The Desolation of Tolkien’s Text

When politics inevitably drives me to the brink of insanity, I retreat into the faraway realms created by good writers and filmmakers. For almost thirty years, my favorite getaway has been the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his The Hobbit and its follow-up, The Lord of the Rings. One can imagine my sense of joy and anticipation when I heard of a full length, live action trilogy of movies depicting LOTR and coming to the screen in the first year of this century.

I tempered my excitement with the knowledge that fully rendering Tolkien’s text in three movies was an impossible task; there is just too much ground to cover. I knew going in that my favorite chapter (The Scouring of the Shire), for example, lay after one of many possible cinematic endings and was thus unlikely to make the final script. I knew also that many characters would find their way into the film only in the form of composites. In other words, I embraced realistic expectations as a guide to viewing these films.

And initially I was not disappointed. Peter Jackson’s work on The Lord of the Rings was visually stunning, gifted with an impressive score, and captured many of the grand scenes of the text in ways that matched or satisfied the visions of my mind’s eye. But as I watched the films and thought about what I had seen, I became ever more angry at a number of the choices made by Jackson and his team; choices I felt were the result of hubris rather than necessity.

Yes, characters were composites (Arwen in the films is clearly a combination of Arwen, the Elf-Lord Glorfindel, and her brothers); but that was expected. Yes, text was omitted…gone were Tom Bombadil (no loss for me) and The Scouring of the Shire (a greater sadness); but these also were expected, and necessary. Ultimately my displeasure comes from the retelling of one of the film’s principle characters, Aragorn.

In the books, we are shown a man utterly certain of his role and his ability to fulfill that role. From his first audience with Frodo in Bree, Aragorn was sure of his destiny, skills, and the fact that the blade that was broken, his blade, would be reforged soon. In Jackson’s retelling, a conflicted Aragorn must be rallied by Elrond, and the blade that was reforged in the text before the company left Rivendell was delivered to Aragorn in the film before he traveled the Paths of the Dead. Jackson consistently robs the character of his resolve throughout the films, and carries this robbery to the other man most like Aragorn in the text, Faramir.

With Faramir’s depiction in the film, the reason that Jackson changes the characterizations of Tolkien’s text becomes clear. In the text, Faramir has the wisdom that Boromir lacks, and resolves on his own to help Frodo in his quest. In the film, Faramir is filled with the same doubt as Aragorn, and the same lack of will in the face of the Ring as Boromir. But this fundamental change of character allows Jackson to show another battle scene, and create his drama; “Will Frodo escape from Faramir?”

It is this reckless and arrogant need of the filmmaker to add drama and action to a text with 1,500 pages of drama and action that keeps the LOTR film series from achieving greatness, and dooms The Hobbit trilogy to utter failure. In The Hobbit, Jackson has decided to tell some of the history of Middle Earth found in the appendices of the LOTR books, while capturing as much as possible of The Hobbit’s 300 pages of brilliance. That, at least, was the notion sold to consumers.

My memories of 2012’s first installment of The Hobbit were, much like those for the first LOTR movie, largely positive. When I saw The Hobbit; The Desolation of Smaug however, I nearly left the film early in wrath. Again, and for context, this is a movie based on a 300 page book (that is 20% of the length of the LOTR series.) There is no reason for major rewrites to save time. But rewrites there are, and plenty.

And the rewrites fall into the same pattern as those for LOTR, although on a grander if less-noble scale. We are treated to a brand new character introduced to create a dueling love story embroiling Legolas (not named in the text of The Hobbit)¬†and Fili. We are given a running battle scene between Orks, Elves, and Dwarves down the Forest River that never happened in the text. A battle that created a casualty which fundamentally changes the rest of the script. For those who have read the book, Fili and Kili have a well-defined role which extends throughout the tale (indeed, they are with Bilbo when he finds the door.) The simple truth is that Peter Jackson decides that his version of the tale is more dramatic than Tolkien’s.

In the movie, Bard the Bowman becomes Bard the Bargeman…not a man capable of drawing his long bow amidst the wreck and flames of Smaug, but a man who will be forced into using what is essentially an anti-aircraft gun. Jackson rewrites the history of Dale and the Laketown to accommodate his desire to turn The Hobbit into Pearl Harbor.

In the finale, the audience is given another manufactured (and visually ridiculous) battle scene, the principle purpose of which seems to be the creation of CGI opportunities. This is script-writing for the sake of special effects, long the bane of Hollywood summer blockbusters, and now the fate of the greatest fantasy text in modern English literature.

And with all of the rewrites for “continuity”, and all of the artifice of drama; with all of the character composites, character creation, and character revisions; with all of the pomp, and circumstance, and fast food tie-ins, all Peter Jackson has succeeded in doing is creating another bad blockbuster. Another in a series of films (by many filmmakers) united in the superficial and related by the artificial. We have been given years of movies devoid of plot, language, sub-text, and background…movies with ever greater explosions used to distract from ever greater irrelevance.

In Tolkien, these filmmakers were given a treasure-trove of story-telling; action, adventure, poetry, allegory. As Peter Beagle wrote, Tolkien gave “our most common nightmares, daydreams, and twilight fancies…a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world.”

With The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson has given us back to the poisoned world, and embraced again the madness of violence for the sake of blood, explosions for the sake of fire, and technology for the sake of profit. We should consider, before the next movie is release, another sample of Peter Beagle’s comments on The Lord of the Rings:

We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers-thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at least praise the colonizers of dreams.

Tolkien was a leading colonizer, and Peter Jackson has usurped his spirit in the pursuit of fortune and glory. Next December, when the insanity of politics drives me to the refuge of fiction and the movies, I will choose another path. Next year, I will just reread the book.


The Rational Middle is listening…

One thought on “The Desolation of Tolkien’s Text

  1. I agree. Even though I was never a reader of Tolkien, my experience has always been that reading opens a boundless world limited only by one's imagination and sensitivity. Watching movies, although certainly often enjoyable, inevitably precludes much stretching of my imagination beyond the image presented before my eyes. So, yes, movies are a poor substitute for reading, especially when they attempt to recapture the full force of the written word.

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