A Desolation Of Tolkien, Ctd.

Dear Andrew Sullivan:

I have been trying very hard not to get into too many details as to the differences in TH and LOTR the novels as opposed to the movies. Such things can be trivial, and as was mentioned before, some of the changes can even be welcome. I agree with the commenter as to the character of Faramir. He is one of my favorite characters in the book, a true liberal who understands the necessity of war but more important understands the necessity of why they are fighting:

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend…

And by his refusal to take the Ring from Frodo, Faramir is shown therefore to be the stronger of the two brothers. This is not a man who would have kidnapped Frodo, taking him into great danger, as he did in the film. Actually, politically speaking, the argument between Faramir and his father Denethor is a nearly perfect example of liberal vs. conservative principles:

“Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of a high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death.”

“So be it,” said Faramir.

“So be it!” cried Denethor. “But not with your death only, Lord Faramir: with the death also of your father, and of all your people, whom it is your part to protect now that Boromir is gone.”

I could write reams of pages concerning the unnecessary (and that’s the key word) changes that were made in Jackson’s films. Rankin-Bass’ version of The Hobbit had some aesthetic problems (Thranduil was a Tolkien Elf, not Kermit The Frog with a bad German accent), but much of the dialogue is at least lifted directly from the book, and is far more loyal to it, as was their rather strange idea to skip the first two novels and go right to The Return Of The King: the biggest gripe there is a scene at the end where Gandalf implies that hobbits were becoming Men, which is ridiculous, and I have no idea what put it into their heads to include that.

What sucks about the five Tolkien movies is, to me, what sucks about nearly all sci-fi filmmaking today: all glitz and no substance. The two recent Star Trek films are good examples of that: the first one in particular, while fun to watch, was just stupid, and the only thing stopping me from writing reams about that is that it would take far too much of my valuable time. Yes, it worked for The Avengers, but superhero stories are almost always more about glitz than substance anyway, and since the entire concept of the superhero is ridiculous on its face, you can enjoy the film and not worry about things like canon.

Still, things could have been worse. Some of us remember the god-awful Bakshi version from the seventies.

A Desolation of Tolkien

Yes I know I’ve seen all the Jackson LOTR/Hobbit films.  Why, I don’t know, I should have avoided them to begin with.  Frankly, I’m not the person who should be watching them anyway, I have a very strong personal visualization of events and characters in the books, not to mention extensive knowledge of all the background info, so any adaptation is bound to be substandard in my eyes, anyway.

But even as a moviegoer, I did not like any of the films, not any of the LOTR movies or any of the two movies based marginally on The Hobbit.  I don’t even want to talk about the deviations from the original story, I never expected anyone to do a verbatim retelling in film, it wouldn’t make money and after all that’s why motion picture studios make movies in the first place, to make money.  So I understand changing some things around for entertainment purposes.  Some changes I even liked, like giving Arwen a larger role in the film than she had in the novels.

But whatever complaints I have about what I think are more serious deviations of the story, the real reason I haven’t cared for any of the Jackson LOTR films has less to do with the films specifically than it has to do with how popular films are made these days: as I see it there is way too much emphasis on glitz and hardly any concern about the substance of the story.  With certain films, like The Avengers or the original Star Wars or even The Empire Strikes Back, you could deal with it because they were entertaining as stories despite plot holes you could fit entire galaxies far, far away into.

But with the advent of CGI the effects have taken over much much more.  My perfect example is the long, drawn out battle in Smaug as the Dwarves and Bilbo are riding down the river in barrels.  I won’t even get into how that entire sequence isn’t in the book, or the greater point that Legolas wasn’t in it either, it just kept going on and on, after a time I found myself saying “Christ, get to the damn city already!”.  Maybe it’s me being an old curmudgeon but jeebus it seemed to go on forever.  In the seventies, in cop movies like The Seven Ups, there were long car chase scenes but they seemed to me to be much more exciting, at least they were believable.  I know all the girls love Legolas but couldn’t someone just make a romantic action adventure film starring him and leave him the hell out of stories he doesn’t appear in?

I don’t know what Tolkien would have made of these movies, but this is what I do know:  Tolkien was primarily a linguist who wrote the books as a backdrop to the Elvish languages he was creating.  It’s an epic tale of creation, vanity, power, hope, despair and heroism.  What Jackson has done, particularly with Smaug as I see it, is turn it into a combination of Avengers: Middle Earth and softcore porn for young girls.  It’s not that I don’t think the story can ever be done right (I think it can, and be truer to the spirit of the original work, though perhaps not in this day and age), but that I think it’s been wrecked, like so many other things these days, by the style of the times.  For all the eye candy, these to me are desolate movies.

Of course, it seems pointless to criticize, I don’t know how much money this thing is going to make but it’s likely going to be way up there in the Jesus Christ range, so what I say doesn’t really matter.  But if you ask me, Rankin-Bass did a much better job thirty or so years ago.  I may try to look it up and watch it again…