Monthly Archives: December 2012

25. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

Warning: contains spoilers.

The book

The book

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, was first published in 1937 by JRR Tolkien and serves as the prequel to The Lord of the Rings (although at the time of publication Tolkien had no idea that he was going to go on to write the best-selling trilogy).

The first film in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy came out in the UK last week which is what spurred me to re-read the book and has in turn inspired this post.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who is mistaken by a company of dwarves for a burglar and is swept up in their journey across Middle Earth to reclaim their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo is a stay-at-home, comfort-loving non-adventure-seeking kind of a hobbit who would sooner sell all of his possessions to the Sackville-Bagginses than go on an adventure but after an impromptu visit from Gandalf the wizard he finds himself with very little choice other than to join the dwarves and pray that one day he’ll see his comfortable armchair again.

On the road the company encounter Trolls, Elves, Goblins, Wargs and all other sorts of fantastical creatures as they stumble from one mishap to another before eventually reaching their goal – the Lonely Mountain, once home to the legendary Thrain, King under the Mountain.

The Hobbit is a much lighter (and shorter) offering than Tolkien’s subsequent work making it a much easier read. Despite being full of adventures and near-misses the story’s chief element is the development of Bilbo’s character. The hobbit undergoes a complete transformation in the course of the journey seeing him change from a cowardly comfort-seeker into what can only be described as a hero. He discovers a whole new side to himself and slowly gains the respect of the dwarves which make up the rest of the party.

...and the film

…and the film

This character development is something I feel the film(s) has missed out on to acertain degree. By the point at which the film ended, Bilbo had already made his transformation and was behaving as you would expect any hero to act. He didn’t need Gandalf’s help to tackle the trolls and there was a whole new fight scene in which he quite literally saved the day. At the same point in the book (and somewhat beyond it), Thorin was still debating whether or not Bilbo would be of any use in their quest.

I appreciate that they’ve had to create new story lines in order to make what is a fairly short book (my copy is 276 pages) stretch over three films but they could have left Bilbo to develop at the same speed. I have no real issues with the elements they have created (although I didn’t like Radagast much) but I don’t see why they’ve messed about with the aspects of the story that are in the book.

Having said that before seeing the film I had severe doubts about Martin Freeman playing Bilbo but in actual fact I greatly enjoyed his performance. And having read in The Metro that the dwarves are all deeply annoying I was pleasantly surprised by them as well. Of course as was to be expected the ultimate scene-stealer is Andy Serkis as Gollum who is the best character in the film by a mile as he was in The Lord of the Rings.

So all in all I enjoyed this adaptation (and I had high expectations after Jackson’s treatment of The Lord of the Rings) almost as much as I enjoyed the book.

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Human Instinct – Robert Winston

Human InstinctThey say you should never meet your heroes and sadly my recent experience suggests that the old adage is wise advice indeed.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, Professor Robert Lord Winston is something of an institution is the scientific world. He is a pioneer in the world of assisted reproduction having been a key player in the ongoing development of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and other reproductive technologies and is also a familiar face to many BBC viewers mostly thanks to his landmark series Child Of Our Time which is following 25 children from birth to the age of 20 with annual updates.

Being a notable face in the biological field it is natural that Winston became something of an inspiration to me and I followed a number of his programmes avidly. Therefore I was incredibly excited when I heard he was going to be giving an open lecture at the University of Manchester when I was doing my BSc and I along with a few of my friends could be found outside the lecture theatre a good two hours before he was scheduled to speak.

Unfortunately I found the lecture very disappointing, charming and enigmatic on TV, Winston was very different in real life and fumbled his way through the hour-long lecture.

I’ve since seen him speak on two other occasions and both times been disappointed. It doesn’t help that at one of those lectures I asked a question which related to my work and he told me I’m wasting my time. Not something one wants to hear from such a distinguished figure. He was also very brusque when I actually met him (although he did sign a knitted fish but that’s another story).

Still, despite these grievances when I found a picture of Professor Winston’s book Human Instinct for £1.99 in my local Oxfam I decided to give his writing another chance.

Given the gist of this post so far I doubt it will come as much of a surprise to say that I was let down again. The book which aims to explain why we do the things we do and why, according to Winston, all those things are due to our sexual urges, was in actual fact a skimming of the surface of human instinct with a peppering of anecdotes and very limited scientific discussion.

Now I realise that this book was written for a lay audience and that I probably don’t count as lay since I have one biological degree and am pursuing another, but still I feel the lack of depth to any subject or idea was insulting. It’s all very well to give anecdotal evidence and only a brief overview of scientific studies but where was the consideration of the other point of view? And why was there only one piece of evidence for each idea? These are basic ideas that even the most inexperienced scientist is taught to address not to mention most non-scientific writers.

I also found that the flow of the book was deeply disjointed so that we jumped from concept to concept almost at will with nothing but a pithy subheading to guide us.

And I won’t even mention the name-dropping. I mean I know Winston is a leader in his field and no doubt he is acquainted with some of the world’s top minds but please “I was standing in the middle of the Sahara filming for the BBC when Richard Dawkins called me”? I mean really?!

Oh damn, I mentioned it.

I’m sorry to sound so scathing and it is possibly magnified because of my own scientific background but I was intensely disappointed by this book and I feel the urge to prevent others from similar disappointment.

There are many hundreds of fantastic science writers out there who can communicate with a lay audience and explain complicated concepts without being patronising or overly simplistic and I was surprised and honestly gutted to find that off-screen Professor Winston is not one of them.

2012 in books

Unknown Sender - the cast

Unknown Sender – the cast

I got this idea from What Jane Read Next and I thought I’d give it a go. Basically you use the names of books you’ve read over the past year to create a story. So here’s my story, it was actually a lot easier than I expected, perhaps my choice of books this year have had a story to tell for themselves…

Unknown Sender

The other morning I woke with a start and looking out of my window I could tell that I had slept too late. It took me a good deal of Persuasion to get out of bed but I had errands to run so I forced myself to get up and leave the house.

My first stop was The Old Curiosity Shop which unfortunately wasn’t Too Close To Home. After a trek across town on the tube I emerged into the grey light in a crowd of something like 253 Christmas shoppers. I pushed through the crowd and eventually came to my destination.

The shop had no sign but a window full of Jigs and Reels which is how I knew I’d come to the right place. A bell rang as I pushed open the door and I felt a shudder run down my spine as if I could feel some kind of Malicious Intent in the air.

There was a rustling from the back of the shop which alerted me to the presence of the old man who presided over the collection of oddities.

“I know what you’re looking for” he wheezed “I have an Affinity for all my customers. It’s over there.” A trembling hand pointed to a region of the shop I had not yet noticed.

Across the cluttered room I could see a spotlight illuminating something I couldn’t quite make out. I made my way across and there, on The Stand in the centre of the pool of light, was The Sealed Letter I had come to collect.

“Thank you,” I whispered. “I am the Messenger.

The old man nodded and glanced down at the aged tabby winding between his legs. “Peaches for Monsieur le Curé?” he asked the feline who purred in response. “Ah yes, but ‘tis A Morbid Taste for Bones you have in your heart.” He whispered as he vanished into the back room.

The was my cue to leave so stuffing the envelope into my pocket I hurried out of the shop and back into the cold air. The letter bore no address other than the simple direction: To The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, but how I was to find her I did not know.

Trusting that all would be revealed in time I headed off down the crowded street with no general direction in mind.

In fact if it hadn’t been for The Accident I would never have found her. One moment I was walking along the road with a head full of questions and then there was a Flash and Bones littered the street. Stifling a cry I glanced around me and disappearing down a side street I caught a glimpse of a white skirt. Being the only thing approaching a lead that I had I seize my chance and gave chase leaving the scene of carnage behind me.

On entering the alley I saw at the far end the site I had been hoping for. The Woman in White had stopped at the other end and was clearly waiting for me to approach her.

“Hello,” I began. “Is it me you’re looking for?”

“I think it’s who is looking for me.” She replied, a sickly smile playing across her lips. “My name is Rebecca and I have what it is you seek.” Without breaking our eye contact she reached into the bag at her side and held out a file to me.

I reached out my hand and took it from her, looking down I saw the title across the front of the folder spelled out ‘The Princess Diaries in a spidery hand. When I looked back up to thank her, she was gone, leaving me alone with my prize.