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)

It’s easy to pick apart The Lord of the Rings films on the basis of textual fidelity. Anyone can watch Peter Jackson’s movies with a copy of LOTR in their lap and mine for differences. Why did they cut Glorfindel and Bombadil? Why did Aragorn say “let’s hunt some orc” instead of “I will follow the Orcs … My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer?” Why did they change the character of Faramir? Why the detour to Osgiliath?

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.

Unfortunately some of the essays in Tolkien on Film take an antagonistic tone and are rather merciless in their pillorying of the films. David Bratman’s “Summa Jacksonia” claims that Jackson “has a nine year-olds understanding of Tolkien,” calls the script “90% travesty start to finish,” and portrays the director as a moustache-twirling caricature. Other criticisms are more reasonable. Croft’s “Mithril Coats and Tin Ears” claims that Jackson altered some of the characters beyond recognition, including Faramir and Denethor, and argues that Jackson’s tampering with the characters muddies Tolkien’s themes. I see things differently. Certainly Faramir is not the Faramir of the books. He hesitates, he waffles, he is not possessed of unshakeable conviction. But I would argue that the Faramir of the screen is highly moral with a clearer vision than his brother Boromir. While Jackson’s Faramir vacillates, and starts to take Frodo to Gondor, he ultimately sees the error of his ways and chooses the right path. Does this differ from Tolkien? Obviously yes, but in the end Jackson’s Faramir arrives in the same place as Tolkien’s Faramir. Other characters like Aragorn are also afflicted with self-doubt, and in that respect are not “true” to Tolkien. But unlike Bratman and Croft I’m not troubled by this, because ultimately they overcome their hesitation and behave as Tolkien wrote them. The film may be a modern interpretation of Tolkien’s characters, but I believe that it adequately and often powerfully reflects Tolkien’s intent. Likewise Tolkien’s Denethor is a noble man doing his duty as Steward, and only later does he succumb to despair and madness. In the films he’s diminished, “flattened” as Croft says, a jerk from the get-go, and we don’t get to see his honorable side and fall from grace, which is disappointing. But I would argue that Tolkien included Denethor to demonstrate the dangers of despair. Jackson’s Denethor succeeds in conveying this theme; given unlimited time Jackson may have been able to show his whole character arc, as Tolkien does. But the time constraints of film do not allow him this luxury. It’s simply impossible to give due treatment to dozens of characters in a feature film.

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.

The far more interesting questions for me than merely pointing out where or how the films differ from the text is, why were these changes necessary from book to film, and what challenges do film adaptations of books present? As I see it the list is long. Money is the big one; Jackson’s films were financed with huge advances in the hundreds of millions, and had to have a return on investment, thus he made some concessions to the masses. Unlike the way Tolkien wrote his books—as solitary works of art—there were hundreds or even thousands of people involved in the making of the Jackson films, each exerting a bit of their own creative differences into the final product, which can dilute a single artistic vision. There’s the visual component, that showing and not telling is an imperative in a film. There’s the time element, and the accompanying need for plot and character compression. And so on. Most of the essays in the book don’t do an adequate job of acknowledging the inherent differences between book and screen. I think Tolkien on Film would have been much strengthened with an essay from an expert versed in the intricacies of filmmaking explaining why certain changes were made, what wouldn’t work from the book, and so on. Many of the essays don’t properly acknowledge these fundamental differences. For example, Daniel Timmons’ “Frodo on Film: Peter Jackson’s Problematic Portrayal” raises a lot of fuss about Frodo’s inability in the film to resist the One Ring, which diminishes his character and makes him a less worthy Ringbearer. While this is certainly a legitimate criticism and a divergence from the text, might it not be because Jackson had to show in a limited time how dangerous the Ring was? Even with their relative length the films are a much compressed version of the book; Jackson is therefore afforded far fewer opportunities to show us the Ring’s maliciousness. Making it even more of a corruptive influence when it is shown is one way to do that. The film is a compressed dramatization, and so the Ring is naturally going to seem more insidious, Frodo and Faramir less resistant to its pull, and so on. I too would have preferred one or two more scenes of Frodo’s heroism—I missed him shouting “Go back to the Land of Mordor, and follow me no more!” at the Ford of Bruinen—but in the end, Frodo does get the Ring to Mount Doom, and Faramir does “show his quality.”

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.


Fred said...


A great review. I have mixed feelings about the film, part of which is a result of my own biases. Some years ago I decided that if I'm going to read a story and view a film based on it, I must watch the film first, in order to be fair to it. I cannot help comparing the film to the story if I've already read it, and I know it's not fair to the film.

Unfortunately that was impossible with LOTR, as I had already read it numerous times, perhaps approaching ten readings.

However, after reading your commentary just now, I think I will watch it again, perhaps with a more open mind about it.

Laffe said...

Boy, I suspect you will get a lot of comments on this one :-)

Anyway, I liked the movies, but I couldn't help getting irritated about somethings. Now, some are merely details and maybe I shouldn't be so fuzzy. But the most annoying thing for me, is that they changed a lot of the personalities and motivations for the main characters.

For example, the Aragorn of the movies is a different beast compared to the books. In the movies he is unsure of himself and his role as king, while in the books he is determined and just can't wait to fullfil his destiny.

There are more examples, but I won't bore you with them now. I still liked the movies for their beautiful vision of MiddleEarth.

Ted Cross said...

I love the films (extended editions only), but the shield surfing really pissed me off.

Anonymous said...

The mere fact that the Jackson trilogy could sustain a collection of essays is an indication of its success. The movies were a serious and mostly successful attempt to film the unfilmable.

I've always been grateful that the movies are as good as they are, rather than disappointed in their failings. Like many, the failures of tone (shield surfing, dwarf-tossing) that resulted from pandering annoyed me. The changes to Faramir's character were a more serious flaw. I think Jackson made the right call in pumping up the amplitude of the female characters' roles, including Arwen.
Given the constraints of the form — time, scale, budget — the fact that these films exist at all, and that they are of the level of quality that they are, is an achievement of epic proportions.

Jim Cornelius

Andy said...

I like the movies a great deal, and I generally don't take issue with how the characters were adjusted because it seemed clear to me early on that most of them were being given little "point A to point B" arcs to give a sense of dynamism. I wish it hadn't been so consistently pat, but I get why they did it.

There are some changes that really irk me (Aragorn's slacker tendencies, Mirando Otto is just not impressive enough as Eowyn, the Eye of Sauron behaving like a literal searchlight, etc....), but they don't ruin the films for me because there's so much else that I really enjoy.

Brian Murphy said...

I cannot help comparing the film to the story if I've already read it, and I know it's not fair to the film.

Thanks for the kind words Fred. This bit I've quoted from you above also afflicts several of the essayists in Tolkien on Film, who spend too much time comparing the books to the film, and not enough evaluation of the film as a film.

For example, the Aragorn of the movies is a different beast compared to the books. In the movies he is unsure of himself and his role as king, while in the books he is determined and just can't wait to fullfil his destiny.

I agree with this Laffe, and there's certainly some "modernization" of characters going on in the film, but in the end it's not a significant enough change to be a deal-breaker for me.

I love the films (extended editions only), but the shield surfing really pissed me off.

Agreed, I abhor that bit.

Given the constraints of the form — time, scale, budget — the fact that these films exist at all, and that they are of the level of quality that they are, is an achievement of epic proportions.

Yup, they are far better than I expected, or hoped. I have some documented problems with the films, but I'm glad that we have them.

Mirando Otto is just not impressive enough as Eowyn

Huh, I liked her quite a bit (particularly her scenes with Wormtongue). But different strokes for different folks and all that.

Martin said...

Ah, the more one compares the books to the films, one knocks more and more holes in the latter with a sledgehammer. Nuff said.

Aragorn for instance. The man is eight decades old and he's still little more than a high school graduate with no idea of what college course to take.

Just goes to show a lack of faith in the source material. And if the filmmakers lack faith, why did they try to film it, except to swim in gold coins which they are happily doing now?

I view the films like David Lynch's Dune, well-meaning and nice eye candy but ultimately a wrong-headed misstep.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Martin, I understand your criticisms, and I agree that some of the characters were modernized/altered from their originals, no question, particularly Faramir and to a lesser but still noticeable degree Aragorn. But again, for me it comes back to this: Did the film get the big themes of the book right? I would argue yes.

I also agree that Jackson and co. ended up awash in gold coin, and that unfortunate concessions were made to the almighty dollar (particularly in some of the extended action sequences, Legolas' action-hero bits, etc.). But I believe the films cost $450M to make and despite the popularity of Tolkien's work it was a very large gamble. You needed lots of butts in seats.

Taranaich said...

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.

I go by the credo "Those who don't sweat the small stuff don't get the big stuff." True, something like Legolas' hair colour doesn't affect Tolkien's themes, but a great many of the changed details do.

The truth of the matter is a lot of Jackson's changes not only weaken LotR, but the story itself. Perfect example: Treebeard deciding not to go to war against Saruman. Apparently, even though he had to gather a moot to discuss what to do with Saruman, he can overturn it by himself. Not only that, all those Ents were apparently just trailing behind him waiting to stalk out of the forest. (Yes, I really hated stuff like this: it's easy to dismiss shield-surfing as a stupid gag, but this just undermines the entire film.)

I'm willing to meet you halfway on some things (except Denethor, that was the worst part outside omitting the Scouring for me), but I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on Jackson retaining all but the most obvious themes ("absolute power corrupts absolutely," "exalting meek over the mighty" and "don't give up hope" aren't exactly bold or esoteric in western narrative convention), and even then, I think many of those themes are only retained because of their connection to the text. For instance: is it ever clear in the film that Frodo leaving for the Grey Havens was Frodo effectively dying? Do we ever see even a hint of Denethor's nobility on the screen? Is there a single moment depicting the Orcs as anything other than savage beasts, or that the Men of Darkness may not necessarily be cackling villains?

I had to laugh at this bit, though:

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.

Well, maybe your films are shallow, but I have a whole library of cinematic works that speak to the contrary.

Brian Murphy said...

Well, I understand where you’re coming from Al, but I don’t agree that Jackson and co. didn’t sweat the small stuff—I think they agonized over the script quite a bit, and their choices, right or wrong, were made in a genuine attempt to try and make a good film out of a great book.

I’m not really a huge film buff so it’s hard for me to draw comparisons to other successful adaptations, but a couple examples to consider are Jaws and The Shining. Both of these films included significant alterations from film to book, particularly in characterization. For example, in Peter Benchley’s novel, Hooper was an egotistic bastard who slept with Brody’s wife (and was later eaten by the shark), as opposed to the friendly, warm Hooper of the film. Stanley Kubrick got a lot of grief from Stephen King fans and King himself by making Jack Torrance arguably crazy from the get-go instead of an essentially good-hearted man corrupted by the Overlook as he was in the book. But the film is almost indisputably magnificent. And when King himself oversaw the much more faithful 1997 film adaptation, it was a disaster.

I think when you try to be too faithful and include too many details (like the book’s animated hedge animals) onto film, it can bog down the final product. Many of these things work fine in the imagination, from the pages of a book, but not necessarily visually.

Again, this doesn’t mean I don’t like book Denethor more; I certainly do. But I understand why the change was made.

Bruce Charlton said...

Good posting.

I would regard the book as the best fiction of the century, and the movies as among the very best I have seen.

I would make a distinction, however, between the first and last movie - which I thought were superb - and the Two Towers which, for all its specific merits (e.g. Edoras, Gollum) was at a significantly lower level.

Partly because it has the worst errors in conception (Aragorn over the cliff, the facetious/ incoherent treatment of the Ents) - and partly because it just was not well edited.

Brian Murphy said...

BGC: I agree completely about The Two Towers, which I also think is the weakest of the three. FOTR is the best of the trilogy, in my opinion, maintaining the highest standard throughout. ROTK is second; it has several of my favorite scenes in the trilogy (the lighting of the beacons, the Ride of the Rohirrim, and others), but some other annoyances drop it a notch below FOTR.

Anonymous said...

I'm not even a purist. I watched the first film and loved it, read the three books afterwards, and couldn't wait for The Two Towers to come out. I was there at a midnight screening the day it was released. I walked out not knowing what it was I just watched and wondering how they bungled it so badly seeing how great the first film was. I hated it. it was a terrible adaptation. I think that a much better Lord of The Rings film could have been made. These are not the definitive film versions of the book. With apologists like you around, we'll be dead by the time they get around to remaking them.

Brian Murphy said...

Do you really think that I or any other "apologist" will make a difference in whether or not The Lord of the Rings ever gets remade? Here's a hint: If another version will make a significant profit, it will get made.

Also, I've never said these films are perfect, and certainly not definitive, just that they (largely) work as adaptations.