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In Defense of Philippa Boyens

There is always enough opinion to go around, that much is true.

One man from Germany just wrote me in response to my movie review of The Two Towers [http://greenbooks.theonering.net/quickbeam/files/121802.html]. It is not typical for me to get embroiled in a lengthy debate with my readers. Unfortunately, work and my limited schedule does not allow me the time I would like to converse with all the wonderful folks out there. However, this Henry fellow made some important points - made them intelligently - and he had a certain passion in his disagreement with me. I found myself responding to the tune of 1,300 words. Wow.

Our email exchange is presented here; for it is a very interesting "pro" and "con" argument about whether TTT can stand as a successful translation of Tolkien. I found myself coming to the defense of Philippa Boyens, who fairly represents the spirit and hard work of the screenwriting team.

I encourage all you fans out there to use the Talk Back (taking you over to our Discussion Boards), and we can all explore how we feel about the many changes made in this second film adaptation.

The Argument:

I'm sorry. I have to say that Philippa Boyens' comments are too similar to what many of the critics have had to say about many of Tolkien's own words: "Faramir's character is completely static in the books, and this wouldn't translate well filmically."

The beauty of Faramir (in the books) is that he IS "sea-green incorruptible," and that Tolkien makes his "sea-green incorruptibility" work. He demonstrates that one CAN be a Wizard's Pupil (in the best sense of the words), that he can be soft (softer than Aragorn), vulnerable (ultimately smitten down on the Field of the Pelennor), and (ur-ultimately) almost preternaturally wise.

In fact one could argue that he is, rather than Boromir's younger brother, Aragorn's younger brother, at least in spirit. Maybe even in his genes since, like Aragorn (and Denethor) and unlike Boromir, he brings the line of the half-Elven back to life.

And this is where I found the greatest lack in the films, one that almost brings me, sadly, to criticize them as ultimately having failed.

After watching Fellowship in the theaters twice, and its extended version at home once, I was still quite willing to forgive the changes that had been made to the books. I didn't mind Tom Bombadil's having been dropped, and I didn't mind Arwen having been substituted for Glorfindel.

In fact I had to agree with one of the reviewers who said that, at precisely the point where Arwen raced the Black Riders to the Ford, that was where a simply great movie transcended itself into epic. And her standing up to the Black Riders at the Ford brought me to tears.

But I wasn't entirely happy with what they had done to Aragorn. This whole story of being "in exile," of having turned away from the Kingship of Gondor, of not wanting the Kingship of Gondor. This was trivializing his character to an unwonted degree.

One of the greatest parts of the books, at least for me (and for all of my friends), was Aragorn's "sea-green incorruptibility," his having been the greatest Hunter, Tracker, Woodsman, and all around Knight of his age (per Gandalf), his having already served, by the time he was 90 years old, during the War of the Ring as Thengel's and later Ecthelion's Captain (under the alias Thorongil), before having dropped out of sight, not to go into exile, but on errands - which may have been Gandalf's - into the East.

In short, it was his being the last of the Dunedain, the leader of the Rangers of the North, who, in total, were a bunch of guys cooler than almost anything anybody could imagine. Men with a distant Elven bloodline, descendents of Elendil, and absolutely incorruptible.

So far we haven't seen anything of the Dunedain. I doubt that we will. I doubt that we'll see Halbarad, or even Elladan and Elrohir, since their showing up at any point from now on would compromise one of the film's basic storylines: Aragorn's "filmic" development.

And this brings us back to Faramir, and, perhaps, back to much of your own point. It's as if they tried to do too much, and, in doing so much, did too little justice to what they did. I thought a lot about the movie last night and this morning, and I was able, finally, to boil my dissatisfaction down to one thing: there was too much in it that was gratuitous.

The scene with Frodo and the Black Rider in Osgiliath, for example: utterly gratuitous. Unnecessary. Aragorn's disappearance after the attack of the Warg-riders. Unnecessary. Again, gratuitous. Most of the battle of Helm's Deep: overlong, overdeveloped. The appearance there of the Elves: absolutely, irredeemably gratuitous (especially in view of what it's such a poor substitute for).

More than all of that, though, and perhaps worst of all, because it's a sop to the critics for whom Tolkien (rightly) felt such scorn: a finally gratuitous "trivializing" of character, an inability to recognize that character can be more or less static (just as it is in real life), and that the True Story can be just as much about the development of inter-character tension (as is so much of the development in the LOTR itself), as about intra-character tension.

I wish you a Happy New Year (ein Guten Rutsch, we would say here in Germany).


The Reply:

Hullo Henry,

Don't be sorry, man, you have an opinion.... it is perfectly valid. And well written too, I have to say. However, I'm not sure at what point you and I will agree on this.

The thing is, Tolkien was a genius writer - of books. We all know that. It seems difficult to think that anyone would "know better" than the Professor and change his work around. But it is critical to remember that Tolkien was not a screenwriter. He never wrote for the visual medium, not once, for that was not his world of experience. A novel, a language, an epic poem, sure he could write those things.... but he had zero experience putting material into the medium of television or motion pictures. Stories are not told the same way in a 1,200 page book as they are in a 130 page screenplay. It just does NOT work the same way. Trust me on this, I've been a Hollywood writer for many years.

It is possible, just possible, that someone with a good instinct for screenwriting could take a big novel and turn it into a story for the silver screen that works on a different level. What Sidney Howard did with Gone With the Wind comes to mind. There were many things changed from Margaret Mitchell's novel.... yet it worked. I cannot say the scenes you complain about in the LOTR movies are gratuitous.... they are not gratuitous for a movie! For an epic novel those things might be silly, not working at all - but for the visceral, immediate, "quick contact emotional points" of a screenplay, the very scenes you dislike work. Yes, they work very well, in my opinion.

I don't see much trivializing of these movie characters, really. Is there a problem with Aragorn fighting in the Warg attack to help defend women and children? Even if this action-filled episode is apocryphal to Tolkien, I don't see a disconnect between the Aragorn of the book and the Aragorn of the movie. Both versions of the character would have protected the helpless, indeed with a valiant effort. You say that the movie Aragorn does not want to claim his birthright but I never saw that. Viggo portrays him as uncertain, crippled by self-doubt, feeling the constant weight of his own history. A legacy unasked for by Aragorn, for he never really wanted it. How would you feel if such a far-reaching and frightening responsibility was laid upon you? He knows that he must carry on and he does, with steely resolve. There is yet such an inner-reserve of strength and nobility that the movie Aragorn keeps finding through the events of these films; the most critical visualization of this happens when he's half-dead down that river. And what a lovely moment where we see Arwen's love and spiritual support for Aragorn has never left him. This stuff might not be expressly written in Tolkien, but it's perfectly realized on screen. As the cinema Aragorn comes to a greater self-realization, moves closer to his destiny, the movie audience will rise to meet him when he has fully come into his own and earned the Crown of Gondor.

I also completely see the good sense in Elrond, with the cooperation of the Galadhrim, sending a battalion of Elves to Helm's Deep. Many people have complained about this scene, loud and long. Though it be in wild contrast to the book, this event serves as a counterpoint to the dour, grim Lord Elrond who has spent the past two movies saying "There is no hope left in the world of Men." He has been so hopeless for so long that now it is incredibly refreshing to have him turn around. Has he had some kind of an epiphany, a moment of foresight perhaps, seeing the necessity for the Free Peoples of Middle-earth to work together against the Enemy? In terms of screenplay, this is not gratuitous nor does not trivialize Elrond (or the Elves). It gives the movie a dramatic turn that is honest and uplifting, emulating the essence of Tolkien's thematic structure. Is it not true that we are inspired by Tolkien when he drives home the value of hope in the face of hopelessness? It seems to be Peter Jackson's main theme in this film.

The whole Faramir thing is the biggest controversy, if we can call it that. It is criminal to many fans that he seems so unlikable. Even I was a bit surprised at how I emotionally reacted to the character the first time I saw TTT. But I've seen it three times now and I can offer something more to this discussion. Here is the really fascinating part about the "altered" Faramir. In this movie, the two hobbits are not allowed to sit in Henneth Annun and have a comfy lunch while their friends are suffering through war and strife west of the River Anduin. It gets tough for them too. The screenwriters are hell bent on raising the stakes for Frodo and Sam (and of course, Faramir) every step of the way. We will see more threatening situations come upon these characters than are actually in the books. Why? Because it is more interesting to see how they all react in the face of such threats.

It really is as Philippa Boyens suggested: allowing a character like Faramir to change is filmically interesting. He may start out as bullying and myopic in his attitude, but events in the screenplay allow him to judge the weight of his conscience (letting Frodo go) versus the need to please his overbearing father (taking the Ring to Denethor). Personally, I find David Wenham's character really fascinating on a whole new level. No, he is not quite the same "nice guy" that I remember from the book. But this Faramir is going to turn around, just a bit more, and you can sense it when you look in his eyes. He will pay dearly the next time he speaks to his father; and don't you think the audience will feel something for him then? This is the kind of screenwriting the treats the character with respect and looks forward to what will make him complete when his story arc is done.

The painful work that Jackson, Boyens, Sinclair, and Walsh had before them was to take their own experience and love of Tolkien and make something functional for a screenplay. Seriously, I don't envy them at all.

I believe that your dissatisfaction with P.J. comes from his movies not "feeling" exactly the same as the book. Perhaps it is safe to say that what serves you emotionally in the book cannot be replaced by a movie. That's fair. I would go further and suggest that what you really would have preferred was a mammoth, lengthy mini-series that took up about 18 or 20 hours (perhaps produced by the venerable BBC). Something that didn't play with the idiom of the story too much and gave you a more expansive, leisurely way to soak up the story (like a good book). You know, I would really love that kind of experience too. Many fans would go nuts for it. Perhaps some years ahead in the future it will happen.

But for this cinematic work, for the nature of the script that P.J. and Company have created, I am fine with it. There are things that I appreciate so deeply, because I just happen to connect with movies on a certain level.... not the same way as I connect with a book that takes me five weeks to read. But that's just me.

Perhaps this is where we agree to disagree. Thank you for the generous thought you put into this letter... I do respect where you are coming from, all in all.

Have a fantastic and safe New Year.

Much too hasty,

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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