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January, 2004 : Criticism:

Peter Jackson and the Denial of the Hero

Despite—or perhaps because of—near universal enthusiasm, there have always been a few nay-sayers when it comes to J.R.R. Tolkien's most popular work. The condemnations of Tolkien have most recently been popularized by China Miéville's elaborations on Michael Moorcock's longstanding curmudgeonry.

A careful viewing of Peter Jackson's interpretation of The Lord of the Rings suggests that Jackson has equal affinity for both the original work and its detractors.

Consider first the detractors. Moorcock considers Tolkien's epic of good against evil to be the consequence of the banal longings of an imagination-deprived ultra-conservative Englishman:

The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob—mindless football supporters throwing their beer-bottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom "good taste" is synonymous with "restraint" (pastel colours, murmured protest) and "civilized" behaviour means "conventional behaviour in all circumstances" (Moorcock, 1989).

Along with many in the genre, Miéville deplores the bottom-feeders who regurgitate Tolkien's creation in the form of massive multi-volume elaborations on a theme, but he doesn't stop there. In one oft-quoted passage, Miéville writes:

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can't ignore it, so don't even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there's a lot to dislike—his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. .... He wrote that the function of fantasy was 'consolation', thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader (Miéville, PanMacmillan).

Miéville condemns what he considers regressive fantasies of a pastoral paradise that never was ("feudalism lite", he mocks). It is no surprise that one of his favorite quotations comes from Moorcock: "Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape." (Miéville, 2002)

If these were second-rate authors nursing their own literary careers towards obscurity, you might think they were just jealous, for surely these excerpts, and the essays behind them, fail to capture the essence of Tolkien's achievement. But Moorcock and Miéville are hardly obscure, and both have a deep knowledge—and love—of the genre.

Accordingly, it is interesting that when Jackson recast the trilogy for the screen he made specific character choices that converted most of Tolkien's mythic icons into gritty, all-too-human figures:

[We made] a conscious decision at the very beginning of our project, when we were starting to get our team together, we set ourselves the job of making more of an historical than a fantasy film, because I just thought that would be interesting, to treat fantasy as history, as if it had a degree of reality to it. So everything we did in the movie we tried to make feel real and just tried to avoid an over-designed sort of film and tried to make it more earthy and organic (Jackson).

Interestingly, this treats one of Miéville's arguments: "The linguistic cliches are matched by thematic ones. The stories are structured by moralist, abstract logic, rather than being grounded and organic" (2002).

So, what does Miéville think of Jackson's accomplishment? "Pretty damn good" (2002).

Miéville speaks for many—even many die-hard Tolkien fans—when he lauds Jackson's accomplishment. Using intelligent and innovative fusions of film technologies old and new, Jackson captured the wonder of Middle Earth in ways that were simply breathtaking. Film-goers who cringed at the awkward use of computer generated imagery in the recent blockbusters such as the new Star Wars releases and The Matrix went in dreading a disastrous trashing of their beloved imaginary world. But Jackson got the look of Middle Earth right, astonishingly right, impossibly right.

But he did not stop with making the world visually persuasive, Jackson altered fundamentals of Tolkien's story as well. So awestruck were many by the vast and exquisite tapestry, that they may not have noticed the ways in which Jackson steered Tolkien's tale toward the Miéville/Moorcock camp.

In The Fellowship of the Ring most of the alterations were straightforward cuts. Tom Bombadil and the barrow wights just weren't relevant enough to the heart of the story to warrant another hour of film. Fans debated his cuts, but few could argue with the simple fact the whole of Tolkien's book wouldn't fit to any reasonably sized film. Even in the first film, however, there were not just omissions but significant changes of character.

As the trilogy of films unfolded, it became evident that Jackson had fundamentally rewritten the characters and their motivations, and in so doing, had quite stripped the essence of heroic fantasy out of the story. In the film trilogy the heros are weak and hesitant, while most of the villains are denuded of their tragedy.

By the third film, one can almost see Jackson making out a spreadsheet of all the characters. Each name will have a fundamental human (yes, even the non-human characters) weakness, a key decision point, and some moment of redemption, or final elimination. This is Creative Writing 101, basic stuff every student of the craft learns in her first workshop. Fiction is understood to engage readers (or viewers) by connecting with our own humanity, by offering failings and hard choices with which we can identify. (Consider Jackson's Elrond reluctant to let his daughter marry trailer-trash like Aragorn!) The storyteller then pushes on these difficult decisions to achieve 'character development.' In nearly every major character in Jackson's films, we see this principle at work. We still don't have access to the extended version of The Return of the King, so some of the key moments for the minor characters are presumably off screen.

By way of example, consider Aragorn. In the books, Strider undergoes a transformation, prophesied by Bilbo's "all that is gold does not glitter." The ranger appears to be a rough, marginal man, making his way outside the borders of a failing civilization. But there is no question in Aragorn about his nature: only his path. When Aragorn reveals himself, it is an epiphany, an astonishing intrusion of myth into the ordinary. Moorcock and others dismiss Tolkien's concoction of Hobbits as a rather pathetic idealization of rural England, but whatever Tolkien's intention, the function of the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings are to stand in for the ordinary reader. Tolkien's other masterpiece, The Silmarillion, is a different work entirely—a vast and exquisite combination of cosmology, myth, and epic poetry—but it lacks any ordinary for the reader to hold on to. So, when Aragorn takes up the Sword that was Broken (in Book I, by the way, not III) he steps out of the ancient stories, out of the The Silmarillion, and into the present. Like any great heroic tale, this is not the end, but the beginning. The hero still has great odds to overcome, some of which are, in fact, too great for him. He still has to come to terms with his destiny. But this is a very different character than Arwen's human boy-toy we see dithering through three long movies. Jackson's Aragorn glitters like pyrite (tastefully painted with a patina of scruffy beard) but it is never clear that he is gold.

Or, consider Gandalf. Tolkien's Gandalf follows a similar progression to Aragorn: in the ordinary world of the Shire, he seems a fairly ordinary wizard. He does fireworks, suffers the disapprobation of the locals, and behaves with mild eccentricity. Many readers knew him through The Hobbit, and understand that he's got other irons in other fires, but until Elrond's council, Gandalf remains a deus ex machina who may or may not show up to bail out those in trouble. But Gandalf's true transformation comes later, when we learn of his victory over the balrog of Moria. Even risen from death, Gandalf knows he is no savior: his destiny has become to replace the broken Saruman in the great battle to come, and only now does he know—or reveal—his own strength. Like Aragorn, Gandalf steps up to his destiny. In The Two Towers and The Return of the King Gandalf uses this power to cut through the illusions and deceptions of the enemy, and shows himself the equal, not of Sauron, but at least of the Nazgûl. Jackson's Gandalf, however, uses a few magic tricks at opportune moments to fulfill the basic plot requirements of the books. The steel that is in Tolkien's Gandalf is not apparent in film. Observe this transformation:

In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.
All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax. Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dinen.
'You cannot enter here,' said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. 'Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go Back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!' (RotK: 103)

In the film, however, Gandalf and Pippen crouch together as the gates fall, and Gandalf feeds the hobbit some very un-Tolkienesque pap about how things are better in heaven.1 Gandalf appears resigned to failure.

Even among minor characters, Jackson's alterations can be seen. What Jackson's reasons for spoiling the surprise of Éowyn's identity during the ride of the Rohirrim were, it is hard to imagine. But why would he also transform her from a strong and angry battle maiden into a simpering, almost elfin creature, following Aragorn around like a lost puppy? This was a particularly sharp disappointment, as Éowyn was Tolkien's only strong female character. In the battle of Pelennor Fields when Éowyn stands up to the Nazgûl, Jackson shows her fighting out of pure terror, where Tolkien's Éowyn was finally, for the first time in her life, even against the command of her father, fulfilling her destiny.

It might seem that all of Tolkien's character development involves the acceptance of destiny, depicted in (sometimes overwrought) mythic language. But an even more curious reversal takes place in the person of Frodo. Frodo alone of all the major characters in Tolkien's work chooses his destiny. Although he does, as Jackson successfully portrays, succumb in the end to the addiction that is the ring, the final outcome is not a lucky accident, and nor is it destiny. It is the direct result of Frodo's ongoing decision to destroy the ring up until his final moment of failure.

Jackson portrays Frodo as a lost creature through the last leg of the journey. He is so burdened by the ring, and so baffled by Gollum's tricksy talk, that he even turns against Sam. Frodo might as well be a rickety old cart that Gollum wheels along towards Orodruin for all the choice he shows. (No wonder Gollum ends up the star of the show!)

But Tolkien's Frodo chooses the path, stands by his friend Sam, and also stands by his enemy, Gollum, out of pity, and out of a conviction—imparted to him by Gandalf—that Gollum is necessary to the success of their task. The key moment, however, comes when Gollum finally attacks Frodo on the flanks of Mount Doom. Here Frodo first uses the true power of the ring. Not the invisibility, but the Authority, the power of Command:

Then suddenly... Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice.
'Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.' (RotK: 221)

Thus Frodo uses the ruling power of the ring to seal Gollum's end—and also the final victory of the mission. Jackson omits this scene. Perhaps this was a cut due to time constraints, and it will reappear in the extended edition, but even so, what a cut: the omission of this moment transforms Frodo's victory into defeat. As Jackson strips the mythic characters of their heroic nature having them falter and shrink from their own strength, so he strips Frodo's heroism by removing his free will.

With the fundamental sensibilities of the story altered, it is no surprise that Miéville finds less to deplore. In light of Jackson's masterful depiction of Tolkien's world, there is also no reason why fans of the books shouldn't be delighted. And, given the enormous cost, the massive scope, and the final success of the film series, the odds against any further attempts are great: Jackson's work is truly a historical landmark of film-making. But even so, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings remains unfilmed and, since it seems increasingly unpalatable to contemporary sensibilities, probably unfilmable.

Footnotes

  1. Both Moorcock and Miéville take exception to what they see as the Christian imperative in Tolkien, but while Catholicism may inform much of Tolkien's mythmaking, no explicit Catholic doctrine or Christian evangelizing appear anywhere in Tolkien's work. Unlike his friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien did not write with conversion to Christianity as one of his goals. Jackson's addition of this element, implicitly repeated in the final scenes at the grey havens, is not in keeping with the spirit of the books, nor even consistent with Tolkien's imaginary theology as presented in The Silmarillion.

Works Referenced

Jackson, Peter. Interview. iofilm, (date unknown, online).

Miéville, China. "Debate", from the PanMacmillan website, date unknown, online

———. "Tolkien - Middle Earth Meets Middle England", Socialist Review, January 2002 (online)

Moorcock, Michael. "Epic Pooh", reprinted at Revolution SF, 2002, online.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1955.

———. The Two Towers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1955.

———. The Return of the King. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1955.

———. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977.


Copyright © 2004, M. Garcia. All Rights Reserved.

About M. Garcia

M. Garcia studies literary criticism in Austin, Texas. Garcia advises all newcomers to Texas: movie theaters are an excellent place to escape the heat, but libraries are cheaper.

COMMENTS!

Feb 21, 00:00 by John Frost
That's what someone asked me. What do you think?
Feb 22, 07:09 by Greg Gerrand
Or has he ever read the works of Moorcock or Mieville? The arguments were weak, based on selective quoting and rubbery timelines, and structured to support a fundamentally flawed proposition.

More later.
Feb 25, 14:29 by Adrian Simmons
I tend to agree that the omissions made in the film make the characters weaker, not stronger. Especially Frodo.

Some of it, I suppose, can be atributed to the need to compact the story to fit on the screen and in the appropriate timeframe. Some of it, though, I just can't understand.

As for the more general complaints of Tolkien's work, if it's not your cup of tea it's not your cup of tea. How hard is that for people to understand? Ditto the other side of the coin. Can't get it through your thick skull that sometimes people like a nice good v. evil story? Get over it already.

As a personal aside, I've noticed that most people who don't like Tolkien don't like it because of all the, you know, reading they have to do. They hardly ever say they don't like the story, or the characters, it's all the words. All the words about trees. Which, if you've ever walked for a few days through a forest (as Tolkien did on the network of British walking paths), the trees do take up a lot of your time and attention.



Sep 11, 12:11 by Pat Richards
The only exception I take to this piece is to its title. I believe that what M. Garcia proves here is that Peter Jackson did not so much "deny" the hero as to *humanize* the hero -- something almost always missed in filmatic heroic fantasy.

This is an insightful analysis that cuts through the lavish praise heaped on the film and examines how it really relates or departs from Tolkien in an important conceptual way instead of the usual "but I always thought Aragon would be clean-shaven" approach. M. Garcia attempts a realistic evaluation of the film's characters, which is exactly what Peter Jackson wanted to do with the source material. And while I can't find fault with Garcia's evaluations of the film's character depictions, I don't know why he felt the need to reference Moorcock's self-serving criticism of the original books so extensively, as Garcia's analysis stands on its own.

Suffice it to say that Tolkien is quoted repeatedly as saying that in LOTR he set out to create a "mythology for the English people". This stated intent completely disarms Moorcock's rantings. One might just as well level the same complaints against Homer and the Greeks because their mythology doesn't reflect modern life and complexities very well!

How successful Tolkien was in achieving what he wanted doesn't really matter -- his intent was to create larger-than-life mythic and iconic characters -- that's clear enough. Peter Jackson was smart enough to realize than in film-making going for that kind of characterization would inevitably appear comic book-like on the screen and had sense enough to convent the characters into human beings and thus ensure that his film would be taken seriously.

So, the transformation of Tolkien's deliberate myth into the more visceral reality of modern film was a big step to take. Pulling it off and still preserving so much of the flavor and appeal of the original books was pure genius. I'm surprised most people missed it and can only find in within their critical facilities to carp about how "weak" a given character was in the film compared to the book.

Even though my own favorite passage from the book -- Eowyn standing up to the Nazgul -- also had to suffer demythicfication in the film, I must admit that Jackson's version was inherently more believable on screen than Tolkien's version would have been. It worked on a gut-level where the purest heroic-fantasy version would have come across like cotton candy, sweet but insubstantial.
Nov 19, 09:55 by Doug Mullane
The films are good by themselves. But Jackson does change the characters to make them "other than" what one finds in the books.

Boromir is a rude, arrogant, proud man in Tolkien's text. Where he fails, Jackson's Boromir succeeds. The camera captures Boromir in all of his success while Tolkien shows him in much too much failure: Jackson visually makes Boromir a great warrior who lives to defend the fellowship while Tolkien's "southern man" is rather weak in combat (although readers do read that he "kills many" but are not "shown" it); Jackson's Boromir makes observations that are generally accurate in regard to the protection of the fellowship, yet Tolkien's Boromir asks all the wrong questions and is scolded for it; and Jackson's Boromir really does die a hero where Tolkien's character dies in failure and despair.

Gandalf is almost a Sherlock Holmes of Middle Earth (I am not the only one to think this--check http://www.gfy.ku.dk/~ams/sh/gandalfeng.html ) who is not visually aged as he is in the first movie. Gandalf is the movies makes mistakes and is a grumpy, old man, but Tolkien more or less makes him into a character who really does know everything (well, mostly) and belittles everyone else who does not match his knowledge base. As Gandalf the White, Jackson uses the wizard to be far more active in destroying Sauron, including his bullying of Denethor. The wizard literally beats and pounds the steward into submission (unconsciousness). Where, oh where, do readers find this in the text?

Treebeard, a wise, old tree-like thing becomes a man with tree parts. Understandably, indentifying what the heck Treebeard looks like is quite diffcult, but Tolkien does have a purpose in making him more man than tree: the ent can become just as hasty as anyone else (and, in the films, everyone is hasty). The ents have to be tricked into attacking Isengard--where the hell did that come from? From what viewers see on screen, Merry and Pippin cause a riot, and the ents become the senseless mob that destroys all the businesses and livelihoods of Isengard's "business district." The ents are dramatically weaker than in the original text.

The changes made to characters, subtle as they are, cause bigger changes throughout the film. And, of course, the focus on the ring over all other things changes the films as well. I liked the films, but I see them for what they are: translations. In any translation, something is lost. And translating mythic forms into something on the big screen will always ruin the individual imagination of the non-visual form.

Doug
Feb 2, 21:52 by Kaylene McInnes
I have to agree. The changes, particularly those made to Aragorn, really bothered me. My major difficulty was with the way that Aragorn's actions throughout the books were cut so drastically in the films. In Tolkien, Aragorn progresses through a series of challenges and trials, from smaller feats like healing folk with the herb Athelasto major efforts like raising the ghost army of the Oathbreakers. These are the heroic exploits required of a legendary king. Jackson cut out almost all of these, with the exception of the summoning of the Oathbreakers, and so Aragorn arrives in Gondor and claims the kingship with little more authority than I would have (And I'm a thirty-five year old mother of two little boys). This bothered me after my first viewing of the films, though overall, I think Jackson did a sterling job, within incredibly difficult parameters.
Jan 26, 01:37 by Oliver Hauss
I emphatically agree with most of the analysis, and I think its main weakness is its focussing, preventing it from making an even stronger point. Unfortunately, Jackson cut out practically all of the, let's call it "Beowulf-style" storytelling qualities of LotR. He overlooked that there were two different chains of narrative: One of the Hobbits, were we do have "human" characters (only ridiculized by the described changes to Frodo) who do show character development (especially visible in Merry and Pippin), and the other chain of Beowulf-style epic storytelling, in which Tolkien not the least wanted to show that such stories can still touch an audience. By transforming characters that are meant to be larger than life into your average guy, Jackson deprives Tolkien of the means to do so AND deprives the hobbits of their heroes. Without the motivation, however, character development becomes rather haphazard.

In Excalibur, Arthur exclaims near the end "Now, my brother, I shall be King!" Aragorn is King, from the get-go, even if he doesn't look like it as Strider. He is made King because he is King, because he does what a King does: Heal the people, inspire it and unite it against an enemy and beat the enemy on the field of battle. (cf. Beowulf who also ends up being king after doing what would have been a King's job for several)

But Jackson does more: As was pointed out, Frodo chooses his destiny. Free will and how you use it is one of Tolkien's grand themes. Yet Jackson butchers it time and again, including in the Summoning of the Oathbreakers, who come freely, eager to finally make their peace, in the book, but who have to be awed into redemption in the movie.

Practically all of the legendary themes of the books are lost under a veneer of visual opulence which hides the fact that we're dealing with, in the movies, a rather standard "fantasy adventure story".
May 23, 16:28 by Ryder W. Miller
The Real Middle Earth: Exploring the Magic and Mystery of the Middle Ages, J.R.R. Tolkein, and “The Lord of the Rings”. By Brian Bates. Palgrave Macmillan (November 2003) 292 pages.

Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller

The real Middle Earth comes to life in Brian Bates’sThe Real Middle Earth which explores the roots of J.R.R. Tolkien’s influential fantasy opus “The Lord of the Rings”. Bates takes the reader back in time to first millenium AD Europe, a time that created much of the folklore, superstition, and literature which Tolkien drew upon to create his epic. In this fascinating book Bates, a Professor from the University of Brighton, contends the roots of Tolkien’s Middle Earth are not just historical but also spiritual, psychological and archetypical.

Magic was real for the people of Middle Earth, a pre Dark Age realm stretching from Western Europe to old England and Scandinavia. The people of Middle Earth included the marauding Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. Tolkien made this world accessible for modern readers, but Bates would have done so differently. Bates shows that Tolkien did not always mirror this time accurately in his famous epic.

Tolkien tends to cast a dark perspective on the spiritual beliefs of the people of this time. Bates does not describe as many evil forces, relaying that much of the war that took place then was between groups of people. Bates’s Middle Earth does not have a dark lord like Morgoth from the Silmarillion or Sauron. In Bates’s Middle Earth the spider is a magical and spiritual rather than always an evil creature. Tolkien personified evil and his addition to the history of fantasy were the hobbits who became Post-Nuclear heroes which the children and the rural English could also associate with. Bates’s work also describes the psychological and spiritual elements of those times, contending that the search for such is part of the appeal of Tolkien’s epic.

The book is insightful, covering the many elements that those times and Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” has in common. There are sections on the “Towers of Doom”, “Dragon’s Lairs”, “Elves’ Arrows”, “Plant Magic”, “Wells of Wisdom”, “Shapeshifters”, “The Seeress”, “Ents”, “The Dwarves’ Forge”, “Spellbinding”, and more.

Bates work provides a reference and starting point not only for Tolkien studies, but for a lot of fantasy literature which finds some of its roots in those times. Tolkien appears to have borrowed from these times as others did before and after him. But Tolkien and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis influenced what we read and studied. Due to their efforts Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature is more widely taught, and fantasy and science fiction is more widely read. Tolkien wanted to create a new mythology for England, and he wasn’t very thrilled with Shakespeare either. Tolkien paid back by subsequently inspiring interest in fantasy literature. Bates’s work helps you not miss its symbolism and significance.

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