GET OUT OF MY HEAD!

There is a very short post by James M. over at Grognardia which has garnered 70+ comments and counting. James M. stuck up the picture at right (which is of the actor who is playing the part of Thorin, leader of the dwarves, from Jackson’s “Hobbit” film) along with a caption saying who it was. Most of the comments (I haven’t read them all) seem to be debating the issue of whether or not this ‘looks’ like one of Tolkien’s dwarves or not.

I’m less interested in whether or not this ‘looks like Thorin or not’ and the other issue it raises for me: If I read a book and then later see that same book made into a film, sometimes I feel like the images from the movie will actually replace those of my own imagination, which is strange and somewhat disquieting. I know I read ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ long before I saw the films, but when I imagine what Frodo looks like today, I imagine Elija Wood instead of whomever I might have pictured in my mind’s eye before that (who knows: perhaps I imagined those huge eyed midgets from the Rankin-Bass cartoon and singing goblins?).

I don’t think the above ‘Thorin’ looks how I pictured him. I lived in Germany as a wee kid and had access to all kinds of really old fairy tale books as a kid which somehow made me imagine dwarves as somewhat more stumpy, grouchy looking garden gnomes with wrinkled faces and impossibly long beards. I know that’s just a step away from the somewhat maudlin Walt Disney Snow White cartoon, but Disney’s images and mine may have been drawn from the same sources (we had a pile of illustrated German fairy tale books that I think inspired me to want to draw, some of which were old when my mother was a child. Among them is Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter” which is probably still in reprint today and continues to guarantee that German kids grow up somewhat perverse and twisted — but there are no dwarves in Struwwelpeter; just kids getting killed, mutilated or humiliated).

I sometimes feel like my brain is a crowded house, and when I introduce new things into it, other things get shoved out the back door and forgotten. People who study brains and learning assure me that the human mind does not work like this, but sometimes I think conceptualization and imagination does. One of the strengths of stories like ‘The Hobbit’ is that the author gives a lot of little details in the course of telling the story but lets the reader paint his or her own picture of what the character may look like. We know that Bilbo is fat and out of shape because we start by learning about how the dwarves invade his comfortable middle class house and take advantage of his hospitality and he is out of breath from running back and forth trying to fill all of their requests for beer, cheese, wine, etc. Later in the story he complains about being hungry or not having even the smallest items of personal comfort like a handkerchief. Waistcoats and round doors and hairy feet are mentioned, but part of the pleasure of the story is taking all of these little details and creating a character image from it as you read rather than having the author give a visual inventory of Biblo Baggins at the start. If memory serves, Tolkien does not tell us a lot about how the dwarves look other than saying that they have cloaks and beards and hoods. Thorin is noted as having a silver tassel on his hood and being treated with respect by the other dwarves but I don’t recall a great deal of specificity in their individual description. The only dwarf who stands out is Bombur, who is noted as being very fat. As a reader I may have just assumed dwarves were shorter than humans because they are called ‘dwarves.’ I don’t know if that was ever specifically stated in ‘The Hobbit.’ (And, while we are on the subject, is ‘dwarves’ really correct? Should it be ‘dwarfs’?)

I don’t feel qualified to argue whether my ‘dwarf image’ is better than Jacksons… mine is probably pretty dull and predictable given what I was exposed to as a kid… but my dwarf image is mine and feels like a gift from both my own brain and the author.

I know when The Hobbit finally hits theaters I will see it. But part of me doesn’t want to. Part of me thinks that every specific image of the imaginary I expose myself to in very immersive technologies like movies risks replacing images I mentally generated in my own more piecemeal fashion, and that feels like I am perhaps giving something up.

6 Comments on “GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”

  1. Matt Finch says:

    I know exactly what you mean about images getting pushed out by new ones.

    (btw, “dwarfs” is correct but Tolkien deliberately used “dwarves,” for whatever philological reasons he had. He complained a lot about how editors kept “correcting” that).

  2. Erin says:

    I hear you. Because of Rankin-Bass, Gandalf is supposed to sound like John Houston. For reasons I cannot explain (and do not wish to explore), I've always likened Thorin to Dorothy from the Golden Girls–abrasive and demanding, but with a heart of gold when it really counts. Yet I'm sure Bea Arthur didn't watch The Hobbit to get into character…

  3. Anonymous says:

    I find that I don't have that effect, and I'm glad. To me, when I think of LOTR the book, I picture them as I imagined while reading it. The movie ones are confined to the movie in my mind (except in some cases where they were really close to my imagination anyhow.) Likewise, when I read REH Conan stories I imagine the character the way he is described rather than like Arnold, or like he was drawn in comics, etc. I am able to separate versions of things in my mind, I guess.

  4. ClawCarver says:

    Struwwelpeter is fabulous. It's still in print. Sold a couple of copies this week in the shop where I work. I am not in the least shocked to learn that it was an early influence on your own artistic sensibility!

    As for the dwarves, I'd be quite surprised and disappointed if Peter Jackson and his design team visualised them exactly the way I did. Why would I pay to see something I'd already imagined in my own head? To me, it's a bit like a musician doing a cover version of a song: there's no point unless you bring something new and distinctive and personal to your interpretation.

    P.S. “Biblo Baggins”? That reminds me. There's a pretentious wine bar in Edinburgh called Biblos. My ex once phoned me from there and said, “I'm in Bilbo's.” That's how I still think of it. Which perhaps proves the point of your post.

  5. Tatem says:

    @ Matt

    You would not believe how much shit I get because I use Dwarves. I am particularly gearing my “Dwarfs” to be Tolkien's “Dwarves”. lol

    so much debating over such a simple thing.

    I do not feel Eli looks anything like the Frodo of my mind, So I am good. I remember things with imagery and that imagery is very difficult to manipulate. This does pose a problem every now and again. Most of the time it is an asset and not a burden.

  6. Von says:

    The Frodo in my head is middle-aged, the way Tolkien wrote him; the Gandalf was already influenced by John Howe's artwork, as was the one in the films, so that's all good. I confess that my mental conception of Sam is now very strongly rooted in the Jackson films though.

    I think he liked 'dwarves' because he could etymologically link it with 'elves', or something – or maybe he just liked the sound of it. I know I do. Say it. “Dwarves.” Deepen that 'a' and roll the R. “Dwaarrrrves.” It has resonance.

    As far as the ones in the Hobbit film go, they're differentiated by something more than the colours of their cloaks and actually look like they might be… dare I say it… characterised? Fili and Kili and Balin and Bombur are the only ones I remember as standing out from the crowd – at least these all look like individuals. The black leather feels a bit overdone by the time we get to thirteen of 'em, though.


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