Monday, January 23, 2012
Why The Lord of the Rings films work: How I learned to stop worrying and appreciate Peter Jackson (or, a review of Tolkien on Film)
I hear these questions asked all the time and sympathize with a good many of them. But in the end they strike me as complaints about details, the classic purist argument. While the films' deviations are at times annoying and/or pandering (shield surfing, and the overextended bridge collapse sequence in Khazad-dum), and occasionally cloying and seemingly unnecessary (Aragorn over the cliff), the more important question for me is: Do they materially alter the spirit and themes of the book? Which are, as I see them: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The importance of mercy and pity. Fate vs. free will. Exalting the meek and the small over the mighty. Not succumbing to despair or losing hope, but grimly pressing on in the face of adversity. The passing of an Age of Elves and magic into the modern Age of man. Did Jackson get those right?
I would argue that yes, he did. Faithfulness to the spirit and themes of the original work are by far and away the most important part of any adaptation, and Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films succeed in this regard. I believe they retain the core of the original, even though they diverge in many of the details.
I credit Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings for helping to crystallize my thoughts and feelings about the films. First published in 2004 by The Mythopoeic Press (I recently purchased the second edition reissued in 2010), Tolkien on Film checks in at 323 pages and contains 14 essays from a number of academics and scholarly types. The focus of the book is on the film’s fidelity to the source material and their success or failure as adaptations. It also offers analysis of the broader societal impact of the films and ways in which they reflect our changing views on femininity. I found it to be a very enjoyable and in places thought-provoking read, but with a few shortcomings and puzzling inclusions that resulted in a mixed review.
I need to start my review of Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings with a statement that in no way can be misinterpreted: The book is better. In fact, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is in my opinion the best fantasy work of all time and will likely never be surpassed by any other book, film, videogame, or other artistic endeavor in the genre. I say that because I don’t wish to be pilloried as someone who thinks Jackson out-Tolkien-ed Tolkien. He did not, but the introduction to Tolkien on Film seems to imply that, because I like the films, I must think so. In the very first sentence editor Janet Croft implies that two camps exist: Those who love the films as much as or even more than the book, and those who think they did a profound disserve to The Lord of the Rings. “Very few readers of Tolkien are entirely neutral about Jackson’s epic undertaking and its effect on public perceptions of Tolkien’s work,” Croft says. This makes for a nice sound bite, but I recognize the movies as a thing apart from the book, with necessary alterations; different and not as great, but great in their own right as films (again, as a disclaimer, I like the films very much, though not unreservedly). I’d like to think others feel the same way.
Croft scores some points for the films’ detractors by demonstrating how Jackson makes Tolkien’s world seem smaller and flatter by “anticipating scenes or devices used later, thereby flattening the tale out.” For example, the films do not conceal the fact that Dernhelm=Eowyn, thus lessening the impact when she removes her helm in her duel with the Witch King. Croft also wonders why Jackson had to rely on intercutting the divergent strands of war and quest. She argues that Jackson should have presented Sam and Frodo’s journey from Book Four as a single narrative, apart from the events of Aragorn/Gimli/Legolas and their journey to Rohan in book 3, just like Tolkien did, to preserve our sense of dramatic irony of already knowing what happened to the rest of the Company every time Frodo and Sam worry about them. To me Jackson’s intercutting technique has a simple explanation: Each of these storylines are too long and would have required an hour and half or more of film time to tell. Removing the intercutting would have run a real danger of losing the audience. Unlike a book you can’t flip back and forth during a film.
In her essay “Tolkien’s Women (and Men): The Films and the Book,” Jane Chance says that Jackson “subordinates and devalues Tolkien’s key theme of the ennoblement of the ordinary;” I didn’t get that impression of all, and certainly the “You bow to no one” sequence in which a literal king and all his retainers bow to the common man is this very theme writ large. In short, Jackson’s differences in characterization and theme are a matter of degree, not kind, and thus retain the spirit of the book.
Some of the other essayists do a better job showing how films and books are intrinsically different, resulting in necessary changes from page to screen. Diana Paxson’s “Re-Vision: The Lord of the Rings in Print and on Screen” acknowledges that Jackson’s film is different and perhaps shallower version of Tolkien’s story, but still succeeds as a different version, its own act of sub-creation. Writes Paxson, “But is it valid to have more than one version, or vision, of a tale? I would say yes—if the most important thing about the book is in fact not the style, but the story.” In her essay “Elisions and Ellipses: Counsel and Council in Tolkien’s and Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings” Judith Kollman shows how Jackson’s Aragorn every inch becomes a mighty king and assumes the mantle of responsibility, even though he took a different path to get there than did Tolkien’s Aragorn. The most incisive comment on judging Jackson’s films as films comes from Victoria Gaydosik, who in her essay “Crimes Against the Book? The Transformation of Tolkien’s Arwen from Page to Screen and the Abandonment of the Psyche Archetype” writes, “In my opinion, when we evaluate the success of the film with reference to the book, a judgment that focuses more fully on how well the final cinematic work turned out is closer to capturing their real relative merits than one that emphasizes the discrepancies between them to the disadvantage of either.” Even oft-reviled scriptwriter Fran Walsh notes in a commentary on the Two Towers DVD that the films couldn’t be as good, but have to be judged in a different light, as films. “All cinema story telling, to a degree, is shallow—I mean, that’s the nature of the medium. You’ve got two or three hours to present a world and a dense story with a hundred themes…you really can’t have anything that comes close to the depth of the books or the experience of the books,” Walsh says. “We really wanted to give the fans of the books something that they would love and a story that—that would reflect the book in a truthful way.”
Tolkien on Film also includes two essays on fan fiction, a phenomenon that’s always existed on the periphery of Tolkien fandom but took off after the Jackson films. I found their inclusion here to be a bit of a head-scratcher. Even though fan fiction is in large part inspired by the films (and it can be argued, loosely, that Jackson’s interpretation is a form of “fan fiction”), there’s no actual film critique or analysis in the essays, equal weight is given to fan fiction that’s derivative of the books only, and in all honesty my interest in fan fiction is less than zero. Again, I would have preferred to see this space given over to other aspects of film analysis.
The best critical review of the Jackson films that I’ve read is not in Tolkien on Film; to no surprise it comes from the pen of Tom Shippey in his collection Roots and Branches. Shippey identifies problems with the films, but says Jackson and his screenwriters were well-versed in the material and gives them credit for taking bits of Tolkien and using them in different places than they appear in the book to great effect (for example, moving parts of “The Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond” into the arresting prologue). He also thinks the film gets much of the broader themes and narrative core of the book right, including “the differing styles of heroism, the need for pity as well as courage, the vulnerability of the good, [and] the true cost of evil. It was brave of [Jackson] to stay with the sad, muted, ambiguous ending of the original, with all that it leaves unsaid.” I agree with Shippey.