September 19, 2005

Daily Dose of Tolkien Geekery

Gary the Tolkien Geek posted on two more chapters of FOTR over the weekend:

Book I, Chapter 9 - At the Sign of the Prancing Pony and

Book I, Chapter 10 - Strider.

Allow me, if you will, to take this opportunity to do a little anti-Peter Jackson ranting.

In the book, Tolkien sets up the scene at the Prancing Pony as a kind of transition point, an overlap between the comfortable security of the Shire known to the hobbits and the Big Bad World on the outside. Barliman Butterbur, as proprietor of the Pony, has one foot in both worlds. I have always found him a humorous and delightful character. Of course, it is largely because of his hospitality that the hobbits let their guard down, bringing about near disaster and highlighting how closely Frodo is being pursued by the Dark Lord, even in a place of such seeming safety and comfort.

Barliman also represents one of the forces of Good. As bumbling and inept as he is, he means only the best, and in the Dark Times descending on Middle Earth, this counts for an awful lot. Indeed, there is a constant theme running through Tolkien's books about the importance of the efforts of little folk in the fight against Evil. And by "little" I don't mean "short". Rather, I mean "unimportant." Think not only of the efforts of the main hobbits, but of the other residents of the Shire - the Cottons, Fatty Bolger, the Maggots. Think also of such characters as Ioreth, Beregond and Bergil in Minas Tirith, for instance.

Jackson rolls right over all of this because he's had to so seriously condense the exposition of the story - if you've only got half an hour or so to get from Bilbo's Birthday Party to Frodo's arrival at Rivendell, you don't have time for this kind of subtlety. The Prancing Pony isn't a cheerful inn full of sights and sounds that would remind Frodo and his friends of home. Instead, it's fully within the realm of the Big Bad World. All of the Men (there are no local hobbits that I recollect) are dark, mysterious and evil. Butterbur is just the man behind the bar, as nasty as the rest of them. Of course, in this atmosphere, it would be ludicrous for Frodo to get up on a table and sing, which is why Jackson also had to concoct a different method to get the Ring on Frodo's finger. Thus the snowball effect, which I find to be one of the inherent irritants with the movies.

Then there is Strider, to whom we are introduced in the Common Room at the Pony. Now you can argue, perhaps even legitimately, about the chops and changes in story line required to jam a thousand-odd pages of text into nine or so hours of movie. But this doesn't excuse, IMHO, mucking about with the basic personalities and motivations of the characters. Jackson starts out more or less on the same page, if you'll pardon the expression, as Tolkien, giving us The Mysterious Stranger Who Already Knows Too Much. But as the story moves forward, he serves up his own version of Aragorn, much more frail and whiney and - at times - practically paralyzed by his own weaknesses. Indeed, his subplot about Aragorn having to overcome his own fears in order to meet the Enemy is quite alien to the character Tolkien paints. Or characters, I should say, because Tolkien does a terrific job switching back and forth between Strider, the stoic Ranger and Aragorn, High King of the Numenoreans of Westernesse, both of whom are gradually revealed and blended through the course of the novel. We hates Jackson's departure from this and will be tracking it in detail as Gary progresses through the books.

Ah, that felt good!

Now, how about a little Elvish Music? Mixolydian Don has got you covered.

Posted by Robert at September 19, 2005 01:14 PM | TrackBack

Jackson commits two rather large sins, in my mind.

1) He constantly minimizes the good and emphasizes the evil in numerous minor characters. You note Butterbur, but this holds true throughout -- Strider becomes unsure of himself; Elrond becomes a malevolent, man-hating prick; Treebeard and the Ents initially opt for neutrality; Theoden's retreat to Helms Deep is a cowardly retreat; and Faramir opts to take Frodo as a prisoner to Osgiliath -- and on, and on. Instead of moral actors arriving at the correct decision, these characters ultimately have to be shamed into doing the right thing by bigger characters. One of the things I liked about hte Lord of the Rings is that Tolkien presents the fight against evil as a decision every person, at some level, has to confront -- many people choose, in the book, to oppose Sauron for their own moral reasons. Jackson instead opts to make the Hobbits and Gandalf the consciences of Middle Earth. If slander against fictional characters were a crime, then Jackson is guilty of numerous counts of it.

2) He not only cuts scenes -- we all knew that had to happen for the movies to be made -- but in some places, he ADDS scenes that never occurred -- the more gratuitous of these being the Warg battle/stunned Aragorn bit, and the Elvish archers at Helms Deep. In both scenes, I said "WTF?". Both were completely unnecessary, and they also took away from time he could have used to give us stuff that was actually in the book.

What angered me about it was that he presumed himself a better narrator than Tolkien -- we get 10 minutes of Peter Jackson's crappy writing in place of 10 minutes of Tolkien.

That being said, he did get a lot right in Middle Earth -- the art direction, sets, costumes, locations, etc. are top notch. The computer work is groundbreaking. I'm not going to give him a blanket condemnation for the movies -- but I think he also made some serious mistakes along the way.

Posted by: The Colossus at September 19, 2005 01:42 PM

Dude! Did you steal all that from one of my prior posts? That's EXACTLY what I've been on about all this time. And it's the addition of things - another example being Gandalf and Pippin sneaking off to light the warning beacons of Gondor - that particularly gets my goat and undercuts the argument about how things had to be cut in order to make the books small enough to fit on the screen. But I'm trying to keep pace with Gary's narrative.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at September 19, 2005 01:50 PM

Robert/Colossus. All valid arguments against PJ's interpretation of a timeless classic.

However, I would make one point as it regards filmmaking. In every example listed above (with the exception of Elrond, the prick) we see over two or three films the kind of character development that is not necessary in Tolkien's books. Remember that the films were made primarily for the fans but Jackson also intended that they appeal to a wider audience. Without the kind of character arcs that these followed - Aragorn's overcoming self-doubt, Treebeard and the Ents' decision to take a stand against evil after being too passive, Theoden's finally achieving the heroism that make him (in his mind) worthy of his ancestors and Faramir's desire to please his father v. his better instincts - many non-fans who paid good money to see the films would not have enjoyed them as much.

Perhaps Jackson's actions seem to reduce the characters to the level of a bad soap-opera and I'm sure you'd both say to the non-fans, F 'em. But Jackson's presentation of Tolkien's vision didn't gross over a billion dollars because his cinematic instincts sucked.

The books are the books and the film will never take away from that. But ponder this: how many new fans of the books are there today BECAUSE of the films?

I don't hear the Tolkien estate or Houghton Mifflin complaining.

Sorry, guys. Had to jump in on this one.

Posted by: Gary at September 19, 2005 01:59 PM

Colossus, your fist point is spot on, but I would like to give credit to Jackson for one thing - if it werent for him I would have probably never read Tolkien.

But I still think this sort of complaining is useless, books and movies are different media that can only inspire each other, perfect transitions between them, perfect adaptations are an utopia. Dont get me wrong, I understand your complaints. But lets not over-do it.

Posted by: lemuel kolkava at September 19, 2005 02:05 PM

Overdo? Moi?

Let's also be careful not to go the other way with the It's-Jackson's-Movie-And-He-Can-Do-What-He-Wants line. There has to be a compromise, a willingness to accept that there are always going to be differences inherent to the different mediums but that there also must be restraint and respect on the part of the latter artist for the former's work. I'm willing to admit that a lot of what I do here is just cranky nit-picking in this sense, done largely for my own amusement and also as an exercise in thinking more closely about the books, but I won't back down on my assertion that Jackson also made some mistakes not so easily dismissed.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at September 19, 2005 02:18 PM

I'll throw you a bone, Robbo. The whole Arwen thing bugs me and is blatantly nothing more than fodder for the females that geeks like us dragged to see these movies.

But I mostly blame Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh for all that.

Posted by: Gary at September 19, 2005 03:17 PM

The books are the books and the film will never take away from that. But ponder this: how many new fans of the books are there today BECAUSE of the films?

*raises hand*

Me, me, me!

Although, I can see where Robert, et al make excellent points about the adaptation from book to film.

As for the Arwen argument by Gary above, I disagree that her inflation in the films was for the females. I would have been happy with less Arwen. I would have been happier with more Eowyn.

Posted by: jen at September 19, 2005 03:41 PM

I think Jen's right. There was this whole Liv Tyler-As-Xena thing working there. My guess is that it was aimed more at the guys than the gals.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at September 19, 2005 03:56 PM

I think PJ had a valid point of his treatment of Faramir and the ring. In addition to his desire to gain Denetor's approval, how is it that he is not even tempted by the ring when he has Frodo and Sam captured and powerless?

I loved the scene at the end of FOTR where Aragorn finds Frodo just before the orcs attack. When he sees the ring, you can hear it whispering to him.

The ring corrupted Boromir and was a serious temptation to Galadriel and Aragorn. What makes Faramir unusually resistant to its power?

Well, better be back to the day job....

Posted by: BWS at September 20, 2005 12:31 PM