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Lucas and Jackson and Tolkien, Oh My

Well, I went and saw Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones last night. "Uh, that’s great, Anwyn, but can we talk about Tolkien now?" I only mention it because I drifted off to sleep with this thought: Lucas must be the only filmmaker in the world crazy enough to set himself up as his own Tolkien and his own Jackson.

Think about it. Those of us who picked on the imperfections in Jackson’s reels of celluloid did so … why? Because he was messing with a story we cherished, written by somebody who died nearly thirty years ago and who therefore isn’t around to defend his own work. Well, other than the death part, here is Lucas, messing with a story we cherish, written by somebody nearly thirty years ago … who just happens to be Lucas himself. Talk about a tough row to hoe and nobody to blame! Nobody set the bar but himself. If we are picky and hard to please twenty-five years later, it’s because his earlier visions had such great impact on us–and nobody’s left to try to measure up to those standards once again but himself. Small wonder he gets frustrated and tells us to back off, that Star Wars belongs to him.

Yes, the Star Wars Universe belongs to Mr. George Lucas. It is his playground. The rest of us have absolutely no say, and that’s as it should be. If we don’t care for the concept of midichlorians (I don’t), the idea of virgin birth for Anakin Skywalker (are you kidding me?), or the on-screen look resulting from 99.9% CGI (boy do I miss models and bluescreens), he really doesn’t care. But we do.

Anyway, Lucas’s tough road just reminded me of Jackson’s. I’m not sure whether Jackson has it harder or easier because Tolkien isn’t alive. Probably easier, because I can’t imagine that Tolkien would ever have approved of a movie, however marvelously done. Probably harder, because maybe Jackson wishes he could wheedle a little paternal benevolence out of the good professor by making the best movies possible. Who knows.

So here we are, five months later (hard to believe), still picking over the transition from book to movie to Oscar. A lot of you had some great things to say about the relationship between 1) the books, 2) the movies, 3) the Oscars, and 4) our minds. There were a lot of mixed emotions about the Oscars; everything from "who cares what spoiled richies think" to "Jackson was ROBBED!" But the three things almost everybody seemed to agree on (at least everybody who wrote!) were that 1) the movie had its imperfections, but also its emotional impact and great moments, 2) that the book and movie are two separate entities, that no movie could ever detract from Tolkien, and that Jackson should be given considerable credit considering the dreadful attempts that have come before him, and lastly and most importantly, that 3) if the movies make people go out and read the books (and they are, in absolute droves), then they are the single greatest asset to Tolkien to emerge in our time.

When I first wrote my initial impressions in the days following my first viewing of the film, I described myself as "conflicted." People advised me to see it again and not "read it as I went along" but just watch it as a film. I’ve seen it twice more, and guess what? I’m still conflicted. The reason is that I’ve finally discovered that Jackson managed to have an effect on my inner thoughts that I thought was impossible. When I come home from the theater, I reiterate in my mind all the things that I would have done differently, how I thought the story could have been better told, where I thought dialogue was utterly inane compared to the beautiful, lyrical lines Tolkien left us in print. But when I’m inside the movie, it sucks me away so that I hardly think about those things while it is unspooling. Thus the terrible conflict. A few of you readers felt in a similar way–that whatever its imperfections, you really were swept up in it. Cimorene writes:

"I was so pleased to see someone finally take a work of fantasy and treat it as if it were a serious piece–which I think many fantasy books are. Most movies or TV series are over-acted, poorly done, and hard to take seriously. So I was very pleased with the wonderful acting and crew ensemble that Jackson put together. To me, even with some of the plot problems, the love that Jackson has for the books came through in every camera shot, and every gesture made by the actors. It was really hard to hate the movie at all."

Precisely–as much as I wanted to downright hate a few aspects of the film, I still find myself conflicted and not exactly able to do so. Scout B adds:

"Peter Jackson's love of the book is painfully clear. When I saw the film of FotR, I noted the changes but recognized the filmic value of the changes. He kept true to the spirit of Tolkien's work more than I ever imagined he would. I still cannot believe how well the characters are written, portrayed, and directed in the movie. The "big story" is still, in its essence, the story that Tolkien wrote, and that is the most important thing."

After all my waffling, I almost hate to admit it, but I’m very close to sharing that point of view–that ultimately the essence of the story is well portrayed. I’m still conflicted, but I had a shocking revelation only after I started this writing that leads me to believe I’m leaning more towards the "essence-is-there" column: A few lines up, I wrote "where I thought dialogue was utterly inane." What I originally typed was "where I thought faithlessness to Tolkien had been perpetrated." I actually had to go back and change the line; I couldn’t go on and leave that harsh judgment in place. What do you know about that! Deep down, I must think that Jackson ultimately paid honorable tribute, and I hadn’t even realized it myself! Although maybe my most recent thoughts are colored by the amazing teaser footage of The Two Towers…. Mmmm…. We wantssss it, My Precioussss……

Oh, sorry, straying from the track. A lot of you readers lined up with a proposition I made last month: That Jackson’s work was solid enough that we wanted great things for it because it is a good "field representative" for Tolkien in the wider popular culture. Celebob wrote:

"I wanted the movie to be successful because I feel a connection with it through the books. Reading is an intimate activity, and a master storyteller provides a lasting experience that becomes a part of one's makeup. So the movie becomes part of the interconnected whole."

A lot of folks shared this view–that Jackson’s production was very much a validating experience for something they’ve loved their whole lives. Do Mi writes:

"There's this story, this whole world, that has become a part of me. It's in my bones. I've been reading the book once a year, being swept away over and over, and never talking to anyone about it much. Then Peter Jackson and company spend years bringing it to life! They've made it real for me! And THEN people want to give it Oscars! It somehow feels like a validation of my inner life. Hard to explain, but that's the closest I can get. The whole thing feels like a huge gift."

Many readers were very much in line with this feeling–that Jackson’s work brought them closer to Tolkien’s. Son of Saradoc had this to say:

"I greatly appreciate what Peter Jackson has done, bringing an old interest of mine into the wider world of movie fans, and general popular culture. It's a good thing, I think. There will be a backlash, for sure. LotR will become passe, as it did for a while to some degree after the "hippie bloom" of Tolkein in the 1960s and 70s. With the bigger rise, there'll be a bigger fall from popular grace. But we constant readers, and a hefty minority of the new readers, will stick with our love of Tolkien. It will go back underground. But the stories are good myths, and as such the vision will always burn brightly for these wonderful tales. Jackson's movies have rekindled my love and appreciation of Tolkien's work."

Lirulin says:

"It was just amazing to see characters I knew so well from the books actually...well...there! Acting out the book. Most of the book, anyway."

Kim Harmeling identified very closely with Jackson’s vision, and lauded him for having the guts to bring it to us:

"For me, the movie has merely added another dimension to my understanding of the books, my appreciation of the characters, and of the world that Tolkien created for them. I've seen the movie three times (paying full price every time, which I NEVER do!), which in comparison to some fans isn't many. For me, each viewing revealed more layers of detail and nuance not seen the previous time. The first time, we were so overwhelmed that we were quite speechless after leaving the theater; the second time we were able to better appreciate the lush detail PJ instilled in the movie–both in character development and set design, and the third was just pure enjoyment. In my less than learned opinion, Peter Jackson did an outstanding job with the movies. I don't think I have ever seen movie that is closer to what I had imagined from reading a much-beloved book. He kept every key element that was strategic to the advancement of the story, and though purists may complain about what was left out, I don't think that those things were critical. The vision was kept intact. I think that is an important point–this is PJ's vision of Tolkien's creation. It's one man's vision. PJ was kind enough and thoughtful enough to include the fans in the process. He didn't have to, and many bigger names wouldn't have bothered. I don't know any other filmmaker who has ever done that. Could you imagine entrusting Tolkien to someone like James Cameron? I shudder to think what could have been. Thank goodness PJ was able to convince New Line that he is the only person who could pull it off. Dang if he isn't right."

(Anwyn Aside: Cameron wouldn’t have been interested in any part of it except Lothlórien. That much blue-filter would be, for him, like Christmas and his birthday all rolled into one.)

Surprisingly, only one person who wrote to me in response to last month had an overall negative feel for Jackson’s interpretation. Maybe so many of you were rushing to his defense because of my fence-sitting, I don’t know. But M. Rupa gave an opinion very much in line with my more negative feelings–a hollowness, a vague "something doesn’t fit" itch:

"But there is something subtle in the composition and presentation that nags at me as ‘un-Tolkien,’ and as something he would take great exception to. I think it would be a shame if in time Peter Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien came to be equated with Tolkien's own story. I don't know that I have any right to try to deal with subtleties, but in Tolkien's books, I perceive very strong undercurrents of spiritual strength and description. But somehow it's not quite there in the movie's interpretation and progression of events and even of the characters, in some places. And that leaves a hollow shadow-like quality to the movie that gnaws unpleasantly."

A few readers acknowledged this, but stated unequivocally that the book and the movie were two utterly distinct and separate entities. NK observed:

"His telling of the tale has his own unique emphasis, but he conveys the spirit of the book. And he does it richly and unstintingly. It is not the book. It is a gorgeous movie. And I see the kids who work with me reading the book because of the movie."

Karl Proctor agrees:

"To my mind, PJ has created a movie, or motion picture or film or whatever. This is a new thing in and of itself and in no way alters the work of the Good Professor."

Regina emphasizes this point:

"We need some separation. Remember, we are talking about two separate artists here who are different generations and function under very different pressures, utilizing completely different mediums."

Amen. As somebody who deals with several hundred Q&A items each month, I more than laud the concept of "keep it separate, st&*(d." I think we should make it a disclaimer rule on Q&A that you must read the books at least once before you write, and then make sure your question is about the book. I don’t have the faintest idea how Gandalf got his staff back after Saruman pinched it in the movie, because that’s Jackson’s playground. I have no idea why Bilbo’s world didn’t go funky and special-effectsy when he put on the Ring at the party as opposed to Frodo’s wearing it any other time–because that was Jackson’s invention. Anyway. Diatribe ended. Point: Yes, we need separation. Ancarcalimo stated it this way:

"To more directly address your intriguing question, had I approached the film with the idea of watching the book "transformed" into a film, my review would have pointed out my grave disappointment at changes from the printed word, at favorite missing characters, and at many of the other things that have been needlessly complained about. However, I went to see a film (not a copy) by a masterful filmmaker and was completely delighted with the experience. Although I am very familiar with the source material, I wanted to discover Mr. Jackson’s material–his direction and the actors’ interpretations most of all, but also the sets, locations, tech, editing, and the contributions of all the vast forces he employed to create this art work–a film."

And to put the finishing cap on the "keep it separate" crowd, Avrilyn tells us:

"Later, as I left the theater and caught my breath, I thought about the contradiction. It was not Tolkien's work exactly, yet I still identified The Lord of the Rings right away. How could it be The Lord of the Rings but not The Lord of the Rings? Then I realized a fundamental truth of our existence. Books cannot be movies; movies cannot be books. The movie was a reflection of the book. It could be a little fuzzy, and it could be streamlined without affecting what it was showing to us in a slightly new form."

I think Ms. Avrilyn hit one of my nails on the head: How could it be Lord of the Rings and yet not Lord of the Rings? Perhaps that is the simple statement of all my inner turmoil.

How about those Oscars? Frank, next year, you’re going to take a picture of me holding one of the darned things. Folks, here’s where I sit, and I mean no disrespect to Mr. Jackson whatsoever. Whatever you may think of the Oscars, the balloting process, the pretty people involved, or any of it, when I look at it from an objective, "If-I-were-an-objective-knowledgeable-filmmaker" perspective, I see that Fellowship got exactly the Oscars it deserved. Remember (and many of you write-in readers made this point) that it is only One of Three. It is the lightest of the three, the most expository. Therefore the screenplay, the direction, and the Best Picture awards are nothing to scream about, in my humble opinion. If Towers lives up to its billing, it will easily surpass Fellowship in all three categories–and more nominations will almost certainly be forthcoming. (If not, I will be joining the "Jackson was ROBBED" crowd–yes, despite my fence-sitting, he has my support.) The visual effects, music, makeup, and cinematography, on the other hand, each showed stunning new techniques, masterfully executed, and each department richly deserved its award. Ian McKellen? I’m waiting for him to become the next actor in history to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards for playing the same role. If Jackson had the vision to leave intact Gandalf’s "return" scene and if McKellen holds to his consistently high standards, then I will find reason to scream if he is not renominated, and eventually rewarded.

But many readers made the excellent point that no matter how the Oscars remember the Lord of the Rings movies, Oscar’s recognition is not needed to make them stand tall in the history of film. Susan Daigle-Leach had this to say:

"The Oscars FotR did win were all clearly deserved. Husband and I jumped up and cheered when Howard Shore's name was announced! For all the LotR winners, to be sure."

Susan has extremely bad things to say about the political self-rewarding process at the Oscars, and goes on to comment:

"In the long run it probably doesn't matter that FotR got mostly dissed at the Oscars. After all, a few years from now A Beautiful Mind will be playing on cable in heavy rotation along with As Good As It Get' and American Beauty. But like many great movies that missed out on the ‘big’ awards, FotR (and no doubt TTT/ROTK) will continue to be loved and appreciated as time goes by."

Regina sent some thoughtful ideas about other book-to-movie adaptations that have been much, much worse. Regarding the Oscars, she had one primary thought:

"I wanted the film to get those damn stupid Oscars bad enough to steal a couple from Tom Hanks and hand them out myself. There."

Easy, girl! Lord of the Rings will get its due. And if it doesn’t, Jackson will have to take what poor comfort he can from the adulation of hundreds of thousands of rabid Orli-lovers… I mean, Jackson fans, worldwide.

Hellcat’s Oscar opinion was very much to the point:

"PJ has no Oscar; PJ needs no Oscar."

Lyn was one of the unconditional Jackson faithful:

"As for the Oscars–I was very disappointed, but the Oscars are always disappointing to me. In retrospect, giving them the benefit of the doubt (do they deserve it???), perhaps they reasoned that best director and best movie should go after the third movie is released. We'll see. Anyway, in my mind, LotR: The Fellowship was THE best movie and Peter Jackson is a genius and THE best director!"

DerekBW waxed Lucasite with the very apt "history will remember" viewpoint:

"As for the lack of Oscars, I don't mind it that much. Since the fateful night of March 24th, I have realized that 20 years down the line, people will have forgotten A Beautiful Mind and will still have the majesty of PJ's work ingrained into their minds, a lá Star Wars. After all, who even remembers the winner of Best Picture in 1977? At the same time, Star Wars has become ingrained in our 'collective unconsciousness' and become much larger than a simple movie, reaching the level usually reserved for heroic epics and works of cultural mythology. [Anwyn Aside: Isn’t Star Wars a heroic epic and a work of cultural mythology?? Geez, I guess I need to rethink my job as columnist…] I guess that's the real lesson that I learned about the lasting power of a movie: that even if it gets struck down by the Academy, it will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

Josh Reyer went with the attitude usually reserved for fans of Chicago Cubs baseball: Wait till next year.

"Because I liked the movie (faithfulness to Tolkien aside, I thought it was the best fantasy movie ever done), I hoped it would win. And I really hoped Sir Ian would win for Best Supporting Actor, because he was absolutely fantastic. But in the end, I can say that I was not disappointed at all when neither the film nor Sir Ian won. Why? Because I wouldn't expect Fellowship of the Ring to win a Pulitzer. Lord of the Rings as a whole is Pulitzer material (IMO), but Fellowship is but a third of the whole. As the "trilogy" is really one book, I believe the three movies are really one long movie. Certainly it was filmed that way. As such, I have no problem waiting. The Two Towers may be nominated (and Sir Ian again!), as could Return of the King. In fact, I think it would be quite fitting to let other films win this year and next, and let the film as a whole (all three

parts) be recognized. Let Return of the King get the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and so on. I think FotR would be the most difficult of the books to film, and I hope and anticipate that the best is yet to come."

Warren Bird agreed and gave the nod to Brits for having better taste distinction than Yankees:

"In its own right I think it was a fabulous film and has overall done Tolkien and the story a great service. I wanted it to win the Oscar, but I never really believed that Hollywood would be able to bring itself to award a film of that genre the big one. (Hollywood would rather create puerile fantasies than recognise a good one!) Not like the British, who are able to judge class more objectively."

Warren, man, I hope you’re writing from England. J

Whew! It’s been quite a ride reconstructing all these comments into one (huge) column. Thank you to everybody who wrote in for sharing your opinions and allowing me to share them with the larger community. By far, the overwhelmingly popular point of view was that anything that gets people reading Tolkien is a good thing. I have to agree. PT wrote:

"My husband (who had read the books years ago) and I saw the film the day after its release and were absolutely blown away by it. We have seen it in the theater 8 times and always find something new in it to appreciate. Also, after seeing it for the first time, my husband read The Hobbit and LotR ALOUD to me as a way to wind down in the evenings from our work. (He's a high tech consultant and I'm a web site designer.) Seeing the movie first did absolutely nothing to spoil my (and my husband's renewed) appreciation of the books: we laughed, we cried, we cheered, we were in suspense, we were enthralled. As a result, we have also read The Silmarillion and have delved into The Book of Lost Tales."

Eledwhen observed:

"PJ had to extract the essence of the book(s) and make it flow, make it understandable to a wider audience than diehard Tolkien fans (numerous though we be). There are many more ‘others’ who have not read the book but would enjoy the story and perhaps be enticed to go back and read the book."

An anonymous mother of three wrote of her experiences taking her children to see the film.

"So to all the diehard fans who are making a fuss, I don't know what the fuss is all about. I suppose for those who have grown up with the books, the movie may seem a disappointment because it is not a chapter-by-chapter reenactment of every scene that they have grown to know and love so personally. But look at it this way: The movie inspired my children and me to purchase and read and become a part of the story that you hold so dear. A whole new richly textured world of characters and places and events has been opened up for us to discover, and my only regret is that for almost 40 years I lived in an existeance without knowing what a fantastic world existed inside the pages of that story, and I wish I had read it years ago."

Karl Proctor points out:

"So. The movie is the movie and the books are the books and one must enjoy each for itself. PJ has created a mighty work. Could we have done better? It’s been done worse before. If the only good aspect of these movies has been to increase readership, then to me they have been a success."

Well put. As far as I’m concerned, the very last word in new readers who never would have cracked the spine on Fellowship if not for the film comes from Natasha L. Sharpe, who says:

"If it wasn't for the movie, I might not have read the book.

A shudder runs up my spine. My face blanches.

Life without The Lord of the Rings?!? I couldn't imagine it."

Very well put.


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