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First installment of “The Hobbit” hits silver screen Friday

“This is a story of long ago,” writes Tolkien in the author’s note in the beginning of “The Hobbit,” a story that 75 years later, still claims cultural and literary bearing.

Dec. 14 at midnight, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” will premier in theaters across the nation, the first installment in a three-part series. But no matter how the movies are received, Associate Professor Carol Leibiger says the story remains relevant.

“They all touch basic life issues,” Leibiger said. “What does it mean? What do we all have to do to get through life?”

While “The Hobbit” will certainly play off of the success of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003), Leibiger says the story of the “Lord of the Rings” would not have existed without “The Hobbit.”

Even though many consider “The Hobbit” to be the prequel to Tolkien’s masterwork, the “Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien only wrote the trilogy after his publisher asked for another book about hobbits after its huge success.

“To quote a friend of mine who also does Tolkien studies, ‘It was the misfortune, if you can call it that, of ‘The Hobbit’ to have been written as a great book, which was followed by an even greater book,’” she said.

Liebiger, who has taught courses on Tolkien and his writings five times as Honors Seminars, says that while the book was originally intended as a children’s book, its history has dictated its value.

“The issues in ‘The Hobbit’ are ones that touch adults, and I think, too, that ‘The Hobbit’ has been recast as an adult book, because it’s been recast as the prequel to  the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ which is an adult book,” she said.

Senior Dan Carmichael, who took Liebiger’s Tolkien course last semester, said the story is timeless, and one that people from generation to generation will continue to be able to read.

“It is the ultimate fantasy novel,” he said. “No matter how many people have read the book and offered their interpretations on it, people reading the novel for the first time are still able to pick out different themes and interpretations because the content is so rich.”

When it comes to the movie adaptations, Liebiger says the only things that worries her is the fact that there will be three films for a book that is much smaller than the “Lord of the Rings” book, which only took one film for each.

“Those of us who chatter about it amongst ourselves are thinking it’s probably because Jackson is building in the pre-story, not only to the ‘Lord of the Rings’ but also the pre-story to ‘The Hobbit,’ Liebiger said. “He’s taking appendices from the ‘Lord of the Rings.’”

Three movies also has Carmichael worried.

“Hopefully, the split means that nothing will get cut out of the movies, but I am also worried that new scenes will be added to the movie that weren’t in the book,” he said. “If the script stays true to the book as much as possible, the movie will be a great success.”

Liebiger said Jackson did the “Rings” films well, even though Tolkien fans and scholars may not always agree with his decisions, “but decisions have to be made,” she added. The extended length of the movies must also account for developments between the two stories, she says.

“For instance, Legolas has got to be in ‘The Hobbit’ because he’s the son of the king of the wood elves,” Liebiger said. “Even though he didn’t figure in the story, he did figure in the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ so he has to now be in ‘The Hobbit.’”

While Carmichael says it will be difficult to replicate the success of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit” already has a pretty set audience. Liebiger said there will inevitably be a huge audience going to see it.

With the advent of the movies, Liebiger said there have been more and more “movie-firsters,” or students who have seen the movies before reading the books, in her Tolkien classes. While the movies have certainly brought the books more attention and readership, Liebiger says she sees Tolkien transitioning from popular literature to something taught academically.

“It wasn’t just that he had a good story to tell — he told it so well,” she said. “As the foremost philologist of his day, he understood language to the degree that he could use it effectively.”

The Vermillion Twin Theater will premier “The Hobbit” at midnight, and tickets are still available.