I2: Ivory and Ivy
December 2003 -
Jackson’s Lord of the Rings
by Edward Carmien
(Copyright 2003 Edward Carmien)
The web is awash with reviews, opinions, and rants of and about Jackson’s Return of the King rendition of the finale of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Rightly so. Tolkien’s masterwork is THE novel of the 20th century (much to the dismay of some in the good old Ivory Tower), and long before Jackson came along, it has had a monumental influence on American culture, popular and otherwise. Dungeons and Dragons, anyone? The concept of “trilogy” in popular fiction? The archetype of “elf” rewritten to mean “not a wee pixie but what Tolkien says an Elf is?” The list goes on.
The trouble for a writer at this juncture is to decide what to say and why. So much has already been said: every newspaper has published one or more reviews of the most recent film. Online pundits have had their say in half a dozen different kinds of electronic venues. After enjoying the viewing of the film in the small hours of opening day (there is definitely something to be said for watching such a film along with a big room full of nuts willing to do so between midnight and four in the morning), I’ve spent a lot of time reading other people’s opinions and ideas about Jackson’s masterpiece. I agree with much of what I’ve seen, and I disagree with some—and I find a certain amount to be just silly talk. That’s par for the course.
After a lot of thought I decided to craft a bit of speculation about why Jackson scripted and filmed LOTR in the way he has done. I’m no mind reader, nor am I privy to anything special about these issues, but I’m quite familiar with LOTR as a book (teaching it to undergraduates will do that to you), and can whistle as good a layperson’s tune about film-making as the next guy.
So here goes: this is I2’s take on Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
In the beginning, there was a filmmaker. He wanted a lot of money to make not one movie (risky enough in a business where there are more flops than successes) but THREE, during a period of time that would make your hair turn grey just thinking about it. He had to come up with a film adaptation of a thousand page book, and to get his horde of gold coins that adaptation had to make sense to guys sitting on the horde of coins, guys with a distinctly draconian aspect.
Novels and films tell stories in fundamentally different ways on some levels. Films are graphic—novels are imagistic. And so on. In other ways, they are generally quite similar—narrative is narrative, characters are characters, and so forth. In creating an adaptation of LOTR, Jackson faced some daunting challenges. Even three movies are hardly enough to do credit to the novel, which is why each has a three-hour running time, with many additional minutes added in (as per plan) for the DVD “extended version.” But wait, it gets worse.
There are many, many characters. Even the basic nine of the Fellowship is hard to script. Notice how each of the three films gives different lesser characters more face time? Jackson clearly rotated the minor folks (Merry, Pippin, Gimli, Legolas, Boromir) around the fab four (Frodo, Samwise, Aragorn, Gandalf). In each film, as a result, there are disappointing diversions from the text, as in any one film someone, sometime, doesn’t showcase something that stood out in the novel for some particular reader.
Add to that the plethora of supporting characters, and you’ve got a script-writer’s nightmare. There are only so many words characters can speak per minute of film. There are only so many faces one can expect a movie audience to keep track of. Jackson couldn’t shoot it all. He had to fold characters together, to cut, sew, and mold extensively to arrive at a workable cast.
Worse yet, LOTR has an expansive chronology. Almost two decades pass between Bilbo’s 111th birthday party and Frodo’s departure from the shire, and the story itself takes place over more than a year. Jackson no doubt felt compelled to make the story’s chronology simpler and easier to understand, and so he did. Various trips and events take much less time in the film than they do in the book, but in large part the sequence of events makes sense to the non-Tolkien enthusiast.
This, of course, is key because there aren’t enough money-spending Tolkien fans out there to repay the investment of making the film. Jackson’s audience awareness must have played a large part in his decisions. In my opinion, the extended-version DVD’s are made (as best he can, given what he created for theatrical release) for folks like me—readers of Tolkien’s work who wish to see more depth in the film, depth that would be lost on many theater-goers.
Finally, and this is the tough part, because film is essentially a visual medium, it generally calls on filmmakers to handle ideas differently. While there were some minor gasps from the in crowd when FOTR was released, it was generally viewed as being fairly true to Tolkien’s vision. When TTT was released, there were howls of disbelief. What’s Frodo doing in Osgiliath? What’s all this about the Ents deciding to not do something about Saruman? Who got to lead the charge out of the Hornburg?
Jackson, faced with a difficult aspect of Tolkien’s text, did what was required to help make his film palatable to the non-reader audience. He changed things around. Tolkien very clearly leaves to non-central characters major decisions. The Ents decide to attack Isengard. Faramir knows immediately the Ring is to be left alone. Theoden resists despair and leads his knights to battle.
Jackson changed elements to provide the central characters with things to do. Merry and Pippin trick the Ents into seeing what Saruman has done. Sam Gamgee gets a spiffy speech that convinces Faramir to let the Ring-bearer do his duty. Aragorn, in his role as chief head-thumper and warrior extraordinaire, leads Theoden and his lads to victory at the Hornburg. These examples from TTT are followed up by more from ROTK—for example, a hobbit lights the signal fire (rather than Denethor being dramatically convinced to do so) that brings Rohan to the battle outside the city walls.
Consistently, those complaining about this or that aspect of the film interpretation are noticing instances where Jackson has peeled some significant decision or idea from a secondary, non-Fellowship character and given it instead to one of the major characters, or at least to a member of the Fellowship. Jackson, believing the bulk of his audience required such an arrangement, should not be faulted for such a belief, as it is largely correct, at least in my estimation.
We cannot on the one hand drool over the painstaking attention to detail he’s provided us in the film (the cultural details being so distinct for each of the many different cultures we see on screen, for example) while on the other hand object to the simplification necessary to make the films financially viable. I, for one, was not impressed with any of the previous screen efforts devoted to LOTR or The Hobbit. Bakshi’s story was more weakly scripted than Jackson’s, and anyone who has seen the animated Hobbit surely shuddered at the lack of attention put in by those in creative control of the project. Green elves? Perish the thought.
That being said, the next question is: could Jackson have found a better middle ground between (lets be blunt) commercialism and Tolkien’s novel? Yes, from the perspective of the third film’s release, and the millions upon millions (certain to be billions before it is all added up) of dollars the project has earned, Jackson sure could have simplified less and still made a decent dime or two out of the deal, for everyone involved.
However, six years ago, there was no way for Jackson or anyone else to know how successful this project would be. The investment on this film represented a huge chunk of change, and that investment wouldn’t have taken place if Jackson hadn’t been able to sell the project as a moneymaker. While in retrospect it is easy to argue he leaned too far to the commercial side, it is imperative that one recall while doing so that if Jackson hadn’t done so, this epic film might never have been made.
All grumbles, gripes, complaints, rants, and objections should be viewed through this simple fact. It’s a commercial movie. To be made well, money had to be spent on the film, and that kind of money expects a return. Cheap didn’t work in the 1970’s, and I’m glad cheap isn’t the way Jackson decided to go with this project. It’s easy to argue that Jackson’s grasp of Tolkien is somehow flawed, or that commercialism aside he could have found a way to make sure one detail or another was expressed in a different way on screen.
Jackson and his creative team spent years on the project, and they had access to reams of critical material about Tolkien and his work. He understood the concepts as well as anyone can—differently, perhaps, than some, but Jackson was certainly not ignorant of the deep themes and meanings of the novel, or of Tolkien’s massive act of sub-creation. As for detail, out of a novel so huge, each reader will fix in his or her mind some essential vision of how it “should be” on screen. The wails of tribulations about this or that detail are in part reflective of how good a job Jackson did bringing LOTR to the silver screen—we watch, we believe, but then we object, and all the more so because we first believed so avidly what we watched. In short, our desire for our internal vision to match Jackson’s visual accomplishment is strong in part because Jackson did such gorgeous work.
Do I have gripes? Sure, I have gripes. I think Aragorn’s masterful work of politics got short shrift in ROTK. In the novel, he carries out a delicate yet forceful campaign to win his Kingship that in many ways has nothing to do with winning battles. In the movie, there is no battle flag, sewn by Arwen and delivered by his fellow Rangers, nor is there the key confrontation between Aragorn and Sauron via Palantir in which Aragorn declares himself as Isildur’s heir. Of all the things going on in the novel, this element receives some notice but there is little narrative support for it on screen.
Equally, I have kudos. Kudos to Jackson for condensing a lengthy game of cat and mouse between Gollum and Sam. In the film, Gollum’s treachery has to be more obvious—yet I thought Jackson’s script managed the feat adroitly. Tainted by the Ring, Frodo is easy prey for Gollum, who knows full well the Ring’s lash, and Sam is sent packing. Melodramatic, yes, but the scene accomplishes what Tolkien intended to happen between these three characters (and in a way, by the by, that even non-readers “get”).
Kudos too for the number of times Jackson managed to employ Tolkien’s prose as film dialogue. Two years ago I had an interesting conversation with a friend, who had just seen FOTR. What was up, he wanted to know, with Galadriel’s light show, when she turns down the Ring? Turns out that scene uses a lot of Tolkien, and the light effects are even hinted at (though one could argue they go over the top) in Tolkien’s description of the scene. Time after time, key speeches run word for word out of the original. And Elvish—how can one not love a guy for including dialogue in Quenya?
As a whole, Jackson’s film runs about ten hours (and that’s not even counting the extended DVD version’s added minutes). There is just too much to summarize on a gripe and kudos basis, and to do so would only weary you, gentle reader.
To cut to the chase, I liked Jackson’s film overall. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I always appreciated his attention to detail and his grasp of Tolkien’s sub-creation, Middle-Earth. I for one understand the bulk of the textual deviations to be the product of the commercial environment Jackson in which he operates. He wanted to spend hundreds of millions to make this film the right way—and he did. In a perfect world, where Jackson could wave a magic wand and get all the money he wished to make a movie exclusively for Tolkien readers, we would have a different movie before us.
It’s not a perfect world, unfortunately. Fortunately, we also have a filmmaker who has made two films, the theatrical release and the extended DVD release. The DVD release, so far in my experience, has been much better, and I expect the extended DVD of ROTK will be more pleasing than the recent theatrical release.
That is little solace to the true-blue Tolkien reader who finds flaws in Jackson’s film. However, as the song goes, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try to understand the expressive context (big-money film), maybe you’ll get what you need—in my case, a hell of a Tolkien ride, different from yet representative of that novel, THE novel of the century.