Last night we watched a bunch of the extras and appendices on Sir Peter Jackson’s extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I loved all the extras in the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings films and have been waiting eagerly to sit down and see what went into the making of such an awesome adaptation of one of my favorite books.
I suppose I should have started by explaining that story time was my favorite hour every day in grade school. And in fifth grade, Mr. Tolefson was absolutely awesome. We learned about the difference between anarchy, democracy, and dictatorship on the second day of school. He required that we read the newspaper every day, watch the news every night, and would give news quizzes every morning. He treated us as adults. His story hour was magic. Mr. T started out by reading us Catcher in the Rye. I remember several of the lines to this day, especially the last one… “Sleep tight, ya morons!” followed by footsteps on peanut shells as Holden Caulfield left school.
But wait, you say… that’s not the last line. It was for us. One of my classmates regaled her mom with the plot and told her that that the story was really fun and that she was enjoying it. The mom was a bit of an overprotective helicopter and went immediately to the principal, demanding that the book not be read because her little nine year old darling was too young for such a tale. It was my first experience of someone so selfish that she was willing to ruin something for an entire group of people just to enforce her own personal values on the world. It left a very sour taste in my mouth.
I mean, I spent hours as a kid watching Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote (Genius!). I can honestly say that I was never stupid enough to think that dropping an anvil on someone’s head would be either painless or harmless. And frankly, watching Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird enjoy themselves by getting other characters in trouble and hurting them reminded me so much of the bullies in the neighborhood that I didn’t like them much. So to have someone make a whole class give something up because she didn’t trust her daughter to have enough brains to know the difference between a story and real life just flabbergasted me.
Any road, the following day, Mr. T explained to us, as adults, why we were stopping the book, and he let us know that if our parents were okay with it, we could check Catcher in the Rye out of the library on our own to finish it. (I never could bring myself to read it…and I never took a class where it was required reading…I still get mad each time I pick it up.) He instead pulled out a new book, turned out the lights so that only the sunlight pouring through the window illuminated where he sat, and read, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…”
Whole new worlds opened up for me. I went to the library that afternoon and checked out the book because I couldn’t wait until the next day to see what would happen next. I devoured it. I stayed up most of the night reading under the covers with a flashlight. I read it two or three more times, then checked out the Lord of the Rings, and read everything down to the appendices. I taught myself runes and took my class notes in runes all year.
The Rankin Bass production of The Hobbit came out a few months later and Mom and Dad got me the album for Christmas so I could listen to it. This was before even VHS, so there was no watching the movie a second time… you had to wait until they (hopefully) televised it again… and it wasn’t like now where they have marathons of the same show over and over and over for weeks on end; you might have to wait a year or more before seeing it again if it ever came back at all.
I would lie in the dark with the big clunky head phones on, seeing the movie playing behind my eyelids, and listening to Richard Boone’s wonderful portrayal of Smaug and Orson Bean as Bilbo when Bilbo sees the dragon for the first time. Sometimes I would wake up with that scratchy sound of the LP still turning on the record player and the album finished playing, only to put the needle back on at the beginning of side three to listen to it one more time. I loved the songs…and sang along with most of them (still do…I now own the DVD and can watch it whenever I like). Of course now every time I think of Sir Peter Jackson’s noble elves…well one in particular, serious Hugo Weaving as Elrond, singing Tra La La Lally Here Down in the Valley Ha Ha, I can’t stop giggling. Maybe it will be on a blooper reel somewhere….
I squeed and cried through most of the first viewing of Unexpected Journey the when we saw it last winter. I had been waiting for someone to bring Middle Earth to life…really bring it to life, since Mr. T began to read The Hobbit to us. And it met all my expectations. Thank you, Sir Peter Jackson. You have made me a very happy ten year old again. Only nineteen days left until Desolation of Smaug…but I’m not counting down or anything…really.
Getting the Blu-ray of the theatrical release was cool enough, but oh, the extras on the extended version. Ten or so hours of pure unadulterated awesome. What struck me most was the passion and attention to detail of everybody involved in the production. The skill and craftsmanship on every prop, every drawing… Richard Taylor talking about the process they went through to create the dwarven culture and architecture, down to the subtle patterns in each character’s clothing…Richard Armitage explaining the meaning of Thorin’s name (darer…as in he’s the one who dares to take back their birthright), and the reason why his beard is short. Each person on that team really dug deep and researched and worked hard to be consistent in the detail and bits and pieces of their characters.
So how does that relate to writing? Well first off, Tolkien was the master world builder, so you can’t go wrong learning your craft from his example. But more importantly, after I saw the extras and went back to watch the movie a second time, I realized how much richness those little details added to the film. You could really tell that the actors felt more in tune with their characters because of the passion and detail that went into creating them.
This has me really starting to go through each reference I use during the editing process to be as consistent and detailed with the background of the characters in The Stolen Songbird as the people on the production of Unexpected Journey were with Tolkien’s. All of them have a general theme to them, but I’m using the editing to go back and solidify that theme to make a richer and fuller picture of each character.
Take Harry. She’s inherited a sort of offbeat version of her father’s ability to call on the living earth to forge stones. I noticed during editing that once or twice in describing Harry, I used stone related terms subconsciously… Now I’m going back to be deliberate about it…to carry that theme across the book. For example, instead of saying at she’s white as a sheet when she’s about to faint, I change it to chalk white. Instead of saying her hair is black, I say it’s the color of obsidian, and just as short and spiky. I’m doing the same thing with Rachel, but using musical terms instead of words related to stone or earth.
The Stolen Songbird may or may not go down through the ages to become as beloved as The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but I want it to be the best I can make it. And if I can harness the world and the characters that live inside me, and bring them even half as fully to life as the amazing cast and crew did with Middle Earth, I will count myself both skilled and lucky…because when it comes down to it, it’s all in the details…