‘Children’s fairy tale’ becomes cinema epic

Light entertainment or dark fantasy? Ian McKellen stars in ‘The Hobbit’ © Warner Bros.

When Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ was published, it was reviewed as a bedtime story. This week it hits the big screen as a three-part drama aimed at adults. Has popular culture become too childish?

On December 18, 1954, a frustrated reviewer issued a call to arms: ‘Adults of all ages!’ he wrote. ‘Unite against the infantilist invasion.’ The book that provoked Maurice Richardson’s rant? The Two Towers, the second part of JRR Tolkien‘s sprawling trilogy Lord of the Rings.

Adults of all ages were distinctly unpersuaded. Instead of uniting against childishness, they gobbled up Tolkien’s works so greedily that the Lord of the Rings became the third best-selling book of all time, with an astonishing 150 million copies sold worldwide. Its smaller, lighter prequel, The Hobbit, sits just one place below.

Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Hobbit is released this week. And despite a mixed reception from the press, this first episode in the adventures of ‘halfling’ Bilbo Baggins is tipped to join the ranks of cinema history’s highest grossing hits. It will fit in nicely: not only are three of the top thirty slots taken up by Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, but they are surrounded by other films that were either made for children, or based on children’s stories.

This year alone, the top ten box office hits include three reworkings of children’s books, three comic book adaptations and two original cartoons. The only two that are clearly aimed at adults are a James Bond film and a story whose main star is a giant teddy bear.

Some critics object that The Hobbit, which hints at horror and violence beneath the swashbuckling plot, is not really a children’s film at all. ‘Tolkien wrote a book for kids,’ said Total Film, ‘but Jackson hasn’t made a movie for them.’

Yet that in itself is revealing. Just as recent Batman films have introduced notes of psychological menace and realism to a previously lighthearted franchise, Peter Jackson has emphasised the darkest, most adult undertones of what started out as a simple fairy tale.

Child’s play?

What, ask the likes of Maurice Richardson, has happened to our culture? Have we lost the ability to cope with serious, adult art? Once upon a time, great novelists like Charles Dickens and George Eliot topped bestseller lists with books that unflinchingly explored the social realities of their time. Today, they say, these works have been replaced by silly, childish fantasies. Our culture has become pathetic.

What cloying snobbery, say Tolkien’s fans. A film full of dwarves and wizards can carry just as much emotional depth as one populated by politicians or policemen – and convey messages just as profound. Children are willing to accept fantasies because their imaginations are supple and free, they say; if adults can follow their example, so much the better.

You Decide

  1. Is fantasy always less serious than realism?
  2. ‘Even the most apparently innocent fairy tales have dark and unsettling themes lurking just beneath the surface.’ Do you agree?


  1. Write a review of a film you have seen this year that was made at least partly for children.
  2. EITHER a) Take a fantasy story and rewrite it as realism OR b) Take a realistic story and rewrite it as fantasy.

Some People Say...

“Fantasy is for kids.”

What do you think?

Q & A

If some people prefer children’s films, then who is anybody to judge? It’s just their opinion.
Of course it is. But that shouldn’t be the end of the discussion: films and books can reveal a lot about who we are and what we value, and most people would say that our cultural preferences have purposes beyond simple entertainment.
Like what?
According to the 16th Century writer Philip Sidney, the purpose of fiction was to ‘teach and delight’. Others have seen fiction as a moral education, offering good examples to follow and bad ones to avoid. Still more believe that films and books can sometimes reveal things about the world more convincingly than fact. As bestselling novelist Stephen King says, ‘fiction is the truth inside the lie.’

Word Watch

The word ‘infant’ (meaning child) comes from the Latin for ‘one who does not speak’. Infantilism is a condition where childlike characteristics are retained into adulthood; it can be a medical condition, but usually it is used to describe a personality.
JRR Tolkien
Tolkien (1892-1973) was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Norse at Oxford University, who in his spare time wrote fantastical tales for his children. In 1936, one of these stories accidentally came to the attention of a publisher and was released, to widespread acclaim, as The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings, its sequel, was originally intended to be a children’s book too – but as Tolkien’s ambitions for the novel grew, it became darker and more adult in tone.
The Hobbit
Most of the characters in Tolkien’s fantasy world (elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls) are stolen from Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology. But hobbits, small home-loving creatures with hairy feet, are his own invention. In The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, the hobbit in question is Bilbo Baggins, who goes on an ‘adventure’ with a group of dwarves to reclaim the treasure captured by a dragon named Smaug.

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