Another Road to Middle Earth

15 Dec

Fifty years after its first publication, The Lord of the Rings found a new and even larger audience in a new medium, the three films directed by Peter Jackson and released in successive years 2001–2003. These are some of the most successful films ever made. The three between them had taken some £1,279 million at the box office, a figure certainly multiplied by VOD and DVD sales, especially of the extended versions which will give a final total running time of close on twelve hours. It is impossible to estimate how many viewers this will represent, since one DVD can be seen by many people, and conversely the box office takings are inflated by repeat viewers, but it is safe to say that hundreds of millions of people have seen or will see the films. There will almost certainly be more viewers than readers (though of course they are often the same people). In light of this it may seem bizarre that while Peter Jackson was making the films, the moguls of Hollywood, alarmed at the ever-increasing scale and cost of the production, sent to New Zealand a ‘script doctor’, whose job it was to get the films back on track. The ‘script doctor’ immediately saw the faults in the Tolkien plot. Having heroes riding (or in this case walking) to the rescue of a threatened people was of course perfectly familiar and acceptable, as in The Magnificent Seven: but there was no need to have two threatened peoples, Rohan and Gondor. One of them could be cut out, which meant that the battle of Helm’s Deep could be amalgamated with the battle of the Pelennor Fields. A love-interest for Aragorn was also clearly vital, but once again there was no need for two of them: either Arwen or Éowyn should go, preferably Arwen, and Aragorn should then marry Éowyn instead of politely dissuading her. One could then make a further saving by eliminating the figure of Faramir. Meanwhile, though there was some doubt about the wisdom of having such small and unheroic figures as hobbits as heroes, they might be retained as a gimmick: but four of them were one too many. And it was absolutely vital that one of the hobbits should die. With changes like these, The Lord of the Rings could be converted into a perfectly acceptable, run-of-the-mill movie script–at the expense, of course, of cultural contrast, originality, emotional depth, and a few other inessentials. The script doctor’s advice was ignored, and Jackson’s films perhaps convinced even the moguls in the end that there was something they did not know about popular appeal. Nevertheless, the changes proposed do say something about the individual and even eccentric nature of Tolkien’s work. So often it does not do what one might expect. But the success of the films does raise a more important issue. For many people, The Lord of the Rings now means the film version, not the books. In what ways are the two versions different, and would Tolkien himself have approved of the difference?

It should be remembered that Tolkien did live long enough to see a film script and to comment on it–the script indeed survives, with Tolkien’s marginal notations, in the archive at Marquette University, Milwaukee. That 1957 script was beyond all question an extraordinarily bad one, unambitious and careless, and Tolkien’s comments are appropriately blistering. Still, three points deserve to be extracted from them. First, Tolkien had no objection to a film version per se. Second, he realised straight away that for a film version his book would have to be cut; and he was sure that in such circumstances outright cutting would be preferable to compression. Better to take out entirely such semi-independent sections as the involvement with Tom Bombadil, or the Scouring of the Shire, or the return of Saruman, than to try to squeeze everything in at racing speed. What would happen if one chose that alternative would be, all too likely, that the Prime Action – Tolkien’s term for Frodo and Sam making their way into Mordor – would be downgraded in favour of the Subsidiary Action – that is, the wars and the battles and the heroes. The third point is more debatable. Tolkien (writing it should be remembered with a degree of ‘resentment’ about a confessedly poor script) protested that: The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies. Leaving aside for the moment the question of ‘the core of the original’, one could challenge Tolkien’s phrase ‘wholly different’. The ‘canons of narrative art’ may well not be wholly different, but in different media they could well be substantially different. But is this just a matter of a change of medium, or does it affect the nature of the entire work?

One very evident difference between writing a book and making a film is money. Someone like Tolkien, writing on his own in the spare time from his ‘day job’, had no one to consider but himself. All that he was investing was his spare time. Someone like Jackson, controlling a budget of many millions of dollars, had to think about producing a return on the investment, and so to consider popular appeal. Every now and then, accordingly, one can see him ‘playing to the gallery’. Legolas skateboards down a flight of steps on a shield at the battle of Helm’s Deep. Gimli twice plays to a joke about ‘dwarf-tossing’, once in the scene with the Balrog, where Gimli refuses to be thrown across the chasm: “Nobody tosses a dwarf!” and once at Helm’s Deep again, where this time he accepts the indignity in the cause of duty: “Toss me … Don’t tell the Elf!”. Tolkien would have understood neither addition: they are there for a teenage audience. Something similar could be said about the extra role given to Arwen in the first film, where she replaces Glorfindel in the scenes after Frodo is stabbed on Weathertop. This makes her into a better example of the strong active female character now preferred, but the rewriting rings a little hollow. In Tolkien it is Frodo who turns to defy the Ringwraiths at the edge of the ford of the Loudwater, but his defiance is weary, lonely and unsuccessful. Jackson has Arwen turning and defying the Ringwraiths, “If you want him, come and claim him!”. Of course they do want him, they have every intention of claiming him, and Arwen’s defiance actually makes no difference: not much is gained by introducing the stereotype of the ‘warrior princess’ – except that, as has been said, this is the kind of thing a modern audience expects, or may be thought to expect. There are a number of insertions and alterations like this in the Jackson films, but their effect need not be exaggerated: they pass quickly.

Inevitably, some of the philosophical ‘core of the original’ has been lost in the film version. However, this may be because the ‘canons of narrative art’, in Tolkien’s own words, while certainly not ‘wholly different’ in a different medium, are identifiably different. For one thing, the film medium has more trouble dealing with distorted time sequences than does prose fiction. Film makers can easily cut from one scene to another, and Jackson often does so with strikingly contrastive effects. The implication, though, is always that the different scenes (more of them, shorter, much more broken up) are happening at more or less the same time. Simply by having chapter and book divisions, with all the familiar devices of chapter-tides and fresh-page starts, a novelist like Tolkien can in effect say to his reader, ‘I am now taking you back to where I left off with this group of characters’. One result is that the reader is much more aware of what he or she knows, from another plot-strand, that the characters in the plot-strand being narrated do not know, with obvious resultant effects of irony or reassurance. This is a major difference between the two versions we now have of The Lord of the Rings. Does it matter? Jackson may not have been able to cope with all the ramifications of Tolkien on Providence, but then few if any readers do. It is very difficult to say whether some part of Tolkien’s intention gets through even to careless or less-comprehending readers: he would have hoped so, but there is no guarantee that he was correct. And meanwhile Jackson has certainly succeeded in conveying much of the more obvious parts of Tolkien’s narrative core, many of them quite strikingly alien to Hollywood normality – the difference between Prime and Subsidiary Action, the differing styles of heroism, the need for pity as well as courage, the vulnerability of the good, the true cost of evil. It was brave of him to stay with the sad, muted, ambiguous ending of the original, with all that it leaves unsaid. Perhaps the only person who could answer the question posed above – do the changes affect the nature of the entire work? – would be a person with an experience quite opposite to my own: someone who had seen the films, preferably several times over, and only then had read Tolkien’s original. It would be interesting to gather from such a person a list of ‘things I hadn’t realised before’, as also ‘things Tolkien left out’. Perhaps the most heartening thing one can say is that there will certainly now be many millions of people in exactly that position, new readers facing a new experience, and finding once again Tolkien’s road to Middle-earth.

2 Responses to “Another Road to Middle Earth”

  1. Calmgrove December 15, 2019 at 10:54 pm #

    Very enjoyable. I’m afraid I’m one of those who’s had multiple viewings — of films, DVDs and extended editions — but only after multiple readings of LOTR, roughly every ten years (though I’m rather overdue the current one) so I can’t advise you on your last point. However, the trilogy has always seemed like a new experience each reading so I may be able to expound on this sometime in 2020l

  2. Strider February 11, 2020 at 1:07 am #

    They’re slightly different experiences I’d say, but both masterpieces in their own right. And they have different standout qualities: focus and characterization for the films, and detail of worldbuilding and mythic scale for the books (to list a few for both versions). I’d argue the films remain relentlessly faithful to the themes of the book, even in the narrative differences. Jackson and co clearly did their research and cared about the source material. Don’t know if you’ve seen it, but I’d highly recommend Like Stories of Old’s videos about moral victory in Lord of the Rings, he does a great job highlighting areas where the films differed from the books yet remained true to Tolkien’s catholic worldview.

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