My first post of the year! Been busy. Sorry. Anyway, here goes.

I had a bit of a The Lord of the Rings craze last year. I rewatched the Peter Jackson LOTR movies, watched The Hobbit: An  Unexpected Journey, reread The Hobbit, and am now most of the way through a reread of The Lord of the Rings. I put aside my Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 armies for a while in favour of painting a ton of beautiful GW LOTR models. I suppose I did that mostly because I’m writing so much set in the Warhammer worlds, and gaming in them is bit of a busman’s holiday, but there’s more to it than that, enough for another blog post, in fact.

I first read The Hobbit when I was seven, I read some of it and my dad read bits of it to me (he mentioned this to me a few months ago. I’d built my early reading of the book into my personal mythology, but I think he’s right, I think he did read a lot of it to me). I read The Lord of The Rings when I was nine or ten, and then read it pretty much every year or so until I was 24. My last two attempts faltered, and I haven’t read it since. After playing so many games set in Middle-earth, I figured it’d be time to go back and read it with adult eyes. The inevitable comparisons with the movies came up.

Anyway, here’s some Hobbity thinks on all things Middle-earth. Films versus books. We’re talking mainly about the LOTR movies. I’ve not seen the second Hobbit yet. My opinions on that probably require another post.

Tolkien’s female characters

Tolkien has been criticised for his weak female leads, but this is unfair. Eowyn is well-drawn, willful and independent. Her disregard for the patriarchal traditions of her own society proves essential to the salvation of the world. Galadriel is a key figure in The Lord of the Rings. One of the most powerful beings in Middle-earth, she acts as a vital narrative fulcrum. Besides that, she has one of the better defined characters in the books.

Rather than singling out the women, I’d argue that a lot of the cast are ill-formed. Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and Boromir especially have little substance to them. The character work becomes increasingly solid as the books progress, and some are remarkable. But levelling criticism solely at the female roles is missing a broader weakness.

Peter Jackson’s attempts at redressing this perceived imbalance are likewise patchy. His Galadriel and Eowyn are vital, strong intensifications of the pre-existing characters, but Arwen’s inclusion often feels forced. I await with interest the role of Evangeline Lilly in The Hobbit 2.

Drama

Tolkien is surprisingly poor at large-scale drama. His battles are sketchily described, building little sense of peril or excitement. In truth, this is not the intention of the books, and they do not hurt for it. Peter Jackson is good at staging such action sequences in a way that fits the story’s fantastical nature, but not always with its gravity. Jackson is instead obsessed with gravity in a literal sense: characters fall, trip or plummet from great heights far too often, without harm, to the point where it becomes VERY annoying. Legolas surfing on a shield. Legolas surfing on an elephant. Dwarfs running the theme-park gauntlet of Goblintown. Bah. Tolkien erred on the side of too little, Jackson on that of excess.

Tolkien, on the other hand, is marvellous at the smaller moments. The journey of the Hobbits into Mordor is rich in emotion and Jackson captures their essence well. It is in Sam and Frodo leaving, Boromir’s death and the meeting with Faramir that the intentions of the books and films come closest.

Pacing

It’s astonishing just how quickly Tolkien trots through his stories. The Hobbit in particular contains many passages along the lines of “and then there was a big battle, and it was over”. Compared to the longeurs of the genre Tolkien helped create, this is no bad thing. The pace never falters. The first Hobbit film, however, is poorly paced. Not as badly as Jackson’s massively self-indulgent King Kong (It’s three halves of three different films welded together), but it suffers in comparison to the book. There is no need at all for the Azog subplot, for example.

Wordsmithery

Tolkien had a marvellous facility with words, sometimes. Some of his imagery, especially that describing the natural world, is glorious. There are some fine turns of phrase in the dialogue. On the other hand, some of it is rough and ill-placed.

Many of the best lines are preserved in the movies. A particular phrase might have been switched from narrative to dialogue, or from one character to another, but it is surprising how much of it survive. The films’ tight use of Tolkien’s original words is one of their most pleasing aspects.

Compression of time and space

Tolkien’s Middle-earth feels weighty, laden down with doomy history. Jackson’s take on it is somewhat ephemeral. In his movies, the characters journey too far, too quickly. When we see Minas Tirith, sitting alone on the untouched plains, I can’t help but think: “Where are all the farms that feed these people?” Jackson’s Gondor is restricted to Minas Tirith. He fails to give an adequate sense of the geographical scale. He does try to get the sweep of Middle-earth’s past across, but not always successfully.

Philosophy

I’ve always seen the books as a comment on the relationship between man and nature. I read recently that Tolkien himself said they’re a comment on the relationship between man and God’s creation (subtly different). This is why there are no temples or religions in Middle-earth – its inhabitants have a direct link to God by inhabiting this primordial landscape, there is no need for intermediaries.

What struck me as mopey teenager was that the books heave with melancholy at the passing of better days. Later,  the legendarium as a whole put me in mind of the Hindu world view, where man starts in a blessed state, then goes through a series of increasingly debased ages.  A bit later still, I saw a kind of kindly if slightly patronising paternalism in them. Now I’m middle-aged, I’m back to the melancholy. But the better days that are gone are now my own, lived through with the arrogant assurance of the young that they would last forever. I have the bitter realisation that there’s not much room left in my lifespan for the golden future I always expected to materialise. Like the Numenoreans, we’re all heading for a fall (or had one). Like Aragorn, now I’m fighting for what good bits that are left.

Jackson’s films, on the other hand, are a bit of a romp.

The Breadth of the world

Another thing that strikes me about Middle-earth this time round is how poorly defined so much of it is. It has a deep backstory, a lot of which is well detailed, but Tolkien tosses in as many references to things he did not define as to those he did. The books’ success stems in part from this, I think. There is plenty to pleasurably dig into and discover in The Silmarillion and his tantalisingly incomplete stories, notes, and letters, yet ample room for the reader’s imagination to soar on its own. Middle-earth is  a masterful illusion. Playfully regarding his creation as “real”, Tolkien speculated in his letters as to what this thing or that might mean. It is the ultimate descriptive fantasy world. Those that came after, especially those with their tediously laid out magical systems, are far more prescriptive, more limited and limiting.

Design

The most successful part of Peter Jackson’s films are in Middle-earth’s visualisation. His team of designers create such marvellous props, monsters, costumes and sets. Perhaps this detracts from the books, by narrowing our imaginative – the film’s designs will remain the default images in many people’s heads for a long time. But to me they breathe life into Middle-earth. Tolkien could be very descriptive. Lothlorien is vividly painted, but in the main the full force of his descriptive powers are saved for the natural world, in particular the weather.

Tom Bombadil

I used to HATE Tom Bombadil. Vehemently. This time round it was one of my favourite parts of the book. Firstly, there’s not nowhere as much annoying poetry in it as I remember. Secondly, it’s in this section that the true nature of Middle-earth and what the Hobbits are really striving to save is laid out for all to see, if you just look at it the right way. When I said this at the Black Library Weekender in November, my colleague Dan Abnett used some rude words in disbelief. But it’s true, I’ve totally re-evaluated Bombadil.

The boring bits

It’s a shame the journey to Bree was so compressed in the movies (although I was glad at the time, I admit). It gives us a better idea of the size of Middle-earth. The length of time between Bilbo’s party and the discovery of the Ring’s nature gives us a sense of temporal scale. The Old Forest, Barrow Wights and Bombadil in particular paint the world in a much weirder light. The meticulously planned departure shows the Hobbits to be courageous and clever in their own right. The Scouring of the Shire speaks similarly as to the character of Hobbits and the nature of what they are protecting. I suspect these (and Bombadil) are included in what Jackson called the “boring” bits. Once I would have agreed, now I believe them to be essential to an accurate reading of the story. On the other hand, if he were to remake the movies now he has enough clout to demand five films. Putting everything in would have destroyed the pacing.

In conclusion, both films and books are valid forms of entertainment. Tolkien’s focusses on the little moments, Jackson’s on the larger. The books are emotionally deeper and fundamentally more enchanting. The movies are a grand spectacle.

The books dazzle in retrospect, lingering long after reading, the films are potent in their immediacy.

I read this interview in Le Monde with Christopher Tolkien. He’s not happy, understandably in some respects, but I think his fears are unfounded. The films may not have captured the depth of Tolkien’s philosophical stance, but they are admirable. And no matter how shallow they may seem in comparison, they do not take away from what is special about Tolkien’s work. Arguably, they enhance the books. In any case, people will always love the original source materials for what they are.

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Comments
  1. Have you seen the extras on the special edition DVDs of the films? The effort that went into the design was truly astonishing, I have no end of respect for Weta’s work. The three films are required Christmas viewing in our house, we set aside a couple of days to enjoy them.

    It may be unsisterly of me, but I didn’t like the fact that Arwen got a boost. I don’t have a problem with their not being many female characters in the books, what matters to me is how well they work. I’m therefore rather worried about Tauriel in the Hobbit films…

  2. xisor says:

    Mighty interesting, Guy, it’s an avenue of thought that I try to enjoy often too, in what little ways I can! (And repeat it, in lesser ways, for the other two ‘big fantasies’ of modern times, His Dark Materials and Harry Potter. Unsurprisingly, one’s much less work to pry apart than the others!)

    With regard to characterisation, one of the key points that’s subtle in the books (though leapt out at me in later years of rereading), but that’s utterly missing in the LotR trilogy is the sheer dignity and decency in Gimli’s understanding of Frodo’s plight. It was quite starkly unusual amongst the Fellowship compared to Frodo’s relations with the rest of the cast.

    Unlike in the Hobbit, where Bilbo is more self-assured, Frodo is deeply self-conscious and Gimli’s link back to Gloin and Bilbo’s journey provided a stable point of reassurance, one that struck me as a main thread that could’ve been exploited in the films. I think that level of benevolent sympathy’s well provided in Ken Stott’s Balin, and it seems to be there in the little glimpses we get of the fewer purely comical moments of Rhys-Davies’ Gimli, but it rarely feels like it captures quite the same result as the novels.

    Aragorn, in the film, seemed to take up a lot of that role with respect to Frodo, but, I think, this led to rather missing some of Tolkien’s original themes about the various races and the allegory of their segregations. Where Elves and Men were fey, prone to snobbery and fickle, Dwarves and Hobbits, the smaller folk, even in their pettiness had a great dignity to themselves and a quieter, slightly odd mutual affinity for each other. Even in both Hobbit films, I’m not entirely sure that shines through.

    The most particular single-event of the book, one that it seems is easily forgotten, that’s feels wholly missing from the films is when Gimli takes Frodo to see the mirrormere and talks about the names of the mountains after fleeing Moria and before Lothlorien.

    I can see why it’s missed out, but in terms of character, it’s now long pained me that it’s gone.

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