In a Hole in the Ground There Lived an Artist

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Justin Gerard is one of my all-time favorite illustrators. He’s responsible for the cover of my album The Far Country, as well as the cover and illustrations for On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.

For the last few months he’s undertaken the task of preserving his imagination before it is usurped by Peter Jackson and his well-meaning cronies. While the film version of The Hobbit will no doubt be a huge success, and will probably be a delight to watch, it will inevitably imprint itself on the minds of every future reader of this great story. This is one of the sad results of books-turned-films. Illustrations are less less intrusive than film in all its sound and fury, and seem more likely to merely inform and augment an imagination than to supplant it.

So Justin set out to illustrate The Hobbit the way he remembers it–not the way Guillermo Del Toro sees it, and thanks to Justin’s blog we get to see the illustrations take shape. It’s a fascinating look at the fruit of one strong imagination’s influence on another strong imagination. Whether you’re a Tolkien nerd, an art nerd, or not a nerd at all, I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching this process unfold on Justin’s website. Justin told me he didn’t mind if I posted a few images from his blog here. But seriously, subscribe to the feed as I have, and watch these excellent works as they unfold.

I’ll let Justin tell you about it in his own words:

thelab009_eI read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was in high school, a few years before Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema put together the films. Like many people, when I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s series I had all kinds of visual ideas in my own mind of what the characters, monsters and places looked like.

I remember having very clear notions of Shelob as a trap-door spider, that Isengard was more geometric and turned into a diamond at its top, that Sauron was seen as smoke and eyes and the illusion of oil-slick armor, that the orcs were meatier and more ape-like, with much longer arms, and knuckles that dragged the ground. The Balrog was only ever seen by the cracks in his flesh and his eyes and jaws. His skin would never really be seen for the smoke coming off it. The cracks in his skin would be like those in a lava flows seen at night, where some of it has cooled at the surface, but underneath it is still burning. And a few hundred other odd, now-forgotten notions of Middle Earth.

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I had not seen, at this point, any of Alan Lee, Ted Nasmith’s or John Howe’s fantastic paintings, on which the film’s art direction was to be largely based. I had a lot of very crystallized ideas in my head about how everything looked. And when the films were released I was jarred my first time seeing them. Things didn’t look like they had in my head. At first it bothered me. They got it all wrong I thought. But as the Fellowship of the Ring began to make its way towards Rivendell I was surprised that I found that I really enjoyed it anyway. It was a different take than I had, but it was spectacular and I went back and watched them several times each in the theater.

Then something terrible happened.

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I found that I had lost my ideas. At first, they were only tainted by the films, but after a while I found that I had lost them altogether. And no matter how much I tried to see things differently, I still saw it the way Peter Jackson showed it. The Boromir I had imaged was gone and Sean Bean’s character remained. The goblins were hunched and crooked green men without noses.
This has bothered me ever since, and now that The Hobbit films are on the schedule to be released next year I find that my ideas on The Hobbit are to be put in jeopardy as well.

ritd_v1_x5_crop_e1 So, this time I have decided to put my own ideas down first, before Jackson and Del Toro and Weta and Howe and Lee can come together to blow my mind apart again with what is sure to be an awesome Hobbit film. This time, I hope to preserve my own notions of what Middle Earth might have looked like.”

Click here to visit Justin’s blog.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


14 Comments

  1. Aaron Roughton

    I’ve often wondered about how to “protect” the imaginations of my children from the visual wizardry of special effects. So far, at their young ages, we have decided that they must always read a book before they can see the movie. I wish we all had Justin’s amazing talent, since we all imagine differently. Just make sure he illustrates OTEOTDSOD before the blockbuster movie hits the screen. Thanks for the link to his blog.

    One other thought: This will work the opposite way when we get to meet Jesus. Instead of a disappointing manifestation of our wild imaginations, we’ll be blown away, and our best preconceived notions will be like the pencil drawings of a toddler on the back of the attendance pad during a boring sermon.

  2. Chris Whitler

    What a great idea. Can’t wait to follow the blog. This link did not work for me though. Thanks for coming to the West Coast, Andrew (I saw you in a little church outside Fresno, CA)…wish you could get here more often.

  3. Sid

    I’m about to read The Hobbit for the first time, so I’ll check out the blog later. I haven’t seen the Lord of the Ring movies either, yet, to protect my imagination until I read the books.

  4. Chris Slaten

    It’s encouraging to hear of someone guarding their imagination so zealously. I love his illustrations. Maybe Torro will come across his blog and bring him in on the project.

    This reminds me of a footnote in an article about Star Wars fans going on elaborate excavations of the places where the original films were shot (It was in this month’s Harper’s. I recommend it, even if you don’t like Star Wars). The footnote said that the Star Wars movies initiated the explosion in popularity of movie and T.V. based action figures. The author pointed out that with each movie that was released the numbers of action figures with other “pre-scripted” narratives increased exponentially (i.e. Thundercats, G.I. Joes, etc.). Movie based action figures revolutionized the way children play, because they no longer had to come up with their own stories (or at least didn’t have to rely as heavily on them). Instead, they could just connect the dots from the plots and character developments that were already laid out for them by the movies/shows.

    I know that the issue is not that black and white, and that movies in many ways encourage imagination, but I do agree that the imagination is a precious gift that should be guarded in many ways.

    Supposedly, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman touches on these issues.

  5. Tony Heringer

    Barliman,

    Its funny, when we read the Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings it was the illustrated versions (Alan Lee’s versions). The kids were always drawn to these pictures while reading the books — much like with the simple drawings in the Narnia series. I can understand Justin’s angst, especially given his craft. I did appreciate the fact that Jackson pulled Lee and John Howe and loved how they documented that in the DVD series. Those films and the associated documentaries are brilliant. I don’t know if I can follow the series, but the idea is a clever one.

    Good thing he’s already done the illustrations for your books. That way he’s got the process completed when Peter Jackson “ruins” them – to which you would likely say “ruin it baby, ruin it” 🙂

  6. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    “Why yes, Mr. Jackson, you may do as you please.”

    But not really. Several kids at the school visits last week asked about whether or not this would one day be a movie. The answer is that I have in fact had more than one casual conversation about my book with people in the business of filmmaking–so maybe.

    That said, I don’t think I’d ever sell the film rights unless I was guaranteed a big role in the making of it. I’d honestly rather eat a maggotloaf than let some buffoon ruin my story like they did with Eragon. I haven’t read those books, but even my kids recognized how bad that movie was.

    The Lord of the Rings films aren’t perfect by a long shot, but most would agree that Jackson could have done much worse, and there are many moments that are good enough to cover a multitude of cheeze. I don’t think Peter Jackson (or Alan Lee or John Howe) ruined anyone’s image of Middle Earth, but the strength of their vision, along with the force of sound and motion in film, is overwhelming.

    I’m glad Justin is preempting that.

  7. Tony Heringer

    Barliman,

    Agreed. In particular, your comment about Jackson. When I first heard he was directing, I shuddered because of his body of work up to that point. However, there just seemed to be a tremendous reverence for Tolkien’s work and for Tolkien the man which really comes out when you listen to the commentaries — I admit it, I listened. 🙂 I believe that was God honoring a man who honored Him in his vocation.

    As for translation of your work to film, I’m glad you are taking care to fence it well. Lord of The Rings prior to the Jackson films got a very poor treatment. Plus, you the folks here would needle you endlessly if it ended up like the later Star Wars movies. 🙂

  8. Peter B

    What’s fantastic about this artwork was that even though I flipped over to another application a millisecond after the page loaded, the afterimage it left on my brain screamed “that was from The Hobbit“. Well done, sir.

    Aaron, what a beautiful point you made by taking the world’s reality and turning it on its ear to find God’s truth.

    Andrew — does this mean we won’t get Robin Williams as Peet the Sock Man? 😀

    Speaking of the illustrations for N!OBE, I noticed that the cover appears to show the three Igiby children and their “little” dog; is that a subtle clue about something?

  9. Chris Yokel

    Wow, these are brilliant. Thanks for posting the link. Justin has become one of my favorite illustrators since I came across Portland Studios and the first book of Beowulf.

  10. whipple

    This takes the concept of guarding your heart to a whole new level. I have adamantly avoided the Narnia movies for this very reason. Finally, I went to see the first one, and I was sorely disappointed. Honestly, I think that was a good thing. What would have been the result had I thoroughly reveled in the film’s imagery? I truly do the best I can to shake Liam Neeson’s voice from my head and supplant it with one that I feel is fully fused with the character of Aslan.

    Thanks for bringing this issue to the surface, guys. It doesn’t bother me so much with Harry Potter, but that may be because the Harry Potter books/films seem to have a stronger attachment to the world as we know it, given that they’re set in a modern, albeit hidden, United Kingdom.

  11. Robert McB

    This reminds me of an interview many years ago with Mort Walker, the cartoonist who created the Beetle Bailey comic strip, among others. He commented that when comic strips were turned into television shows, most people were dissapointed because they had been reading the strips for years and in thier minds had “heard” the characters. When TV gave voices to these familiar characters, they didn’t sound like the readers had been hearing them in thier minds. He noted that Peanuts was an exceptiion because many/most people got their introduction to those characters through the TV medium.

  12. d.d. ritterbush

    I was a high school English teacher fresh out of college when the Lord of the Rings movies swept through American theaters. Having read the series about five times myself before then, I (of course!) made LOTR required reading for my students. It seemed only fair to make the girls toil through it; they’d have their turn when I tortured the boys with “Jane Eyre.”

    But when the films came out, I determined not to see them–for some of the reasons you gave, Andrew. I grew up first with a large, illustrated book of “The Hobbit,” and after so many readings of the trilogy, I doubted I would gain much new insight or enjoyment from the film versions. And I absolutely did not want my internal portrait of every scene permanently altered by Jackson’s imagery. Probably overly cautious of holding onto a personal favourite.

    All that to say, I like very much the illustrations shared here–makes me marvel that someone can do that! And makes the viewer wonder why the artist selected this scene or that, from this angle or that, with this colour or that…every choice is given enough time to be considered and appreciated. Very nice, Mr. Gerard!

  13. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Peter: Good eye on noticing the little dog on the book cover. You’re the second astute reader who’s pointed that out. It’s a goof. The art department at the publisher included a little dog by accident, and it’ll be removed from the final cover.

    Robin Williams would make a great Peet the Sock Man, but, as weird as it may seem, I picture him looking (and talking) like Desmond from Lost. A crazy Desmond.

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