The problem with the "What If?" game is that it always ends in frustration and sadness. For all of the temporary joy you get out of imagining an unwritten novel or an unfinished film, the realization that it's never going to happen is a nice little slap in the face. For fans of fine illustration and fantasy geeks, the L.A. Times has a piece about one particular "What If?" that belongs in the pantheon of great projects that never came to be: an illustrated adaptation of JRR Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' by 'Where the Wild Things Are' artist Maurice Sendak.
The piece, written by fantasy artist Tony DiTerlizzi, goes into great detail about how this project almost happened, but here are the broad strokes:
The year is 1967 and 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' are going through a major resurgence thanks to a paperback release. Tolkien, now 75 years old, continues to oversee every aspect of his literary empire. The American publisher hires Sendak to create an illustrated children's book adaptation of 'The Hobbit,' but Tolkien has the final say on whether or not the book happens. Some knucklehead mislabels Sendak's illustrations, so the one featuring hobbits is says "elves" and vice versa. Tolkien is furious and thinks Sendak didn't actually read his work. The publisher tries to straighten everything out, but Sendak has a heart attack and goes to a hospital for an extended period to avoid, you know, death. The project never happens.
Although Sendak drew two samples, only one of them remains. His depiction of "wood-elves dancing in the moonlight" has long since vanished, but his version of Bilbo and Gandalf, as seen above, is safe and sound at Yale University, preserved for posterity. Anyone who has read Sendak's books -- and that should be anyone who has had the fortune to be a child in the past 50 or so years -- should immediately recognize his distinctive style. (In the original article, DiTerlizzi calls attention to Sendak's distinctive crosshatching.)
Perhaps it would be comforting for director Guillermo Del Toro to know that he's not alone when it comes to tales of visionary artists finding themselves soundly defeated by the early adventures of Bilbo Baggins. Someday, maybe we'll be able to see Del Toro's surely-abandoned designs and sketches for his interpretation of Middle Earth (though we're sure some of them made it into the upcoming film since he worked closely with Jackson), but in the meantime, Sendak will do nicely.