Tolkien: A Very, Very Long Story – Part 1 – On the Screen vs. the Mind’s Eye

Okay, The Lord of the Rings, the big enchilada. Tolkien wrote about a half a million words about his war of the ring. His son Christopher has made a cottage industry of publishing every scrap of draft paper that his father ever scribbled and analyzing them as if they were papyrus palimpsests of the lost plays of Sophocles. In the last sixty plus years an unending stream of analysis both professional and personal has been generated about these books. Everything that could be said has been said and about a million times. So, what possible justification is there for me to add to the ocean?

Well, it’s my damn blog and I want to. So, without further ado…

I read the Lord of the Rings when I was about twelve. I was highly impressed. Obviously as I matured my opinion of the story was based on an evolving baseline of experience with fiction and personal experience of the world around me. Over the years my personal preferences among the various characters and scenes have altered somewhat. But my overall opinion of the work is still very high and very enthusiastic.
Over the course of the time I have been a fan of the Lord of the Rings, Hollywood has from time to time attempted to produce motion picture versions of it. Some of these were animated films. One was drawing superimposed over live action frames of film (Ralph Bakshi’s film). Recently a sophisticated live action and CGI combination was produced by Peter Jackson and managed to win the Academy Award for best picture. The relationship between these films and the text is the subject of this post.
I will state categorically that none of the film versions of the Lord of the Rings before Peter Jackson’s version ever succeeded (except in very small sections) in capturing the feeling of the book. The inability to draw the viewer into the reality of the story was always too strong. But in the Jackson version it succeeded.

Okay, here come the qualifiers. Do not confuse the above statement with an unconditional endorsement of every aspect of the movie. There are any number of things about the movie that I object to (some extremely strenuously). For instance, Denethor is rendered as a terrible man. I do not think that reflects Tolkien’s intent or description. Also, some aspects of the treatment of Frodo and Sam’s friendship is oddly portrayed and off-putting. The super human abilities of Legolas seem exaggerated and some of the silly treatment of Gimli are annoying. A hundred little and not so little problems exist.

Getting that out of the way I will say that Jackson’s movies bring the Lord of the Rings alive. In a certain sense these films will give Tolkien’s work a chance to become part of the mythology of the whole human race. Because although millions of people have read the books, billions of people will see the movies. Not every viewer will be impacted deeply by the story but enough of the books comes across in the films that the films will act as an amplifier of the story in the digital realm we now inhabit. So, on balance the Jackson films are a net positive for the Tolkien lovers of the world.

I’ll cut this first Tolkien post short here. After all this is an endless pursuit. Best not to drone on too much. But I’ll end with my opinion on the best scene in the Jackson films. And I’ll specify I’m talking about the extended versions. The best scene is the Ride of the Rohirrim at the Battle of Minas Tirith. It was stirring and well done. Feel free to leave your opinion on the best scene in the comments.