Wednesday, April 29, 2020

19 years later ...

we're still disputing over Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. To a correspondent who noted some bad scenes (Arwen disappearing in the second film; Faramir; Frodo deserting Sam for Gollum) and some good ones (the death of Boromir; Sam's "Don't go where I can't follow"; the Grey Havens), and who also said "the book is still on the shelf," I wrote:

Your examples of the problems in Jackson are good, but I see them as examples of a broader malaise. So this is going to be long ...

The Faramir and Gollum examples demonstrate Jackson’s lack of understanding of Tolkien, a quite elementary lack. In the commentary, Jackson and Boyens say that if the Ring is so tempting, they can’t understand why Faramir wouldn’t be tempted, so they wrote his temptation in. Unfortunately, having done so, they couldn’t come up with a reason for him to change his mind. This and the Gollum example are but two of many, many cases where Jackson derails the story because he doesn’t understand why Tolkien wrote it that way, only to have to drag it back onto the rails by force to keep the movie from departing too far from the book.

So why did Tolkien write an untempted Faramir? Because Faramir himself says, “I am wise enough to know there are some perils from which a man must flee.” Jackson thinks the Ring can’t be perilous unless everyone’s faunching for it. But look: our heroes are fighting a desperate war they’re likely to lose. Here’s a weapon that could win the war for them. That’s why Boromir wants it, originally: he thinks it would be insane not to use it. But despite its value as a weapon, those most capable of using it repulse from it with a shudder. Doesn’t that show its danger more than repeating the already-shown scenes of temptation would?

The Arwen example is even sadder, because that’s a case of Jackson trying to rewrite the book to his own preference and then losing his nerve. Arwen is Warrior Princess in the FR movie to make her a more prominent character and to fold in Glorfindel, whose acts are essential but who’s too much of a cameo character for a movie. As you say, that’s understandable. But the viewer reaction to the pre-release news that this would be done was (rather unfairly, I think) so negative that, in the subsequent films, they jerked Arwen back onto Tolkien’s course. When I met Boyens at the movie-preview panel at Mythcon in 2001, just before FR was released, the one thing she wanted to say to me, knowing that I had been critical of the trailers, was, “Arwen never leaves Rivendell.” I was nonplused by this, partly because I hadn’t been part of that particular argument, but mostly because Arwen leaving or not leaving Rivendell wasn’t the point: how Boyens and Jackson wrote the story was the point. And they wrote it very badly.

Partly because this made it another example of the story leaving the rails and then being jerked inexplicably back on to them; partly because it shows they didn’t understand the storytelling reasons Arwen is kept in the background (to show there’s more to Aragorn than you obviously see), and partly because the Ford scene is rewritten so that Frodo doesn’t challenge the Riders. Arwen does everything for him while hauling Frodo around like a sack of potatoes. It completely denies Frodo any agency in his own story, and the same thing happens in one of the most praised scenes, Sam carrying Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom. The book specifies that Sam carries Frodo piggyback, like a hobbit child. In the movie, he slings a nearly-comatose Frodo over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes.

Further, I disagree with much of what you consider praiseworthy. Jackson can do dramatic, both in plot and in visuals (the latter with Howe and Lee to design for him, which they did well). But he can’t do beauty, and he can’t do joy. His elven-lands are wretched, Lorien worse than Rivendell: dark and dank, in no way beautiful. Only the design of Galadriel redeems it. And those key scenes you praise, particularly the latter two, in Jackson’s hands come across as rather gay. They aren’t in Tolkien. Jackson has no understanding of Tolkien, he can’t see how those scenes would function if they weren’t gay, so that’s what he assimilates them to.

However, all this is minor compared to the discussion of the major premise. To a charge that "the movie ruined the book," I consider “the book is still on the shelf” a deeply imperceptive, unfairly dismissive, and intellectually dishonest argument.

The “book on the shelf” isn’t doing anyone any good until someone takes it down and reads it. A novel only lives when it’s being encountered by a reader, the same way that music only lives if someone is playing or listening to it. And the reader’s mind is as essential to that process as is the text of the book. Surely you’ve had the experience of disliking a book at one reading and loving it at another, either because of increased maturity or just because of, to use the pop term, the space your head is in at the moment.

Well, if the reader’s head is full of the movie, and they don’t want it to be, that affects the reading experience. It can, depending on circumstances, ruin the book for that reader. And if the movie is universally known, then the ruination can be widespread. Don’t say that the reader should just put the movie out of their mind. Movies are vivid and memorable experiences, or they wouldn’t be so popular. Few people are so iron-minded to be able to put movies they’ve recently seen out of mind, especially not while reading the novel that the movie is based on. And having the book be a tie-in edition with the movie’s pictures on the cover doesn’t help either.


  1. Thank you for writing this, David, it echoes my own disappointment with Jackson et al.

  2. agreeing with Marcel and also wondering if we might see the original post/email from the correspondent.....