First Impressions

I was delighted this week to finally get to share the first hour of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring with my students.  I showed them all of the material that corresponded to the first 6 chapters of the book.  They were ecstatic to finally get to see Middle-Earth as they had only been able to imagine it in their mind’s eye.  There were a few students in the class who had already viewed the film, but most were truly getting a first impression of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the text.

Due to some class scheduling issues this week, our viewing conditions were not ideal.  Half of my class came at one time of day and the other half came later.  Considering this inconvenience, I thought it best to show the film segment twice, to each group of students separately.  The older and wiser sixth-graders got to watch it first and greatly relished their advantage over their slightly younger classmates.  For both viewings, I required that my students have a participatory approach rather than the mindless consumption of visual images they are accustomed to.  I told them to watch with their steno pads in hand, ready to jot down any initial impressions, opinions, comparisons to the book, or observations they wanted to make about the film.  They groaned at the idea of actually having to do “work” while viewing a movie, but once they started watching, they were mesmerized.

Prior to traveling to the cinema last December to view The Hobbit, I reviewed with the class my expectations for appropriate theater behavior.  They were instructed to minimize making comments throughout the film, for the enjoyment of other theater patrons.  My students had mixed feelings about not being restricted with their comments in the classroom though.  Even with their steno pads, some students couldn’t help voicing their reactions to every scene in the film, much to the annoyance of others.  Ori‘s impulsivity became an issue when he began chattering incessantly.  He had viewed the film multiple times at home and took for granted the fact that others hadn’t.

Within the first few minutes, the comparisons to the book started cropping up immediately.  “Hey, that’s the same map that’s in the book.”  “Bilbo’s finishing writing the book that we just read.”  “Look! Gandalf has to bend down to hug Frodo and Bilbo”  “Awww, hobbit kids are so cute!”  An argument broke out over why Bilbo looked older in Fellowship than in The Hobbit.  While they immediately noticed that a different actor (Ian Holm) was portraying Bilbo, as opposed to Martin Freeman, whose face they had grown accustomed to, Ori countered “duh..because it’s like 60 years later!”, as he rolled his eyes in irritation at the other students’ ignorance.  Many of the students were entertained at Gandalf’s apparent awkardness in Bag End, due to his larger stature.  They giggled when he kept hitting his head on Bilbo’s ceiling and asked if the hobbit actors were really that much shorter than Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen).  Obviously the magic of movies and forced perspective were adequately convincing to my students.

When my fifth-graders finally got to watch the film, some sixth-graders had to endure it a second time. Such tortured children!  The older students were kind enough not to spoil anything for the younger ones and Bilbo even said, “Yeah, we laughed at those parts, too, when we watched it.”  Most of them even laughed a second time in those same exact parts.  Two of my students also shared with me how they’d recently befriended a book worm in their class who was a fellow Tolkien fan and have proceeded to engage him in heated Tolkien debates in the school cafeteria.  Ori was amazed at the film’s depiction of the ring’s ability to change size, which was referenced in the book.  Though he remembered reading about it, I don’t think he truly grasped the concept until he visually saw the ring fitting the fingers of Sauron, Isildur, Gollum, Bilbo, and Frodo.

My students all love the songs from Tolkien’s books and the film adaptations of his works.  They enjoyed hearing Pippin and Merry’s rousing pub tunes from The Green Dragon and spent most of January demanding that I play “that misty mountain song” on our classroom piano that the dwarves sing in The Hobbit.  “Remember we read about the elves singing,” said one child while several voiced that they “looked like ghosts and spirits going to heaven” and “sounded really creepy.”  One of the most exciting parts for them was watching the wizards duel when Gandalf becomes aware of Saruman’s treacherous alliance with Sauron.  “Go, Gandalf, Go!” some shouted as he attacked Saruman with his staff.  Dwalin said that their staffs reminded him of lightsabers from Star Wars and that Saruman was trying to control Gandalf just like Darth Vader.  Ori also felt that Saruman looked cleaner than Gandalf but “his tower is dirty-looking, so he should clean it up.”  Obviously, nothing escapes Ori‘s observant eye.

Gloin noticed that one of the hobbits uttered the line “a short cut to mushrooms” and shouted, “hey, that was the name of the chapter in the book.”  She also asked why the wizards have long hair and felt they should cut it.  Many students were upset at the omission or minimal depiction of several minor characters they had read about in the book.  They noted the absence of Fatty Bolger and Farmer Maggot, who was only shown briefly.  We are reading chapter 7, In the House of Tom Bombadil tomorrow, and I am anxious to see how they feel about Jackson’s omission of that character.  Asking why certain characters or scenes were missing from the movie, I had to explain to them that a director can’t possibly show every detail of a book in a film or it would take us practically as long to watch it as it did to read it.  Since we are viewing the extended edition, I feel that will be detailed enough to satisfy their taste for Tolkien.

Balin, who had been rather quiet today, surprised me with her stream-of-conciousness-style responses to the film that were recorded in her steno pad.  With no apparent organizational structure or sequence, she wrote “the orcs look disgusting like zombies.  Ewww! Bilbo looks uglier than I thought.  The hobbits are disgusting.  I saw one of them put his finger in his ear and then he looked at it.  For a minute, I thought Bilbo lost his ring and couldn’t find it. The movie is different from the book, but I think the movie is more interesting.  I bet the hobbits’ feet are stinky!”

We stopped the film prior to the hobbits narrowly escaping the Nazgul, just in time to catch the Bucklebury Ferry.  Our plan is to read several more chapters prior to watching the next portion of the film.  Bilbo and Bofur, who are real brothers, both vowed to view The Two Towers tonight since they happen to own it on DVD.  Whether reading or watching, my students are clearly crazy for Tolkien.

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