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.
- 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.