Note: for a larger context of this discussion, interested readers may want to look at A Plague on Both Your Houses.
I did not write a review of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (henceforth LotR) trilogy. One reason was my extreme ambivalence over Tolkien and his oeuvre. Another was that the potential for LotR to be a cinematic disaster was so great that anything short of a shambles would do. In fairness, the film version of LotR was a great achievement within its context. It says much that a Kiwi schlockmeister gave us a far better work than any Hollywood director ever could.
I was introduced to Tolkien in high school by one of my exchange US teachers. He intoned solemnly (and with zero sense of irony, given the cultural background of his students) that here be immortal myths. In fact, most of Silmarillion and LotR are rechurned mythic/folktale tropes coupled to something remarkably close to the “Aryan paganism” promoted by the German national socialists with an uneasy overlay of Manichean catholicism. The Nordic components are most prominent in the myth salad (Húrin’s Children is Sieglinde and Siegmund without even the serial numbers filed off), per Tolkien’s wish to create a Saxon mythology free of Frenchified corruption; and the works literally swarm with Miltonesque angels and demons, Lucifers and Messiahs, falls and redemptions, smitings and apocalypses (sorry, “eucatastrophes”).
Tolkien may have disliked Nazism on record, but his work says otherwise. It is telling that in his universe dark skin and lack of mainstream beauty equal moral depravity (them honorless swarthy Southrons!) and “blood purity” is the sole criterion for legitimacy of rule: Denethor can never become king, no matter how capable he is, because he comes from a line of “lesser men”. Propagation also looks fraught, given that none of Tolkien’s races seem to have more than about one woman – and they’re all pedestalized, fridged or both, with rape the most frequent cause of death (an odd obsession for an otherwise ultra-prudish permanent-Victorian-by-choice).
The less said of Tolkien’s style, plot, pacing, characterization and dialogue the better, so I won’t analyze these aspects except to say that he sounds unstrained only when he describes environments close to what he inhabited in real life: a place where everyone knew and kept their place, industrialization hadn’t reared its ugly head, country squires led guilt-free lives secure in their righteousness, and gentlemen of privilege and leisure spent their time discussing lofty matters and puffing pipes in comfortable Oxbridge rooms, their every need attended by angels in the house and servants. In short, the Shire.
Despite its eye-gauging problems, Tolkien’s work launched a thousand careers of both dutiful and rebellious acolytes to the everlasting detriment of epic fantasy (respective examples: Guy Gavriel Kay and Joe Abercrombie). The most common defense of Tolkien (beyond “he is the bestestest and your limited unsophisticated mind cannot encompass his greatness”) is that “he was of his time” – and a don in an ivory tower besides, plus a survivor of WWI. However, here are a few of his broad contemporaries, and I’m restricting myself solely to Britain: Wells, Orwell, Woolf (who was ten years older than Tolkien). In 1938 Virginia Woolf wrote her incandescent criticism of fascism, Three Guineas, some sixty years before “intersectional” became the fashion du jour for internet social justice warriors. In 1936 Tolkien wrote… The Hobbit. Tolkien’s true soulmates are the pre-Raphaelites, who consciously withdrew into an idealized past that confirmed their bedrock conservative values. I find Waterhouse and the late Rossetti very beautiful; but I cannot help but be aware that these were contemporaries of the Impressionists and early Cubists.
So when I heard that LotR was about to be filmed, I was wary – although some signs boded well: the director was not from Hollywood, though he was best known for splatterfests; and the film would not only be a trilogy (aka no Procrustean shoehorning to fit arbitrary length standards, like Ralph Bakshi’s pathetic attempt) but would also be filmed in New Zealand. Aotearoa is one of my Tír na nÓgs, and I had already seen enough of it in Mr. Snacho’s photos and in Xena to know that a movie filmed in that spectacular scenery could not be a total loss.
But Jackson achieved far more than that. By integrating acting, scenery and sound, he managed to create a secondary world that felt almost real – real enough that you let yourself be carried in its current even if, like me, you don’t really like LotR. Despite the longueurs (especially the boys’ treehouse intervals), he managed to elicit the difficult chemistry of camaraderie among most of his principals. And perhaps influenced by his two women screenwriters and advisors, he also chose wisely what to include (Arwen’s vision of her fate; Éowyn’s dream of the fall of Númenor) and what to omit (Radagast and Bombardil, of which more anon), where to stick to canon and where to abandon it.
In my opinion, Jackson’s best departures from canon were the decision to have Arwen, rather than Glorfindel (who?), convey Frodo to Rivendell; and the appearance of the Elf army, dressed in its best finery like Hellenic freedom fighters, to aid the Rohanese at Helm’s Deep. The former made Arwen more than the passive prize Aragorn will reap if he succeeds; and the latter underlined the Elves’ love for Middle Earth and their investment in it – especially if, as some “Tolkien scholars” believe, Elves killed in battle forfeit eternal life in the West.
Jackson made some serious missteps as well. The portrayal of Galadriel kept veering towards evil queen bee and Arwen became another generic couch-fainting damsel as the trilogy progressed. The choice to depict tragic Denethor as a crazed coward needlessly added yet another single-note character to the ones already amply present in the original. And of course the jokes about Dwarf women and Éowyn’s cooking got old after the first second or so. Also, it was a pity that Jackson chickened out of showing Sauron incarnate in the last battle, especially if he had presented him as the beautiful tempter he once was and could still become. More disturbingly, Jackson hewed faithfully to Tolkien’s distinctions when casting: all his Orcs had cockney accents, all his Uruk-hai were Maori and all his Southrons were Indian, Iranian or otherwise olive-skinned.
But with all these caveats and more, the LotR trilogy aspired to Gesamtkunstwerk status and to a large extent attained it. That’s more readily visible in the director’s cuts that smooth over some rough patches (the worst being Aragorn’s nasty dismissal of Éowyn in the theater version; on the other hand, Jackson relaxed his grip on schlock control in the totally unnecessary skull-stomping scene). The films received their due: awards up the wazoo, billions in ticket receipts and merchandise, serious career boosts to the less famous participants (most notably Viggo Mortensen, a maverick journeyman who enjoys unconventional roles) and the funds and clout for Jackson to do his disastrous King Kong.
So it came as no surprise when it was duly announced that Jackson had decided to also film The Hobbit. What came as a surprise was that it was to be… a trilogy. The Hobbit is wee and twee, including Tolkien’s intrusive coy asides. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a childish children’s book: it’s not an expurgated fairytale, like the ones written for adults and later laundered for the supposedly delicate childish earshells (in fact kids are supremely bloodyminded and take folktale atrocities in stride). The Hobbit was bland and quotidian from the get-go, written by a Victorian for Victorian tastes and mores.
Making a trilogy out of that flat pillow requires a huge amount of straw. And apparently that’s what Jackson did. We now get Radagast in all his non-glory – borne on a chariot pulled by bunnies, no less. We get expositions and declamations and endless walking (through admittedly breathtaking landscapes). We get more of the crude humor that jarred and clunked so badly when Gimli had to be its vehicle in LotR. We get stormtrooper-type adversaries and battles that blur into sameness. We get Thorin as a quasi-Aragorn, robbing Bilbo of any reason for being included in the adventure. We get Galadriel posed as a mannequin in a shop window, to paper over the fact that there were exactly zero non-males in The Hobbit. And of course we get ecstatic fanboys (and not a few fangirls) who want moremoremore of the same, even if it’s gloppy corn syrup covered with red food dye instead of fresh strawberries.
It’s true that ever hoarier iterations are the essence of franchises: feeding the fans increasingly watered-down gruel while selling more lunchboxes. But Jackson, like Lucas, seems to also have succumbed to his sense of his own sacred mission. Whereas Lucas wanted to be a Jedi Master (an ambition most people outgrow by the emotional age of seven), Jackson apparently wanted to be the perfect Tolkien worshipper. It seems that people in such large-scale ventures have lost the capacity to discern when they have reached whatever peak is possible. For Star Wars, that point was The Empire Strikes Back. LotR did better – the entire trilogy stands as a seamless whole that invited people who knew nothing of Tolkien into Jackson’s enticing universe. In stark contrast, The Hobbit is for insiders, a members-only fan club; a creation that demands adoration not of its strengths but of its weaknesses, like a whiny godlet.
I was elated to watch LotR consistently exceed my (initially not very high) expectations. But after The Hobbit, I feel dread at the thought that Jackson may decide to embark on The Silmarillion next. Perhaps he should read the folktale of the fisherman’s wife. Or read what Marx said about repeating history: the first time, it’s tragedy; the second time, farce.
Images: 1st, Arwen’s stand against the Nazgûl; 2nd, a still from Nathan Kaso’s Aotearoa video; 3rd, Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (original edition, cover by Vanessa Bell)
Discussions of other SF/F demigods:
We Must Love One Another or Die: A Critique of Star Wars
The Star Trek reboot
Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas
“As Weak as Women’s Magic” (Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle)
Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises)
Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!