Today’s topic is about movies. To be exact, a question I asked myself after analyzing the ever so popular Lord of the Rings movies. Before entering this discussion let me just remind me the basic idea of this post.
Movies are a visual medium, in other words, the moving pictures have a different perspective compared to a novel. This means that the presenting of a story will always differ if you compare it to a book. First off we have the time limitations. In printing, you have the space you need to explain something. In film, the minutes have to be reduced, since we can hardly expect the public to remain entertained for over 24 hours for one movie. The eternal conflict (which is usually resolved with the comment “I like the books better”) is thus a needles one. When Peter Jackson started the project, I was very clear that the plot of both mediums would only be similar, thus not the same. In my personal opinion, the movies are extremely well done and maybe the only point I really criticise is the treatment of Faramir and his relationship with the Ring.
While reading the letters of Tolkien, though, I found a very interesting note on how the author corrected the screenplay of a previous, animated version that was planned during his lifetime. The criticism of the adaptation was quite fierce. Then I came to think: “What would Tolkien have thought of the newer adaptation?” I know the answer may be not a sure one, but from what I read in this letter, I found some interesting hints on the way he visualized his book being brought to film.
A clarification is needed though. Even as I read the letter, I was not sure if he really understood the medium. His comment “the cannons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different” (letter 210) does show to me that he was not able to see that seeing the story was totally different from reading it. I can not be totally sure about it, since such a view is debatable, but then again I have the feeling that he was not very sure, as a great literate person, on how he could make a movie attractive enough for a public.
On the question of his liking of the movie, I think he would have squirmed a bit when seeing Jackson’s screenplay. I will base this mainly on three facts that we can see on the movies:
- Aragorn in Weathertop. During the rather long criticism of the screenplay, Tolkien focuses specially on the scene of Weathertop, initiating his first complaint with: “Strider does not ‘Whip out a sword’ in this book. Naturally not: his sword was broken.” This may seem like a minor complaint to many, but the idea of the re-forging the sword to start the Journey of Becoming a King was a quite clear way for the author to mark the first changes of the Third Age to the Fourth one.
In the movie the sequence is changed. Here we find that Andruil is but reforged until the moment he is going to enter the Path of the Dead, in the place he stops doubting himself and starts finally his ascension to the throne of Gondor. Thus we have two different periods of rise for Aragorn.
For Tolkien though, Weathertop was never a fight. This scene was meant to be brooding, with a terrible consequence to the group of hobbits. Simply said “The riders draw slowly in on foot in darkness […]. There is no fight.” This leads us to the next point;
- “[…] showing a preference for fights”. Here Jackson would draw most of the fault in Tolkien’s eyes. How many battles do we have in the movies? There is one (necessary for me) representing the last alliance, albeit short, one against Wargs (which, in my eyes, seems a bit unnecessary, but tries to increase the drama of a ‘lost’ character), multiple warscenes in Osgiliath, plus two big battles that appear in the book. For the author, though, it was much more a matter of ambience. He even claims in the letter that, if a battle had to be eliminated, it would have to be the Hornburg, since “there would be this additional gain that we are going to have a big battle (of which as much should be made as possible), but battles tend to be too similar; the big one [Pelennor Fields] would gain by having no competitor.”
Would the three movies have been more interesting by eliminating the fights? We have to consider that the movies were made in Hollywood-style, which means the spectacular had to prevail. Many changes were made to adapt the films into this format. As a counter example we have the first Hobbit movie, in which the character development has had a heavy influence. Although a nice touch, it seems like it made the movie even more boring to the general public, which poses a problem for me. How many fights more will the next Hobbit movies need to remain as interesting as The Lord of the Rings did? I am not sure if Tolkien’s idea would have worked, but his argument makes sense… if you think it as a book.
- Finally we have Saruman’s death, which was not represented at all in the normal movies but had a strange turn in the extended ones. Here Tolkien states that “Z[immerman] has cut out the end of the book, including Saruman’s proper death. In that case I can see no good reason for making him die.” This one may be a little bit more difficult to work with, since the last scene, the rebellion in the Shire, seems like quite an extension for the movies and I can see why it was not included. Also, I have to point out that his death in the extended editions was not quite satisfactory and even too spectacular. First, Legolas got a new thing to brag about and second, the whole idea of the wheel seemed quite unnecessary. Who knows how Tolkien would have taken this business, but I suspect he would have had none of it.
All the points I mentioned do not make the movie bad. It is just a little thought experiment on what the original author might have disliked if he had ever been faced with this. In general the director made a very good interpretation, even though he never maintained the proper dialogues to the proper situations and characters (as he mentioned he wanted in the letter). Still, telling a story as huge as The Lord of the Rings in less than twelve hours was a challenge and, for the most part, well done.
Tolkien himself would have criticised it. But then again, he was a person who loved books, language and writing, making him not so prepared to understand movies as a whole and the way they should tell a story. Also, the new CGI and other effects we can now put into a movie has made the experience of seeing fantasy stories much easier than over 50 years ago. I thus would prefer people to separate the movie from the books. The story, although similar, is totally different. If one wants the complete experience, he would have to read the book, but who reads as much today as we did in the past?
Nai Ainur raituvar tiëtyanne!
For further reading:
Carpenter, Humphrey [ed.], The letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, New York, Houghton Mifflin