My fifth grade reading group had some wonderful thoughts about the trailers for The Hobbit prior to reading the book. Our discussion led my students to theories about the intended audience for them, based on their own background knowledge about Tolkien’s works.
What good is a theory unless you test it out, though? I decided to revisit the trailers after we had read and analyzed the novel, to see what new insights students could now share. They were enthusiastic about seeing the trailers again, and curious about what scenes they would now recognize and be excited about seeing in the theater.
Once again, we watched both full-length trailers. Instead of having a group discussion, though, I created a Google doc. I noticed that several students dominated the discussion during our first lesson, and wanted to give the less vocal students an equal chance to get their ideas into the mix. Having them type directly in response to one another also made them the coordinators of their own discussion, removing me as the referee. Once the students logged into the document, they saw:
Mrs Selke: Welcome to the Google doc for The Hobbit trailer discussion. Think about how you felt when you first saw the trailer. Did you already know something about the story? How have your feelings changed about the trailer now that you have read the book?
With very little extra prompting, they jumped right into the fray.
Knowing the Story
All of the students who hadn’t read or known the story before commented on how much easier the trailers were to understand. They felt like they were now part of the target audience, especially for the second trailer. The student who had read the book over the summer made the point that she understood the trailer better after we discussed it.
“I already read the book but when I first saw the trailer it was confusing. But once we talked about it, I could understand it better. I love talking about things.”
Even so, there was a great deal of debate about the relative merits of the two trailers.
Most of the students still preferred the second trailer, even now that they know the story. They felt that “the second trailer was better, with more action.” Yet several students commented that they now liked the first trailer, and spent some time discussing the difference in tone between them. One wrote, “I really like the first trailer because it is much more mysterious.” Another mentioned, “I think they made it darker and more dramatic so it appeals to Lord of the Rings fans.”
The darker tone of the first trailer, many felt, was due to the song of the dwarves. I loved the melancholy melody. My students, on the other hand, spent a good chunk of time debating it with one another. Some expressed the attitude, “So what? It does not appeal to me at all.” Some loved the inclusion of the song now, because they felt it is “what inspired Bilbo to go on the quest.”
As they were discussing the impact of the trailers, several students branched off into conversations about what could have been included to create more interest in the story. One expressed discontent that he didn’t get at least a glimpse of Smaug by writing, “I think that they could have included The Lonely Mountain with Smaug’s silhouette in the mist of the peak. This might draw in more people to watch the movie. They would think, ‘Ooooo, what will they do to the dragon?’” While another pointed out that “when he comes in, the story is almost over and if that was the end of the first movie what would they put in the 2nd and 3rd movies?”
The most interesting part of this whole experiment was watching my group turn into self-proclaimed experts on how The Hobbit should be adapted for the big screen. One student expressed disgust over the fact that the story would be spread out over three movies, declaring that they should make just one great movie and put all the extras into “YouTube videos or something.” Another group sounded like adult Tolkien fans as they critiqued the appearance of the characters in the movie. One thought that Thorin “looked somewhat like a pirate.” Another discussed how Bilbo “looked like a man more than a hobbit.”
Extending the Discussion
Overall, I was pleased with the level of discussion and interaction from my students. Not only did they directly respond to one another, expressing their opinions and suggesting ideas to one another, but they also sought out new information and brought it back to the group.
When one student didn’t remember seeing something in the trailer that the others were discussing, he went back and watched the clip again to discover what others had seen. Another student went to look up more information about Gimli from The Lord of the Rings to help understand the point his classmate made. Along the way, he discovered the relationship between Gimli and Gloin, and came back to our discussion document with a link to share with his classmates.
When I went into this experiment, I wasn’t sure what the trailers would add to the unit beyond simply building excitement for reading The Hobbit. What I discovered was a whole new way of teaching students to be critical consumers. I can envision so many ways to use trailers to teach students to think about marketing and to consider audience in their own writing. What a delightful end to my own unexpected journey.
Maria Selke, who previously wrote about pop culture fandom and the Hero’s Journey, teaches at Hillsdale Elementary School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is in charge of enrichment units and advanced reading and math classes for gifted learners, as well as being a voracious reader and viewer of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction herself. You can follow along with her passions via Twitter: @mselke01.