‘Hobbit’ movie rides a new wave of British imports

The novel that made J.R.R. Tolkien a household name turned 75 this year, and on the eve of the opening of Peter Jackson’s adaptation this week, “The Hobbit” returns to the cultural forefront to join a tea party already in progress.

Like a host of dwarves knocking on the door at Bag-End, a new British invasion is upon us. With “The Hobbit,” the London Olympics, James Bond and the prospect of a royal baby, the U.K. is everywhere — at our bookstores, in our newspapers and theaters, on our TVs and vast array of digital screens.

“The wave of British stories that are capturing the American imagination right now — they’re all feeding off of each other’s popularity,” said Hilary K. Justice, an associate professor of English at Illinois State University. “It’s a bit like when you have several small bookstores on the same block — traffic increases to all of them.”

For example, PBS’ biggest import hit, “Downton Abbey,” had 5.4 million viewers for its Season 2 finale last spring, outdrawing high-profile cable dramas like “Mad Men” and “American Horror Story.” (A new season of the English manor drama begins Jan. 6.)

The first episode of the second season of the PBS miniseries “Sherlock” (starring “The Hobbit’s” Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch) last May drew 3.2 million viewers, not counting DVR and online viewings. Sci-fi show “Doctor Who,” which airs here on BBC America, drew 1.6 million viewers for its seventh season premiere this summer, setting a network record.

In case you’ve been living in a hobbit-hole, “The Hobbit” tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, who enjoys a comfortable life in the Shire — “I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today” — until the wizard Gandalf and 13 dwarves show up at his door and hire him as a “burglar” on a quest to reclaim their ancestral treasure from the dragon Smaug. Dangerous encounters and narrow escapes ensue, culminating in a final battle between elves, men and dwarves versus evil goblins from the north — presaging the epic battles of good and evil in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Jackson, of course, turned the three books of the “Lord of the Rings” series into three hugely popular films, and with the opening on Friday of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” he launches another three-film extravaganza.

The main way “The Hobbit” links to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is through the story of Bilbo’s acquisition of the One Ring — not much of a momentous occasion in the original novel. In fact, Tolkien revised that scene in 1951 to fit it more closely with the storyline of “Lord of the Rings,” which he was then writing.

“The Hobbit” incorporates elements from old folk tales, fairy tales, Arthurian quests and Icelandic sagas, things that were already part of British culture, Justice said by email. So far as Middle-earth can be said to represent Europe, the Shire is situated like England in its northwest corner, isolated from the rest of the continent by its unique traditions. Bilbo embodies the dynamic qualities of an Englishman as Tolkien envisioned them.

“Bilbo is a solid, conservative, middle-class Englishman/hobbit,” Justice said, “who discovers within himself the qualities on which the British Empire was built — resourcefulness, intelligence and perseverance — that all stem from the same source as his love of comfort, peace, gardening and order.”

Even the film version, although a product of Hollywood and New Zealand, feels particularly English. Where the leads of “The Lord of the Rings” — Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen — were American film actors already recognizable to many, the stars of “The Hobbit” established themselves in British TV roles: Freeman in “The Office” and “Sherlock,” Richard Armitage (who plays dwarf king Thorin) in “Robin Hood” and “MI-5.”

Tolkien also has a connection to another trending topic: World War I, which is nearing its centennial in 2014-18. Tolkien served as a signal officer in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and lost two of his close-knit quartet of best friends in the war. It’s commonly said that he was composing his epics from inside the trenches themselves.

Though the transitory and perpetually wet combat conditions were probably not conducive to intense writing sessions, he did work on his created languages and mythologies throughout his training and convalescence from trench fever in the later years of the war.

Many parallels to the horrors of the Great War can be found in Tolkien’s writing, though he never attempted to create simple allegories or symbols. In “The Hobbit,” long marches through relentlessly grim landscape and gloomy weather sound like the experience of soldiers marching through battle-scarred, muddy Picardy.

The battle of the Five Armies, said Janet Brennan Croft, author of “War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien,” is probably the novel’s most directly war-inspired scenario.

“Bilbo says, ‘So this is victory. It’s a very gloomy business,’ ” said Croft, who lectured on the topic last weekend at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

For Croft, Bilbo’s desire to prevent the battle from happening at all reflects Tolkien’s own experience.

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold,” Thorin notes after the battle, “it would be a merrier world.”

And it is that sort of reflection that attracts audiences to British stories, Justice said.

“Good British storytelling always asks the audience to think,” she said, “and rewards them for doing so.”

The writers of “Doctor Who,” “Downton Abbey,” “The Hobbit” and other stories all begin with an established order, introduce an element of the extraordinary (time travel, a war, magic) and explore the consequences, Justice noted.

“They ask, ‘What if?’ and then allow stories to unfold slowly, with time for reflection,” she said. American viewers find that to be a refreshing contrast to reality shows, which “appeal more to adrenaline than to the heart and mind.”

It may seem odd, at first, to lump a literary classic like “The Hobbit” with television, so often vilified as a dragon intent on destroying reading and culture. But in a world where book series are adapted into HBO shows, and TV writers are bringing back the thrills of serialized storytelling that people enjoyed in the days of Dickens, the line between film, TV and books starts to blur. The medium may be different, but good stories are still good stories.

That’s not to say films and books are interchangeable.

Croft urges everyone to read the novel before going to see Jackson’s adaptation. “I’m adamant about that,” she said. “One thing that definitely won’t make it into the movie is the narrator’s voice.”

Tolkien’s warm, bedtime-storyish narrator, who takes the time to explain a historical point or tell the reader a joke, is one of the main things that sets “The Hobbit” apart from “The Lord of the Rings” and gives it such a timeless quality.

And that timeless quality, “like any good myth or folk tale,” is another contributing factor to “The Hobbit’s” big moment, Justice said.

“(Tolkien’s) popularity recurs in American culture in times when the schism between the haves and have-nots is at its sharpest,” she said. “The recent election certainly indicates an American cultural crisis; in times of crisis, there’s both a nostalgic impulse — it’s comforting — and a desire for hope — it gives strength.”