There and Back Again

Dixon, Charles. Illustrated by David Wenzel.The Hobbit: An Illustrated Edition of the Fantasy Classic. by J.R.R. Tolkien. Del Rey Fantasy. New York, NY 2001

Character- The Hobbit (and Tolkien’s work more generally) have character development based on narrator exposition, in an effort to create the effect of an oral tradition with running, non-diegetic commentary. Deming and Dixon’s use the same method in their adaptation. The opening narration describes Bilbo (and all Bagginses) as, “…respectable, not only because they were very rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected.” (1) The 13 dwarves with which Bilbo travels use the high-fantasy, formal language made common by Tolkien, and aside from the narrator’s mention of the material concerns of dwarves, they are sparsely even distinguished from one another. However, I think this is a problem with the source material, not the graphic novel. If anything, the finely drawn illustrations by David Wenzel adds more character and identity to the group than Tolkien’s original tale. On the other hand, the adaptors failed to provide sufficient character growth outside of explicit narration stating that growth had occured. (“-he had lost his reputation” is about all the narrator tells us of Bilbo’s fundamental self-discovery because of his adventures)

Plot– The plot of the novel is succinctly recounted in this text. The sprawling descriptions and laborious back-story to which Tolkien is partial is rarely indulged here, with focus on action and plot progression. There are many frames with no dialogue whatsoever, and the adaptors wisely kept historical exposition to what was necessary for understanding the plot. The pages of description Tolkien uses to retell the party’s encounter with trolls in the forests or Arnor come alive across 3 pages of action, allowing the reader to quickly comprehend the major actions of the plot without getting bogged down in sometimes unwanted detail.

Setting- Again, setting requires the use of imagination in traditional prose texts. However, Wenzel does a great job illustrating the various locales in The Hobbit, using deep, dark greens and browns to accentuate the spooky forest of Mirkwood, and blue text boxes during Bilbo’s underground encounter with Gollum. The images of Rivendell, Hobbiton, and even the Lonely Mountain tell more than pages of description.

Style- The style of the graphic novel favors Tolkien’s writing style, with emphasis on blocks omniscient narration and exposition. The panels are more stylized and still than the action comics of the Golden Age, and reflect movie stills more than adventure sequences. The highly saturated colors and watercolor-style, impressionistic illustrations add to the lack of gritty “realism,” reinforcing the fantasy elements of the story. Remember, The Hobbit was written much this way, without the moral and philosophical issues and hardships of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So in this case, as many others, the graphic novel was written to model the style of the prose.

Theme- The themes in the graphic novel are underplayed, really. The Hobbit does a good job of introducing the world of Middle-Earth, setting up the conflicts for the Lord of the Rings, as well as presenting a neat dragon slaying tale. However, the themes continued in Lord of the Rings (the smallest can have the greatest impact, rising to greatness, having hidden ability and worth, not to mention the environmental and technology v. nature concepts) are all pronounced in the original novel, but are glazed over here in favor of a simpler plot summary. I’m disappointed that these themes weren’t explored, as character development is stunted when they can’t learn the same lessons we do. The only implication that Bilbo learned anything from his adventure is a single panel in which Gandalf exclaims “You are not the hobbit that you were.”

Viewpoint- The point of view is that of an omniscient, reliable and 3rd party narrator. Although the effect was used to great success in the original prose, the graphic novel suffers for it. Graphic novels (in my opinion) were meant to be read with an emphasis on character’s actions, plot progression based on intrinsic motivation through the story, not outside forces merely summarizing that “two weeks passed, and then they were out of there.”

Overall, this graphic novel adds something to the original book, as well as detracts. Although the setting and characters are lovingly portrayed, with added power due to the vivid illustrations, careful characterization is glossed to push forward the basic plot. And although that plot is very completely summarized in this text (a boon to those who struggle through Tolkien’s thick prose) underlying themes that emerge in the original pages are missed or quickly and explicitly stated, instead of shown through character’s thoughts or actions. Like other “Classics Illustrated”-type graphic novels, it makes for a successful introduction to the characters, setting, and plot, and has much value as a tool in that manner; however, no one should substitute this for the original, which contains the deeper themes and styles that really capture the work.

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One Response to There and Back Again

  1. Pingback: 100 Panels of Twain |

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