Monday, December 17, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            I know this is eccentric of me, but even after my children could read, I made it my habit each evening to read books to them – principally what they called “chapter-books”. By this they meant books largely without illustrations and divided into chapters. Books, in other words, which are the length of adult novels.

            I usually took eleven or twelve as being the age at which each of my children became too old to be read to.

            All of my eight children are now above the age of twelve, and some of them have children of their own, so my dramatic out-loud evening readings have long since ceased.  But while they lasted, various of my children were treated to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, sundry volumes by A.A.Milne, all C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books, all Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, all Hugh Lofting’s Dr.Doolittle books, all the books Erich Kastner wrote for children (Emil and the Detectives, Lotte and Lisa etc.), most of Edith Nesbit, some of Frank Baum’s Oz stories, Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona and Treasure Island, the magnificent “Monkey” legends as translated by Arhur Whalley, the antique “Twins” series that was started by Lucy Fitch Perkins, Walter de la Mare’s The Three Royal Monkeys, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, some of the heavy-handed (and far too English jingoistic) “historical’ novels of Ronald Welch, Fritz Muhlenweg’s German classic Big Tiger and Christian, the “historical” reconstructions of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, J.Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet, the whole of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series, Susan Coolidge’s “Katy” trilogy (What Katy Did etc.), Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, Pinocchio, Raspe’s tales of Baron Munchausen, George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel, John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring, Captain Marryat’s sea-faring tales, but especially his Children of the New Forest, various national collections of myths and legends, and others too numerous to mention.

            I also made it my business to read out loud to the kids – complete and unabridged – some books that are generally classified as being for adults, but that I thought would have some child interest. Bulwer Lytton’s (tedious, as it turned out) Last Days of Pompeii. George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (the social satire was a bit above the kids, but the relationship of Maggie and Tom was gripping). And a reasonable whack of Dickens – to be precise Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and David Copperfield.

            Should any child of mine happen to read this, he or she might reasonably protest that he/she never had ALL these books read to him/her. Quite right. I am saying that these are some of the books I read to my children over the years; but the specific audience was a changing one, as children progressively grew up and left the magic reading circle. Still, I know there are some titles here that I read two or three times to different selections of offspring, so that the whole family copped them.

            Now among the many books I read to my children were those of J.R.R.Tolkien. There was the manageable little fable Farmer Giles of Ham. There was The Hobbit. And there was Lord of the Rings. The one and only time I read Lord of the Rings was when I read it out loud as a bedtime story for my three eldest children – it took about six weeks. When we had finished, Ben, Katy and Vincent (aged at the time 11, 10 and 8) produced their own art-work version of key events in the story, which I still have preserved. This was, of course, long before Peter Jackson and his team got to work on it all.

            I hope you have gathered by now that I have a nodding acquaintance with children’s literature, especially of a more traditional kind. I more-or-less know what does and what does not work for kids.

Tolkien’s admirers have attempted to inflate his works into something more but – even if overlaid with donnish erudition –they are essentially for kids. Or for adults who want to be kids for a while. The Hobbit is a delightful little quest story – no more and no less. When I first read it as a kid myself, I delighted particularly in the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter and in the character of Gollum and in the dragon at the end. Lord of the Rings, in my estimation, is a kids’ story that has got out of hand. It was understandably popular when it came out in three instalments in the 1950s. Hard to resist a tale that keeps promising a big conclusion although, in the event, the conclusion is a bit of a dud. But do you attempt to read all sorts of profundities into it, as addle-headed American college kids did from the 1960s on? Poor you. It is largely mere tale-spinning. I instinctively sympathize with C.S.Lewis who, when his friend Tolkien was reading bits of his magnum opus out loud to him, was heard to grumble “Not another fucking elf!”

Lord of the Rings is simply too much of the same thing repeated over and over.

The final episode of Peter Jackson’s three-film version was quite rightly criticised for the yawnful way in which it ended – one sequence of characters being farewelled being followed by another such sequence and another and another until sane audiences groaned at the tedium of it. But in fairness to Jackson’s team, they were only reproducing some of the longueurs in Tolkien’s original text.

In further fairness to Jackson’s team – and much as the overblown movies did not appeal to me personally – it really did take three movies to cover the whole story of Lord of the Rings.

But here is my point. It certainly does NOT take three movies to cover the simple little bedtime quest story that is The Hobbit. Inflating it into three movies, and thereby pretending it is a story as large in scope as Lord of the Rings, seems to me no more nor less than a way of keeping a profitable franchise going. The obsequious and gushy way our news-media covered the film’s premiere in Wellington is obnoxious, but is merely a symptom of our news-media’s superficiality. It is not my interest here. Likewise, the literalism of the movies, which drains the verbal magic out of the stories, is not my interest here. But it does concern me that a simple little kiddie’s story has become an industry, with commercial spin-offs and merchandising and the fetishizing of plot-points.

You want your kids to enjoy The Hobbit? You want to share their pleasure in it? Very well then. Skip the movies and read it to them as a bedtime story. I assure you, it goes down very well in that form. 


  1. I'm going to comment on Jackson's The Hobbit
    without having seen it. After reading several reviews, a consensus
    emerged that it was a big mistake to augment the original story to 10
    hours of film. I like this description: " We know Bilbo is bound to
    go on his quest, but Jackson dithers 20 minutes in his house for
    feasting and singing. There are 2 musical numbers, including a
    lengthy faux-Celtic dirge during which the dwarves smoke pipes and
    stare pensively into space."
    lf the narrative objective is that Bilbo finds his inner courage, how
    can that be stretched across 3 lengthy films without becoming
    tedious? It does become tedious. Another reviewer commented on the
    oft-repeated sequence in the film: they embark on a perilous quest,
    meet monsters and have a battle. Which recurs, and recurs ...
    But the objective of this arrangement is, as you suggested, purely

  2. I am sure that there are exceptions to the rule but, by and large in my experience an adaptation of a book to film will always be poorer than the book itself. In this particular instance, the solution is not to deny that the film exists, which is what I think you are suggesting. What I have done is read the book to the kids before they get to see the movie. This had the desired effect. Child A said: "That was really amazing. But it wasn't the book."