Tolkien’s Take on the Films

Chad Engbers of Locust Wind (now defunct) has written an excellent piece speculating on what the Professor himself would have thought of the film version of The Lord of the Rings. As befits someone with an incisive understanding of Tolkien’s works, Chad touches only lightly on the obvious “JRRT was a Luddite” meme and quickly takes us to more interesting ground:

In fact, I would like to think that some part of Tolkien would have appreciated the making of the recent film versions. I say the making of the recent film versions because Tolkien had a profound reverence for arts of making. Reverence is not too strong a word. He referred to the act of writing good fantasy as “sub-creation,” a lesser imitation of the primary creation through which God formed the real world. The hallmark of good fantasy, for Tolkien, is “the inner consistency of reality.” A fantasy world cannot advertise itself as a fantasy world; it must feel real.

Peter Jackson’s productions have done that. The people who designed the cave troll in Fellowship, for instance, gave him a crusty back and weaker flesh on the front, imagining that he had spent much of his life hunched over in the caves. The foliage around Bag End was planted a year in advance—it was real, natural foliage. Detailed craftsmanship is praised throughout The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, and I suspect that Tolkien would respect the efforts made by the recent production—even if he had little regard for the finished film.

More importantly, however, I believe that he would ultimately be delighted to see his story enter another medium. Most of the material that Tolkien himself studied, loved, and emulated was composed in oral traditions and only later written down. Literature such as Beowulf and the Kalevalla was passed down by word of mouth for generations before someone finally recorded them as a written text.

Chad’s right on all the main points, which leaves me scraping the bottom of the barrel to find something to comment on other than to say: “Read it!” But I think I see something . . . wait . . . it’s stuck . . . ah, yes, here we go!

In a couple of places on the extended DVD of The Two Towers, Philippa Boyens (screenwriter) remarks that Professor Tolkien would not have approved of some changes that were made to the story. I agree. I think that he would have been appalled at what happened to, say, the character of Faramir in The Two Towers.

There’s probably a lot that would have appalled him, but Faramir isn’t the example I’d reach for first. If Tolkien understood film well enough to appreciate the different demands of the medium (and I realize he almost certainly didn’t), he would have been OK with the changes to Faramir—or at least other things would have bugged him first, like the debasement of Gimli or the decision of the Ents not to go to war. Earlier, I somewhat overstated the case by suggesting that by making some of the characters in the films darker, more prone to corruption, and more full of self-doubt than their counterparts in the books, Jackson was being “more Tolkienian than Tolkien.” In rare cases doing so has unquestionably improved on Tolkien—for example, the addition of the scene at the end of Fellowship where Frodo and Aragorn part. Chad points out that The Silmarillion was always Tolkien’s favorite project; the doubting, ‘weaker’ versions of Aragorn and Faramir in the films would be much more at home in a work alongside Feanor and Turin than the upright versions of them in the books.

On to the “Stuff I Just Realized That Others Have Probably Already Noticed” Department. I was musing on what Tolkien would have made of what seems like a pretty obvious choice: dramatizing the takedown of Isengard instead of having it related afterward by Merry and Pippin, as it is in the book. Of course, a secondhand account in a book isn’t as a big a deal, since as a reader you’re imagining the scene either way, whereas the experience of a viewer would be profoundly different. Even so, wouldn’t presenting such an important and memorable scene directly be a pretty basic tenet of Novel Writing 101?

Then I remembered how often stories get related secondhand in Beowulf. Or, heck, in the Odyssey, or in Greek drama. I’m going to go out on a limb way beyond my expertise and speculate that it may have something to do with the oral tradition, where, as with text, your audience still gets to imagine the scene regardless of whose eyes it’s coming through, plus you get the added bonus of doing the whole thing in a different wacky voice. No surprise, then, that Tolkien would adopt such a technique, whether consciously or unconsciously. I have no idea whether any of this would have any bearing on what he would have thought of the Ent-attack in the film, but I’d like to think that upon seeing their craggy forms marching down the razed hillside, he would have felt the same flutter in his stomach that I did.