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How Jackson fails to understand Tolkien

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  • David Bratman
    Nevertheless, I will attempt non-mudslinging and give it a try. Here are, in full and specific detail, some ways in which Jackson, and his team, reveal their
    Message 1 of 34 , Dec 16, 2012
      Nevertheless, I will attempt non-mudslinging and give it a try. Here are,
      in full and specific detail, some ways in which Jackson, and his team,
      reveal their failure to understand Tolkien, examples mostly taken from his

      1. He denies Frodo agency.

      "Agency" is a technical term meaning the ability to make one's own
      decisions. This is shown in little ways, but details are telling. The
      rushed opening of the movie sends Frodo off without the opportunity to think
      about what he's doing. More glaringly, Movie-Frodo is physically manhandled
      by other characters in a way he is not in the book. In the book, Frodo
      rides Glorfindel's horse himself and makes his own defiance of the Nazgul.
      In the movie, Arwen takes Frodo as a passenger and does all the work,
      including the defiance, herself. Most horribly, because otherwise it's a
      good scene, is Sam carrying Frodo up the slope of Mount Doom. In the book,
      Sam carries Frodo piggy-back, tenderly, like a hobbit child. In the movie,
      Sam slings Frodo impersonally over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes.

      Other characters also lack agency, most notably Theoden. In the book,
      Theoden has let himself be wooed by Wormtongue and must himself make the
      positive choice to listen to Gandalf instead. Movie-Theoden is literally
      under Saruman's spell, so it's not through his own doing, and Saruman is
      forcibly cast out by Gandalf, without Theoden's doing.

      2. He compresses the scale and size of the story and the world.

      This is not a matter of running time, but of scope. Movie-Saruman is
      watching the Fellowship in his palantir from the moment they leave
      Rivendell, if not earlier, and he personally directs the storm on Caradhras.
      This destroys any sense, however wide and impressive the visual scenery,
      that the company is crossing a vast, uncharted landscape, or that there
      exist independent forces like Caradhras which are not in league with good or
      organized evil. The same thing happens in The Hobbit, when the orcs are
      watching Thorin and Company even before they meet the trolls. This destroys
      any sense, though other scenes try to convey it, of the tale beginning as an
      enticing adventure in the woods.

      3. He anticipates future dangers, thus flattening them out.

      Janet Croft wrote an entire paper on this phenomenon in LOTR. Here I'll
      take examples from The Hobbit. The movie-orcs attack (once? twice? I
      forget) before the company ever gets to the mountains, plus far more
      battling with the goblins in the mountains than in the book (to Jackson,
      orcs and goblins are different things, the differences being that goblins
      are easier to kill and are voiced by comedians), rendering what should be
      the exciting chapter 6 into "ho hum, yet another orc attack." Movie-Bilbo
      almost casually battles two orcs, killing one, in part 1, destroying the
      book's demonstration of the growth in his character when he for the first
      time, with great screwing up of his courage, uses his sword in battle
      against the spiders later on. For that matter, the giant spiders appear
      briefly here, destroying the surprise of their entry later on. Movie-Thorin
      is shown as brave and admirable from the beginning, instead of pompous and
      grown soft from peaceful living as in the book, destroying the moving
      characterization of his growth and increasing depth later on. In fact,
      Movie-Thorin is more like Aragorn should be, and Richard Armitage (at least
      today) would make a better Aragorn than the too-soft and unseasoned Viggo
      Mortensen did.

      4. He does not understand the will to be good.

      In the book, Faramir rejects the temptation of the Ring for reasons he
      himself explain. He knows it is perilous, so he stays away from its
      influence. Jackson/Boyens, by their own declaration in the commentary, do
      not understand this. They say, if the Ring is so alluring, why aren't the
      good guys allured by it? What they don't understand is that, when people
      like Gandalf, Galadriel, and Aragorn, who could wield the Ring easily, won't
      touch with a ten-foot pole a weapon that could quickly win the war, that
      shows its danger far more vividly than any tempotation scene - and such a
      scene must be weakened by being quickly overcome, or else you have a totally
      different story of someone being lured by the Ring. In Movie-Faramir's
      case, the cutting off of his temptation scene becomes completely
      inexplicable in the movie's own terms; I've found nobody who wasn't baffled
      by what's going on there.

      The most serious example of this, however, lies in the scene where
      Movie-Gandalf socks out Denethor. Gandalf, he says in the book, is sent to
      lead by example and inspiration, and is forbidden to use force. Employing
      force, by reason of being too impatient and too eager to get his own way, is
      what made Saruman turn evil in the first place. A Gandalf capable of
      socking out Denethor would quickly become another Saruman.

      5. He does not believe in strength of character.

      Toyin replied to this one, asking, cannot strength of character be shown by
      going through and overcoming a personal crisis?

      Yes, it can. That, in this story, is what the hobbits are for, particularly
      Sam. (Merry and Pippin are more to show the brave facing up to the
      consequences of one's own foolhardiness. Bilbo, in his story, does a bit of
      both. Frodo is a special case.) Sam goes through an enormous crisis of
      confidence in Cirith Ungol. He frets, he doesn't know what to do, he
      changes his mind several times, he gives up, and at the end he succeeds in
      finding Frodo by means of a spark of courage he didn't know he had, being
      moved to sing his song of hope in the depths of Morgul.

      But that is not what characters like Aragorn and Theoden and Faramir and
      Treebeard are for. They serve a different function in the story. They are
      there to offer sterling examples of what a person who's achieved that
      confidence is like. If they had a personal crisis, it's over before the
      story begins. They are tempered. They are there to offer the hobbits
      something to look up to. Accordingly, they are not the true protagonists,
      although Movie-Aragorn is more the protagonist than in the book (yet another
      point, really, Jackson's failure to understand where the center of the story
      lies. The war is a sideshow, and Aragorn and Gandalf know it.)

      Jackson injects crises of confidence into these characters in an attempt to
      humanize them, to make them easier for a supposed modern reader to identify
      with. There are two flaws in this reasoning. First is that they are not
      there to identify with; they are there to look up to. (Again, mistaking
      Aragorn for the protagonist, and the others for secondary protagonists.)
      Second is that millions of readers have had no trouble enjoying the book and
      loving these characters without this attempt at humanization.

      A more important flaw is that, because Jackson does not want fundamentally
      to change Tolkien's story, he must inject these added crises artificially.
      The plot takes a little detour to include them, and then has to circle
      around and return to where he left Tolkien's story. The result is that the
      crises do not contribute to the organic growth of the characters, as Sam's
      does in the book. They don't overcome the crisis, they just negate it.
      Movie-Faramir claims the Ring for Gondor, then inexplicably changes his
      mind. Movie-Treebeard waffles over whether to attack Isengard, and has to
      be tricked by Merry and Pippin, an underhanded action that violates point 4
      above. Movie-Legolas has a nervous breakdown (I bet most viewers don't
      remember this; it's before the battle at Helm's Deep), then gets over it
      with no consequences. Movie-Frodo flabbergasted everyone who saw it by
      rejecting Sam in favor of Gollum, and then equally flabbergastingly, given
      that he did the first, by taking him back. Most virtuosically of all,
      Movie-Theoden, having just been freed of Saruman's influence, suddenly makes
      an inexplicable U-turn of character and does, from cowardice, the same thing
      that Tolkien's Theoden does out of courage: taking the Rohirrim to a
      defensible place. In the book, this is to offer battle; in the movie, it
      seems to be at first in a forlorn attempt to flee, but then the movie
      changes its mind and goes back to Tolkien's reason.

      6. He loves monsters too much.

      What Tolkien-lovers love about LOTR's setting is chiefly the elven lands of
      Rivendell and Lorien. They talk about them all the time, and the desire to
      be with the Elves. The movie's Rivendell is very beautiful, thanks to Howe
      and Lee; I can't say the same about its Lorien, which is too dark and
      bluish. But there's nothing enticing about it, and Jackson just isn't very
      interested in, or able to capture, the magic of Elves. What he loves, and
      lavishes all his imagination and enthusiasm on, is the monsters. In
      Jackson's Hobbit, the orcs are given a huge role, injected from almost the
      beginning, extra battles added, and they're equally overplayed in his LOTR,
      as are other monsters, the Watcher in the Water and the cave troll (barely
      mentioned in the book), who get vast acres of precious screen time. Tolkien
      is not very interested in monsters. They're there to add color and danger,
      but the story isn't about them. In later years, Tolkien tried to deal with
      the question of whether orcs were inherently evil, and never came up with a
      satisfactory answer. It just was outside of his area of interest.

      In Tolkien's Hobbit (but not the movie), Bilbo on entering Rivendell says,
      "It smells of elves." Jackson's world doesn't smell of elves. It reeks of

      7. His additions read like bad fan-fiction.

      Note that I said _bad_ fan-fiction. Fan fiction can be good, even
      excellent. This is bad. In the movie, Merry and Pippin playing with the
      fireworks at Bilbo's party. It's not unreasonable to suppose that they were
      young scamps at the time, nor is it bad movie-making to use this opportunity
      to introduce them to the viewer. What's bad is the scripting, which is
      stupid. Even worse is the scene in the extended edition showing Boromir and
      Faramir together in happier times. Again, an entirely reasonable
      supposition, and a useful fleshing out of the characters. The problem is
      the way it's written. They clink mugs of ale and Boromir says something
      like, "Today, little brother, life is good." It has all the potent lack of
      sincerity of a beer commercial. Tolkien didn't write like that. Even his
      bad writing was hack Edwardian adventure fiction, not like this.

      8. Conclusion

      Now, all these could be dismissed as plot details. But they aren't. They
      exemplify Jackson's flaws: if he understood these things, he wouldn't have
      made these telling errors. They add up: they just keep on coming. And they
      are what the whole is made up of: Tolkien's is a world, not just a story,
      and it's made up of the believable and integrated parts of a world, as he
      spoke of in "On Fairy-Stories."
    • David Bratman
      ... Almost-subliminal ? You must live at a much slower metabolic pace than I do: though, knowing you, I don t believe that.
      Message 34 of 34 , Dec 20, 2012
        "David Emerson" <emerdavid@...> wrote:

        > I thought the Bilbo scene was effective, mostly because it was an
        > almost-subliminal flash.

        "Almost-subliminal"? You must live at a much slower metabolic pace than I
        do: though, knowing you, I don't believe that.
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