If Peter Jackson taught the world anything with his epic three-movie The Lord of the Rings series, it’s that audiences want their Tolkien to be faithful to the original work. So when Susan Holgersson started comparing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit with Patricia Gray’s script, “I started to realize there was a situation there,” she said. Playcrafters Barn Theatre decided about a year ago to do the play, and Holgersson was selected as its director in August.
The problem was that Gray’s script excludes key sections of the story’s beginning and middle and completely changes the ending. Instead of having the simple hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf as the narrative’s heroes, Gray has the dwarf Thorin slay the dragon. The result, Holgersson argues, is an alteration of Tolkien’s philosophy. “For me to have a script that actually distorted Tolkien’s whole value system … I just couldn’t do that,” she said.
At the outset, though, she decided to stick with the script, which, curiously, had been approved personally by Tolkien.
The play isn’t a travesty, Holgersson stressed. The first 47 pages are “totally Tolkien,” she said. The problem only comes in the last page and a half. “It looks like, ‘I’m running out of time,’” Holgersson said. “If we were doing a grade-school production, we’d be fine.”
But when Holgersson started auditioning for the play in May, children up for roles complained about the changes to the story. “They all knew,” she said. That’s when she realized the importance of doing the script right.
It’s not as simple as re-writing, however. When theatre organizations purchase the rights to a play, they’re not allowed to alter it. So to put on a proper production of The Hobbit, Holgersson needed the permission of both Tolkien’s estate and Dramatic Publishing, which administers the rights.
It turns out that Holgersson was the first person to complain about the differences between the play and the original book, which serves as a prologue to The Lord of the Rings. “They could have easily said, ‘No,’” Holgersson said.
But she got the permissions and re-wrote sections of the play, and when the Playcrafters production of The Hobbit opens on Friday for a three-week run, audiences will get Tolkien’s story. Holgersson has, referring to the original Tolkien novel, added a prologue, an interim scene, and an epilogue while using nearly all Gray’s original script. Elements of The Hobbit “all pull through in The Lord of the Rings, and they’re missing in her play,” the director said.
Holgersson was also able to restore some of Tolkien’s style in her additions. “Tolkien has a beautiful way of writing repetition,” she said. “It’s like a Shakespearean language. A lot of that is edited out in Gray’s work.”
Holgersson is also undertaking a completely new version of The Hobbit, building on her additions to Gray’s script and starting over. She hopes that will be done by October and will be picked up by Dramatic Publishing, so that other theatre companies can use it.
But for the present, she’s sticking with the Gray base, and hoping to give the Quad Cities an authentic Tolkien. Holgersson has assembled a cast of 40 people, with Mia Kavensky (the daughter of Reader contributor Jodie Shagrin Kavensky) playing Bilbo.
“I really wanted to cast a man,” Holgersson said. But “she was absolutely incredible.” Consider it just another way that the director is defying convention in trying to remain faithful to Tolkien.
The Hobbit will be performed Fridays through Sundays from July 9 through 25 at Playcrafters Barn Theatre in Moline. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $8. For information and reservations, call 762-0330 or visit (http://www.playcrafters.com).