Friday, December 14, 2012

Lord of the Rings: Tolkien versus Jackson

Note If you haven't read The Lord of the Rings or if you haven't seen the movies and someday plan to, be forewarned.  This post contains "spoilers."

This weekend marks the opening of the movie, The Hobbit:  Peter Jackson's latest desecration of the works of JRR Tolkien.  I had thought I might peek in on it, but as reviews of the flick trickle out, I'm not sure I could stomach it.  (Radagast the Brown riding in a sleigh pulled by rabbits?  No, I think not.)

Christopher Tolkien, executor of the Tolkien estate and son of the professor, had this to say about Jackson's films:  "[Jackson] eviscerated the book by making it ... an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25.  And it seems that 'The Hobbit' will be the same kind of film."

Jackson, with his ham-handed direction and his tin-ear script-writers, has really done a number on the majesty of the original Tolkien works.  Kids introduced to Middle Earth by watching Jackson's visually-dazzling-but-ultimately-stupid trilogy are, I fear, forever excluded from the subtle beauty of the original work.  The movies set expectations that the book was not written to fulfill.  The Lord of the Rings movies are Hostess Twinkies; the book is a JaCiva Lovelight cake.

There are myriad examples I could mention, but here are just two.

The Departure of Boromir

At the Falls of Rauros on the Great River, the Fellowship of the Ring dissolves into chaos.  Boromir, driven mad by the power of the Ring, attempts to seize it from Frodo.  At that very moment, orcs from Morder and Isengard discover the party and attack.  In the ensuing melee, Boromir attempts to rescue the two younger hobbits, Merry and Pippin, whom the orcs are trying to capture.  Boromir fights valiantly, but is mortally wounded.  The hobbits are subdued and carried off toward Isengard.  Aragorn comes upon the dying Boromir beneath a tree near the river.

In the movie, here's how it goes:
Boromir: They took the little ones! Frodo. Where is Frodo?
Aragorn: I let Frodo go.
Boromir: Then you did what I did not. I tried to take the Ring from him.
Aragorn: The Ring is beyond our reach now.
Boromir: Forgive me. I did not see. I have failed you all.
Aragorn: No, Boromir. You fought bravely. You have kept your honor.
(Aragorn reaches for an arrow. Boromir grabs his arm.)
Boromir: Leave it! It is over. The world of Men will fall. And all will come to darkness. And my city to ruin.
Aragorn: I do not know what strength is in my blood, but I swear to you, I will not let the white city fall. Nor our people fail.
Bormir: Our people. Our people.
(Boromir reaches for his sword. Aragorn hands it to him, and he lays it over his body.)
I would have followed you, my brother. My captain. My King.
(Aragorn kisses his forehead.)
Aragorn: Be at peace, son of Gondor.
Notice how, in Jackson's version, Aragorn is the focus of the exchange.  Dying Boromir names Aragorn his king.  Aragorn, for his part, makes a meaningless and boastful vow to save Minas Tirith --something that Tolkien's Aragorn would never do.  The emphasis of the exchange is all on the task ahead of Aragorn.  Boromir, his corpse not yet cold, is dismissed with 6 words.

Now compare this to how it goes down in the book:
Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. "I tried to take the Ring from Frodo " he said. "I am sorry. I have paid." His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. "They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them." He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again.

"Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed."

"No!" said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. "You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!"

Boromir smiled.
"Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?" said Aragorn.

But Boromir did not speak again.
What I find particularly poignant about Tolkien's version is the wisdom and compassion displayed by Aragorn.  "No!  You have conquered.  Few have gained such a victory," he insists.  But what is it that Boromir has conquered?  After all, he failed to rescue the two hobbits and lies dying, never to return to his beloved Minas Tirith.

The answer, of course, is redemption.  By expending his life trying to save the hobbits, Boromir atones for his sin of trying to seize the Ring from Frodo.  No matter the outcome of the greater struggles, redemption is the one goal within Boromir's grasp and he takes it.  And since Aragorn loves Boromir, he seeks to impart peace on his dying kinsman. 

Jackson, of course, plows right over this beautiful lesson so he can get to the next sword fight.  Talk about disdain!  Jackson really doesn't think much of his audience.  His treatment of this scene proves it.

Theoden King

Another Jackson slander is his treatment of Theoden, King of the Rohirrim.  In the movie, Theoden is a caricature, a stock medieval king, experienced but not old, a bit rash, a bit vain.  What a sad transformation from the kindly, grieving old man who, in the book, wishes nothing more than to spend his last years in his hall, telling stories by the fire.   In the book, Theoden is plagued by self-doubt.  He is unsure that he is equal to the challenges laid before him.  But he rises to the occasion.  He bravely leads his men onto the Pelennor Fields at a crucial moment and turns the tide of the battle.

Good news for Minas Tirith, but bad news for Theoden!  With his courageous charge against the Haradrim, Theoden attracts the attention of the Witch-king who strikes down Snowmane, Theoden's horse,  from above.  The dying steed falls onto his master, crushing him into the ground.

From the book:
And there stood Meriadoc the hobbit in the midst of the slain... and he looked on the face of the king, fallen in the midst of his glory. For Snowmane in his agony had rolled away from him again; yet he was the bane of his master.

Then Merry stooped and lifted his hand to kiss it, and lo! Théoden opened his eyes, and they were clear, and he spoke in a quiet voice though laboured.

'Farewell, Master Holbytla!' he said. 'My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!'

Merry could not speak, but wept anew. 'Forgive me, lord,' he said at last, 'if I broke your command, and yet have done no more in your service than to weep at our parting.'

The old king smiled. 'Grieve not! It is forgiven. Great heart will not be denied. Live now in blessedness; and when you sit in peace with your pipe, think of me! For never now shall I sit with you in Meduseld, as I promised, or listen to your herb-lore.' He closed his eyes, and Merry bowed beside him.
Jackson stays more or less true to this particular scene, but without Tolkien's careful development of Theoden, the reluctant warrior, the cinematic adaptation lacks poignancy.  Jackson's Theoden is a stock character, an empty suit.  There is no hint of the diffidence and resigned courage of Tolkien's Theoden.  In the book, Theoden is vindicated.  Though he dies a violent death, he is at peace.  He met the great challenge of his time.  "My body is broken.  I go to my fathers.  And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed."

Of Peter Jackson's many sins, I find his treatment of Theoden to be one of the most egregious.

In conclusion

You'd never know it by watching the films, but the book is a complex examination of morality, free will, and the seduction of power.  (Tolkien, being a devout Catholic, has a particular take on things.)  Jackson is either too thick or too greedy for the subtlety such examinations require.

Ah, well.  As Tolkien demonstrates with his work, beauty ultimately overcomes desecration.  Future generations will learn, once again, to revere Tolkien's great invention long after the Lord of the Rings film fiasco is but a dim memory. 


UnitFour said...

No, no, no! You're missing Jackson's most brilliant artistic flourish!

Many Tolkien fans were upset that The Scouring of the Shire was left off of the end of the trilogy. But that's Jackson's GENIUS. In a way, with the entire film franchise he is breaking the fourth wall. Just as Sharkey and his henchmen come to the Shire to wreak corruption and desecration on the hobbits' beloved home, Jackson and his screenwriting team HAVE DONE THE SAME EXACT THING to Tolkien's literary creation. The rabid film fanbois play the part of the Sackville-Bagginses, colluding with the corruptors to delight in the cheapening of something once beautiful.

Can't you see? He's setting it up so that HE HIMSELF can be scoured from his own metaphorical Shire.

Or at least I can dream. As I'm fond of saying - STOP HIM! Before he films again!

Knight of Nothing said...

So let me get this straight: "tra-la-la lally way down in the valley", "merry dol ring a dong dillo!", talking eagles, a talking purse, flatware-juggling dwarves... none of these things are too whimsical for you. But a peace-loving nature-wizard with a sleigh is. Ok. Got it.

I don't think Peter Jackson is a fool, and I don't think he's trying to desecrate anything. He and the other writers have simply taken Tolkien's stories and themes they contain that resonate with them and made some movies.

Jackson's motivations are perfectly similar to Tolkien's expressed intentions. Here's Professor Tolkien, on writing the Lord of the Rings: "[my] desire [was] to try my hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of the readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times excite them or deeply move them."

One can criticize Jackson's (mis-) interpretations of Tolkien's work, but I think it is completely off-base to impugn PJ's intentions. He's a story-teller too, and just like Tolkien, he's telling the kind of story he likes.

UnitFour said...


noun, Rhetoric.

1. obvious and intentional exaggeration. extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “to wait an eternity.”

UnitFour said...

Upon viewing the film, it is clear that Jackson's vision consists of nothing more, nothing less than that of many dollar signs in theater cash registers. Deviations from canon aside, a depressingly poorly-made film.

Unknown said...

It's interesting, in light of your review (with which I agree) that you link to a review of The Hobbit that considers the "heresies" of the LotR films "minor". Might I suggest the following instead, which barely mentions those movies?