Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Tolkien vs. Jackson: One Man's Hopelessness, Another's Hope

I've written at length elsewhere about "hopeless courage" and why the theme of pagan doom makes Lord of the Rings so powerful. But there remains a common perception that Middle-Earth is a hopeful place and its heroes an optimistic lot. Peter Jackson and his scriptwriters have this perception, and their film adaptations present a different world-view than the one in Tolkien's classic.

My conviction is that the "long defeat" (mentioned by Tolkien in letter 195) is the key to understanding the theme of hopelessness which truly pervades Lord of the Rings. What follows is an analysis of the theme of hope in the books and films. The films serve as a control, highlighting by way of contrast what was originally intended by Tolkien, thus enabling us to see how Tolkien's hopelessness has been translated into Jackson's hope.

Tolkien: The Books

A. Introduction

As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien viewed the history of Middle-Earth, like our own, as a "long defeat", containing "samples and glimpses of final victory" but never more (letter 195). Heroes like Frodo Baggins are foreordained failures, because "the power of evil in the world is not finally resistable by incarnate creatures, however good" (letter 191). Frodo could not destroy the One Ring, and the quest to Mount Doom was hopeless from the start. The cause, not the hero, was triumphant only because of the euchatastrophe, the sudden and unexpected intervention of fate made possible by the mercy shown Gollum (letter 192). The long defeat is the key to understanding this theme of hopelessness in Lord of the Rings.

B. Hopeless Heroes

The most important statement about hope comes after the Ring's destruction: "It's like things are in the world: hopes fail." (The Field of Cormallen) Frodo recites this as a general proverb, because it's what the people of Middle-Earth know to be true. Hopes are doomed to fail, even after euchatastrophes. Evil can be resisted but not overcome, and it should be resisted for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. Courage, without the illusion of hope, is what kept Frodo and Sam going as they struggled towards Mount Doom.

Hobbits are quintessentially hopeless heroes. Sam "never had any hope in the quest from the beginning, but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope; he had stuck to his master all the way, and he would continue to stick to him" (The Black Gate is Closed). There is something ironically liberating about the idea that since things must turn out badly in the end, they can only be better in the meantime. Later, at the very same place, Pippin laughs as he "dies" from the troll attack, saying to himself, "It ends as I guessed it would" (The Black Gate Opens). As Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey puts it:: "Those who need hope to keep going will fall prey to despair when their hope is ultimately withdrawn. But those like Sam and Pippin who feel from the start that the whole thing is going to be a disaster remain immune, even cheerful, when their expectations are confirmed." (JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, p 153). This is why courage and cheer supplant hope as proper pagan virtues.

Examples of heroic hopelessness abound throughout Tolkien's classic. Aragorn picks up the fallen banner after Gandalf's fall in Moria without any hope for the quest's success, rather for the chance of doing at least some good and avenging the wizard (Lothlorien). Treebeard expects that his race will be wiped out in the war against Saruman, a doom which is inevitable anyway (Treebeard). Frodo answers his own rhetorical question in the Dead Marshes by implying that hope for his quest is indeed foolish (The Passage of the Marshes). Faramir undercuts any hope for Gondor's salvation by opining that the return of Isildur's heir will only postpone Sauron's inevitable victory (The Window on the West). He is certain that he will never see Frodo again, since the hobbit's quest is a "hopeless errand"; yet he sends him off with a blessing anyway (The Forbidden Pool). Gandalf tells Pippin that there never was much hope for Frodo, "just a fool's hope" (The Siege of Gondor). As Eowyn confronts the Witch-King, Merry realizes that she has come without hope to die on the Pelennor Fields; and her brother Eomer evokes apocalyptic doom when he cries for the world's end and the death of everyone before charging back into battle (The Battle of the Pelennor Fields). When Frodo and Sam encounter enemy camps in the Morgai Vale, their expectations are simply confirmed: "It's no worse than I expected," says Frodo. "I never hoped to get across. I can't see any hope of it now. But I've still got to do the best I can." (The Land of Shadow).

C. Immortals, Elves, Wizards

Hope is shunned as a rule in pagan Middle-Earth, but it's occasionally invoked by the immortals as a caution against seeing the end beyond all doubt. Elrond says that an attempt to destroy the Ring is the only hopeful option available, even knowing this really isn't hopeful ("if hope it be") (The Council of Elrond). Galadriel tells the fellowship that hope remains while the company is true, but Boromir fails the criterion. To say that the quest "stands upon the edge of a knife" indicates the precarious nature of this hope (The Mirror of Galadriel). Gandalf speaks of hope for the Ringbearer's quest while undercutting it with doubts about victory, emphasizing in the end that "Black is mightier than White" (as in ancient pagan traditions, evil is more powerful than good and should be ultimately victorious) (The White Rider). His later warning to Theoden ("doom hangs on a thread") is as ominous as Galadriel's, though he too allows a measure of hope in the Ringbearer's quest while qualifying it at every turn: hope lies east, but so does fear; hope remains, but only if the free peoples stay unconquered (The King of the Golden Hall). Arwen invokes Aragorn's elvish name (Estel: Hope) ironically, goading him to take the Paths of the Dead, saying, in effect, that he has nothing to lose by attempting the impossible (The Passing of the Grey Company). In these cases hope is not entirely foolish -- as long as one doesn't hope "too much", and only under the right conditions -- but neither is it a virtue, and it is reserved for those who have enough wisdom to pronounce on the matter.

D. Exceptions Proving the Rule

Only on one occasion does hope appear reliably positive in Lord of the Rings, at the moment when Sam fixates on a star in the Morgai Vale. Here he succumbs to a moment of "pure" hope. In seeming contradiction to everything discussed above, evil is but a "passing thing", and good can be counted on to prevail in the end (The Land of Shadow). Perhaps being overcome by a single sign of beauty in the worst place on earth calls forth desperate optimism against the conventions of ordinary wisdom; it's almost as though Sam has had an epiphany. Tolkien may have intended this as a pious anticipation of the distant future (Christ's victory) through which death and evil would finally be defeated. Sam's hope is not so much for Frodo's quest in particular, but for a radical change which will someday break the cycle of the world's endless suffering. It anticipates the end of the long defeat, or the final Judeo-Christian victory. Sam's star of hope is thus the exception which proves the rule: that hope is indeed foolish in pre-Christian Middle-Earth.

Aragorn's moniker (his elvish name), Estel (Hope), is a different kind of exception, proving the rule through irony and paradox. Aragorn is "sad and stern because of the doom laid on him, and yet hope dwelt in the depths of his heart" (Appendix A) -- the inverse of hobbits like Sam, who "because of cheer need no hope". Aragorn is the fool's hope who must embrace that which is taboo and make it work. Such is his doom, to be hopeful, yet in the darkest hour he will need to transcend hope by relinquishing it. This is what happens at The Last Debate, where Gandalf declares (in agreement with Denethor) that a military expedition against Sauron is completely hopeless. All it can do is buy Frodo time and give the hobbit a "frail chance" of getting to Mount Doom. Aragorn agrees that things have become so bad that "hope and despair are akin": they can no longer be distinguished from each other. The army of the west must give up hope or despair. Aragorn, Estel, has no hope for a military victory, yet he must lead his army straight into Mordor's jaws. The people of Gondor must accept him as their hope only to relinquish it.

E. Conclusion

In Christian usage, hope is a confident though uncertain trust that good will triumph over evil. It is clear from the above analysis that such hope is foreign to the people of Middle-Earth. The way of things in this world is that hopes fail (says Frodo), while courage and cheer suffice in putting off the evil day. Aside from two exceptions which prove the rule (Sam's star, Aragorn's moniker), the protagonists of Lord of the Rings remain devoid of what Tolkien knew to be a theological virtue. Like lambs led to slaughter, they are pagan souls who sacrifice everything for the sake of friendship and goodness, without hope of victory, yet convinced that evil must be resisted. Hopeless quests suggest heroes who are able to attain a nobility of character unparalleled in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Tolkien admired such heroes, even if he was irrevocably Catholic and continued hoping for the triumph of good at the end of human history.

Peter Jackson: The Films

A. Introduction

Irony confronts us when we turn to Peter Jackson's films. Tolkien was a Christian who cherished hope as a virtue, but Middle-Earth is an essentially hopeless place. Peter Jackson and his scriptwriters (Boyens and Walsh) seem to share more in common with pagan souls, yet they went out of their way to "optimize" Middle-Earth. The films are much more hopeful than the books, perhaps catering to the postmodern needs of today's audiences.

B. Where Credit is Due

Credit must be given for adaptations which remain true to Tolkien's vision, even if they don't derive from the text. Galadriel's "edge of a knife warning" is pure Tolkien. Boromir's line to Aragorn -- "it is long since we had any hope" -- comes from Tolkien's Faramir, who spells out his thoughts more clearly to Frodo: "It is long since we had any hope. The sword of Elendil, if it returns indeed, may rekindle it, but I do not think that it will do more than put off the evil day." It would have been nice to hear all of this from Boromir to get the full idea that Gondor is ultimately doomed, whether now or later. Galadriel's telepathic communication to Elrond evokes Tolkienesque doom: "In his heart Frodo begins to understand the quest will claim his life. You know this; you have foreseen it." Gandalf tells Pippin that there is only "a fool's hope" for Frodo, just as Tolkien wrote him. The exchange between Elrond and Aragorn is reworked from Gilraen's linnod: the immortal elf "gives hope to men", while the mortal king "keeps none for himself". This license is at least somewhat, though not precisely, consistent with Tolkien's standards, since immortals occasionally counsel hope while mortals eschew such foolishness. (The problem is that in Aragorn's case, he is not supposed to eschew his own doom.) At Dunharrow Gamling says, "We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor", to which Theoden suitably agrees, "No we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless". His "ride for ruin!" cry is well adapted from Eomer. At the Last Debate, the roles of Gandalf and Aragorn reverse from the book, but the essentials remain the same: one character allows an ambiguous measure of hope for Frodo at the expense of the army of the west, for which there is none. Gimli's attitude says it all: "Certainty of death, small chance of success...what are we waiting for?" Finally, Sam's star of hope is well used on the plains of Gorgoroth. The problem is that this epiphany is supposed to be an exception to a hopeless rule. We are about to see that hope has become the rule in Jackson's Middle-Earth.

C. Cutting Against the Grain: Facile Optimism

Most of Jackson's (Boyen's/Walsh's) adaptations cut against the grain of Tolkien's vision, offering facile optimism. Boromir tells Frodo in Lothlorien that "Gandalf's death was not in vain, nor would he have you give up hope". Tolkien's Aragorn said it better outside Moria: "Farewell Gandalf! What hope have we without you? We must do without hope. At least we may yet be avenged." Jackson's Aragorn has a howler at Helm's Deep, where he tells the young Haleth that "there is always hope". Always hope? The idea that hope springs eternal is an alien intrusion in Tolkien's world. It's true that Aragorn has a moniker to live up to (his doom), but he's never so facile in the books to believe that there is "always" hope in general.

Gandalf too has become a facile optimist. Aside from the "fool's hope" remark to Pippin (acknowledged above), his wisdom generally conflicts with that of Tolkien's wizard. One scene from each film will illustrate the point.

(1) Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf advises Elrond that "it is men that we must place our hope", to which Elrond rightly retorts that "men are weak". Tolkien would have said the same. The Fourth Age became so hopeless and depressing that Tolkien gave up writing a story about it. The people of Gondor became "like Denethor or worse" (letter 256), and beings like Sauron were no longer necessary to bring out the worst in them. As Tolkien critic Greg Wright observes, the Age of Men "is not the age of men's glory; that was in the past, the glory of the Numenoreans; some of that glory still exists in the person of Aragorn, but he is an exception, a mere reminder of the glory of the past, not a promise of the glory of the future" (Tolkien in Perspective, p 135). Jackson's Elrond is quite correct in lamenting, "The blood of Numenor is spent, its pride and dignity forgotten", even if Aragorn has a role to fulfil despite this.

(2) Two Towers After the battle of Helm's Deep, Gandalf states without ambiguity, "All our hopes now lie with two little hobbits somewhere in the wilderness." In the book his ominous remarks in Fangorn and at Edoras are not so optimistically one-sided; Tolkien's Gandalf is always careful to court doom and ambiguity in equal measure: hope lies in the east, but so does fear; Black is mightier than White; etc. The same is true at the Last Debate, where he allows only a "frail" hope for the Ringbearer in relation to the complete absence of hope for the army of the west. But in the film, his unqualified remark at Helm's Deep translates shady hope (or ambiguous hope) into the robust hope of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

(3) Return of the King The most aggressive example of Gandalf's facile optimism is seen in the "death and distant shores" scene (cribbed from Tolkien's Grey Havens), where the wizard feeds Pippin delusions: "Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, all turns to silver glass, and then you see it: white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise." The problem is that many people in Middle-Earth do not die (the elves), and it is precisely these immortals who go to Valinor. Mortals like Pippin will never see the white shores of Aman. This scene is an extreme violation of Tolkien's mythology -- all the more disappointing for being elegantly acted by Ian McKellan and Billy Boyd -- promising mortals something they will not obtain.

Sam is another facile optimist, given disappointing revisions at Osgiliath and the Cross-roads:

(1) The Tales That Really Matter The Osgiliath monologue goes contrary to what Tolkien presented on the stair of Cirith Ungol:

Book: "The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo...the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them. I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. We hear about those as just went on -- and not all to a good end, mind you."

Film: "It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered... the ones that stayed with you... Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going, because they were holding onto something...that there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."

Cliches about the "good in this world worth fighting for" are out of place in Middle-Earth. Whatever happened to the heroes who "just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you?"

(2) There and Back Again Related to the Osgiliath blunder is Sam's "there and back again" remark at the Cross-roads. The quest to Mount Doom is certainly not an expedition like Bilbo's, and in the book Sam distinguishes between swashbuckling adventures and the hopeless missions of Beren and Frodo. "There and back again" undermines Tolkien's theme of hopeless courage, which is supposed to be about carrying on simply because it's the right thing to do, without the illusion of hope for a successful outcome, let alone a return journey. As if this error wasn't bad enough, the roles reverse on the plains of Gorgoroth, where Frodo laments no water for a return journey, and Sam -- who for whatever reason has come to his senses -- believes that there will now be no return journey. In the books neither Frodo nor Sam entertains hope for a return journey after Frodo puts the idea to rest in the Dead Marshes.

The ironic result of the above two scenes is that Sam's "star of hope" in Mordor (itself well used, acknowledged above) becomes somewhat trivial. Tolkien's star is powerful precisely on account of it being exceptional: everything is otherwise hopeless. But with Osgiliath enthusiasm and "there and back again" optimism in place, the star becomes redundant.

D. Conclusion

I'm a fan of Peter Jackson's films, but I do object to certain liberties he took with Tolkien's text, not least in the way he treated the theme of hope. While rightly emphasizing the weakness of men, he undercut this (compensated for it?) with a level of optimism that damages Tolkien's meaning. To be fair, he remained true to the euchatastrophe -- where Frodo is most likely trying to get the Ring back, not save Middle-Earth by pushing Gollum over the edge -- thereby preserving the role of fate (Eru) as the victor. But on the whole his interpretation of Lord of the Rings offers too much light at the end of the tunnel, light which can be reached by the power of courageous effort. In Tolkien's story the light is so remote it cannot be seen, only glimpsed fleetingly when a higher power intervenes. In Tolkien's story courage is noble but hopeless, and hope itself is foolish.

Some Last Thoughts...

Tolkien intended his classic story to be "consonant with Christian thought and belief" (letter 269), but he made clear that the actual appearance or presence of the Christian myth in his work would be "fatal" (letter 131). The story is pagan, but pre-Christian pagan, anticipating Christianity without encompassing it. In an online interview with Claire White, Tom Shippey states:
"There is almost no allusion to Christianity anywhere in Lord of the Rings ... Middle-Earth demonstrates the need for Christianity, without which the whole of history will only be the long defeat."
This would indeed appear to square with Tolkien's intent in creating a mythic pre-history to our own. The many Tolkien scholars who analyze Lord of the Rings in terms of Christian belief puzzle me; and even among those who argue for a predominantly pagan Middle-Earth, only Greg Wright (to my knowledge) gives proper heavy weight to the long defeat theme.

Post-script: For the last couple of years I've been inclined to see a parallel between the way Tolkien uses the character of Sam and the way the apostle Paul uses the figure of Abraham. One is an exception to a hopeless rule in a pagan era, the other an exception to a faithless rule in a Judaic one. Philip Esler's Conflict and Identity in Romans, in its treatment of Rom 4 and 9-11 in terms of "salvation history", has convinced me of this nearly beyond doubt. But that will be the subject of a post to come at a later date.


Blogger Ron Cox said...

Thanks for a thoughtful analysis, with which I agree. Oddly enough, the non or pre Christian aspect of LOTR is exactly how I approached it when I spoke recently at a youth conference. I'm not sure how I ended up being its keynote speaker and on LOTR to boot, but I focused on certain aspects of the work as "preparation for the gospel" - identifying issues of power and its effects in our world and of the truly daunting response of a Frodo and Sam in its face. Pointing out that it is akin to Jesus' "take up your cross and follow me". The difference, as I said in my final presentation, is that the NT (I focused on Philippians 2) offers the consolation of Jesus' resurrection to those who put others ahead of themselves. Such consolation Frodo did not have.

Anyway, good stuff. Thanks. I also liked the honor/shame discussion earlier.

Blogger Chris Petersen said...

Very insightful, Loren.

Anonymous Ivriniel said...

"The problem is that many people in Middle-Earth do not die (the elves), and it is precisely these immortals who go to Valinor. Mortals like Pippin will never see the white shores of Aman. "

Actually, you're quite wrong there. At death, the souls of mortals in Tolkien's universe go for a while to the Halls of Mandos in Valinor for healing and instruction. Only after their time in Mandos is up, do they pass beyond the circles of the World to be with Eru.

The reason Peter Jackson et al put that speech in Gandalf's mouth was because they thought:

a) It was a beautiful piece of writing

b) they believe that the Grey Ships are a metaphor for death, so what Frodo sees as he passes into the west is his own death.

Blogger Michael Turton said...

The hopelessness of middle earth is one of its most powerful themes, and one of its most beautiful. In literary use it is a mighty theme, but as a philosophy it is essentially anti-human ("men are weak"), one reason I reject Christianity so strongly.

I condemned Jackson in much stronger terms in a long review of the third movie. I think the balanced to hopelessness in Tolkien is love; his characters have an enormous capacity for it. IN any case I consider the three films a vast betrayal of Tolkien on almost every level. My review, shortened:

In the case where the filmmaker is handling what is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever written, a double fealty is necessary. First, to the world as created by the author, and second, to the story as set down by the author. Each supports the other. By abandoning both to use the ideas, characters, and events to tell his own, highly inferior story of a fantasy war based loosely on the Tolkien trilogy, Peter Jackson abandoned all possibility of telling a good story. As Gandalf reminded Saruman, "he who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." And he who breaks the greatest story ever told to tell his own tale is twice the fool.

Jackson's defenders have argued that the changes were necessary to prevent the movie from being too long, or because certain parts of the story would not work on the big screen. As a general principle, there is nothing wrong with the idea of change. Rather, it is *direction* of alteration that is so unforgivable. The changes and elisions of Jackson amount to the systematic debasement of each of the major characters, always in the direction of what is shallow and simple-minded, rife with contempt for what is different and special, too far removed from depth and power in potrayal to retain any force, save in the eyes of those who mistake frenetic energy for strength. This type of impoverished, stereotyped character portrayal, covered with technically superb effects the way a chef hides a poor cut of meat with a thick sauce, is vintage Hollywood, and _The Return of the King is_, simply put, Tolkien: Hollywoodized. In Jackson's clumsy hands, this Hollywoodization is like unto that of Sauron himself: he debases all he touches, removing all possibility of growth, strength, honor, and dignity.

The Error that is Eowyn
Let's plunge right into Jackson's stunted vision of thinking beings by exploring the error that is Eowyn. To begin with, physically speaking, she was poorly cast. Tolkien described her as slender and tall, "grave and thoughtful was her glance...her long hair was like a river of gold....strong she seemed, and stern as a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood." The moon-faced Miranda Otto, who was more than thirty when she was tapped for this role, is the physical opposite of Eowyn as Tolkien presents her. The debasement of Eowyn thus begins with her body. A tall slender shieldmaiden is automatically a warrior goddess and must be taken seriously as a thinking being, but a moon-faced warrior girl in puffy brown clothing is always threatening to become comical, at least in Hollywood.

The typical pattern of Jackson's Hollywoodization, as manifested in Eowyn, is a denial of Eowyn's particular dignity and power. Instead of giving us the powerful inner conflict that Tolkien presents, that everyone can relate to, that of great will and talent denied the opportunity to be used to its utmost, and thus turned inward to despair and death-seeking, Jackson simply re-creates Eowyn as the standard shallow feminist icon. In Tolkien's hands Eowyn had absolutely refused to become a cheap feminist statement:

"Lord," she said, "if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face the peril of battle."
"Your duty is with your people," he answered.
"Too often I have heard of duty," she cried. But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse?..."
"....But as for you lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord's return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no."

The issue is not Eowyn's sex, but her place in the chain of command. When Eowyn petulantly accuses Aragorn of being a chauvinist, he chooses not to reply to that, since they both know it is nonsense, instead striking to the heart of her fears of "staying behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire." The greatness of Tolkien lies in his ability to reveal the depths of his characters; their fears, desires, and loves, in ways both beautiful and tender.

Jackson naturally utterly debases this. Eowyn rides to battle, grinning, with Merry in front of her. Tolkien knew better than to depict Eowyn grinning; her power lies in her gravity and dignity. It is telling that in Tolkien Eowyn laughs only once during this sequence. In the movie she is shown as highly emotional and terrified; overcoming her fear of the Lord of the Nazgul only when she figures out that, as a woman, she has made the Witch-king vulnerable. In every way she is less of a person, and less of a character. Jackson, acting as the perfect Hollywood hack, simply lacks the grace, sensitivity, and guts to handle a grave and powerful woman.

At this point Jackson has already eviscerated the story, destroying Tolkien's incredibly cinematic climax when Rohan arrives even as the Witch-king is entering Minas Tirith to face Gandalf. In the book the Witch-king's appearance at the front is triggered by the appearance of Rohan as he enters Minas Tirith. In other words, the logic of the story dictates his attack on Theoden, which follows immediately. In the movie, no inner logic dictates the Lord of the Nazgul's appearance anywhere. He simply shows up as his army falters. Space is lacking to detail Jackson's ruthless elimination of atmospheric effects; for now we will simply note that the world stays well lit when the Lord of the Nazgul arrives.

In the book as the Nazgul descends Eowyn flays him with the most beautiful insult ever set down on paper: "Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace." But, alas, while a tall, stern warrior maid, grave and strong, could bring off a dozen lines like that before breakfast, it is simply impossible to imagine that grinning cherub, Miranda Otto, spitting out such potent words. In Tolkien the tragic power of this scene lies in Eowyn's greatness: her despairing courage, taking on a foe she cannot hope to defeat, seeking death. But in Jackson's hands all this goes by the board; Eowyn's womanhood, which in Tolkien simply daunts the Nazgul for a moment, is in the movie the reason that the Witch-King dies. There is no need for Eowyn to display high and lonely courage; it is enough that she is a woman. Thus in the film she merely needs to show up, sword in hand, a particular plumber for a particularly nasty problem with the drains. Instead of a woman of great power and beauty going to her death as a final cry of hopeless courage against the overwhelming darkness, we get one of Jackson's many cheap, cowardly betrayals of the complex individuals Tolkien created. "But I am not a man," she cries, turning the slaying of the Witch-king into a tawdry feminist statement battle-cry. In case anyone missed that Eowyn had become a cheap feminist statement, Jackson has her ram the sword into his mouth, an oral rape in reverse.

Not only are both Merry and Eowyn utterly debased by this, but Jackson has introduced a major continuity error (appropriately enough in a scene filled with minor continuity problems). Since it was not Merry who killed the Witch-King, there is now no reason to honor Merry at the end. However, it appears that Jackson is working on the George Lucas dictum that if the story moves fast enough and is full of unusual events, nobody will notice that it doesn't work any more.

The Murder of Merry
What goes for Eowyn could go for any of the other characters. Take Merry. In the book Merry says to Theoden: "As a father you shall be to me," a debt discharged at Theoden's death, where it is Merry who comforts him in his last agonies, as a good son should. In the movie that falls, incorrectly, to Eowyn. The movie Merry, posited one-dimensionally as a prankster with a certain amount of native shrewdness, has become so debased that one could hardly imagine him uttering words of such loving friendliness, and Theoden, as Jackson has made him, an aging Germanic superhero girding for one last killing, could never be the subject of such sentiments. The "kindly old man" of Tolkien who desired to sit and listen to Merry speak of pipe-lore is completely gone.

The Actualization of Aragorn and Faramir
In Aragorn Jackson presents us with the standard conflicted action hero. He doesn't know who he is and doesn't want the responsibility of being king: Hamlet, with better swordfighting skills. In the book, however, Aragorn's conflict is not reluctance to take the kingship, but the two sides of his character, one kingly, dignified, and powerful; the other, the unkempt rake and ranger who wished out loud to Frodo in Bree that someone might take him at his own estimation, and like him for who he is, not for the throne he might occupy or the powers he has. Tokien resolves this conflict neatly by giving Aragorn the reign name Telcontar, Strider, thus preserving that part of Aragorn, the one "unused to houses of stone."

Faramir was similarly debased in the standard Hollywood way, in which the character starts out as X, then undergoes epiphany -- tied to a pointless sequence in which Frodo is hauled to Osgiliath, which totally ignores the reality that Tolkien posits. The whole sequence is completely absurd, and there is no reason for Faramir to have an epiphany in Osgiliath watching Frodo suffer as Sam yells at him. The change did not add any depth to Faramir's character -- he'd have been far deeper as the strong man who said "not even if I found it on the road" and meant it. Why not simply let him go, and show Faramir as a shining example that he is in the book? But no, Jackson must make pointless and destructive changes, he can't stop himself, like a little boy who woke up and found himself on a beach full of sand castles with nobody in attendance.

The Gutting of Gimli
Most painfully for me personally, however, is the gutting of my favorite character, Gimli, pure Hollywoodization. In Hollywood difference, especially shortness, is always treated as license for being the butt of jokes. Gimli was no exception to this deep-seated prejudice. In the books Gimli is a figure of immense dignity, manifested in dour comments and grunts and silences. Pessimistic, quick to take insult, he is also passionately loyal and deeply loving. One of the most important qualities of all of Tolkien's characters is their immense capacity for love, a capacity gone from Gimli of the movie (the capacity for other than male-female love, alas, is not compatible with fantasy war movies). In the book the scene between Gimli and Galadriel is one of intense beauty, devotion, and tenderness. Her reply to Gimli's request for a strand of hair in the book, which recognizes, respects, and validates Gimli's great courtesy and honor, is removed, since it would at once turn Gimli into a complex thinking being instead of the cardboard cut-out foil Jackson desires. Instead, Galadriel simply titters like a schoolgirl. One could hardly imagine the movie Galadriel interceding with the Valar so that Jackson's Gimli could see her face one last time, and when Gimli confesses his great admiration for her in the movie, he sounds like an adolescent caught masturbating over the picture of his favorite movie

Predictably Jackson relentlessly debases the poor dwarf. It is Gimli who is always wrong in every prediction. He who is always made to look shallow and pathetic, the butt of every joke. In the useless battle against the wargs in The Two Towers it is he who is pinned beneath a dead warg. It is he who complains about being unable to run after the hobbits as fast as the elf and Aragorn, joking, you know, because short people are inevitably comical in Hollywood. In The Fellowship of the Ring Gimli is even made to say a dwarf joke, a total anachronism that wreaks havoc with the viewer's ability to suspend disbelief. As if Jackson wishes to rub our nose in the fact that he has no sense at all, Gimli is forced to utter another dwarf joke in The Two Towers. I'd write more, but the destruction of Gimli makes my heart break.

Change without Growth, Victory without Honor
Jackson's elimination of the Scouring of the Shire shows, as if any further proof were needed, that he has no feel for storytelling. Tolkien points out in his introduction that the Scouring of the Shire was inherent in the story from the outset. Indeed, the whole point of the Lord of the Rings is not the destruction of the Ring -- that is merely the action that drives the plot -- but Frodo's realizations about himself and his world, and his journey from innocence to experience. The Scouring of the Shire is the mirror that reflects Frodo's own growth, and his deeper understanding of the world. This is explained to him by none other than Saruman himself, *at his own door*, no less. "You have grown wise," Saruman hisses (the movie Saruman, eviscerated into the standard power-seeking sociopath, was hardly complex enough to utter that line). This theme of Frodo's growing wisdom is first announced by Galadriel in the book, but that line is of course eliminated by Jackson, because real growth would involve treating Frodo as a more complex person than a fantasy war movie can tolerate. Without the Scouring of the Shire, we cannot see that Frodo has grown into great wisdom and understanding. Hence the end, in which he renounces the Shire, simply appears in the movie as a deus ex machina without rhyme or reason to underlie it.

Tolkien's genteel between-wars racism was quite congenial to Hollywood's idea that the world is composed of white people who do important things and the brown people who help them. In the film almost everyone that matters has blue eyes. This is true even of Gollum, who looks more than a little like ET with those big blue eyes, wrinkled skin, and high forehead. The men of the west are all blonde and as for the elves, they are more Aryan than the Aryans. In the book, however:

They [the Quendi] were a race high and beautiful, the older Children of the world, and among them the Eldar were as kings, who are now gone: the People of the Great Journey, the People of the Stars. They were tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, *though their locks were dark*, save in the golden house of Finarfin ...

Tolkien does not tell us directly what color Legolas' hair is, so naturally, this being Hollywood, it defaulted to blonde.

Atmosphere and Background
In order to turn the trilogy from an exploration of character in the face of the corruption of unlimited power into a cheap cowardly fantasy war movie, Jackson must get rid of every piece of history, every hint of atmosphere, every clue that the world is a complex place and things go back a long ways. Gone is the age-old hatred between the men of Numenor and Sauron; there is no clue that there is a history between them. Gone too are the deep antagonisms between dwarves and elves, alluded to only in one or two lines. Defenders of Jackson cannot complain that he did not have time to explain all this; given the vast number of invented incidents, the absurdly long battle in front of Minas Tirith, and the ridiculous sequences with Arwen, there was plenty of time for historical review done by flashbacks. One would have loved to see the wave overwhelm Numenor, and Aragorn as a young man fighting under the flag of Gondor.

Also swept away is the poignant and deeply moving atmosphere of loss and melancholy that pervades Tolkien's work and lifts it above every other fantasy ever written. Such a feeling is inappropriate for a Hollywoodized fantasy war movie where the good guys must win and ultimately the future will be better than the past. In Tolkien the beings of Middle-earth all face long-term loss and decline, and the great irony of Tolkien is that victory may only make things worse. The elves are leaving. The dwarves are no longer as fertile, and cannot work metal as their forefathers did. The ents have no entwives. The lifespan of men is shortening, and their greatness diminished. Minas Tirith holds far fewer men than it once did, and the great army that marches out to confront Sauron at the gates of Mordor is but a fraction of the hosts that the great kings of Gondor once led. None of this is mentioned in the movie, except in a line or two here or there.
Of course, it goes without saying that one cannot have any sissy poetry and song in a fantasy war movie, and so that goes by the board as well. The only permissable song is either prophetic or comic, as when the hobbits sing (being short, they of course cannot be taken seriously as individuals). We get a love song from Aragorn, but significantly, not in the theatre version. Jackson apparently never imagined that people might become bored with watching yet another bad'un speared, seared, sliced, chopped, gored, stabbed, cut, slashed, hacked or otherwise killed, and long for the singing and sharing of Tolkien's world.

On a more practical level, the world of Jackson's LoTR does not work because at its base it is not believable. What do Minas Tirith, Theoden's city, the city of the elves, and Rivendell all have in common? They are isolated outposts in the wilderness, not working cities in the center of a rich hinterland. Tolkien makes it clear that Minas Tirith is a city at the head of a great civilization, and has a constant flow of refugees with loaded wagons, farms and fields, and other assorted indicators of economic complexity in his story:

"Fair and fertile terraces falling to the deep levels of the Anduin....The townlands were rich, with wide tilth and many orchards, and homesteads there were with oats and garner, fold and byre, and rills rippling through the green from the highlands down to the

Not so Jackson. Minas Tirith (for example) simply sits in a desert of green, with no human structures outside it. The viewer finds himself asking: how are these people fed? What do they buy and sell? What does this city control? Where are the roads leading in and out? What about the piles of trash? Jackson's presentation is simply not credible, just simpleminded eye candy.

Jackson also reversed another of Tolkien's most underrated features: his brilliant use of understatement. Tolkien had learned well the great power of restraint from the Germanic legends and stories (see, for example, the death of the hero Gunnar of Hliderend in Njal's Saga). The end of Sauron takes but a paragraph to narrate. The end of the battle of the Pelennor Fields, the top of a page. Boromir dies with only two lines. Not in the films. The final battle drags on and on to ever more unbelievable events, climaxed by Legolas' slaying of the oliphaunt, a hideous imitation of Luke Skywalker bringing down the Imperial Walkers. Even in individual presentation Jackson must go over the top. In Tolkien the Lord of the Nazgul carries a compact and modest mace, but Jackson gives him a massive morningstar. One can only imagine if that time and resources had been spent in telling a better story, instead of wasted killing orcs and oliphaunts.

Jackson's impoverished vision, which mirrors Hollywood's own impoverished vision of fantasy and the future, has grievously damaged this story in two vital ways. First, it has emptied the story of its many meanings and depths, its shadows and uncertainties, and presented it as simplistic fantasy war movie, leaving only a shell of the greatness of Tolkien. But even worse, by making this movie, Jackson has placed a significant roadblock in the way of someone else from taking up the franchise and doing the job right. By failing to humble himself before material that was greater than he was, Peter Jackson has succeeded where Sauron failed: he has destroyed Middle Earth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your argument is very one sided, yes Peter Jackson may have left out some crucial, beautiful aspects of Lord of the Rings. The truth is that the majority of people dont want to be consumed by the fantasy of middle earth like us, but would rather appreciate it from an ignorant outside view. So leaving out the endless psalms, poems and songs within the books may have dampened the meaning and lore of the Lord of the Rings, but when it comes down to it Peter Jacksons movie has represented a classic novel in a way that is appealing to an even larger fan basin. He has helped to turn another generation into reading the books and discovering the hidden meanings and depths for themselves in the way they are presented best, in J.R.R tolkiens novel. I read the trilogy every year and am a life long fan, I also thoroughly enjoyed the movies. Your points although well thought out and are somewhat sinical and void, and to conclude my response Sauron never wanted to destroy Middle Earth just envelop it in darkness, so there is one more void point that you made.

Many thanks.


Anonymous CreditThinker said...

Even if a movie is based on a book it is an independant piece of art. Tolien was more of a writer who wrote for himself. Jackson made a movie to be shown in movie theaters. But thank you for the deep analyses.

Anonymous Cressida said...

Hi! I found your entry while searching for something else, and I read it with interest. I just wanted to add that I think you've overlooked at least one other instance of hope in LOTR. This is Faramir's sudden flash of hope for no logical reason while watching the sky with Éowyn during the Black Gates battle in "The Steward and the King":

"The reason of my waking mind tells me that great evil has befallen and we stand at the end of days. But my heart says nay; and all my limbs are light, and a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny. Éowyn, Éowyn, White Lady of Rohan, in this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!"

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael Turton: I was with you until "Racism". Are you sure you've read the books properly?! Tolkien actually subverts or goes beyond that (white people = good - evil, imperialistic corrupted Numenorians) and other tropes (ex. beauty = good - Sauron's fair form, nobility = good - Sam) while seeming to subscribe t=o it.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael Turton: Please let us know how your faith in the "strength" of men holds up through the years.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The many Tolkien scholars who analyze Lord of the Rings in terms of Christian belief puzzle me; - Christians will analyze everything in their christian mind view, no matter what it is.. its absolutely insane

Blogger TheCuttingBlade said...

I understand that LOTR is not supposed to be a lesson in applied theology. It is not supposed to be a guide for us to live by. But I can not help empathising with the characters and their plight.

I must say that I enjoeyed your interpretation of the hopless ness of hope. I feel that I can now empathise more strongly with the characters and their plight. But it is so massive and depressing that I have to say I'm suffocated by the doom of it all.

But, nonetheless, we keep on!

I should like to know how you think faith replaces hope. Or, should I be disappointed by the entropy of heroicism? Does it mean we are doomed but to have faith that we are to be saved - that there is nothing we can do, not even 'doing good'?

Blogger IMR2D2 said...

A note: Sam does not "fixate on a star in the Morgai Vale." That was no mere "star," but was Earendil-- i.e. Elrond's father-- who thereafter sailed the heavens carrying the last Silmaril on his brow ("Shelob's Lair") and give hope to those against evil.

This was also the source of the light in Galadriel's phial, which Sam use to
However here's it's important to note that Sam did not triumph because of the Silmaril, but because of his faith in calling on Elbereth; for in contrast, Beren had held the actual Silmaril against the wolf Carcharoth, claiming that it would defeat evil; but the wolf simply bit his hand off and devoured the Silmaril, hand and all.
Sam, meanwhile, faced Shelob with only a part of that Silmaril's light, but his faith in calling on Elbereth allowed him to defeat Shelob-- who was in all likelihood more evil and dangerous than the wolf.
Therefore Tolkien's message is that while mortal endeavors are ended hopeless in themselves, faith is the key to hope beyond hopelessness. Indeed, Gandalf knew that the quest was impossible in itself; but as he tells Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit, there are things beyond hope which petain to faith, and which allowed for their adventures and escapes beyond "mere luck for one's sole benefit."
Consider Shelob's Lair; here, Gollum's betrayal proves the enemy's undoing, as Frodo is taken prisoner, while Sam is able to enter undetected; without this betrayal, the hobbits could never have entered into Mordor.
Gollum's betrayal also proves their salvation at Mount Doom, of course, allowing the Ring to be destroyed-- despite that Tolkien expressly states that NOBODY could destroy the Ring as an act of will; and for this reason, Gandalf foresaw that Gollum's fate would be bound up with that of the Ring, and that he should be spared as a matter of faith-- and even though Gandalf wanted Gollum captured and kept prisoner, Frodo obliges.

Thus "pagan hopelessness" is not the moral, but rather the triump of faith over hopelessness.
And here, Earendil inspires hope, in Sam through faith-- faith not in the deeds of men, but that the true power is greater than anything.

This is perhaps why Sam is the story's true hero, i.e. as Tolkien says his courage "not in great deeds, but in the demands of daily life." Here, Sam shows a stark contrast with Aragorn, who fulfills his duty partly out of a desire to marry Arwen, which Elrond forbids otherwise; Sam, in contrast, reveals the end of the story that he couldn't marry Rose Cotton until his task was finished, saying "I must see it through" ("Three is Company").
Sam likewise almost slips and reveals this temptation in "Lothlorien," when Galadriel tests all of the Fellowship with their preference from the quest, with Sam clearly saying that she offered him the chance of "going back home with-- with a bit of garden of me own." Clearly this hesitation was his desire to marry Rose-- but rather than being restrained by her father, as with Aragorn being restrained from marrying Arwen (indeed, Farmer Cotton knew Sam was a fine choice for Rose, Sam restrains himself out of his sense of both faith and duty.

Blogger IMR2D2 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Kasper said...

I sympathize with some of your points, but Tolkien's concept of the eucatastrophe deserves more attention. In 'On Fairy Stories', Tolkien argues that consolation is one of the main functions of this genre (and therefore of the LotR): to give "a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." However hopeless his created world may be, it's not so to promote hopelessness. On the contrary, it is dark only to show more brightly the light of the 'fleeting glimpse of joy' which is hope.

Blogger D.C. Smith said...

You offer a very interesting analysis here. I cannot say I agree with all of it, as I really believe many things Jackson did with the trilogy are very "un-hollywood". Others (trivialization of Gimli & "The Rape of Faramir") I completely agree with you.

I do think that to be honest, LoTR taken verbatim from the books is indeed (as asserted by Tolkien himself) un-film-able. Jackson had to adapt some things. While I have read the book twenty plus times and will always prefer it to the films, I believe Jackson did a hell of a lot better job than most would have (Spielberg, Cameron, etc.) and that in a very few cases exceeded the words on paper in his interpretation and adaptation. I still wish Gollum would have just fallen with the ring after biting Frodo's finger, the same as I just cannot stand watching Faramir drag Sam and Frodo to Osgiliath, merely to introduce the location for the next film.

At least P.J. was smart enough not to go with the initial idea of Arwen AT Helm's Deep. That would have been blasphemy beyond anything that was included. I do think that while the films are at best an adaptation and not the true story, in many cases they got the "world" and the feel of it correctly. And in the end, despite any changes, more people are now reading the books due to Jackson's films, when the novels might have been forgotten except by die-hards such as myself (and you, obviously).

I very much appreciate your opinion; this is a well thought out article. Will be interesting to see what happens with the Hobbit movie. I will of course be there to see it, regardless, but I was intrigued and would perhaps have preferred to see what Guillermo del Toro would have done as director.

Anonymous Tyelkormo said...

I have to support IMR2D2 here in suggesting your analysis of hopelessness is a bit short-sighted. There is more to the immortals being the one who, if any, see hope. While not Elrond himself, some of his peers have been to the Undying Lands - and I am quite sure they heard from the eyewitnesses, the Valar the quote by Illuvatar addressed to one of them: "and thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me"

The concept behind this is also addressed in a very real-world context by Tolkien in a letter to Christopher (#64): "All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success - in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in."

Evil cannot be directly defeated, but neither does evil have any hope of winning in the end, because in the end, it will only pave the way for its own defeat. This was the story of the first age, where all the evil of Morgoth in the end only lead to his own defeat in the War of Wrath, brought about by Earendil's journey, but it is also the story of the Ring, which instilled so much possesiveness in Gollum over time, that in the end, precisely that possessiveness brought about the destruction of the Ring.

So there is hope, but it is only for those who live long enough and are capable of enduring enough to recognize that fact out of their own experience.


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