Wednesday, April 15, 2015

what I'm not doing this weekend

This is the latest of several e-mails I've gotten from Symphony Silicon Valley:
After the breath-taking, sold-out presentation at Lincoln Center in New York City, Peter Jackson's film trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkein's epic of Middle Earth and one small hobbit's quest to destroy the Ring of Power comes to San Jose, with Howard Shore's immortal score performed live by over 250 all-local musicians. Never before has an American orchestra attempted this monumental feat, and the results are stunning. This is not an event to miss.
You know I'm a lifelong Tolkien fan. (I even know how to spell his name.) I read The Hobbit when I was eleven years old, and The Lord of the Rings soon after. My life in the appreciation of art and the interaction with culture has been spent more on Tolkien and on classical music than all other things together. Here's the two, combined, in a special rare event, with a friend of mine participating on stage.

Why, then, have I absolutely no desire to go? I accept almost any review assignment I'm given; why did I beg my editor not to send me to this one?

Because while I'd be happy to re-read Tolkien's 1200-page epic any time, I found Jackson's three movies a tiresome bore that I have no desire to sit through again. And the music? Look, after nearly half a century of listening to and studying this stuff I think I know good music when I hear it. And Shore's score is competent hackwork, turned out by the yard: it fills the space and does the job asked of it, and nothing more. Everything else it generates in the way of emotional response is by transference from the movie, and you have to love the movie for that to have any effect. If you don't love the movie, there's nothing there.

There's a claim going around that Tolkienists who hate the movies are nothing but a few cranks. That's not true. Five of the six or seven most distinguished Tolkien scholars in the world hate the movies so much they won't even talk about them. And the others aren't uncritical. At the Birmingham Tolkien Conference of 2005, the largest event to mix serious scholars of Tolkien with those of Jackson, the Jacksonists frequently complained about the near-universal dislike of the movies among the Tolkienists.

When fans of the books as devout as we find the movies so distasteful, I think that speaks eloquently to the profound differences in moral content, in storytelling approach, in aesthetic tastes, in fact in virtually everything except an outline of the plot, between Tolkien and Jackson. Say what you may about "the needs of Hollywood movie-making," that only reinforces the point: they're entirely different in spirit.

But what of those who do like both? For such do exist, in fair profusion. (Though not everyone who likes Jackson likes Tolkien. Many Jackson movie fans find the books a bore. That, too, speaks to the differences between books and movies.) I think they simply like two different things, where the rest of us like only one thing.

That shouldn't be a surprise. Ancillary taste differences among Tolkien fans are long-established. Some Tolkien fans like fan fiction; others don't. Some like parodies (I'm one of those); others don't. Some like the fantasy epics that have come along in Tolkien's wake; others don't. Some like Tolkien's colleagues the Inklings (I'm one of those, too); others don't. In no case does the one impinge on the other. Neither does it with the movies. If this appeals to you, go: have a good time. But include me out.


  1. David, I'm very curious in which names you mean by "five of the six-seven most distinguished Tolkien scholars...". I'm very interested in Tolkien criticism and I belevied also to have collected a clear scenario of the consideration of the movie among the most distinguished scholars. But if your statistics is correct indeed, I have to correct my scenario.

  2. I had Shore's soundtrack to "The Fellowship of the Ring" for months before the film came out. I came to like the music before there was a film for me to like. More than a decade and a half later, I still enjoy the music. Maybe my tastes are more pedestrian than yours, but I can assure you, long, long after your criticism of Shore's music for the films is forgotten, people will be listening to it and enjoying it.

    1. Anonymous, that's a really ignorant thing to say. Critics don't write criticism for the purpose of artistic immortality, so why should critics care if artistic works outlive their criticism?

      I too heard Shore's music for "Fellowship" before the movie came out. And I thought it pleasant enough music. As I said, Shore is competent at his craft. One might listen to it and enjoy the experience, and one might even listen to it over again if one can't tell what's good about good music and mediocre about mediocre music. People have liked mediocre music before: they liked the Warsaw Concerto, for instance.

      But the passionate love that some have expressed for this stuff? That comes from the movie, and only from the movie. If they'll be listening to it long in the future, it's because they associate it with the movie.