Monday, June 15, 2020

The World of the Rings

From Touchstone:
It is no accident that these examples from The Lord of the Rings came first and unbidden to my mind, because Tolkien was very consciously and deliberately following the literary tradition that flows down to us from Sidney through Dr. Johnson and C. S. Lewis. As a result, Tolkien deliberately gave us characters that strike some moderns—including Peter Jackson—as too good to be true.
This is not an artistic flaw; it is central to Tolkien's creative purpose. How shall we enact Faramir's costly integrity in our own lives, for example, if we have never even imagined it to be possible? And how shall we so imagine it if we have never seen it in action? Tolkien's characters perform virtuous deeds that we probably could not perform ourselves—to the end that perhaps someday we can.
Peter Jackson, by contrast, comes from a more modern tradition that is suspicious of such moral didacticism and is more focused on "realism" (though this realism is somewhat inconsistently pursued, one might think, when it leads to a rabbit-drawn sledge that can travel over dry ground and doesn't need snow, as in Jackson's The Hobbit). Jackson apparently thinks the characters Tolkien gave us are too simply good to be fully believable to modern audiences, and so he feels obligated to "complicate" them, to give them internal conflicts other than the ones they actually have, in the hopes that we will better be able to relate to them.

Or so his consistent changes to Tolkien's characters would suggest. By this process, Faramir's "I wouldn't pick this thing [the One Ring] up if I found it lying in the road" becomes "Tell my father I send him a powerful weapon!" By this process, Aragorn becomes ambivalent about taking up his kingship rather than devoted to his calling with fixed purpose. By this process, Arwen actually contemplates deserting Aragorn and going to the Grey Havens to escape from Middle Earth despite their earlier pact, and he thinks she would.

By this process of negative moral transformation, in other words, we reach the place where beloved characters are unrecognizable to Tolkien's fans, and those fans feel betrayed. And they are right to feel so, though mostly they do not understand why. It is because the difference between the books and the movies is not just one of necessary adaptation to a different medium. It is that the author consciously followed the Sidneyan tradition while the adaptor is either ignorant of it or doesn't understand it or has rejected it.

I am not saying there is no legitimate place in literature for morally conflicted characters; an author can profitably show their development toward or away from virtue and portray its consequences—as Tolkien himself did brilliantly with Gollum, for example. I am saying that there is a place for the other kind of character Tolkien gave us; that it is an important place; that giving us such characters was in fact what Tolkien was doing; and that Peter Jackson is doing something very different.
The difference is not trivial. Jackson cannot imagine unwavering faithfulness, and so he gives us an Aragorn who actually thinks about Eowyn, and an Arwen who actually thinks about the Havens, as real possibilities that can be considered—very unlike the characters in the books. (Read more.)

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