Saturday, August 18, 2012

another attempt at explaining the same ...

Generally I avoid getting caught up in discussions on Making Light, but I did in the one on fanfic, and it perhaps inevitably led to my #132 in that thread, yet another attempt to explain how Peter Jackson got Tolkien wrong. I was rather pleased with how this one came out, so I'm going to re-post it over here. Footnotes are addd for this post, and are not in the original.


... I have to interject that your opinion that Peter Jackson's love for The Lord of the Rings shines through is not universally shared, and in fact is categorically denied by most of the Tolkien scholars I know (and I know all the top names in the field). A minority of them hold that he managed to make a good and respectful movie on balance anyway,1 or that at least its bringing readers to the book excuses its lapses;2 but most won't even grant that much.3 They're not the only people who love Tolkien, but perhaps they can be said to understand Tolkien's own work a little better than J. Random Reader.4

The objection is not to the extent of the changes so much as their character, and the reasons for making them. Jackson seems to relish orcs but merely tolerate elves, whereas for Tolkien it was entirely the other way around.5 (Tolkien's elvish scenes shimmer with beauty, and his orcs are little better than caricatures,6 while Jackson's elves are rather lame.) That's a huge aesthetic difference there. The other is various character changes, particularly but not only in Aragorn and Faramir, which Jackson and his co-authors made - and they say this very clearly in the commentary - because they did not understand why Tolkien's characters behaved as they did.7 To consider with understanding and then change is one thing, but to change because the book baffled you is quite another. (These are just summary: I'm sparing much detail and examples.)

Jackson may think he loves LOTR, but his love is like that of a man who keeps giving the woman he loves presents that she hates, because he thinks they're what she ought to want. If he misunderstands her so badly, can he be said to love her at all, and not just a false image of her in his head?8

Getting to the point about fanfic, though, I felt an additional frustration at scenes like Pippin and Merry being scamps at Bilbo's party. In one sense it's a reasonable addition; it's likely they did do things like that at that age, and such a speculative addition is, as a concept, worthy of the best fanfic.9 The problem is that the actual scene is written like rather bad fanfic. If it actually were fanfic, in some xeroxed zine or buried in some giant web archive, it would amuse inoffensively and then be forgotten. But enshrined in the definitive movie adaptation, backed by millions in production and promotion, it grates rather more, do you see?


1. John D. Rateliff.
2. Tom Shippey, Mike Foster.
3. Including me. But I'm trying to express the other opinions fairly.
4. I'm trying to avoid the Argument from Authority here - "They're Tolkien scholars, they must be right" - but I'm also trying to avoid the Argument from Anti-Authority - "Whadda they know, a zillion fans can't be wrong." We are not few in number, and our views are not a weird fringe, but deserve at least as much respect as anyone else's.
5. In Tolkien on Film I expressed this point somewhat differently: "The book smells of elves; the movies reek of orcs." That line really offended some people. The above is how I put it when I'm trying to be nonconfrontational instead.
6. See, I'm not entirely uncritical of Tolkien.
7. Jackson's lack of faith in Tolkien's characters is his most striking characteristic. The particular moment I'm most thinking of, of course, is the one where Jackson's Faramir tries to send the Ring to his father. Jackson's commentary says, specifically, that if the Ring is so alluring then it makes no sense for Faramir to be immune to it. That's misunderstanding on an epic scale. Faramir knows it's alluring, so he keeps the heck out of its way. He says so himself on Tolkien's page: "I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee." It seems to me that a whole series of powerful characters, from Gandalf on, refusing to touch a weapon that could win the war says more about its danger than any number of them falling for it would. How can Jackson not get this? Look: how do we know that the Reavers on Firefly are the meanest and most dangerous thing out there? Because when their name first comes up, both Zoe and Jayne say they're terrified of them. Zoe and Jayne are tough badass warriors, so if they're scared, then I'm scared. The Ring won't hurt you the way Reavers would, but it will turn you into something like a Reaver, and that's scary enough.
8. I'm kind of pleased with this metaphor, and wonder why I didn't think of it earlier.
9. See, I'm not unappreciative of the creative impulse behind fanfic.

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