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Thursday, May 28, 1998 Published at 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK


Bilbo goes to Hollywood

Few children make it into their teenage years without at least a working knowledge of the travails of Bilbo Baggins.

Bilbo's brush with the evil dragon Smaug, and his friendship with the grey wizard Gandalf, as recounted in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic book The Hobbit, have become one of the staple texts of growing up.

And now the tale could find its way onto the silver screen. Peter Jackson, the director of Heavenly Creatures - the film which propelled Titanic star Kate Winslet to stardom - is currently casting for the movie.

[ image: Titanic star Kate Winslet, widely praised for her role in Jackson's Heavenly Creatures]
Titanic star Kate Winslet, widely praised for her role in Jackson's Heavenly Creatures
Jackson, who made his name in schlock-horror films, is hunting throughout his native New Zealand, for people who will fit the film's rather unusual requirements.

The long and the short of it is that he needs stars above 7ft 8in and below 4ft 2in to play the film's assortment of dwarves, elves and wizards.

Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh were awarded a two-picture contract by Miramax Pictures and Universal Studios last year.

Forerunner of The Lord of the Rings

The Hobbit, written in 1937, was the precursor of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is set in The Shire, a homely idyll inhabited by peace-loving creatures called hobbits or halflings.

[ image: Not quite Middle Earth - Jackson will make the movie from his base in Wellington]
Not quite Middle Earth - Jackson will make the movie from his base in Wellington
Bilbo Baggins, whose nephew Frodo features in The Lord of the Rings, joins a band of dwarves who are seeking to retrieve a treasure hoard from Smaug.

Tolkien's works have become cult books and last year The Lord of the Rings was listed in a survey as the most popular book in Britain. The Hobbit came 19th on the same list.

Previous animated version

There has been a previous attempt to film The Hobbit. In 1978 an animated version, which featured the voice of the late John Huston as Gandalf, came out but this will be the first live action interpretation of the book.

Christine Crawshaw, chairman of the Tolkien Society, said: "It's hard to say what it will be like. It could be good or it could be disastrous.

"I personally think Tolkien's characters are best left up to the reader's imagination."

But she said she could understand why Hollywood wanted to turn it into a film.

'Story has a bit of everything'

"It's one of those stories which has got a bit of everything. Excitement, humour, ups and downs. It's just a good story."

She said she was worried the film makers would introduce a bogus romantic interest or Americanise the dialogue.

"I've always thought of the hobbits as being homely, down-to-earth English rural types and I hope they don't change that."

Some happy news for Tolkien afficionadoes worried about how the subject might be handled is that Jackson is known as a fiercely independent director.

He has refused repeated requests from studios to move to Hollywood, insisting instead on making his films in New Zealand. Because Jackson will be making the film for Universal and Miramax, however, it will technically still count as a Hollywood movie.

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