J R R Tolkien: The Hobbit,
or There and Back Again
Illustrated by David Wenzel
Adapted by Charles Dixon with Sean Denning
I scarcely need to introduce the story of Bilbo Baggins, a halfling who is persuaded by a wizard and thirteen dwarfs to go on a long and dangerous journey to an isolated mountain, where treasure is guarded by a wicked dragon, and who finally returns home (as the subtitle proclaims).
First published in 1937, revised in 1951 and adapted for radio, animated and live action films, and for the stage, The Hobbit has been around in in its many guises for over 80 years now. As a graphic novel illustrated by David Wenzel it first began to be issued three decades ago, in 1989, and was reissued with revisions and thirty pages of new artwork in 2006.
Each medium has its advantages and drawbacks and so the question to ask when confronted by David Wenzel’s most famous work is, what does it add to the experience of Tolkien’s original saga?
First off, most of the original text is present, so you won’t be small-changed there, or not by much. There is some adapting — tenses changed, reordering of sentences and phrases, a few excisions (some verses from the songs, for example) — but this is largely Tolkien’s own words. Occasionally the text overloads the images, showing how difficult a compromise it is to remain faithful to the original in a medium in which the guiding principle is ‘show, don’t tell’.
Next, how enamoured one may be with the illustrations depends on characterisation and on the artwork itself. If you’ve accepted the image of Bilbo from the Peter Jackson films then you may be disconcerted by the appearance of Wenzel’s Hobbit, middle-aged and with a Beatle haircut. (On the other hand, this may be closer to Tolkien’s vision, who probably thought of Bilbo as a aspect of himself.)
Gandalf is hard to get wrong but the Rivendell elves are less fay and more medieval than the movie versions while the Mirkwood elves could be extras for a Robin Hood film. The dwarves (this is Tolkien’s preferred spelling) are neither Disneyesque nor Jacksonesque, more like grumpy garden gnomes in Lapplander clothing, and Gollum is as you’d expect, bug-eyed and tricksy.
Wenzel goes for a pen-and-ink with colour wash approach, a style associated more with children’s picture books (think Raymond Briggs) than with comics or graphic novels. The page layout is never the same twice, occasionally going for a full page illustration as with our first view of Smaug (more impressive than Tolkien’s painting, though clearly inspired by it).
So, what’s the final verdict? Certainly this is an enjoyable way to envisage Bilbo’s epic voyage to and return from Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, and once you get used to the finish misses little out in the retelling. When the text dominates the presentation too much that’s to its disadvantage, but to my mind this is a more successful adaptation than, for example, that of the Ralph Bakshi fotonovel of The Lord of the Rings, however innovative the truncated animated film was.
My review of Tolkien’s original (the third edition) is here.