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'Just When You Thought It Was Safe . . .':
What I Fear Most about Peter Jackson's Films

I’ve had a number of discussions lately, with various people (including my Green Books pal Anwyn, from whom I’m stealing ideas shamelessly), about the heightened expectations for the first of Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films. Sure, we’ve seen a lot of visuals, some of them damned nice. Sure the casting seems much more inspired than not (and I’m willing to let my casting question-marks prove themselves in the film). Sure Peter Jackson, and others associated with the film, are making the right noises about respecting Tolkien’s vision, about turning to the books as the authority. All of which is good and proper, but it doesn’t necessarily add up to a good film, or a good representation of the book.

So I’ve been thinking about this, and discussing it with a few others: just what is it about the films that makes me nervous? What do I fear most about them?

This is not, presently, a popular past-time. Everyone seems dazzled by the visuals. Everyone seems, already, to be completely emotionally invested in this film being wonderful, and all of the commentary I’ve seen seems to take it as a forgone conclusion that this film is going to be a blockbuster, that it will be the biggest new thing imaginable. Which it still may be, and it still may be a bad film.

So I play devil’s advocate. Well, not really. I’m arguing the negative side here because I’ve seen things that really do make me worry. And my biggest fears about Peter Jackson’s films all boil down to the script.

Tolkien was a master of description, and a master at dialogue as well. His ability to modulate between the heroic and the commonplace, within a single scene, was masterful.

In Moria, Gimli chants:

The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge’s fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.
But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

And Sam pipes in: "I like that! I should like to learn it. In Moria, in Khazad-dûm! But it makes the darkness seem heavier, thinking of all those lamps."

And how about the long passages in the Council of Elrond, stately and serious ambassadors all recounting their reasons for being there, leading up to Frodo’s simple and emotional declaration: "I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way."

These are marvelously wrought passages, only two of many that could be selected out of The Lord of the Rings to illustrate this point. Tolkien was subtle, and he knew perfectly how to modulate the rhythm of words within a specific context. And he was able to appreciate this in earlier writers too–in Chaucer, and in Beowulf. This factor is what made Tolkien such a good critic of medieval literature, and why his assessment of Beowulf, in his 1936 lecture to the British Academy, remains a landmark in the study of the poem.

And this is the area where I most fear that Peter Jackson will fail. We already have heard some dialogue in the previews, and it does not sound like Tolkien. In fact it sounds like Hollywood, like Lalaland: 21st century American idiom, one-liners that will be repeated all throughout the land:

Arwen: "If you want him, come and claim him."

Aragorn:  "Are you frightened?"
Frodo:  "Yes."

Aragorn:  "Not nearly frightened enough."

Well, I’m frightened, but not in the way the scriptwriters intended. On top of this there is evidence of a dumbing down of the characters, having them mouth things that they wouldn’t say, in ways they would never utter.

Galadriel looking down at Frodo and smiling, "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."

Shades of Glinda and the Munchkins (as Anywn described it to me)! The sentiment may be Tolkienian, but Tolkien would not have phrased it that way.

Gandalf’s face lit in the darkness in Bag End, his hair hanging down, his voice rasping: "Is it secret?  Is it SAFE???" 

Frodo:  "No one knows it's here, do they. . . do they, Gandalf?" 

These examples of dialogue have Hollywood written all over them. They pull you right out of the story. They aim low for easy emotional responses. They are clichéd. And they make me strongly fear what the rest of the script is like. Maybe toddlers won’t mind, or people unused to dealing with the subtleties of language, but for those of us who really care about words and about language will not be satisfied, no matter how good the casting or scenery, no matter how good the costumes or the special effects.

Words, in all of their subtleties, are the entire basis with which The Lord of the Rings, and Middle-earth itself, is constructed. I mean: it’s a novel, and words are what make up the story. So why change Tolkien’s dialogue? Sure, in making a film from a book, scenes will need to be condensed or eliminated, but of the scenes that will be retained, the dialogue is already there. Why alter it?

I see nothing wrong with Tolkien’s dialogue, and no reason to change it. If Peter Jackson truly wants to honor the man and his vision, I say he needs to honor Tolkien’s words.

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