Monday, December 22, 2003

Though it’s probably of little interest to anyone, I thought I’d take this space to talk about the Lord of the Rings today. Now that I’ve seen all the films, admittedly sans extended on the last, I suppose I can offer as valid an opinion as anyone on the subject.

I was raised on J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit was one of the first big kid books I ever read to myself. And my father actually had read to me the entire Lord of the Rings while I was an infant. Having the horrible ear infections I had, I was a terror to get to sleep as a kid, and that was how he passed the time.

In any case, my point in saying all that is to show that I’m really quite familiar with the books, and have a fondness for them. Many of the central values of my life can probably be traced, in one form or another, to an early appreciation of Tolkien. It was certainly one of the early methods my father found of imparting values in me.

But I’m not a Tolkien geek. I’ve never had any interest in trying to pick up Elvish. I don’t split hairs over varying degrees of orc culture. I’ve always found people overly interested in fairies and elves a little bit fairy-ish themselves, if you know what I mean. Even if I make vague references to Gollum to explain my hatred of the sun, you still shouldn’t expect me to show up at the theatre wearing his loincloth and only his loincloth.

On the whole, I was disappointed with the films. I feel a little awkward saying it. There’s a general feeling, I think, amongst fans, that we should just be thankful that Peter Jackson didn’t ruin the story entirely. And I am thankful for that. But not being entirely disgusted isn’t the same as being happy. It’s not even the same as being satisfied.

There are a number of arguments lobbed in favor of Jackson’s films that I’ve struggled with and have ultimately rejected. For instance, the argument that I should be happy that Jackson brought the story to a mainstream audience. I’m not overjoyed about that. I would love for people to share the stories that were so dear to me growing up, but Jackson’s story isn’t the story I was raised on. Jackson changed the very Catholic fellowship into a rather secular epic about Frodo, with a supporting cast.

And then there’s the argument that Jackson’s film did such a beautiful job of capturing the visual essence of the books. Well, the movies are pretty, but my imagination did it better. And when you sacrifice plot for prettiness, well, I’ll take my plot back, thank you.

And, of course, there’s the argument that Tolkien’s books simply can’t be translated directly to film in a manner that the general movie-going public could consume, so substantive changes were necessary. All right, then, if that’s the stance, then don’t make the movies. That, or preferably, make them and understand that they might not make a huge box office smash. It’s anti-capitalist to say it, but I prefer quality over accessibility in matters as grave as these.

It’s true of course, that Jackson couldn’t have made the films in such a manner as to make everyone happy. Like all books, and especially long books, there are a million interpretations to Tolkien’s epic. Jackson took one of the most common interpretations, added a few personal twists, and recorded it on film. I particularly object to the film mostly because I particularly object to the common interpretation.

What I like about the Lord of the Rings are the mythic qualities I was brought up to appreciate. Tolkien certainly wrote in an attempt to give Britain a mythic past that he thought it lacked. In doing so, he wrote about the mythic past in the only way he knew how; that is, as a Catholic. And so Catholicism is weaved throughout the books. In some instances, it’s obvious, as in the momentary pauses for silence before meals in the text. In other cases, it’s more subtle, as in the use of Elvish lembas bread as a stand in for the Eucharist. Tolkien wrote as a Catholic, but Jackson filmed as a secularist, who admits that he cared nothing about Tolkien’s purposely weaved Catholicism.

What’s left in Tolkien’s tale, once the myth is taken out, is mostly what we’re left with in the film: violence, unexplained. I’ve heard the films described as confusing. “Why are the pretty elf and the fuzzy short people fighting with the ugly ones with bad teeth?” And Jackson admits that he made the films because he wanted to play out the action of the battle of Helm’s Deep. But the violence doesn’t make any sense without the mythic ethos. Why are the good guys able to slash ridiculous amounts of bad guys, thousands of dead orcs to the man even, and never get hurt? Because evil is inherently weaker than good and evil’s only power comes from a failure of goodness to act; we understand this intuitively in terms of the myth.

But in the films, we don’t see the myth. We see the action. We talk about Sam’s loyalty to Frodo, but not in terms of loyalty as a positive good. We talk about it because it furthers the action. Frodo couldn’t have gotten there without Sam. And presumably, had Frodo not gotten there, it all would have been for naught. We cheer when we see the elves marching into Helm’s Deep. We talk about how good it is that men and elves are united, but we don’t talk about how important it is that good people, and good elves even, make a stand for good. There’s an attempt, I think, to take all mention of good and evil out of the Lord of the Rings, and to color everything in terms of the light and the dark.

This is most apparent, I think, when Jackson removes the Scourging of the Shire from the films. Jackson, viewing the story in terms of action, of Frodo’s quest, sees the Scourging of the Shire as an afterthought. It’s an anti-climax in an otherwise moving story. Its only purpose is to explain the transition between the darkness of the shire under Sauron and the lightness which it returns to when the ring is destroyed. But rather than some lame afterthought, the Scourging of the Shire is the pinnacle of the text.

Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and even that fool of a Took, are not ordinary hobbits. They’re extraordinary creatures for the Shire. Though they’re uncomfortable in the world outside, they naturally crave adventure. Shire folk don’t crave adventure. They are, in our words, quite typically bourgeois. They want comfort, several meals a day, a nice warm fire place, and lots of presents. Our hobbits venture out of the Shire, which is extraordinary, but it fits them, being extraordinary hobbits to start. What’s really amazing, though, is when the most ordinary of hobbits, the most bourgeois of the bourgeois, are raised into a revolutionary force. The absolute pinnacle of the text is when a folk most addicted to comfort, leisure, and all of those self-indulgent sins rise up and strike against evil, because in spite of their bad habits, they’re positively good. And, as such, they act.

They don’t do it for action. They don’t do it for each other. They do it because there’s goodness in the world and they’re willing to fight for it. That’s the theme of the Lord of the Rings. And I think it’s the main thing that Peter Jackson, with all of his additions and subtractions, missed in making these films.