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Fears II: The Sequel

The response to my last column, in which I brought up my fears about the first Lord of the Rings film two months before its release, has been interesting to say the least. I found a lot more agreement than I was expecting. But the nay-sayers were vocal, and sometimes tried to criticize me for various things I didn’t say---for instance, a couple people seemed to think I suggested boycotting of the films. I certainly never suggested anything of the sort.

My essay was an attempt to come to terms with my own feelings about how the film might not live up to expectations, despite the promise of the visuals, and despite the culture-wide hype. Since writing my last column, the film books (visual companions, and movies guides) have been released, and though I won’t go into the details here, I’m found in them much more to be worried about.

Some have labeled me as a "purist" as regards the film. This is neither true nor the point of my column. I really don’t care whether the film follows Tolkien precisely and exactly, but I want it to have the integrity of Tolkien’s works. The idea of adapting a novel into a film requires a different method for almost every novel--at least I would think so.  Certainly you would think that the filmmakers would want to retain what it is about the novel that made it successful in the first place. And that includes tone, mood, atmosphere, and perhaps the greatest intangible of all (especially so with Tolkien): the integrity of the characters.

To digress with one example.  Blade Runner is an excellent film, and the book on which it was based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, is an excellent book.  But they are two very different works of art, and they diverge in innumerable ways.  But what Blade Runner does is capture the feel, texture, and verisimilitude of Philip Dick's book wonderfully-- without an adherence to plot, it still retains the integrity of the novel on which was based.

I loved Blade Runner, which didn't change my view of the book.  Even the Bakshi Lord of the Rings didn't change my personal view of the book, but it became an embarrassment to admit to liking Tolkien at the time that movie was current.  I certainly fear the same result, if Peter Jackson's movies are that lamentable. The three Jackson movies are likely to define "Tolkien" for our culture for the next twenty or thirty years, and if the vision he presents is infantile, it will be very regrettable.

What I've seen so far of the first film is visually very impressive.  But the larger problems for me come when Jackson has moved away from Tolkien's characters-- simplifying them, making them one-dimensional.  And this is seen mainly in the dialogue.  For instance, Jackson has greatly expanded the role of Arwen (which some have complained about), but that is to me an understandable point in the translation of a book to a film.  There is a need to reduce the sheer number of characters in a 1000+ page novel, even if you are making three films.  So, in one place in The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen takes over the role of the Elf-lord Glorfindel.  But Jackson has changed the situation slightly so that while the Black Riders are chasing Arwen and Frodo, Arwen taunts them with the line:  "If you want him, come and claim him."  Well, that's perfectly modern movie lingo, and it's completely out of character.  No elf (Arwen, or Glorfindel) would have made such a taunt, to the Enemy while trying to protect the Ringbearer;  Tolkien would never have written such a line of dialogue.  These kinds of changes show an insensitivity to the characters on Jackson's part.

Furthermore, another thing I fear is the roles of the lesser hobbits (Merry and Pippin) being reduced down to mere comic effect.  We see one example of this in the latest preview (and more examples in the movie tie-in books).  In Tolkien’s book, when in Moria, Pippin drops a stone down a well, and the noise of the splash calls attention to the Fellowship.  In the movie, we see Pippin touching a corpse sitting alongside a well.  After Pippin touches it, first the head rolls off and falls into the well, and then the whole torso follows it in, after which we see a did-I-do-that-look on Pippin's face.  This is Jackson going over the top, as he did in The Frighteners, and the other horror film he did earlier. The Frighteners was a supernatural comedy, and those touches are part of its success. Tolkien, however, did not write a supernatural comedy.

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a work of art.  Hollywood is about commerce, and Peter Jackson is playing the commerce game while making noises about art.  As far as I’m concerned, this puts an open season on him for criticism.  He has claimed that he is making only one person's (his) version of Tolkien, but that is a straw man's claim.  It sounds nice, but means nothing.  How many people in the last fifty years have had the money behind them to make a film version of Lord of the Rings?  Just two:  Ralph Bakshi, and Peter Jackson.  It's not like anyone else (even a film company) could come along next year and make "their" new version of Lord of the Rings, so Jackson's argument doesn't carry any weight.  With a book like Lord of the Rings, with a devoted readership of millions, comes some additional obligations for a filmmaker if he is trying to play the art side.  If he (as director) and New Line (as film company) weren't making such noises, and were just playing it as a commercial enterprise (which would be within their rights), then I wouldn’t have much to say here. But it's another thing to posture that you're respecting Tolkien's vision, while at the same time doing otherwise. 

And that is what I fear Jackson has been doing. We'll see on December 19th. I’ll be there. Meanwhile, here is a selection from the responses I received to my last column.



Bravo!  My sentiments exactly.   Everyone is so excited by the big pricetag and the visuals that they are forgetting the fact that NO scriptwriter in the movie industry (Hollywood or New Zealand) can do better with the dialogue than JRRT did with the LOTR books.   They should use Tolkien's exact words every time.  One scene I saw in the trailer had the fellowship promising to help Frodo.  You know the "my sword" and "my axe" stuff.  That was not needed.  Thanks for being willing to risk being stoned to death for blasphemy by writing this article.


I noticed something else in the new trailer that bothered me. When Galadriel says to Frodo, "this task is appointed TO you," it changes the meaning. In the book Elrond (NOT Galadriel) says, "this task is appointed FOR you," which suggests that it's Frodo's fate to bear the Ring. The way that Galadriel says it, it sounds like the Council of Elrond put it to a vote and decided, "OK, let's send the little guy!" A small thing, but to me it stuck out like a sore thumb.


I'm a big PJ fan (I'm a kiwi and Bad Taste was my intro to NZ films!), but it has to be said that all of his films, from Bad Taste to The Frighteners, are all very much steeped in Peter Jackson's sense of humour- that is, a dark, slighty warped, slightly zany sense of humour. Now, this sense of humour is fine for all his previous films (although it is probably the reason The Frighteners was not a huge hit). It works very well in all of them. But if he tries to insert that sense of humour into LotR, it will be a serious mis-step. It could definitely de-rail the films in a big way.

This is why I got a shiver when I read an interview in which he said he would try to insert a little humour into LotR- I can't find the interview directly, but I do recall shivering- because it could definitely hurt the films, and it's definitely absent from the book- PJ may not realise it, but not everyone has a dark, slightly zany sense of humour! And I don't believe it would be appropriate for the Middle Earth (maybe gallows humour, but that different to black comedy). He has yet to make a movie without this quality -it remains to be seen if he can.


You have expressed my fears and sentiments exactly. One could argue that when converting a book to a film dialogue needs to be modified or added to convey what the narration explains to the reader. For example dialogue would abundantly have to be added to any film version of the Silmarillion (and hopefully would be done well with the spirit of the book in mind), but in the case of LOTR that dialoge is already there! Why change it? I didn't much mind Aragorn's "Are you Frightened?" but Galadriels "Even the smallest person" was truly horrific. I still keep hope that the films will be good, because if they fail it may be another 20 (or even 50) years before they have a chance to be made again. Good or Bad this will be the definitive film version of LOTR for generations to come... Let us hope for the best,

What I'm really hoping here is that we're seeing simplified dialog especially selected (or written) for the trailers.

I was more concerned with some larger changes - like turning the creepy scene at the ferry into a chase.  And what about Pippin's stone morphing into a corpse?  Overdone.

But of course I can't judge of the pace and feel until I see the whole movie.  We all know a lot will be condensed, we just don't know if the overall feel will be subtle and well-paced, or "just a fancier fantasy movie."  So for these two months I'll just have to live in a mindless cloud of expectation.

Though the studio had better hope they come out with a mature and intelligent film.  That's what will get me into the theater half-a-dozen times, and then rush to buy the DVD.

The best surprise was Arwen.  I had classed Liv Tyler as a total bimbo airhead.  Who knew the girl had a perfect elf voice?  She has me reconciled to the Arwen changes.

Now my fear is that one man can't turn out to be a genius at casting, visuals, AND scripting.  No, that's my second fear.  My first fear is that the world will be hit by a comet sometime in the next two months.


Well done.  <quote from memory>He that breaks a thing to see what it is has left the path of wisdom<end quote>


You are right, of course. The script, the dialogue, will vulgarize Tolkien according to the ruling commercial calculus. We've seen enough to know. The problem isn't Jackson's arrogance or ego or bad intent, and he will preserve enough bits and pieces of Tolkienisms to make his argument of faith. It is simply that the temptations of easily palatable action genre idiom -- "Are you frightened," "is it safe," etc., -- cannot be resisted. They never are. There is too much at stake for the money men.


I read your article entitled "'Just When You Thought it Was Safe....':What I Fear Most about Peter Jackson's Films".  What I consider a dangerously closed mind was exhibited.  I have seen a similar phenomenon in countless movies.  So often people love something (a book, play, comic) so much that they feel threatened when anyone tries to portray it. I cite X-Men as my example.  I remember talking to serious fans who absolutely shunned the movie.  Others saw it once and said that they would never see it again. What is the reason for someone who loves the X-Men not to see a movie(two hours of film-watching pleasure)devoted entirely to their, dare I say, obsession?  1)Cyclops was cast to short, 2)Mystique has longer hair than that, 3)Mystique wore white, ...and the list goes on. This mentality is nonsensical.  X-Men I felt gave a good representation of the delicate balance of power between Scott and Logan.  It showed Scott very determined to make the Professor proud.  And it showed the tender side to an outwardly gruff Wolverine.  The movie was not perfect, nor the defining vision for a widely read comic but there was a lot good about it.

Although you can probably make the connection I will reiterate it in LotR terms.  It is a disservice to Tolkien to shun a movie based on his works.


You have exactly articulated my own fears about the upcoming films.  As much as Jackson and Boyens and Co. have talked about honoring the dialogue in the books, etc., the lines that you quoted have made me squirm every time I've heard them.  They seem distinctly "un-Tolkienien" to me too, and it makes me worry that non-Tolkien fans who see the movies will equate this type of dialogue with that in Tolkien's books.  I also was not terribly thrilled to hear about lines like Sam's "This one's for the gaffer!" as he fights a Moria orc, or some of the supposedly humorous one-liners attributed to Gimli.  Ever since I heard about Galadriel's remark from the trailer, I've been hoping (probably in vain) that it will be one of those scenes that actually ends up on the cutting room floor during the final editing process (which I understand sometimes happens with scenes that are in trailers).


Would it really matter if the movie is a Hollywood blockbuster and wins Oscars but you and I know that it desecrates Tolkien and the book itself?  Would we really care?  We have read the book!  We have enjoyed Tolkien in the only media he can be enjoyued in fully!  We have read his written thoughts!

We must therefore think of the movie as a Hollywood representation. Now, while it tries to be as true to the books as possible, it must be "crafted" (as little as possible we hope) to be loved by the public and the critics.  We have already received our gift by reading the "greatest work of the 20th century".

This is Peter Jackson's and Hollywood's version of Tolkien's work. What person can take any work by any author and make it their own movie? Tolkien's books are the true versions of Middle-Earth and cannot be touched by Hollywood or stupid critics.  Tolkien's words have gone onto the page and in turn the page's words have gone into our minds.  What is there to fear?

Why should you fear that a movie can disrupt Ea and make it disgraceful?  Tolkien did his best by writing his thoughts down on paper, and we have an excellent idea what he was thinking because he put most of it into words.  When we read it, we all have different thoughts, each one of us.  It is almost selfish to put down someone's thoughts and idea's about the story that we all share as our own in our own, special ways.  Suppose that you and I differed on the Balrog's "wings", Legolas' hair color, or Turin's fate.  We could argue forever but no one could ever win because we have our own thoughts on it and it cannot be proven.

It is much as different people argue and debate about the Bible. How can someone say exactly what was going on?  Was that person there when Moses, Abraham, or even Adam even lived?  Did Adam really live?

Jackson and Tolkien are artists.  Jackson wants to make his thoughts and ideas about Tolkien work onto the screen.  If you or I are artists, we could do the same thing.  Should we put down every artist that has drawn Boromir or Arwen the way we didn't picture them?  Thus, we shouldn't put down or even fear what someone else's thoughts and ideas are on  Middle Earth.  Yes, maybe it would be nicer if he kept Tolkien's dialogue.  But, what about putting your own things in your own art?  An artist makes his great work because he or she wants to.  They want other people to feel their emotions.  If he actually wants as many people to see his work of art as possible, he will have to change some things including dialogue so that they get his vision.

That is enough for now... I must sleep anyway.  Thank you for taking the time for reading this and responding to my last letter.  You and all the other staff at TORN keep up the excellent work!  Especially the Green Books staff.  Ciao for now.


Thanks for the reply, very decent of you.  I agree that we do fall on different sides of the fence... although I'm sympathetic to yours (as an adamant purist on many, many topics).  I hope you can see past it to enjoy the films.  I think the story and the visuals alone will be worth the $8, and I'll presume ahead of time that we won't see any post-modern goofiness like the two-headed announcer in Star Wars, episode 1.  PJ's already got a leg up, in my book, by treating Tolkien's world as historical (if not completely sacrosanct).

The scene at the well, I thought, was quite funny without being gratuitous-- not only that, but it accomplishes the same purpose as the stone scene in the book.  The more serious version of it later on (the incident with the palantir) will probably not be played comedically, so for me, this change works.


Aragorn: "Are you frightened?"
Frodo: "Yes."
Aragorn: "Not nearly frightened enough."

>From the novel: "You are frightened, but you are not frightened enough, not yet."

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

>From the novel: "Until then, keep it secret, and keep it safe!"

I don't count those as bad examples of dialogue, and I am surprised that you do.  I agree with the criticisms of the other dialogue.

I worry as well, sometimes, from other scenes -- "You have my sword." "And my bow." "And my axe!" Except that again, sentiment like this /is/ expressed in the book -- recall the farcical leaving-weapons-at-the-door before Theoden.

Yet movies must be different from books; the pace of a movie is different, and language that fits when read in a book does not fit when spoken on camera.  The dialogue must reflect more of the thoughts of the characters and move the narrative, because the dialogue is all the language there is.<

[My response to the above:]

> Aragorn: "Are you frightened?"
> Frodo: "Yes."
> Aragorn: "Not nearly frightened enough."
> >From the novel: "You are frightened, but you are not frightened enough, not
> yet."

The actual quote is:  Aragron:  "Perhaps I know more about these pursuers than you do.  You fear them, but you do not fear them enough, yet."  (p. 177, Fellowship)

But what bugs me is changing the sentiment into a Hollywood-style staggered interaction with Frodo.

> Gandalf's face lit in the darkness in Bag End, his hair hanging down, his
> voice rasping: "Is it secret? Is it SAFE???"
> >From the novel: "Until then, keep it secret, and keep it safe!"

Gandalf's statement in the book is an admonition.  In the movie, it's a desperate, worried appeal.  I think that alters the nature of the character Gandalf.

> Yet movies must be different from books; the pace of a movie is different,
> and language that fits when read in a book does not fit when spoken on
> camera.  The dialogue must reflect more of the thoughts of the characters
> and move the narrative, because the dialogue is all the language there is.

I agree completely, and am not against change.  But when it alters (especially) the characters, and their integrity from the book, I cry foul. I do not think Arwen, or any elf for that matter, would say the "If you want him, come and claim him" line to a servant of the enemy while trying to protect the Ringbearer.

* *


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