allowed us to believe the dragons and magic, the elves and dwarves, the walking-talking trees. No small feat, right? And Jackson also walked that perfect line of giving us a large-scale epic, but making it feel like it was about the characters. And he brought Golem to life in a way I never would have thought possible. If anyone can pull off The Hobbit he can.

So why am I terrified?

Because of all the books, The Hobbit is my favorite. Indeed, it's one of the two or three books that made me want to write children's fantasy to begin with. See, as a writer, you have an inner sanctum of a few books that helped form your writerly identity. You protect that inner sanctum, you go back to it again and again. And if and when movies get made of those books, you never ever allow yourself to think they might be as good as the book.

But now I find myself thinking, maybe...just maybe...

So, in one final attempt to manage my expectations, here are a few of the things that the movie has to preserve to be any good at all: 1) that Bilbo is not a hero. Yes, he does heroic things, and he finds deep strains of courage inside of himself, but Bilbo is each of us, he's worried about being cold and tired and far from home and getting regular meals. It would also help if he were a little stouter than Martin Freeman, but I do know you can't have it all. 2) That the tone of The Hobbit is lighter and funnier, more of a romp, than LOTR. The Hobbit is an adventure; LOTR is an epic--totally different things. 3) That the dwarves are appropriately dwarfish; they'll sing songs, talk over each other, be constantly wreathed in pipe smoke, greedy for gold, and too proud about their beards. 4) That Thorin Oakenshield will be a bit of a pain in the neck. 5) That they don't sing too-too many songs. I know I just said the dwarves should sing songs, but really I don't like songs in books and I'm not that crazy about them in movies either. 6) That Smaug will not look like any other dragon I've ever seen. Smaug informed my whole concept of dragons, their vanity, their cat-like complacency, Smaug has to be something . . . special. Don't ask me what exactly, because I don't know. It's one of those I'll-know-it-when-I-see-it things. 7) That the movie will be 15 hours long. And that, I now realize, is the thing I'm most terrified of, that at some point soon, I will come out of a theater in Los Angeles, having just seen The Hobbit, and it will be over.

Wait--it's a three-parter, isn't it? When's the release date for Part Two? Can we buy tickets yet? Oh man, this is gonna be awesome...

JOHN STEPHENS is the author of the New York Times bestselling fantasy novels for young readers The Emerald Atlas and The Fire Chronicle, the first two books in the Books of Beginning trilogy.