Tolkien’s movies

“The Fellowship of the Ring”

December 23, 2001

After two viewings with my friend Vigil

You never know how a movie will affect you.  That’s especially true of the good ones.  I had expected a great action film with epic excitement and a healthy spiritual pulse.  I did not expect to feel so much sadness and loss.[1]  It was somewhat like the effect on me of James Cameron’s version of the Titanic story.  For most of a day after first seeing “Fellowship” I simply felt like being silent.  I was prepared, having read the book, for the losses of Gandalf and Boromir, so those were not the most emotional moments of the movie for me.  What a surprise instead to be holding back tears when, after much suffering, Frodo lays eyes on Bilbo in Rivendell.  And the lines in Bilbo’s face – how poignant to think that he was now dying, without the Ring.  I felt very little for Bilbo in the book.  But onscreen it was another story.  Ian Holm is probably the single best actor in the cast, so there is little wonder that his appearance should have drawn up some authentic, adult emotion in me.  It was his skills as an actor.

The second-best actor is undoubtedly Ian McKellan, and I must say I found his Gandalf a sadder figure than in the book.  Tolkien’s Gandalf always gave me the sense that he could not take a false step; in the movie he hits his head in Bilbo’s house.  His ease in dispatching the wolves on Caradhras, a sequence left out of the movie, illustrated his power in so many ways.  Sam’s certainty that whatever fate had in store for Gandalf, it was not likely to be a wolf’s belly, illustrated Tolkien’s idea that Gandalf is little bowed by merely physical dangers or even forces of nature; his true enemies are spiritual powers like Sauron, Saruman, or the Balrog demon.

Tolkien reports that the Ring is a temptation for Gandalf, but McKellan gives us much more, and all of it casting Gandalf in a more vulnerable light (and that’s not all a bad thing, which I’ll explain).  In the book he is the first to realize what the Ring is, and he appears to do much work over many years in coming to that conclusion.  The movie implies that all Gandalf had to do was a little research on the Ring, and that he was late in doing so.  Tolkien’s wizard comes back to Frodo in his usual self-possessed manner after a 12-year absence to explain what he has learned in his travels and hard labors; Jackson’s Gandalf, having done his historical research, rushes back to Frodo soon after Bilbo’s birthday party and is wild with anxiety over whether the Ring is safe.  In the movie Gandalf pleads with Elrond that Frodo be released from his duties, only to be reminded by Elrond of the world’s peril; in the book Gandalf continually must remind others, and no one speaks to him in like manner.  Saruman mistreats him, but Tolkien does not portray these scenes for us, and does not even imply physical abuse, whereas in the movie we see Gandalf battered and suffering.

Gandalf on the page was prideful, and he bristles when Boromir questions his decision to go into Moria after seeing that the wizard does not know the password into the mines:

‘The answer to your first question, Boromir, is that I do not know the [password] – yet.  But we shall soon see.  And,’ he added, with a glint in his eyes under their bristling brows, ‘you may ask what is the use of my deeds when they are proved useless.  As for your other question: do you doubt my tale?  Or have you no wits left?  I did not enter this way.  I came from the East.’

He then figures out the password, an achievement left to Frodo in the movie.  Jackson’s Frodo had also made the final decision to go into Moria, after Gimli twice suggests it.  In the book Gandalf suggests the choice, makes the final decision, and figures out how to get in.  All of this is important, because it is the place where Gandalf falls.  His pride played a role in his fall, as well as his courage and ability to think originally.  He does not see his end, and must be reminded by Aragorn to have a worry for himself.  In the movie, he senses he will fall in Moria, and has understandable fear about it.  He goes because he is Frodo’s servant. 

All these are significant changes, but for what was lost in the character of Gandalf, something was gained, too.  Ian McKellan gives him a quiet voice, a wise whisper hinting of power underneath, which suits the cinema nicely.  Unlike a stage actor, a film star can whisper and still be heard, and it’s been said that it’s easier for an actor to connect with the authentic part inside if he does not have to shout.  Gandalf on the screen, when the Balrog appears, whispers what doom is coming, and warns that “This is a foe beyond any of you” so quietly that those around him would surely not hear him – but the audience can.  McKellan has given us a cinematic portrayal, a Gandalf just as soulful as Tolkien’s, but in a different way.  He is sadder, less prideful, and more vulnerable on screen.

This Gandalf is not seen confronting wolves by raising his voice and growing visibly like “some ancient king of stone set on a hill,” but like Tolkien’s wizard, he does something essentially equivalent to confront Bilbo, at a moment when the dramatic tension is not from external attack, but due to a strain upon a dear friendship.  That scene reminds me that confronting a friend requires its own kind of courage, and Jackson’s Gandalf has it.  He has a courage that seems to be set firmly in the context of relationships, principally his devotion to Bilbo and Frodo.

Another thing gained in these changes is that since Frodo chooses to go into Moria, and Gandalf falls there as his obedient servant, Frodo’s tears for him take on an extra layer of meaning, on top of his childlike mourning for a lost father figure.  Frodo’s character has also changed.  He looks younger than he should, to start.  This younger, childlike Frodo does not defy the Riders across the Ford with such stirring words as he uses in the book, lifting his sword when the Riders beckon him to Mordor: “By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!” 

Arwen’s role here, an inspired choice by Jackson, nevertheless takes this away from Frodo and makes him more passive.  The screenwriters, consciously or subconsciously trying to hold everything in balance, and having rightly but regrettably omitted episodes with Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wights in which Frodo’s role was central, then give him more at the expense of Gandalf, in the process creating a hobbit and a wizard different from Tolkien’s, but still successful.  They work.  More to the point, they work for the silver screen: for instance, Sam’s nearly drowning at the end is a little pokey in Jackson’ version but still emotional, principally due to that moment when we see Sam’s hand squeezing Frodo’s arm.

One complaint I have already heard concerns Merry and Pippin.  In the book they devote themselves to Frodo without his asking, while in the movie they bumble into the adventure.  At least, though, Jackson has them draw the orcs away from Frodo at the end, something Tolkien did not do.  Jackson tends to give something back for everything he takes away.

Another very large change from the book, but more successful, is the way that the movie builds up Saruman, and not merely by allotting screen time to episodes about him that Tolkien merely reported.  Jackson and Christopher Lee have made him quite a memorable villain.  Caradhras, the mountain which in Tolkien seemed to have a vicious will of its own, not bowing to any person’s power, is in the movie a passive figure before Saruman.  He, not the mountain, not the spirit of Sauron, is shown to have power over nature.   Jackson has illustrated this by showing us Saruman’s uprooting of trees, and his ability to quickly breed powerful new species.  Last of all, and this is pure Jackson, is the way that Saruman subdues Gandalf, throwing him about with perfect mastery over the law of gravity.  As I mentioned, Gandalf’s character loses something in order to give more to another character, and why not?  Gandalf’s character is abundantly rich, and something is gained in return, notably a new portrait of what humility and pride mean in Gandalf.  And a sequence not yet seen will pack more of a punch because of what has been done with Saruman in Jackson’s movie: the confrontation at Isengard.

Legolas comes off very nicely, but Gimli is much reduced, so we miss seeing the natural hostility between elf and dwarf blossom into a friendship.  We also don’t get anything of Gimli’s love for Galadriel, one of the most wondrous things in the book, more memorable than Aragorn and Arwen.  Jackson’s not finished yet but here I do think he’s missed the moment: it’s too late to insert much about the hostility between dwarves and elves, or to illustrate just how wondrous it is that Gimli should love Legolas and the “elf-witch.”  Gimli and Legolas will be friends, and it will be left at that, unless Jackson has extra humor, heart and spirit to give those two.

I’ve heard that it’s a mistake to have Aragorn doubt himself because of his lineage.  But in the movie Aragorn acts with decisiveness at the end, while Tolkien had him nearly wringing his hands at that moment, sharing in Frodo’s soul-searching.  Aragorn’s relationship to Frodo might seem diminished – in the book he would never have let Frodo go to Mordor by himself, either – but on the other hand we get to see Aragorn close his hand over Frodo’s and the ring, which is part of Jackson’s treatment of temptation, and not a bad moment of devotion to Frodo, either.  (I did not completely get the meaning of the scene, because I have the book interfering in my mind, but others have told me that when Aragorn hears the ring call to him in this scene, he realizes he has to let Frodo go, or else endanger him with the kind of temptation that Boromir does fall to).  Overall Viggo Mortenson’s Aragorn is a distinct improvement, in my opinion, over Tolkien’s.  His love for Arwen is seen, his doubt is set off by decisiveness at all other turns, and Viggo simply conveys much more than the blank character that Aragorn was on the page.

In any case, Jackson has added a very interesting emphasis on humankind as fated to inherit Middle-Earth.  What we see of men in this first movie is a less evolved state, when their wisdom is still uncertain, and their power not even acknowledged, still less is it come to fruition.  This theme was not absent in Tolkien, but in the movie it hits home for me, especially in that moving sequence where Boromir says farewell to Aragorn.  There’s a certain dignity and hope there, built upon Tolkien, but made Jackson’s own.  I look forward to seeing what he does with it.

The screenwriters have added action sequences not in the book, all to positive effect.  The one that crowds seem most to appreciate, judging from my two viewings, is Strider’s execution of the orc that slays Boromir.  It brought up clapping like nothing else, and I would say it stimulates the gladiatorial spectator in all of us, but the righteousness of his vengeance cannot be missed.

Having Frodo chased by a Black Rider to the Ferry Crossing is successful as action and makes the audience feel protective of him, something that Tolkien accomplished at a more leisurely pace, with more words, history, inner reflection, and of course the Barrow-wight episode, which to my mind is the single most terrifying passage in the book.  But since it had to go, something else had to come in.

Arwen’s role at the Ford is not entirely invented.  Loosely speaking, she takes the place of Glorfindel the elf, who joins Frodo’s company at the same time she does – but Glorfindel sees Frodo to within a mile of the Ford, no further.  Let me just say that to have a woman enter at this point, and not as another man in this  buddy road film, but as a savior different from all the rest, is interesting, period.  I cannot even begin to report how intriguing it must be to those who have not read the book.  I can’t quite dig in here to an authentic response.  But my intellect registers creativity, I feel intuitively the entrance of a different kind of energy, and my senses, of course, take in a sight that must be refreshing to male and female onlookers alike.  Last of all, when a woman offers Frodo her aid, my heart is activated, not for the first time, since the camaraderie of buddies already has a heartful effect, but again, in a different way.

Arwen’s love scene in Rivendell with Strider, their portrait recalling one similarly framed by natural surroundings in “Braveheart” [2] , works because its elements do not come out of thin air, placed there for marketing purposes.  Instead we hear Arwen renouncing her immortality, as she does in Tolkien’s book, though he tells that tale only in an appendix.  So we have a love story built from Tolkien’s own vision, evoking the sense of loss that the elves always mention when they talk about the Ring: Elrond surmises with sadness that even the 3 elf rings, never touched by Sauron, will expire when the One Ring is destroyed, and the height of elf civilization will pass away over the sea.  In Tolkien, things fade away in victory or defeat, because of Time.  The Nazgul men fade out of life because of the One Ring; dear Bilbo fades away from the real world, feeling stretched and thin, while he has the Ring; and when he gives it up, Time takes over and he ages, his life fading.  Victory over the Ring would mean the fading away of elves and ancient wisdom.  Marriage, in Tolkien’s world, would mean the victory of mortality over immortality. 

Much of this resembles real life; even folks who are not interested in spiritual matters, or inclined to look to worlds not registered by human senses, are agreed that physical things do not endure.  Arwen’s choice to live, in her words, “a single lifetime,” as a mortal and with a human, strikes a chord that leaves Jews and Christians recognizing something theologically desirable, touches the romantics with an idea of a sacrifice for love, and strikes the realist as true because it is not escapist with regard to ordinary difficulties, and also not blind to death’s reality.

Now on the matter of purely cinematic choices: having Arwen raise the flood right there, facing riders only a few feet away, is more dramatic, strictly speaking, than Tolkien’s mysterious flood, later explained to be the doing of a character, Elrond, far away from the scene.  Of course, a mysterious flood has its own dramatic effect: it would be a powerful force of nature from unknown sources with unclear intentions.  But to have it reported later is something a movie cannot do if it is to stay cinematic, that is, if it is to serve the images onscreen as they’re happening.  A book can afford to be more novelistic, that is, it can use words and reports while not sacrificing anything.  The images produced in a book, such as a flood, linger and can be recalled with words, and also by the reader’s choice to reflect on them, not to mention the ability to return to a previous page.  A movie’s images, though they might linger in memory, disappear and are replaced by new ones quickly, so there’s no going back, and the viewer who tries to go back has to blot out the specific images newly arrived on screen.  It’s better all around, in any story, to show rather than to tell, but that is especially true in the world of moving images.

And so in the movie we get to see Saruman’s preparations for war, and his encounter with Gandalf, in real time.  We see Sauron dispatching the Nine Riders, while Gollum is tortured, and Mount Doom burns over the Tower of Barad-Dur, itself pulsing with menace, all in real time.  We see Isildur’s alliance of men and Elves battling Sauron, as reported, it is true, by an unknown narrator, but it is not a report that interrupts: it actually opens the movie, in real time, as a prologue of the past.

Yes, even in Jackson’s film version, there are still many things reported.  But they all work, partly because past events are reported as much in images as in words, and partly because no single report takes up too much time.  The Council of Elrond, if it had been depicted as in the book, would have required the movie to sit for too long, and to sit with speeches.  That is very hard to do successfully, unless you’re doing Shakespeare as Laurence Olivier did it, by delivering poetry already designed to be spoken out loud (albeit for the stage), with soulful cinematic voices, and with images all around, like the cinema-born noir images of his “Hamlet.”  In a movie, images tell the real tale, the only tale that movie audiences really pay attention to.  Wisely, much of the information that Tolkien transmitted at the Council of Elrond is spread out in the movie – such as the history of the Ring, Gandalf’s research into the Ring, and his imprisonment by Saruman.

And as another example, Gandalf’s fine words to Frodo about doing what we can with the time we have been given, originally spoken in the Shire, are now given in Moria, at a dark moment when they serve the movie well.  Having Gollum appear at that moment also gives a dramatic context to Gandalf’s words about the pity of Bilbo and “many who deserve death.”

My single favorite moment in the movie actually comes in a flashback moment, though it is reported not long after it actually happened.  That is the eagle picking up Gandalf.  I knew he was coming, and when he arrived, and swoops Gandalf away, I have to tell you, the form of that eagle’s body in the darkness around Isengard just looked so real, so birdlike, under the wizard’s human form – what an incongruous and fantastical image! – that my heart was thumping with serious pleasure.  I wrote many notes on the eagle after first reading Tolkien, and perhaps his kind speak to me.  They are underrated in the book, and how gloriously they work on film!

Among other things not seen in the book, having the Fellowship fight the cave Troll is also a successful choice, though when Legolas jumped on its neck I did have to think of “Harry Potter.”  (More on Harry later).  The only quibble I have is that the troll’s sword should have crushed Frodo’s chest.  It would not have pierced the mail coat that Frodo wore, but it would have crushed the life out of him.  Tolkien’s choice was better: a single orc spear offers a point of death, too, but does not penetrate elf mail-coats.  It’s a small matter, though; the mail is magical, after all.

Two images showed up in my mind repeatedly in the days after seeing the movie.  The lesser of the two was a ground-level panoramic shot, from the side, of Arwen outpacing the Black Riders.  This and the other image are two instances where the movie is running freely, so to speak, without a book to follow.  The other is Jackson’s invention:  Moria’s disintegrating staircase, which then comes back together in a small quake.  When it collapses again, and its top half plunges slowly off to the right of the screen while our friends escape to the left, we’re talking serious thumping again.  This is action as poetry.  From the vastness of the column-lined inner city of Moria, to the image of 8 single figures escaping across the thin bridge of Kazad-dum, the Moria sequence is the most successful and stirring in the whole movie.  It was the one presented to acclaim at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and even the few unhappy reviews I have read recently do say that this sequence delivers.  It’s a masterpiece; stack it up there with the sinking of “Titanic.”

James Cameron’s epic comes back to mind in so many ways.  It also opened on Dec. 19, and Vigil and I also saw it twice on its opening weekend, after months of shared anticipation.  I had known about “Titanic” and “Fellowship” since their planning stages, which in each case turned out to be two years.  CNN.com’s review of Jackson’s film said that not since “Gone With the Wind” had a movie held up so well to the book, which is not literally true, since good movies have been made out of bad books – but the comment indicates a kinship between these three extravaganzas, I think.  “Titanic” was compared repeatedly with “Gone With the Wind,” and “Fellowship” is, as far I know, the first since then to elicit that comparison.  If I had to identify what was going on, I would say that both Cameron and Jackson, through sheer passion for a personal project, have fashioned a work of art out of action-movie material, and left me surprised, as I said at the beginning, at the heartfulness and sadness I found.  Both movies brought me back to a subject I thought I had exhausted years before, only to find an untouched layer of emotions I had not considered.  All that is left is for “Fellowship,” as anticipated, to demonstrate legs at the box-office reminiscent of Cameron’s blockbuster, though I don’t think Jackson’s film is headed for such numbers.  It will open bigger than “Titanic” and fall faster, though slower than any film this year, except perhaps “Shrek.”  It will out-gross “Harry Potter,” I think, but it is not as broad in its sensibilities, when all is said and done, to outpace “Titanic.”  And truth be told, “Titanic” left me both shaken and uplifted in ways that Jackson’s movie only approximates.

So we come now to the few unhappy reviews.  One Tolkien fan wrote on MSNBC.com that Jackson’s film was loud and soulless, and that Harry’s film was preferable, with characters sketched to more human dimensions, and he is not the only one to say he now prefers Harry’s film.  Part of this is just carping, I think, and it gives away a literary purist who likes his movie adaptations as faithful to the source as possible.  But it does hit on something important.  When I first read Harry Potter, I laughed out loud, and felt drawn into the story in a personal way.  Harry’s adventures take place in daily life, and many of his experiences take place in ordinary settings like family life and school.  Comedy is present, and so is the female sex, as well as love stories.  All of it is recognizable but elevated at the same time, in the sense that Harry’s choices are so consequential to the world he lives in.  So in Harry Potter we laugh and get to feel at home, though we also travel far away from the ordinary.  In Tolkien everything is grim and not ordinary.  The style is epic, the talk is epic, even the little love story feels epic rather than earthy. 

Ancient mythology, by the way, could be both earthy and wickedly comical, so it is not that Tolkien is classical while Harry is modern.  It is rather that Tolkien’s style is grim and lonely, in a world where the natural has been disfigured or blasted away by war:  much like the Europe of Tolkien’s day.  He fought in the trenches of World War I, after all.  In the movie Boromir speaks about Mordor at the Council of Elrond with words that described certain 20th-century history very clearly: he says the land is waste and the very air is poisonous, evoking images of the barren French countryside in 1918, troops dug into trenches, and poison gas wafted into the air.  But this just reminds us that Tolkien’s world is so prominently about war, and men, and the front.  Rowling chooses to devote the body of her novels to a story about war on the home front, and women and children are abundant, if not exactly on equal footing with male characters; but Tolkien, for most of his book, chooses to leave the domestic behind, along with everything natural, or funny in the way that life’s least magical predicaments can be funny.

In the end, the fact that the few people who are not liking Jackson’s movie tend to see the “Harry Potter” movie positively should not be a surprise.  Different worlds, different writers.  And yes, different movies.  One is epic and the other warm; two intentions could not be more different, so the comparison is useless after a while.  For my money, the “Rings” movie is better.  It communicates its life-force more successfully than Chris Columbus’ movie of “Harry Potter”.

What it communicates is epic and otherworldly, and never was meant to be otherwise.  The two Ians, Holm and McKellan, have gone a long way toward humanizing the epic, and Frodo’s childlike presence has done much, too.  Liv Tyler injects an energy both heroic and feminine, and Cate Blanchett adds a spooky radiance to the movie’s light.  But really what we have is a story that, while not denying the human element, especially in friendship, goes beyond, and states openly that there is an impersonal struggle going on between good and evil.  Whether that struggle is truly impersonal is a questionable matter.  Christianity, as far as I can tell, says that it is a very personal struggle indeed, on earth and in heaven (see Dante or Milton here, or any part of the Bible), and within each soul as much as without.  Tolkien’s story has been a beloved Christian work because in Frodo we have something of the idea that the true victory is won not by the strong, but the humble.  And here we depart from the idea in the ancient mythologies that victory needs to be won by the hero with great ability in mind and body, like Gilgamesh, Achilles, Odysseus, or Beowulf.

These past two weekends I have been reading Gilgamesh and Beowulf.  And revisiting The Iliad and The Odyssey, too, through reports in Bulfinch’s Mythology.  I figured that my reasons for doing so came from purely personal interest and had nothing to do with the approaching movie.  But studying those works, I now see the connections.  There are little ones, on the surface: Gilgamesh was the king of a city called Uruk, and Tolkien gives Saruman’s orcs the name of Uruk-hai.  A young prince in Beowulf is called Eomer, who is a prince in Tolkien, too, the nephew of Théoden; another lord is called Hama, as is Théoden’s captain; the great hall in the Old English epic, like Théoden’s hall, is called Meduseld.  A more substantial parallel would be the theme of ring-givers in Beowulf: how the kings of old were known as ring-bearers and ring-givers; how it was an honor to receive a ring, and to wear one was an expression of mutual allegiance.  This theme Tolkien picks ups.  The function of a ring in a different kind of allegiance, the marriage bond, barely appears in Tolkien.  He does have two marriages, but really misses a golden opportunity which I hope Jackson takes: the chance to see a ring different from Sauron’s slipped onto a hand given in marriage.

There are other parallels.  For instance, both Beowulf and Tolkien present dragons, each of whom is robbed.

And there are two more connections:  Gollum as an echo of Cain, and the Balrog as an echo of Grendel.  This is how Grendel is described in Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation (lines 102-108):

Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marshes, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts.  For the killing of Abel
the eternal Lord had exacted a price

All of this brings to mind Gollum’s murder of his friend Deagol, his banishment by family and neighbors, and his lonely wanderings, like Grendel, cursing light and civilization.  Gollum is not a demon – he is more Cain than Grendel – but Tolkien does reserve that adjective for another creature of Middle-Earth.  When we see first see Grendel in Beowulf, we see that “a baleful light, / flame more than light, flared from his eyes” (lines 726, 727), and no reader of Tolkien could fail to think then of the Balrog.

Tolkien’s world also mirrors the idea in Beowulf that if the hero is lost, doom must follow.  How different from the story of Christ, where immortality (the object of Gilgamesh’s lonely quest) follows the central figure’s death, and brings anticipation of the world’s end in a final battle, as in Tolkien, but with the greatest of hope.  In Tolkien, as in Beowulf, fate is mysterious, and all depends on a single figure who can fall.  In this sense, at least, The Lord of the Rings does not come off easily as a Christian tale.

The design of Beowulf comes closest to Tolkien, again, in the matter of the ladies, that is, in their near-absence, while Homer and Gilgamesh provide much more of the female sex.  In The Iliad we have Helen of Troy, unwitting cause of so much war, and in The Odyssey we have Penelope, separated from her husband and wilefully contending with suitors; in both we have Homer’s goddesses in their full panoply of character.  In Gilgamesh, the king spurns Ishtar (a cultural predecessor to Aphrodite) and stirs her vengeance; and then there’s the temple prostitute, humanizing the wild-man Enkidu.  None of this would fit easily in Tolkien, unless Arwen may be said to motivate Aragorn as Penelope’s faithfulness and memory motivated Odysseus.  But in general the female roles mentioned do not go well with Tolkien, not because they are different by chance, but because it’s hard to imagine Tolkien’s parallel for them.  But in Beowulf we have a story also focused on men, beasts, evil, and war as The Lord of the Rings.  One woman does appear, in the role of a queen who has wise words to offer before the last battle is fought, and makes the gift of a torque to Beowulf himself, but who gives little in the way of active participation.  Galadriel comes easily to mind here.

Perhaps the most solid connection is that Tolkien loved Beowulf, and wrote an essay, “The Monster and the Critics,” that made Beowulf scholarship what it is today: he pointed out, after it had long been forgotten in the stuffy circles of academia, that the epic revolved around the central character’s confrontations with the monsters, and that these encounters were not mere filler; the lesson has been almost universally accepted in the world of scholarship.  I have to find that essay.  In the meantime I’ll take my girlfriend to see Tolkien on screen.  Who knows, maybe we’ll even make out during the slow parts.

“The Two Towers”

January 17, 2003

After two viewings and a look at the extended “Fellowship” DVD

I was thinking last year that the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to the silver screen only a few months after 9-11 would mean that someone, somewhere, was bound to think that “The Two Towers” either had something to do with the World Trade Center or took its title from real-life inspiration.  It seemed logical that folks who had never read Tolkien would at least be put in mind of the attack, and that children might readily regard The Lord of the Rings as a new story inspired by recent events or by such luminaries as Star Wars.  Well, as it turns out, at a screening of the new “Harry Potter” movie I did hear a child behind me, after a preview for “The Two Towers,” refer to the movie as “Twin Towers.”  But I’ve also heard three adults, including my fiancée, refer to it that way – and none of them corrected themselves.  One, my friend Albert, is even a fan of the books.  As a fellow fan, I drew his attention to it, and he responded, “C’mon, man, you can’t help it.”

I know that Tolkien denigrated allegories and denied that his work was an allegory for the World Wars, which took place when he wrote the books.  But I’m not sure he would have objected if people found in his works allusions to real life, or if they found events and characters that illustrated history or current events.  After all, what he meant by allegory was a work where everything was a clear, intentional symbol for something else.  Events and characters in such works really were obvious, consciously written disguises for things other than themselves.  Each fictional item pointed to a definite item in the real world, and in a sense there would be only one correct way of interpreting the items in the story – a reader drawing specific parallels from history or current events would be, for each item, definitely right or definitely wrong.

Clearly Tolkien is right to deny that he had any conscious intention of incarnating the events around him in fictional symbols; and anyone is wrong who says or implies, for instance, that the Ring of Power is a symbol for the atomic bomb as surely as if the author intended it to be.  That much I think we can all agree on.  But it does seem to me equally self-evident that all great literature illuminates reality, and makes us think of people, ideas, and events that we know.  Tolkien wished no less for his great work, and specifically argued that fantasy, at its best, shed light on life itself.  In my earliest essays on Tolkien, before seeing the movies, I did draw many parallels between Middle-Earth and the events of Tolkien’s time, precisely because I could not help doing so, as my friend Albert put it.

I knew then that Tolkien, like anyone who writes at all, had fashioned a story out of influences that had both touched his conscious mind and shaped his unconscious.  Great writers reach deep and excavate material that is truly shared by all persons at all times – thus their works are timeless.  I am now more sure than ever that The Lord of the Rings is not a strict allegory for World War II, and is in fact timeless, because I have now seen the story applied, in people’s hearts and minds, to very different events from the 21st century.

One surface parallel with real life that I have not yet seen concerns Saddam Hussein.  Sauron, too, was once defeated by an alliance that frayed later, and was there to be dealt with long after most people thought he had gone.

When “Fellowship” came out last December, though memories of the Persian Gulf war of 1991 were once again on our minds, it was the 9-11 attacks themselves that chiefly occupied us, and it did seem to me somewhat appropriate that Tolkien’s story should be reaching so many people at this time, offering them a parable for what they might be feeling or thinking.  The story has much terror in it, and is a considerable meditation on good and evil.  The evil in the story, as the New York Times pointed out, is as nameless and psychologically pervasive as the enemy that we are facing in real life – partly because the novel depicts evil as a temptation residing in all of us, though many fans of Tolkien’s story do miss this aspect.

The applicability of the story to life was not, however, the thing I cared about most, for I had discovered it already upon reading the books some years before.  It was more gratifying instead to know that so many were now being introduced to the pleasures of exploring and witnessing Tolkien’s world.  And what held my attention the most was the movie itself – its images and interpretation of the events from the books.  This year I experienced no great anticipation for the second movie.  I had seen Tolkien on screen, and don’t get me wrong, I was excited for more – but in the year just passed I had experienced the limits of Tolkien’s world as a place from which to draw nourishment.  It was not real life.  The Bible, I had found out, was a deeper source of sustenance, on every level, from the intellectual to the emotional and the spiritual.

And yet Tolkien continues to have a certain pull on my heart and mind, and not merely as a treasured memory of an entertaining book I read a few years ago.  It pulls in the present.  For one, I find that delving into its details results in complex study, rather like studying the Bible.  Tolkien did in fact set out to create a whole mythology for England, so it should be no surprise that his work is in fact complex.  Perhaps it suffers from being the work of only one mind, unlike other mythologies, or the Bible.  But he has reached deeply enough into his unconscious that I do regard his work as a complete work in itself, confined in a certain way, and yet perhaps more timeless than the bulk of the mythologies that have come and gone throughout history.

And there are many aspects of the story that pull on a level that runs deeper than the intellectual.  The exciting passages, needless to say, get the heart rate going, but I don’t mean just that.  And I don’t mean just the aspects of Tolkien’s novels that reflect Christian themes.  Those parallels are significant, and they do give the story a sense of meaning which I find continually attractive.  But I mean that there is something elemental about the story that touches you on a level where mythology generally touches.

One image stayed with me this time: a brief glimpse of an Ent tearing a section of Isengard’s walls away and hurling it as a boulder.  I found the battle at Isengard to stand out above all else in the movie.  This was, after all, a sequence that Tolkien only reported, and did not show us.  It was new to me, in a sense.  But more than novelty, there was an elemental power, I think, in these events.  My fiancée, Dess, was able to get specific, since she has recently been studying the Eastern science of self-healing known as Shiatsu, which is based on the concept that the world and its living forms contain a mix of five elements.  And the Ent attack dramatized four of them: fire, earth, water, and wood (the remaining one is metal).  I would not have minded if Jackson had spent more time on the Ents, in fact.

Sure, the Ent attack also works on a lesser level.  It could almost have been designed by Tolkien as a straight illustration of vengeance for industrialization and the cutting down of forests.  I was gratified, of course, to know that many folks who had never heard of Tolkien would now see in the movie a ringing affirmation of environmentalism – a topic I had been debating all year long with someone at work, who happens to be a great Tolkien fan, and not an environmentalist.  So I looked forward to the Ents in that sense, as an allegory of a political issue – but the actual experience of it was something else.  I thought I could feel the appreciation of others for an abstractly political statement, but I’m sure that their actual reaction was something more akin to my own, something closer to the gut.  Not that they necessarily liked it, of course.  But I would wager they did.

Now, generally what I’ve seen singled out for praise is the Battle of Helm’s Deep, or the computer animation of Gollum.  And yes, I did find Helm’s Deep to be exciting, but only the day before I had seen something better – the final battle in “Star Trek: Nemesis.”  I say this notwithstanding all the comparisons between Helm’s Deep and the greatest battle sequences in cinema’s history.

I regret that Jackson did not try to include at Helm’s Deep the other race of walking trees, the Huorns.  He cut out what had been, for me, the single most indelible moment in the whole novel, when the Huorn forest shows up in the valley, where no forest had stood before, and the Orcs of Helm’s Deep pass under the waiting trees, never to be heard from again.  Jackson’s way of doing it not only excludes that elemental power, he also leaves you wondering how the enemy, especially an army of a reputedly fearsome orc-breed, was defeated so quickly.  Jackson failed to trap them in the valley.  Perhaps that would have been cinematically difficult to portray – but all the more would it have been a valuable addition to battles on film.  As the battle now stands, I do think it may be compared with other great battles, and probably exceeds all of them for sheer scale, but a chance for something greater seems to have been lost.

I am glad, however, that Jackson chose to cut back and forth between Helm’s Deep and the slower story of Merry and Pippin.  I do admit that a couple of times the transition felt jarring and unnecessary, for a brief moment, but the principle of cutting away is very much right-on.  Had the battle of Helm’s Deep been presented as a single unit, the mass of battle would have blurred for the viewer, as often happens with big-budget epics: when a lot of money is spent on combat sequences, no one wants to waste what has been bought so expensively, and none of it gets cut from the movie, which generally means that the sensational will trump more subtle feelings in the audience.  Either the viewers feel desensitized and overwhelmed by so much hacking and gore, and unable to feel anything else, or else, if their senses do not get overwhelmed, they will truly revel in their sensations, and forget anything else.  A really great presentation needs to convey the horrible accumulation of violence without feeling itself like an excessive presentation; it needs to tap more than a viewer’s senses, and to offer even the senses more than the mere excitements of blood, smoke, roar and charge.  Jackson goes a long way toward doing that, by including speeches, and humor – and by cutting away.  That tactic keeps us fresh, and aware of other things, even when we don’t know we need it.

The jarring effect of cutting away to Fangorn, however, disappears once the battle at Isengard gets underway, for then Jackson can cut to scenes of action without a sudden loss in pace.  He can cut away, for instance, to that shot of the Ent tearing apart a wall, or he can cut instantly to Frodo and the siege of Osgiliath.  By then the movie is starting to climax and there’s nothing wrong at all with having three simultaneous battles, even if that is not how Tolkien wrote it.

The one scene that has bothered me is Frodo and the Nazgul.  I wasn’t sure what was going on.  I’m sure that the intention is to present Frodo as being in a trance, and commanded by an unseen Nazgul to walk toward the ramparts, where the black wraith suddenly makes its presence known to the viewer by rising into view.  Frodo’s subsequent madness, to the point of threatening Sam with a sword, would indicate that he was, in fact, not himself.  Some of this follows directly from the first film, and the book: Frodo does usually feel compelled in the presence of the Nazgul to put on the Ring.  And in the book the Black Riders at the Ford do command him, silently, not to flee from them; the leader even strikes him dumb.  But all this is a little different from actually walking toward a Black Rider.  The sense of inner conflict is gone if you can just be put in a kind of trance, like sleepwalking, and you cannot resist.  Or else Frodo has chosen not to resist, which is also unlike him.

I don’t know; I understand what Jackson is trying to accomplish in this scene, but it doesn’t feel quite true to the story he’s put together.  Dess, who has not read the novels, felt the scene to be somewhat confusing, as if the filmmakers were trying at that point to fit too much into the movie.  Another friend, who has read the novel several times, found that the turnabout in Faramir, after he witnesses the trance, is too quick, and unexplained.  I agree, though if I could have had one change, I would have the Nazgul driven away by more than a solitary arrow from Faramir.  If Sam is going to have enough time to make his speech right on the spot (a speech, incidentally, which is mostly in the book), we need that Nazgul driven away by great force or fear.  Strider had said to Frodo, in the first movie, “They will never stop hunting you.”  The Rider that commanded Frodo to walk toward him may not have seen the Ring since Frodo did not put it on, but it did sense that the Ring was close: driving away that Rider should have been terribly difficult.

Though the confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman at Isengard did not appear, I am glad for the way that Jackson did have a kind of confrontation between them during the exorcism performed on Théoden – indeed the interpretation of that healing as an exorcism is one of the things I appreciate the most about the new movie.

I’ve recently checked out the extended version of “Fellowship” on DVD – a better version overall, and especially in Lothlorien, though Bilbo’s prologue is a rather weak part of the picture.  In the running commentary by the cast, John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli, says that early on in the production, he was on record as stating that they were all creating a masterpiece.  That has often been said, and even though I see why Jackson’s work is in fact a great work of art, I sometimes feel that it has flaws as a movie.  If that sounds confusing, please note that a similar thing has been said before, by the great Shakespearean scholar, A.C. Bradley:

King Lear seems to me Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but it seems to me not his best play. And I find that I tend to consider it from two rather different points of view. When I regard it strictly as a drama, it appears to me, though in certain parts overwhelming, decidedly inferior as a whole to Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. When I am feeling that it is greater than any of these, and the fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power, I find I am not regarding it simply as a drama, but am grouping it in my mind with works like the Prometheus Vinctus and the Divine Comedy, and even with the greatest symphonies of Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel.

What he means is that “King Lear” does not work so well on the stage as, for example, “Hamlet”, and that it has certain passages that are self-contradictory in minor matters of detail, among other considerations.  As a play, “King Lear” is still great, but a greater part of its strength lies in its ability to personify baseless evil.  Its characters, in other words, are players in a human drama, to be sure, but even more so they are players in a cosmic or impersonal drama about the appearance of evil, its behavior and effects, its disappearances.  Some characters, like the sisters, Goneril and Regan, are so wholly without goodness as to present the image of monstrousness – and the play does indeed revel in animal adjectives and primal cruelties.  “King Lear” is relatively impersonal, and more of a cosmic drama; “Hamlet” and other works, without necessarily lacking the impersonal force which “King Lear” so aggressively incarnates, are more human, and more suited to the stage, which can accommodate the dramas of personal society comparatively better than it can contain sizeless conflicts.

As a movie, then, “The Lord of the Rings” does seem to have its deficiencies.  The very fact that it does contain monsters makes it quite suited to the theme of evil, and to ageless terror and turmoil; this is even more true of the novel, especially in certain horrifying passages from the first book that were not filmed.  But all this emphasis on cosmic, in-human dimensions means that purely personal stories cannot be treated in either the novel or the book with more fullness.  And in the movies, which are restricted to an 11-hour summary of a thousand pages, individuals may even come off as characterized without subtlety, to say nothing of fullness.

“A Beautiful Mind”, as hinted at, feels more personal – and Ron Howard has done a masterful, fully realized job in taking advantage of the particular ways in which cinema can convey intimacy, and suffering, up close.  “The Lord of the Rings” also sags in a few places, which is probably the result of having to provide exposition for the complex events of the novels.  So “The Lord of the Rings” onscreen has some flaws.  It’s a miracle that it has so few, in fact – a testament to Jackson’s skills and artistic courage.  Bradley once said that Shakespeare was not fundamentally a literary writer, but rather a playwright who was “dramatic to the fingertips”.  Likewise, Jackson is not primarily a literary interpreter of novels: he’s cinematic to the fingertips.  But his movies, because the source behind them is so endlessly complex and unwieldy, do not feel perfect.  They often do feel perfect to Tolkien fans, but you need only ask non-readers of the book what they think of the movies: they generally love them, and sometimes a lot, but they are not afraid to name cinema classics that are better.  Yet if we look at Jackson’s film of “The Lord of the Rings” from the viewpoint of art, I think the judgment must be that we have here an astounding and multi-layered visual work of art and performance that will endure as a masterpiece does, even if it does not come up to the level of “King Lear” itself.  Hardly anything ever does come up to that level, so there would be no shame in that.

Whatever may be the case in artistic terms, I anticipate that the third movie will be my favorite of the three.  If my instant and enduring love of “Return of the Jedi” is any indication, I will find “The Return of the King” the trilogy’s most stirring episode.  Jackson himself says that it is his favorite, and a quite emotional movie.  It has to be: all of Tolkien’s tragedy and poignancy can come forth, if Jackson has not let the chance slip by.  That scene on the ocean should be quite something, after so many events inland: a journey now beyond Middle-Earth (beyond life-and-death).  There will be a sense of completeness that was missing last year in “Fellowship”, for even though I felt that it should have had the Oscar for best picture, I do think that “A Beautiful Mind” left a more complete feeling, and therefore a more effective poignancy, in the viewer.  “Two Towers” might not get nominated, and it’s a fine picture, but this year I actually think there’s a better one: “Gangs of New York,” which had been ready for release last December but was delayed in the wake of the attacks in New York.  Honestly, I would have liked to see it last year, though it would have been truly wrenching.  But I’m pleased that Howard Shore composed the score for “Gangs” and “The Lord of the Rings”: he’s given both movies a feeling of opera, and should get nominated twice this year.

Hopefully we’ll see a new category, at some awards ceremony, for best work in the creation of a CG figure.  I’ve seen nods already for Yoda, Dobby, and Gollum.  But please note, Gollum had a human actor, Andy Serkis, behind him.  I don’t know if he really qualifies.  It’s just as well, for I have nothing to say against all the accolades that have been heaped on him.  Andy has done a wonderful job.  And the end-result has been that Gollum, a non-human creature, feels more human onscreen than he did in the book.  It’s because we’re essentially looking at a man, under the mask.  This is one of Jackson’s finest improvements on the book.

Last year I compared the films of Tolkien and “Harry Potter”, but of course the similarities continue to be skin-deep: in some photos, Gollum looks just like Dobby; Dumbledore makes me think of Gandalf; and the Dementors, in the way that they terrorize the psyche of those around them, remind me of the Black Riders, who are said by Tolkien also to have the ability of sowing despair with their mere presence.  And the Dementors will make their debut in the third “Harry Potter” movie, “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” not long after “Return of the King.”  Now that “Azkaban” has found a new director in Alfonso Cuarón, who did such a memorable job with “A Little Princess” and “Y Tu Mamá También,” I’m predicting that the next Harry-Frodo round will be the first in which the artistic merits will be fairly contested.

Perhaps even the box-office will be a contest, though I think not: the numbers from “Two Towers” have already handily exceeded those of “Chamber of Secrets” in the domestic arena, and they have a good chance of doing the same overseas, despite the improvement of “Chamber”, as an artistic creation, upon “Sorceror’s Stone.”  I don’t think “Towers” improved noticeably upon “Fellowship” (though some critics do), but since its box-office is on the way to doing so, the reason must be that the fans of Tolkien and Jackson probably increased greatly during 2002, and will continue to do so.  How remarkable to see a blockbuster as large as “Fellowship” on its way to being outstripped by its sequel: a first in history, as far as I know.[3]  I expect that some will try to cut the phenomenon down to size by reducing its success to a theory about young men, eager to indulge in Jackson’s action-and-war interpretation of Tolkien, repeatedly buying tickets.  Detractors of “Titanic” tried to explain that movie’s success by appealing to the idea of repeated viewing by teenage girls.  But there’s something about such widespread success, the world over, that needs more explanation.  An average blockbuster may be explained by noting its appeal to a certain demographic, but a success that is above average has obviously touched extra constituencies.  The same may be said for any movie or work of art that is popular across borders.

“Return of the King” may very well be the most successful “Rings” of all, as it seems likely to combine spectacle with the humanity and poignancy that has necessarily been incomplete in the first two installments.  Its chief rivals for the box-office title of 2003 will be, I think, the two “Matrix” sequels.  I haven’t included “Azkaban” in these calculations, because it will be a 2004 release, but also because, if I am not mistaken, the “Harry Potter” movies will progressively become less known as box-office machines and more as works of art.  It is already happening: “Chamber” is both a more relaxed and successful piece of art, as well as a darker one, which accounts for its lower box office.  Don’t get me wrong – the Potter movies will always be blockbusters; and sometimes art and commerce combine spectacularly, in films like “E.T.” or “The Godfather.”  But the Harry Potter books, starting with the third, become increasingly mature and complex. 

And if size is a factor, I’ve now read that the upcoming fifth volume will be as long as the entire Lord of the Rings: how will they ever make single movies out of such massive material!  Can this series remain movie-friendly?  And more importantly, the books grow progressively darker, which means that the kids flocking to see the movie versions, though they will always flock faithfully, will necessarily be older; and they will buy tickets with less indulgence.  The tremendous success of the first Potter movie was due in part to novelty, and that has worn off already.  “Sorceror”’s artistically safe interpretation of a good story made it a fail-safe gobbler of tickets, but Cuarón’s version will be more challenging, and less literalistic, which may displease some fans: or at least it will be less able to draw multiple viewings at the box office from every demographic.  It’s not that the movies will become art like Truffaut’s.  I’m talking about a relative shift, a trade-off between bankable inoffensiveness and risk-taking art; between the presentation of a first book that, like its author, has yet to cut its teeth in dark territory, and later presentations that are necessarily more mature.  The first “Harry Potter” book compares roughly with Tolkien’s first work, “The Hobbit”; the latest editions, and those still to come, should properly be compared with The Lord of the Rings.

In any case, there is no trade-off between art and popularity in Jackson’s movies, for they are a single work filmed all at once, and have been received from the start as a combination of art and spectacle.  The three movies are distinguished from one another in the editing process, certainly, but mainly we think of them separately because we see them separately, over the course of two years.  That’s how it is with all trilogies: the opening chapter therefore is perceived as novel; the last has poignancy and completeness; and the middle is usually overlooked.  No chapter has it all.  If “Fellowship” lost the Oscar for lacking resolution, “King” will lack the advantage of novelty; and “Towers,” lacking them both, may not even be nominated.  It’s a shame that these dynamics have to apply here, in a work that, like Tolkien’s novel, was not conceived as a trilogy, but has been released in three parts because of the demands of commercial art.

As far as the middle-child syndrome goes, no fair comparison can be made between “Two Towers” and “The Empire Strikes Back”, since they are two very different pictures, despite both coming under the heading of fantasy.  The fine middle-movie in Star Trek’s “Genesis” trilogy, “The Search For Spock,” is likewise too different to make much of a comparison (and “Star Trek” is not fantasy but science fiction).  But I do think that all of these movies, and especially “Empire”, come out well ahead of the other middle-child of 2002, “The Attack of the Clones,” despite the improvement of “Clones” upon “The Phantom Menace.”

I have heard it said that “Lord of the Rings” is the “Star Wars” of this generation.  That certainly has seemed to be the case ever since a snippet of “Fellowship” was compared at the Cannes Film Festival, in its effect on the audience, with the splash made by the first “Star Wars” in 1977.  Actually, an equal case can be made for the “Matrix” trilogy, which began in 1999, when the original chapter stole so much regard, and even the visual-effects awards, from “The Phantom Menace.”  What has the “Star Wars” franchise lost that the ones born in our day have?  May we put it that way, or would we be better off to regard “Star Wars” as a very different creature than the other two?

One difference is easy to spot: Jackson’s trilogy may be fabulously successful, but “Fellowship” sold only a little less than half the number of tickets that “Star Wars” did in its initial 14-month run.  If “Return of the King” outstrips “Towers” (as “Jedi” outstripped “Empire”) to become the most successful of all three Tolkien movies, with a gross of around $400 million, its ticket sales will only then start to approach the levels reached by the “Star Wars” sequels, “Empire” and “Jedi”, in their first runs.  But “King” would need something like a $500 million domestic run to match them (and to match the “Phantom Menace”); and it would still fall well below the sales of the original 14-month run of “Star Wars”, which would be matched or exceeded by a run of about $650 million in 2003 dollars, as would the first run of “Jaws” in 1975.  The two remaining box-champions of recent times, “Titanic” and “E.T.”, each had first runs in the region of $775 in today’s dollars – and it would take $850 million nearly to match the expanded 3-year run that was given to “Star Wars” in the late 70s.  By comparison, “Fellowship” and the first “Harry Potter” both took in about $330 million, likewise adjusted for inflation.[4]

The lower box-office of movies made today, however, is due more than anything else to the fact that people who used to go out to the theater now stay home and watch videos or DVD’s.  That the box-office of Jackson’s movie can even be compared to movies of the 1970s and early 80s is remarkable in itself, and proof enough that Jackson’s epic is the equal of “Star Wars” in popularity and cultural impact.  But I will venture that there is yet a second difference between the two epics, in addition to video and DVD, and a difference that favors Jackson’s trilogy in this comparison of popularity: artistic maturity.  Jackson’s movie is the darker one; the only one given Oscar nods for acting and characterization, the only one with a serious chance at winning best picture; one with a relatively older fan base; one that even looks palpably grittier, by intention.  The maturity and complexity of Tolkien’s story makes the box-office success of its incarnation on screen all the more remarkable.

In any brief comparison between the trilogies of Jackson and Lucas, one outstanding difference is how much better Jackson is as a director, and Lucas as a creator of a universe.  Lucas is really the Tolkien of his generation; unfortunately, when he directs the “Star Wars” movies himself, the result is wooden acting and a soulless feel to the goings-on.  The two “Star Wars” movies that he delegated to other directors, after writing the stories, are also the best ones: “Empire” and “Jedi”, which are the most mature by way of acting and characterization, for instance.  Artistically, they are closest in tone to “Lord of the Rings”.

Yet the most popular of all the “Star Wars” movies, by far, was the first, which was a happier and lighter film than any that we have looked at.  It was directed by Lucas and was flawed for reasons mentioned above – but it had a freshness and humor which, combined with originality, propelled it to astonishing popularity, of the kind where fans could be found who saw it forty times or more.

Needless to say, the more recent “Star Wars” trilogy is missing all those things: freshness, humor, and originality.  It is also missing the element of surprise, since it is made up of prequels, in which we know the basic outlines of the story.  The original trilogy made its way into the world’s consciousness with such effectiveness largely because we did not know where the story was going, so that Lucas held us spellbound as an original storyteller might.  Adaptations of novels, though they draw many viewers who have never read the stories, are necessarily at a disadvantage in that way, and to a greater degree must generate suspense from subtler things like the ways that a character reacts to events, rather than playing up the uncertain nature of the events themselves (and sad to say, though we care deeply about how the characters of the “Star Wars” prequels will react to the events that we know will befall them, Lucas is not the best illustrator of character).  Movies of Tolkien and “Harry Potter”, following the page, are therefore not quite as free to be cinematic.  This is not a straitlace, in the end, but it does mark off a great difference between “Star Wars” and “The Matrix” on the one hand, and “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” on the other.

Nor are movies of novels free to be fearlessly inventive in the storyline, and this, besides minimizing surprise, also mitigates the power of the artist.  Such movies are most free in their role as visual incarnations of physical settings, which may not have received full treatment on the page – that is why the movies of literary classics always excel as costume dramas even when they fail as movies.  And we see that Lucas, in the new trilogy, cannot change the basic story, for that is fixed, but he is most inventive in creating splendid imaginative environments, something for which his movies are universally appreciated.  Jackson by contrast is adapting a writer who is uncommonly descriptive of physical topography, which is one reason that the lavish physical detail of the movies is not, comparatively, what they are acclaimed for: Jackson chooses instead to present nature itself, and to let it be as gritty and unbeautified, or as magnificent, as it is.  He does not have free rein, in other words, to invent environments, so he makes the best of it. 

And since his rein over the storyline is also restricted, he lets the story speak for itself, with great success.  But he is definitely restricted, and the moments when “Lord of the Rings” feels most like a movie happen to be those when Jackson has briefly let himself go with invention, like Arwen’s flight to the Ford, or the collapsing stairs in Moria.  On the new DVD the scriptwriters relate how they all set out to make a good movie first, and then to make it into the book that Tolkien’s fans knew.  In this way, Jackson’s team has succeeded as well as anyone in breaking out of the common traps inherent in the translation of books into movies, but adaptations of pre-existing stories are nevertheless at an artistic disadvantage.  The same has to be said of sequels and prequels, which have to stick along certain story outlines, and often seem derivative.  The current “Star Wars” trilogy, being a prequel, has not truly succeeded from breaking out of that pitfall, except in its visual extravagance.

The new “Star Wars” trilogy is also, because of the particular requirements of this story, much darker than the first trilogy, which also affects its box-office: “Clones” is the first “Star Wars” movie without a completely innocent hero, and perhaps not coincidentally also the first one not to take the year’s box-office title.  Yet for all its darkness, the new “Star Wars” trilogy does not feel as risky as “The Matrix,” and it still feels more sanitized, and less earthy, than Tolkien.

I wrote at the top of this piece that it would be wrong to regard Jackson’s epic as somehow derivative of “Star Wars,” but in many ways the movies of Tolkien really are influenced by “Star Wars,” even if Tolkien himself was not.  Tolkien inspired Lucas, and Jackson took inspiration from both.  Tolkien began the fantasy genre to which “Star Wars” belongs, and Lucas created blockbusters that paved the way for “The Fellowship of the Ring.”  In particular, Lucas pioneered the computer graphics technique which has given filmmakers the confidence that anything may now be represented on the silver screen, no matter how massive or exotic: the movies of Tolkien’s work waited until now because, apart from animation, there was no good way to film Middle-Earth and its characteristic events.  And the “Matrix” movies would not exist as we know them without what Lucas did.

It really is too bad that the “Star Wars” franchise has lost most of its human touch.  It still works, and is often compelling, as an impersonal or mythological epic, but even that sort of story needs to be based in real men and women, and in the earth itself, for without this element it feels too much like a machine.

Jackson said years ago that he wanted to create a Tolkien film that was realistic and that felt like history, unlike most fantasy movies and novels.  In this he may not have known how close he was to Tolkien’s vision of fantasy.  It seems to me that if so many are receiving his interpretation with pleasure, it’s because his project is an authentic one, not in the sense of being literally true to the novel, but true to its aim.  Jackson has said that his favorite movie is “King Kong.”  He offers that even though the events in that movie are outrageous, everyone involved with the movie played it for real.  Now I only wish, when “Return of the King” is done, that he will one day make a film of Tolkien’s other great love: the epic of Beowulf.

The Extended Cuts

December 15, 2003

After viewing the extended “Fellowship” and “Two Towers” versions in the theaters

I never want to see these movies on TV or in their short forms again.

Think of a painting.  In order to fit it into a frame of certain size, the edges are cut off.  That is what Jackson has done in order to release theatrical versions that do not require an intermission: he’s cut off material at the thematic “edges.”  But in any very good painting, the work is a whole, and the details beyond the eye’s central or focused gaze make a difference to the total impression.  And the “extra” material in these extended versions is the connective tissue that makes them work as they were intended.

I’ve seen “Fellowship” perhaps a half-dozen times, but I’ve never enjoyed it as much as I did last week.  After repeatedly trying to re-capture the magic of the Moria scenes on television, I had been starting to feel that the movie was not holding up well after time and repeated viewings, but I was wrong.  Movies, some more than others, are meant not to underwhelm the senses and the perception of the viewer.  They can go too far in the other direction and overwhelm, of course, but on television they can very easily leave a shallow impression, especially upon the emotions – and particularly if they’re epic dramas that can’t rely on dialogue to fuel emotion.  It’s not merely that cool special effects can be appreciated better on big screens, for special effects often merely get the heartbeat going.  It’s about giving a person a sense of the immensity of epic or of eternity, or of the soul, etc.  “The Lord of the Rings” is that type of film, as is “Titanic.”  Such movies are done a disservice on television, when the product fails to impress upon the viewer that there are things bigger than his own ego, and that these things extend beyond sounds louder, and sights bigger, than the human being.  A person on a couch, however, in charge of the remote control, underwhelmed in the senses, able to leave or not to pay focused attention, can easily miss the chance to become engrossed in non-material things of size, such as emotion, time, history, the world, and God.  Jackson’s movie is one of the few blockbusters that brings a viewer into an awareness of such things by entertaining her first on the level of the senses, and by using special effects in the service of non-material expression.  I hope never to see these films again on a small screen.

And the connective tissue actually makes it easier to concentrate.  When dialogue is cut out of any scene, the words that are left will not quite connect as well as they should.  My mind used to feel unengaged during the Lothlorien audience of Galadriel and Celeborn, and that must be because my mind encountered a missing thread to the conversation without knowing it, and could not make the connection in time to keep up.  Sure, my mind kept up with the plain sense, so I’m not talking about literal confusion.  I mean full engagement.  When something does not seem to follow, you don’t follow, emotionally.  You drift.  A version that is cut too liberally then might feel longer to sit through.  In its restored version, no part of “Fellowship” feels unengaging.  The work of art works as efficiently as it was intended to.

“Two Towers” improves from its restoration to a much greater degree.  This version left me quite shattered, in the sense of feeling overthrown.  The war scenes, instead of feeling overwhelming, now feel devastating.  Violence stings in these scenes, for three reasons.  One, the extra efficiency keeps you awake and present, in the sense I described above.  Two, the additional material is all character development and dialogue rather than fighting, so you care more about the characters, or more precisely, you’re more present with them, when they go into battle; in particular, the additional material involves the sufferings of major characters, which gives a further poignancy to the whole proceedings.  And three, the additional material allows the fighting scenes no longer to fall so quickly one upon the other; the movie feels less battle-heavy, but more authentically a movie about war.

I said that the characters suffer more.  Merry and Pippin are now seen suffering on their orc-march; and Gollum is more visibly abused by Faramir’s men, producing for me the single highest feeling of pity in the whole movie.

Merry and Pippin, on a different note, now have more to do in the long middle section of the movie, which works two ways.  The additional material in their story adds to our appreciation of them, of course – and to the Ents, especially when the Entwives are mentioned – but it also makes us feel less that the movie is digressing when it moves from battles back to Merry and Pippin, and more like it is simply switching between two full story-arcs.

The extra Eowyn-Aragorn material also improves the long scenes between Aragorn and Arwen.  In the short version, Eowyn’s presence and words prompts Aragorn to think of Arwen, and the scenes that follow feel like little more than an excuse to keep Liv Tyler and Hugo Weaving involved in all three movies.  Now there is so much new Eowyn material that you can plainly feel her feelings for Aragorn; you can feel her falling in love; and in the scene where Aragorn accepts the stew she makes, you can see that while he is not falling for her, it would be impossible for him not to feel Eowyn’s attraction, charm, and strength.  When he dissolves into reflecting long on Arwen, these scenes now have a dramatic tension or purpose: something is going on with Aragorn’s heart.  It would be too strong to say that Eowyn is threatening his deep inner devotion to Arwen; but in some sense she’s awakened his desire here in the midst of dangerous circumstances – the kind of circumstances that always heighten desire, and the human hunt for refuge or intimacy.  His long original devotion, we know, keeps its integrity.  But he believes that Arwen is gone, and Eowyn is a force to be reckoned with, especially in the long version; so it is not beyond question for the viewer – even one who knows how it went in the books – that his heart is facing a new set of choices; and all of this fits in with what we know already, that this moment represents for him a new set of choices in every aspect of his life.

Saruman’s malevolence from the first film is now restored in the second, because he is made more active.  Now we see him giving orders to cut down Fangorn Forest, and we see him piecing together the riddle of Aragorn’s identity.  Gandalf improves in a similar way, nowhere more so than when he explains to Aragorn what Sauron does and does not fear.

Surely the best additions concern Faramir, whose representation in the original version is by far the most problematic (especially in comparison with the books).  He comes off as more sympathetic now, with the flashback to Boromir’s commission.  Even better, when he sends Frodo and Sam off, there is now a scene where he behaves basically as Faramir did in the book, though with violence toward Gollum (again heightening our sense of pity for that character).  Of course, it’s not a flaw in itself when a movie departs from its source material, but the short version of this movie really was missing something.  It’s not that the behavior has to conform to the book – it’s that in the short version, he has almost no noble actions or words to his credit.  Since he is a major character in the third book, for whom our sympathy will be called, it does matter that his character had been left so unsympathetic.

I loved seeing Boromir again, though it did concern me that the movie makes it seem that he showed up in Rivendell and became a member of the Fellowship only because his father insisted on it.  It was his own choice in the book, and it made sense that the book’s prideful and ambitious Boromir would fall to the Ring.  The new scenes with Faramir and with his brother are not harmful to his character, but now it seems that Boromir was humble enough to initially refuse the commission, and that Denethor is partly responsible for Boromir’s fall.  Yet having said all this, Jackson’s choice here is interesting more than perplexing or harmful.

“The Return of the King”

December 21, 2003

After two viewings

I may have less to say about this movie, if only because it has not perplexed me.  I know more or less what has been cut and I know what will be included in the extended version.  This movie feels more than the other two like it will improve from restoration, but it works immensely well nonetheless.

Let’s deal with small issues first. 

There is one scene I did not enjoy watching again, and which troubles me: Frodo telling Sam to go home.  It’s very emotional, but it does not jive with my knowledge of these two characters.  Even the influence of the Ring is not quite enough to explain what is going on here.  It does effectively leave Frodo to enter Shelob’s lair on his own, yet if that is the reason, the loss in characterization has been too great.  And it is not needed, for in the book Sam and Frodo were parted in the darkness of the lair anyway.

Also, when Frodo says that the ship at the end is the last one to depart Middle-Earth, it leaves the impression that Sam, Legolas and Gimli will not eventually follow to the Undying Lands.  In the book, five of the Nine walkers making up the fellowship eventually go there (and six if we count Boromir, whose dead body is washed into the ocean by the current of the River Anduin – perhaps to a kind of life again?)  Yet this change, unlike the one above, does not really matter to the movie; it is the one time I have an objection purely on the basis of loyalty to the book.

The movie does have many wonderful and uplifting scenes surpassing most previous ones in the trilogy: two such moments are the lighting of the bonfires and Eowyn’s slaying of the Lord of the Nazgul.  Inexplicably, however, I felt throughout the movie that I was not even watching the continuation of “Fellowship” and “Two Towers” – like this was another story. 

Some of this impression is easy to understand.  For instance, with Eowyn’s face so often filling up the screen, I could not help feeling that the guy’s movie which the first two installments represented had somehow changed, and for the better.  Her relationship to Merry introduced to the story a mother’s role – something entirely absent in Tolkien, even more than women themselves.  More than that, however, and not so much uplifting as silencing, was the strangeness of the movie.  It offered things which I felt I had not seen in the other two, or really seen at the movies in general.

The battle for Gondor offered a vision of evil, much like the book’s, that featured Oliphants, wolves, trolls, dragon-like Fell Beasts, orcs, and a battering ram in the image of a wolf’s head.  All of this leaves a profound impression on the imagination – you get a sense of a human fight against a vicious animal nature, no doubt, and the insight that evil does indeed stem from our lower, animal nature.  But when the movie adds to all this a depiction of ghosts seeking to redeem themselves and fighting with greater power than anything still in material form, you are left with an enduring portrayal of lower nature:  self-preserving treason, and decayed death, rising up to join and to assist life.  Something deeply mythological is touched when the dead are then released; Tolkien had merely reported this, and Jackson once again rises to the challenge of depicting it cinematically for us.  It is an astounding and haunting moment – it is this sort of thing that would leave a person not wanting to talk.

Nor is this the end of the monstrousness of Tolkien’s story, for what Jackson has done with Shelob is done to perfection – how nightmarish her silent prowling above Frodo!

I felt the poignancy of Rohan’s horses charging into such slaughter on the fields of Gondor.  There was great majesty in this vision of Rohan’s men, riding toward such bloody danger.  Here Rohan’s power is fully unleashed as it had not been at Helm’s Deep – as it was meant to be, on horses (something we only see only dimly reflected in the Warg attack).  But what made this gallantry so poignant was Théoden and Eomer, each of them honorably charging their men to fight, and yet we know that they are not fighting strictly for themselves in this battle.  Their greatest power is mustered here for others.  When they fall and fight in Gondor, and gird themselves for battle, one cannot help but accord them great honor.  For there is a great difference between waiting for the enemy, as they had done at Helm’s Deep, and riding out to meet the enemy – and not just this, but to answer a call for help.  You would think that in this situation they’d fight with less courage, or a shadow of their full power, but they bring quite the opposite.  Théoden and Eomer know they did not have to do this, so it makes it all the more inspiring when they stir their men, or when Théoden arrays his men into position, or we see on Théoden’s face a fear of those terrifying dangers in front of him, yet at the same time a disciplined, honorable determination not to be cowed by that fear.

Alas, some changes to the book will affect the way it is thought of by those who have not read it.  Most changes have to do with Jackson’s warlike interpretation, but there is also the matter of the relationship between Frodo and Samwise.  I mentioned after seeing the first movie that Frodo was made much younger than in the book, where he is in his 50s.  Sam is a young hobbit only approaching marrying age; and he is Frodo’s gardener.  Tolkien conceived of Sam as Frodo’s servant, in a time when novels did not shy away from depicting such concepts or realities, while Jackson makes only the briefest mention of Sam’s occupation, during the second movie.  Tolkien’s Sam regards Mr. Frodo, as he calls him, as the wisest person in the world, after Gandalf.  And Frodo does carry himself with a certain gravitas, and he exhibits a mature intelligence, wit and decision-making that is absent from the movie, where Frodo and Sam appear to be buddies.  Frodo appears most like a strong and decisive adult near the end of the book, in The Scouring of the Shire, a sequence Jackson did not film; and Frodo’s actions there would not seem quite realistic if he’s really young.  Nor does Frodo’s departing for the Grey Havens appear to make sense as it should if he’s permanently wounded but still young; in the book his body is wounded but also older, and he had long before chosen voluntarily, like his Uncle Bilbo, to be a bachelor; someone who has not read the book will wonder why Frodo does not think at all about marriage after coming back home.  And no one can help but see the basic incongruity of Bilbo celebrating 111 years of age – and yet he is the uncle of a mere lad who looks to be in his 20s.

But it’s Sam’s devotion that most who have not read the book will find perplexing.  Some have insisted that it must come from a sexual attraction.  I hear and read this more from men than from women, which suggests to me that men still have a hard time viewing affection between males as other than sexual.  This is probably true of both gay and straight men, since both have insisted that the Frodo-Sam relationship must be sexual.  Whether for or against gay sex, men still pigeonhole affection into its sexual component.  The result with regard to Tolkien’s story is that those who have not read the book insist that the author must have been repressed and unprogressive about sexuality in general.  And there can be some truth to this: Tolkien was Catholic, after all.  And in one letter he expresses a fear or disapproval of wild women.  Possibly there was a fear of female sexuality there; but men can certainly fear that without being repressed about sex, or worse yet, reactionary about it. 

Tolkien’s epic lacks sex and issues of sexuality in general, which leaves him open to the interpretation of repressed sexuality; but the emphasis on nonsexual themes just shows the extent to which he was not interested in these things.  For him, personal devotion could definitely come in the form of spiritual discipleship, or bonding in battle, or in the form of a manual laborer’s emotional bond to the one he serves.  These are all forms of devotions that are often denied, forgotten, or misunderstood in our peacetime world.  No doubt, in all these kinds of relationships there were sexual ties, or ties with sexual feeling and sublimation; as always some of these feelings were homosexual.  And to some extent it’s understandable that our world wants to uncover the ways in which such ties were hidden, denied, or abused under disguise of being something else.  People can decide for themselves what Tolkien’s novel is about; but I find that those who interpret the central friendship as sexual have not read the novel, and do not know the changes that Jackson made.  Indeed, the devotion that Sam shows through so much suffering in the last two movies is likely to have confused viewers, or to have left them unmoved, since devotion through fire and suffering can make little sense unless its layers are explained.

To some extent this was also felt with Jackson’s Merry and Pippin, who stumble into the adventure rather than consciously choosing it, as I mentioned in my first piece.  For those who have not read the book, it will seem that Tolkien wrote these two characters in, as Hollywood does, for comic relief.  Interestingly, I have not heard anyone being perplexed by the friendship between Merry and Pippin; it feels completely natural.  Its basis in fun and humor seems to prompt no one, additionally, to suggest a sexual attraction between the two.  I suspect that such suggestions are reserved for the kinds of relationships that draw our suspicion, confusion, or rejection – like master and servant; or spiritual leader and disciple; or officer and private (a scholar in the DVDs suggested that in the British army there was a formal office, based upon total devotion to a single officer, upon which the character of Sam was based, since Tolkien had witnessed the role firsthand in the First World War).

It was not difficult for me to buy the devotion that Merry and Pippin show, especially in the third movie, to Frodo, since the book tells me that they had long known and respected him in the Shire, and that there are blood ties between them.  The book goes into the idea of how Frodo, like Bilbo, had the label of an odd-ball pinned on him since he was open to adventure and new ideas, and that these qualities were more pronounced in the Took clan, to which Merry and Pippin belong; so the ties between the four hobbits are layed out in an understandable fashion.  It often happens that clans oppose one another, and that one clan may in fact be more liberal or oppositional, while another is more ensconced in power and convention.  All this can certainly include a subtext of homosexuality, especially when we look at the attitudes in the Shire toward new ideas and adventure.  But I am more inclined to think that Tolkien has provided enough cultural – and even spiritual – reasons for why Bilbo and Frodo are called “queer” by their neighbors, and why their friends or blood relatives are admonished not to get too close to the strange people now encroaching upon the Shire.  This is xenophobia, which includes homophobia; not the other way around.  The word “queer” nowadays means gay, but it used to signify homosexuality along with anything that the norm found to be strange; and those with some wisdom, which Frodo exhibits, are more tolerant of all that the masses find strange or uncomfortable.  Tolkien’s book is about how danger (or evil, another controversial concept) is uncomfortable, and denied, and rationalized; how courage is often repressed, or absent.

This can include a subtext about homosexuality.  Not all bachelors are gay, but perhaps both Bilbo and Frodo were queer; I do not think this true about Sam, Merry and Pippin, who all got married, for whatever that’s worth; but one thing that Tolkien does not particularly concern himself with is the sexual orientation of either Bilbo or Frodo, because the book is about other kinds of fears.  Indeed, there are many reasons a man might choose to put other things before the desire to start a family: the love of war, for instance; or ascetic spiritual practice (what is sometimes called spiritual warfare against inner vices and such).  Gandalf, indeed, regards Frodo as the single finest hobbit in the Shire; and coming from Gandalf, the novel’s exemplar of a wise being who seems to have attained his love of wisdom not in peaceful activities like marriage but through some spiritual discipline and power, this tells us something about Frodo. 

And a spare lifestyle goes some way toward explaining how Frodo, despite his frail constitution, is able later to undergo his suffering, and his encounter with evil in its uncovered aspect.  In Tolkien’s mind, Frodo’s suffering service is something of a symbol for another famous bachelor, Christ.  Moreover, the Tookish line I spoke of is also the one known for being most acquainted, among Shirelings, with battle: and Bilbo and Frodo, though not warriors, do more fighting than all but the most extraordinary hobbits.  All of this can go with being gay, but I do not think Tolkien conceived of it that way; though I do think his imagination leaves room for it.

The second great issue I want to raise now in looking back on the series, is that Jackson has made Tolkien’s story into a war epic.  It may be time to say some things in counterpoint, beginning with the well-known fact that the The Lord of the Rings was once a beloved item of the 60s counterculture.  In its first decade only fans of science fiction and fantasy had known the novel.  It was the counterculture that first brought The Lord of the Rings out of relative obscurity.  My first girlfriend, a hippie with long blond hair and blue eyes who was a vegetarian and sang songs of the 60s on an acoustic guitar, loved these books, and the animated “Hobbit.”  And there are many reasons Tolkien’s novel is attractive to any counter-culture: as mentioned above, it does not explicitly deny, and seems to leave room for, a subtext about homosexuality, and it uses the word ‘queer’ often; it rejects the close-minded attitude of most Shirelings to new ideas; and the smoking of pipe-weed, though it was practiced all throughout the Shire and not just by the open-minded, certainly held some attraction to hippie culture.

But the counterculture cared about many things: and one of the things it cared most about was peace.  There is a deeper affinity than we have already said, between the 60s counterculture and Tolkien’s novel, which is essentially about the destruction of a great weapon.  Tolkien says that this is the true goal of peace, and that armies can play an honorable role in this ultimate good to the extent that they allow the small to go about the business of destroying that weapon that tempts men’s pride and war-making vanity.  In fact, the novel reports that the armies, relying on their own strength of arms, do not win, and face certain defeat; they are saved because Frodo destroys the great wonder-weapon of their time.  This must have been a deeply attractive vision for the peace movement of the 60s.  Nor should that be a surprise, given that Tolkien served in the trenches of World War I and saw war’s inhumanity and waste.  In our time, during this war on terror, Jackson has done something more martial, the way that Laurence Olivier produced a vision of “Henry V” in 1944 that resonated with Britain’s experience of World War II.  Had the live-action rendition of Tolkien’s work been made during the Vietnam era (as was the animated “Hobbit”), I am quite sure it would have been different, for while the novel is not pacifist by any means, it is in many ways antiwar.  In addition to all the things already said, we may also point to Tolkien’s depiction of war-making alliances, at the climax of The Hobbit, as frankly utilitarian and not idealistic; the animated “Hobbit,” a little film brimming with characteristics of the counterculture, sent up this aspect of war quite humorously.  Now, however, Tolkien’s vision will be forever remembered as producing a story of blood-and-guts action and horror.  It is well known that the counterculture of the 60s turned into the mainstream corporate yuppie culture of the 80s, so perhaps we are looking at something that was inevitable.

Of course, Tolkien’s story does have both action and horror.  And it is in fact a very male story, if we’re going to use such terms, in that the female presence is often absent, no less than it’s missing from a story like Moby-Dick, which nevertheless achieves universal meaningfulness (possibly because Melville’s book pioneered the multicultural vision, something that Tolkien’s fellowship, like the Pequod’s crew, embodies).  To put it another way, I do not deny that Tolkien’s work contains an example of that classic form of stories about men, the war epic; and that this example is comparable to Beowulf or to The Iliad (though with very different kinds of heroes).  But The Lord of the Rings is also more than a war epic.  The warlike aspect of it is what Jackson has brought out, along with his wonderful interpretation of its horror.  The message of peace, if not quite lost in all this, is definitely overshadowed.  I would not go as far as to argue that Jackson’s movie has distorted Tolkien beyond recognition; but I am beginning to feel somewhat regretful that people will now only see images from the movie on the book’s jackets; that kids are asking for Gollum action-figures; and that one particular interpretation of Tolkien has become so popular, and so magnificent in its artistic strength, that it threatens to overshadow older or alternative interpretations.

I hope that this does not happen.  And I recognize that my feelings about this are informed both by a sense of protectiveness over a cultural item (I now think I can sympathize with the Tolkien estate and their opposition to the movie) and by a less-legitimate sense of elitist judgment over popular consumption and interpretation of the classics.  In the end I know that other interpretations will come, though perhaps not for a good while; and not until the times have changed.

In the meantime, one tendency distinguishes Jackson’s interpretation.  One has only to look at the many times when moments in Tolkien that did not feature fighting, or featured at most verbal sparring, become confrontations, fights, or physical sparring in Jackson’s version.  The list is long, and my list below is not intended to be comprehensive.

  • Gandalf and Saruman fight
  • There is a fight with swords and fire at Weathertop
  • The Council of Elrond descends into bickering and shouting
  • A troll in Moria actually attacks the Company
  • Galadriel gives Merry and Pippin daggers rather than small silver belts
  • Pippin fights the orcs that kill Boromir
  • The first meeting of Treebeard, Merry and Pippin involves an orc-killing and the physical squeezing of the hobbits because they are under great suspicion
  • There is a fight in Théoden’s hall when Gandalf and his companions arrive there
  • Aragorn and Eowyn spar for a bit with swords
  • Arwen, of all people, greets Aragorn with a sword’s point
  • Legolas disagrees with the plan to fight at Helm’s Deep, to the point of hostility
  • Faramir’s encounter with the hobbits and Gollum is also full of hostility, and physical beatings
  • Sam and Gollum come to blows continually
  • Frodo and Sam are also angrily estranged, to the point of drawing swords, and even a temporary rejection of Sam
  • Sam kills several orcs when he saves Frodo from the Tower instead of scaring them off
  • Gandalf strikes Denethor (twice)
  • Minas Tirith is breached and invaded, with great loss of life
  • Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are threatened physically by the Dead

Jackson also opts to show battles that Tolkien either reported after the fact or left to the imagination: Tol Brandir, Isengard, Osgiliath.  Tolkien refers to battles in which Elves fought, without paying any real attention to those incidents, while Jackson involves Elves in visible fighting; they come off almost not at all as wise beings of knowledge, and rather simply as reluctant warriors.  Also, Jackson makes Weathertop into an actual battle.  He invents one battle wholesale – the attack by wolves on the way to Helm’s Deep.  He turns the killing of Boromir into an all-out battle involving the whole Company.  He gives far more of his story to Helm’s Deep and the battle for Gondor than Tolkien does, and he turns them, of course, into astonishing spectacles.  The battle of Helm’s Deep, which dominates Jackson’s second movie, takes up only 10 pages out of Tolkien’s thousand.  The immense effort Jackson puts into depicting the oliphants, trolls and siege-works at Minas Tirith in the third film contrasts with the way Tolkien reports those elements in a single line, and almost in a throwaway fashion.

Jackson’s choices then have a more subtle effect, as for instance when Boromir dies.  In the book, his companions find out about his death in combat and begin chasing the Orcs to save Merry and Pippin; they have not fought themselves, and there is some realism to the idea of their great chase.  In the movie, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are involved in fierce fighting with hundreds of Orcs.  Aragorn himself seems for a while to battle single-handedly against the whole battalion, which indeed is very stirring, but Jackson is pushing the boundaries of realism, against his own early determination (largely successful) to give Tolkien’s story a gritty, historical feel true to the novel and not to Dungeons and Dragons.  (Those who have compared that game to Tolkien or Jackson would do better to compare it to its true relation, the movie “Dungeons and Dragons”; the tale told by Tolkien and Jackson belongs to myth and history far more than it belongs to fantasy; Tolkien created it expressly as a modern myth, long before the age of the video game, or even the comic book).

Perhaps there is something about movies that is less capable of realism than is a book.  For instance, you notice in the film when legions of troops are in battle gear, with helmets that make them anonymous, and yet the principal characters, who do the most killing, have their heads free in the midst of battle, just so we can identify them.  But I’m not so sure the contrast works in only one direction, because in the book I did not picture Middle-Earth and its denizens as being quite so dirty, or full or wrinkles and imperfection (despite the make-up!)

But I do know that some of Jackson’s choices push against realism: for instance, Tolkien reports that Rohan’s horses would not charge against the giant Mumakil, but Jackson has them weaving in and out of the elephants’ gargantuan legs, in what is quite possibly the moment that most resembles a video game.  Again, going back to the battle that ended the first movie, you would think that such a contest would have its physical effects on the heroes, but after all that their sweat, stress, and toil, they begin their epic chase; possibly the only reason we don’t feel the lack of realism of running such distances after a battle is that we don’t see them running until the second movie.  Now, I know that the novel does not depict ordinary beings; but Jackson’s choices have real consequences.  They make either the characters seem more invulnerable, or war less lethal.  As a veteran of war Tolkien was incapable of making the face of battle seem less lethal than it was; his choice, like Homer or the Beowulf-poet, was to make the characters more than ordinary, but even so, only up to a point.  Tolkien depicted the Company as stopping to nurse wounds after all the fighting in Moria, but in the movie they appear remarkably unscratched; Tolkien depicted Merry as taking a long time to heal after falling on the field, but in the movie Merry is well again in time to join the final march to the Black Gate.

Yet the physical face of battle – its risks, wounds, and fatalities – was not what interested Tolkien the most; that is why he so often skipped over battles or simply reported that they occurred.  There are other things that capture his imagination.  For one, he is interested in personal perception: since Frodo passes out of consciousness on Weathertop, Tolkien resumes the story when the hobbit wakes up much later; he doesn’t care to show the intervening confrontation.  The same is true when Pippin passes out at the Black Gate.

Besides perception, the passage of time captures Tolkien’s imagination – particularly the loss it entails; its painful choices, its suffering.  And its destruction: Tolkien shows us only the aftermath, the sheer physical carnage and waste, of the Ent attack on Isengard.  This, the cost of the battle more than the battle itself, is what matters to him.  His precise physical descriptions there amount to a vivid meditation on war’s procedures and its results.  His whole book, in fact, offers a strong impression of sadness about the emotional costs of such struggles: the story of the Ents, and that of the Elves, breathes consciously with this regret, or sense of tragedy.  Tolkien was not happy to end his novel with the triumph, and went several chapters more to describe the impact of the war on the hobbit’s homeland, as well as the tragic estrangement between soldiers and those who have continued their lives back home.  He goes on so long that many readers have resented it, though I do not; and Jackson, notably, has chosen not to film any of these sequences, though his decision is understandable enough, given the needs of a three-hour film.

And to be fair, it would be wrong simply to say that Jackson has opted for stirring the senses with fierce sensations just because movies can easily do so.  He has spent a lot of time on battles that took up much less space in the book, and he has turned relatively novelistic interactions into cinematically engaging fights, but in doing all this he’s evoked what was very strong in the novel, especially Volume 3: a sense of the apocalyptic.  In Tolkien’s work as in the movie, men, humanoids, animals, spirits and even the elemental forces of nature are seen in union with goodness or with darkness, or giving way before them.  In the third movie the moments of this kind that I remember the most, probably because I had longed to see them, were the eagles arriving from on high – as if they were angels or gods – and attacking the dragon-like Fell Beasts; and that malicious volcano.  (How often does such an elemental image make its way to the center of any movie, much less to the point of nearly becoming a character in it?)  The destruction of Mordor, because it was a crumbling of the world, and not a battlefield destruction by men or other comparable creatures, reminds me of the Book of Revelation, though not as strongly or clearly as the event does on the page.  The novel gives a clearer sense of a painful but voluntary journey ever closer into the fires of Hell and into, of course, the center of evil.

And when Barad-Dur crumbled downward, I could not help thinking, the second time I saw it, of the south tower of the World Trade Center when it fell.  The way that its metal was pulverized into billowing dust, and the way it fell, may have been influenced by those recent images from New York.  Alas, 9-11 was in fact perpetrated by men, and was not associated with destruction of evil’s greatest weapon, but with the expression of men’s readiness, in evil, to turn anything into a weapon.

I have long been struck by the resemblances between the War of the Ring and World War II, but I am beginning to see the contrasts.  If the Ring really does represent the atomic bomb – and I think it may represent that, along with so much more – then Tolkien’s insistence that the Ring could not be used for good contradicts the Bomb’s use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In the novel, you get the sense that the Ring is like the atom bomb, and must be destroyed, whereas Jackson’s depiction of the ring dissolving away in a bright cauldron can make you think of uranium splitting under great heat, which then makes the crumbling of the evil realm not so much like Revelation’s victory of goodness, but more of a Hiroshima-like destruction, engineered not by God but by creatures of this world, albeit good creatures. 

On another note, Jackson’s interpretation of the War of the Ring makes it seem that human beings, men, are under a genocidal attack.  Yet in Tolkien that is absent, and the attacks upon human societies are taken as a matter of course in a world with violent hearts; in fact, the novel depicts most men, by far, fighting for Sauron.  In any case, even Jackson depicts countless numbers of men fighting in the armies of Sauron and Saruman, so the lines suggesting genocide do not quite fit organically into the movies.

And again, the fact that the armies of good do not win by strength of arms, and face certain defeat, and are saved only because of a little hobbit’s ability to destroy a weapon (one that many of the men craved), makes the War of the Ring stand out from World War II in a way that I had never seen before.  Now I see why Tolkien insisted that his story was not an allegory for that war.  It seems what we have in Tolkien is a good deal different from what actually occurs in the world, and that Tolkien holds the mirror up to reality in a more complex way: not by mimicking the external chain of events, but by depicting their relationship to a turmoil that is both man’s inner conflict and a battle of cosmic dimensions.  Jackson has brought this out, and in the process has left us with something truly monumental, not in that false way of mere bigness and spectacle, but by shuttling so successfully between the large and the intimate, the spectacular and the ugly, the elemental and the human, the victory and the suffering: all of this is what is accomplished by the skillful shuttling between the battles and Frodo’s torturous journey.  In the end, this is close enough to Tolkien’s depiction of war – and ironically, it achieves this by doing what Tolkien the writer did not, namely shuttling back and forth between stories.  What works in the cinema will almost always be different than what works on the page.

I have heard many complaints that Jackson included too many endings in this last film.  Some critics have lamented that this great trilogy does not finish the way the Star Wars trilogy did, or the way the very first “Star Wars” movie did, with a triumphant feeling.  Yet “Star Wars” gave us something in 1977 which was new and not necessarily good: a way of finishing a movie not merely with success, as the old movies did, but with total triumph.  I have not seen Leni Reifenstahl’s movies, but she represents the danger in such an approach: we get used to worshipping power and expecting its total triumph.  If not that, well, even expecting the total triumph of the good and the humble is unrealistic, for such victories are not real.  There’s something ephemeral to any worldly victory, even one by the humble: it is not the end of all battles; and it is costly.  That is why Tolkien took the time to continue the tale beyond the moment of victory, because it was necessary to show the melancholy aftermath of war, even the greatest war.  For Jackson’s movie to do the same (and really, all three movies have done it, for none has ended with a truly “complete” feeling, or one divorced from sorrow and uncertainty) is even more remarkable, for it represents a break with that triumphalist tradition that “Star Wars” began in cinema (a tradition that the next and probably final “Star Wars” movie, with its near-destruction of all the jedi, will itself break from).

I could not leave off without two final reflections on the contrasts between film and book. 

The first has to do with certain moments that seems representative of Jackson’s film and yet are all absent from the novel.  The chief one is Sam’s speech at the climax of the second movie.  It ends when Frodo asks, “What are we holding on to?” and Sam answers, “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fightin’ for.”  I daresay it’s not the most effective moment in the movie, or Jackson’s greatest offering, but it does seem to summarize the film-makers’ vision.  To a lesser degree, so does the moment when Theoden says, “I will not risk open war,” and Aragorn replies, “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”  We may include even more surely that scene where Merry teaches Pippin that the Shire, too, is ultimately in danger.  There’s something in that latter moment which seems like a didactic morality play, quite different from what Tolkien had to say about war, when he did moralize about it.  His preference, far and away, was to depict the sadness felt in the fact that so many things have to pass away, not always passing away in battle itself, but eventually and inevitably, because time brings decay and inexorable destruction.  It’s a subtle distinction.  Tolkien does not kill off many of his main characters, and often readers have felt this to be a fault.  But he has this in common with Homer, who did not feel that the deaths of Achilles and Odysseus were the most important things to show about those men.  And more to the point, simply killing people off in battle only begins to say the extent to which war destroys.  To kill a major character in battle would draw attention to war’s physical, immediate destruction.  But the total effect of Tolkien’s depiction of Middle-Earth is to show how even when the heroes win, they cannot win happiness.  Sadness, weariness, and the passing away of beautiful things already weakened by war is the eventual result.  You have to wade through all of The Lord of the Rings in order to feel this effect, and it is helpful to go as well into the appendices of the book, to see how none of Middle-Earth is spared this sad fate.  One reads in the appendices how Galadriel successfully defends Lothlorien from attacks originating in Sauron’s old fortress in the nearby forest of Mirkwood, and how she tears down the fortress walls.  One would expect that the overthrow of such a long-standing threat to Lothlorien would usher in a golden age for the wood and its people.  But we read instead that the victory means that the power of the three Elf rings now passes away; that Galadriel follows her desire to go over the sea; that within a relatively short time the forest of Lothlorien lacks any of its former people and their beauty and wisdom.  One senses that war’s true evil is not its immediate destruction, but its longstanding consequences, even when the “good guys” win and survive.  This is a deeply mature vision of war.

My second reflection has to do with a characterization that is representative of the book; it is greatly changed in the movie, and in fact represents the characterization that the movie took the most liberties with.  The long and engrossing encounter of Sam and Frodo with Faramir is one of my favorite things in Tolkien; it reveals a human man who is not tempted by the Ring.  Other creatures, such as the mythical and plainly magical Bombadil, had not been tempted, but to see this in a man was refreshing – and interesting.  It makes you wonder why.  What is it in Faramir that makes him different?  He is a war captain, after all, and yet different from his brother Boromir.  He wins Frodo’s trust, but slowly – and memorably.  When Faramir asks him, early in their conversations, how he knows Boromir, “Frodo thought for a moment, fearing some further trap, and wondering how this debate would turn in the end. He had hardly saved the Ring from the proud grasp of Boromir, and how he would fare now among so many men, warlike and strong, he did not know. Yet he felt in his heart that Faramir, though he was much like his brother in looks, was a man less self-regarding, both sterner and wiser.”  In the appendices we learn more:

So time drew on to the War of the Ring, and the sons of Denethor grew to manhood. Boromir, five years the elder, beloved by his father, was like him in face and pride, but in little else. Rather he was a man after the sort of King Earnur of old, taking no wife and delighting chiefly in arms; fearless and strong, but caring little for lore, save the tales of old battles. Faramir the younger was like him in looks but otherwise in mind. He read the hearts of men as shrewdly as his father, but what he read moved him sooner to pity than to scorn. He was gentle in bearing, and a lover of lore and of music, and therefore by many in those days his courage was judged less than his brother’s.  But it was not so, except that he did not seek glory in danger without a purpose. He welcomed Gandalf at such times as he came to the City, and he learned what he could from his wisdom; and in this as in many other matters he displeased his father.

What we see is a man who has achieved a kind of balance: warlike ability along with love of lore, music and gentleness.  How a person comes to have contradictory qualities, and to excel at all of them, Tolkien does not explain; but it does not feel false, or mythological, or outsize.  It feels rare, but lifelike.  And interesting.

The movies have brought me closer to the books both by being faithful and by contrasting with them.  In that sense, they are a meaningfully successful interpretation, and a challenging work of art in their own right.  And though I lament that their interpretation will now dominate the books, no one can deny that Tolkien’s works are now selling at a rate previously unimagined, even outselling Harry Potter books in 2002.  One can only hope that those reading the novel will put away the images evoked by the book’s jackets, and will read the novel independently.  If that is possible.

And if the Oscar goes to “Return of the King,” it will go some way toward eliminating the elitism that Hollywood has toward what is called fantasy cinema (it is already remarkable that the truly rarefied New York Film Critics Circle has given it the honor of best picture).  Working against the elitism of literary circles will be harder.  Tolkien saved Beowulf from literary ossification, but that was easier, because the great age of that epic made literary critics and connoisseurs ready to respect it – even if Tolkien compelled them to shift their attention to the monsters!  The Lord of the Rings may yet be too young.  What effect will an Oscar have on the literary world?  I don’t know.  There is some common ground, and cinematic adaptations of classics are being made all the time.  One can only hope that legitimacy with Oscar will not backfire among those who tend to despise all works given accolades by the entertainment business.  If not, little may be lost – this great story was not written for them, and they have never claimed it.  They might do so in the future, when Tolkien comes to be regarded as a dead white male author of classic literature.  Jackson’s movies could ensure that Tolkien forever after belongs not to the elite literati but to the global populace at large – and Tolkien now has countless nonwhite fans everywhere.  What Jackson has done for Tolkien is in many ways astounding.  It is my belief that Tolkien will not be effectively rejected as a dead white male; but whether Jackson will ever be rejected, effectively or not, as a dead white film-maker – well, that’s another story.


[1] The NY Times review on opening day was the first, believe it or not, to say that this feeling distinguished the movie.  It took that long for a movie critic finally to get around to the business of reading a movie, rather than merely talking up its buzz.

[2] That movie was one of Jackson’s inspirations, in that he wanted Tolkien to look realistic and closer to history than to Dungeons and Dragons. 

[3] By comparison, “Attack of the Clones” fell by 38% off the ticket sales of its predecessor, roughly comparable to the 42% drop of “The Empire Strikes Back” off the sales of “Star Wars”.  This should give a sense of how remarkable the “Two Towers” increase really is. 

[4] All these figures are based on an average ticket price in 2003 of $6.03.  My other assumption is that movies like “Star Wars” and “E.T.” take in about 6% more ticket sales due to their appeal to younger viewers, who buy lower-priced tickets, than do movies like “Lord of the Rings,” “Titanic” and “Jaws” – but this figure, note, is highly variable, as it is usual to mark the former group as selling tickets about 13% more numerous than if one were to divide by the average ticket price for all kinds of movies, including strictly adult fare, in the nation as a whole.

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