I’ve been watching the DVD extras on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey during this Christmas break and it’s been fascinating. It’s a great glimpse into both the incredible attention to detail and the reasoning behind the compromises made by Peter Jackson and the other filmmakers. I’ve heard a lot of complaining from Tolkien fans online about the liberties taken with Tolkien’s work, especially in the second and most recent installment of the three Jackson movies, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (which I saw just before Christmas).
Some of those liberties come from the practical limitations of filmmaking. For example, in the book Thorin is an old dwarf with a long, grey beard that he forks and tucks in his belt. But in the movie, he is a relatively young prince with a short, black beard. Jackson explains that in order to match the approximate age of Thorin in an actor, he’d have to find someone in their 70s, or 60s at the youngest. But while dwarves only get tougher and more fierce as warriors as they age, an elderly actor would never be able to keep up the grueling pace of acting and stage-fighting and running about in full kit and prosthetics. You’d kill the man. The young man they did get could barely keep up himself. As for the beard, well, it covered up the character too much and didn’t distinguish him enough from the other dwarves. From a visual standpoint, the character of Thorin needed to be seen by the audience as he acted and let the character he played come out in his real face.
Meanwhile, other compromises come purely out of the desire and need to tell a story to a modern movie audience. As Tolkien fans, what we want is for the book we have known and loved to spring forth to life before our eyes, just as the Professor wrote it down, unsullied. But that just isn’t going to happen. A prime example of this in action comes from The Return of the King. In the book–and the movie–the end of the story comes in several stages. The first ending comes as Aragorn is crowned King of Gondor and comes into his own. In any other movie, that would be the natural end. But then we see the return of the four hobbits to the Shire and that should be the end. Wait, there’s more! By the time the hobbits have arrived at the Grey Havens, the teenagers sitting behind me in the theater were groaning and wondering how long this was going to get dragged out.
As a Tolkien fanatic, I was in heaven. The more you can give me of what I remember from the books, the better. That’s why those extended-edition DVDs sell so well: because they cater to those ultra-fans who are willing to sit through material that couldn’t be put in the general theatrical release. But for these average movie-goers, the triple ending of ROTK was all too much and absent the context of the books’ larger narrative, all a bit mysterious as to why it was included. And thus the filmmakers are constantly making decisions about what not to include in the films that was in the books, and perhaps more controversially, what to include that wasn’t in the books.
It may seem like a dumb question, but I shocked myself a bit by asking it today: Why do we, the fans, want to see a big-screen adaptation of our favorite novel, in all its exacting details, just as we read it and formed it in our imaginations? “Because then it’s real,” we might say, but is it? No matter how faithfully the director tries to hew to the written word, it can’t be what you or I or the author, even if he’s living and standing next to the director every moment on the set, can have imagined. The filmmaker can only give you what his imagination sees, his interpretation. Even then, as I said above, he’s limited by the realities of budget, technology, time, natural law, and the taste of the moviegoing public.
Going deeper though, why should we want this, for our books to become films? Why aren’t the books themselves good enough? We have become a culture of mediated entertainment. Through TV and movies, we have become accustomed to having our imaginations side-stepped and spoon-fed whatever play can be presented to us. Don’t get me wrong: I love good TV shows and movies. But we should be aware as we consume the entertainment presented to us that it isn’t the same as books. Books are a partnership between author and reader. The author has his vision, which he conveys through the words, and the reader takes those words into himself, melds it with his own experience and vision and context to create a story in his own mind that is uniquely his.
When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out a decade ago, many people, including myself, loved it. But there were some good Christians of my acquaintance who said they weren’t interested, perhaps especially because of how realistic it was said to be. “I have no desire for Mel Gibson’s vision of the Stations of the Cross and the Passion of Jesus Christ to replace the one I have in my own mind,” they said. It’s a fair point and one to keep in mind as we see our beloved works of fiction adapted to the screen. When we watch a movie or TV show, we are letting that vision supplant any we may have already had. Even now, having seen five of Peter Jackson’s movies set in Middle-earth, I can see how his imagining of the world has become the model for how I see it in my own mind, how I think about hobbits and dwarves and elves and Rivendell and Minas Tirith and Erebor and Smaug and all the rest.
Peter Jackson has done a great job bringing Tolkien’s books to life and the power of those works is such that despite whatever Jackson’s intent, the spiritual mythopoeic power of the eucatastrophe whose ideal and form are found in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I don’t know that lesser works fare as well in the transition to film or that another director would not have altered the Tolkien corpus so as to lose that connection. We’ve been a bit lucky in that regard.
So while I’m interested in seeing the films made of adaptations of favored books, I do so knowing the consequences and the reality that they will never give me the same kind of joy that the books did. That’s okay for me. I think many people don’t see it the same way.
Jackson’s elves are my least favorite of his imaginings, because they are all too effete and, as one wag said of Thranduil, had all the gravitas of a petulant hairdresser, when what Tolkien described were a race of perfected mankind, somewhat more spiritual and connected to the world beyond. Certainly not pointy-eared, long-haired, girly-men. ↩
- TheHobbit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt