A purist's defense of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings screenplay
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Why Peter Jackson's changes, like them or not, were essential for a successful adaptation...
Literature is an incredible thing. The power of the pen has toppled tyrants, started revolutions, and led to sweeping social change. Whether it be a Homeric epic, timeless poetry, or a newly-printed graphic novel, great literature has at its core an important idea or moral. Great literature means something to everyone who reads it. Great literature transports you to its world and, perhaps most importantly, great literature teaches you something about yourself and the world around you. That is an author's most powerful gift to the reader - a story or message that broadens the reader's horizons and makes him or her think about something in a wonderfully new way.
I have written often of late about Hollywood's recent tendency to loot old ideas for new content, a tendency that I fear may have dire consequences for this generation's perception towards original literature. It would seem to the observant onlooker that no classic film or novel or poem is safe from a contemporary re-imagining, no matter how hallowed it may be. But to do so often presents a paradox - it can be excruciatingly and infamously difficult to adapt a novel to the screen and it is certainly a tall task for cast and crew when the original source is immensely popular and boasts millions upon millions of fans. Depending on the genre and story, sometimes the source material is so beloved that a particularly hardcore demographic of devotee emerges - the purist.
That's right - I said it. Purist. That little word may be the cause of more controversy among fans of major movie franchises than anything else. Spend enough time enjoying and studying a film's construction and message and you might perceive yourself as transcending mere fan status and becoming a purist, a staunch defender of that film's greatness, down to the script's every word. For the typical purist, the slightest change to the original source material is cause for suspicion. By no means is the purist phenomenon reserved for cinema, but is also true for all forms of art, such as the music lover who boasts that he is more than "just a fan" because he heard the world-famous band play "before they were famous".
With time, beloved films or books or programs become something more than just beloved; they become unassailable paragons of "proper" artistry. The slightest addition, subtraction, or change invites a wave of fanboy fury akin to somebody offering to add a few more brushstrokes to the Mona Lisa to get it "just right". Take Star Wars, for example. The 1997 'Special Editions' of the original trilogy, coupled with the recent prequel trilogy, sparked an angry backlash from fans who widely perceived the recent additions as inferior dilutions of the franchise's magic. "Purists" have disliked many of the recent Star Wars projects en masse, to put it mildly.
"...as a purist, it stands to reason that I should either hate the Peter Jackson films or, at the very least, be dismissive of them. But I love them."
Now, if there's one thing that Star Wars and Lord of the Rings have in common, it is their incredibly rabid fan bases, each of which are comprised of an extraordinarily healthy share of purists. Any tweak to either franchise has the hallowed "official" canon to live up to, along with millions of fans watching the proceedings with the beady-eyed glare of a prison guard. This is the atmosphere in which Peter Jackson found himself when he adapted one of the most widely-read, beloved, and hotly defended fantasy novels of all time. And when the final result was released for public consumption, the Lord of the Rings films were derided in some circles as pale shadows of the "real" story, a colossal misstep that badly misconstrued Tolkien's original vision.
There is a member of my extended family (whom I will not name) who cites Lord of the Rings as integral in seeing her through an extremely painful time in her life by allowing her a much-needed escape from reality. As a result, she is not only impressively knowledgeable in its histories and events, but is very protective of it as well; a purist in every sense of the word. For her, the novel is more than a story; it was a beacon of light in a dark place. And she has pulled no punches when it comes to her disdain of the cherished novel's theatrical "version".
Now, I do not necessarily place myself at her level, but I know the Lord of the Rings pretty well. Quite well, if I am allowed a moment of braggadocio. When the screenplay varies from the novel, I not only recognize the change, but know the differences between the two in fairly great detail. Having read the novel many times over, I was a frequent visitor to Middle-Earth long before the films were but a glint in Peter Jackson's eye. Ask me about Bullroarer Took or Quickbeam or Cirdan of the Grey Havens and I can tell you a thing or two. Same with Thranduil or Bard or Beorn in The Hobbit. Even Beren or Finwe or Gothmog in The Silmarillion. I am not just a fan of LOTR; I am a voracious compiler of Middle-Earth knowledge. I am, *drum roll*, a purist.
And as a purist, it stands to reason that I should either hate the Peter Jackson films or, at the very least, be dismissive of them. But I love them. Even with their faults and changes, I love them, because I know that Peter Jackson couldn't have realistically done any better. He couldn't have created the version that purists wanted. That's why even huge fans of the novel who hate the movies for all of their changes and mischaracterizations should respect Jackson for his efforts. I'll say it again - he couldn't have created the version that purists wanted. Period.
"The film version of Lord of the Rings that follows the novel religiously will never happen."
And why not? Mainly because films on the scale of Lord of the Rings only come to fruition through the financing of hundreds of millions of dollars via movie studios. It is an investment on their part, not a donation. Epics are not created through the goodness of somebody's heart. New Line Cinema trusted Peter Jackson with near-incalculable riches on the gamble that they would make their money back and more. Knowing this, Jackson had to make LOTR palatable for as wide an audience as possible so that the project could ultimately become a financial success. The film version of Lord of the Rings that follows the novel religiously will never happen. It is not improbable; it is impossible.
Consider the mysterious Tom Bombadil. He is one of the most popular characters in the novel and yet is never seen nor referred to in the films. In Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth, Bombadil does not exist. On the surface, that is an outrageous screenwriting decision, but the inclusion of Bombadil in the films would have been nothing short of disastrous. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tom Bombadil is a strange old man whom the hobbits encounter in the first leg of their journey to Rivendell. He lives near the borders of the Shire in the Old Forest with his wife Goldberry, saves the hobbits from danger on a couple of occasions and, at first glance, seems to be simply playing the stock role of 'friendly stranger'.
But Bombadil is far from just a friendly stranger. He is a force of nature, literally. Tolkien writes that Bombadil is 'master of wood, water, and hill', the embodiment of the natural world, and is possibly the oldest living being on all of Middle-Earth. Most astoundingly, the One Ring has no effect on him. He does not turn invisible when he puts it on and can see Frodo, while invisible, when the young hobbit puts it on himself. Later, at the Council of Elrond, the idea that the Council give Tom the ring for safekeeping is broached and then quickly dismissed. Why not give it to him? Because Tom, even if made aware of the ring's great importance, would not keep it safe. Instead, he would inevitably misplace it in favor of doting on his wife and the forest that he loves. No amount of cajoling could effectively make Tom understand what the ring means to the safety and security of the entire world. He is, for all intents and purposes, beyond power.
"Include Tom Bombadil in the film and 200 million moviegoers with only a passing knowledge of LOTR say in unison: 'what was the point of that?'"
How exactly do you put a character like that to film? You cannot. Imagine a cinematic version of Lord of the Rings that includes a side trip to Tom Bombadil's cottage. The audience meets an ancient and powerful eccentric in the guise of a happy-go-lucky gardener of sorts, a being so inexplicably mighty that he is immune to even the One Ring's power... and once the hobbits leave the Old Forest he is never seen again. Later, it is patiently explained to the hobbits that even if all the captains of Good in Middle-Earth pleaded with Tom to help them and protect the ring, he would not, because all he cares for is the trees and streams and his garden and Goldberry. Include Tom Bombadil in the film and 200 million moviegoers with only a passing knowledge of LOTR say in unison: "what was the point of that?" Tolkien created a world that was instilled with the subtle power of nature and Tom Bombadil was an allegory that spoke of nature's indifference to what humans call power. A lovely theme, but if Jackson had included him, it would have brought the main plot and tension to an absolute standstill. Purists would have been overjoyed, but everyone else would have been totally befuddled.
In The Two Towers film, Faramir, brother of Boromir, captures Frodo and Sam out in the wild and nearly brings them and the One Ring to Minas Tirith before his conscience gets the best of him and he lets them go, allowing them to continue their journey to Mordor. Is this how he behaves in the novel? Not even close. Tolkien's Faramir comes across the two hobbits in the wild, correctly guesses their task, realizes that Frodo has the One Ring in his possession, briefly muses what heroic deeds he could accomplish if he held it for his own, and then tells the hobbits how he would never do such a thing and summarily wishes them good luck in their quest and bids them adieu. The differences between the two versions of Faramir aren't exactly subtle; they are as different as night and day.
Perhaps no other change has provoked as much LOTR purist rage as did Faramir's morphing from a thoughtful and wise leader of men into a grasping, bitter kidnapper with an inferiority complex. But in the eyes of the general public, portraying Faramir 'correctly' would have rendered the rest of Frodo and Sam's journey in The Two Towers nigh unwatchable. In the novel, while the rest of the now-asunder fellowship is either battling Uruk-hai at Helm's Deep or attacking Saruman at Orthanc, Frodo and Sam are...walking. To change Faramir into a divided soul, one who sometimes ignores the right thing to do in favor of finally gaining the approval of his dismissive father, lends the Frodo and Sam storyline more 'realism' for the informal fan. And, rightly or not, it certainly creates more tension than the original source material conveys at this point in the story.
Jackson's deletion of Tom Bombadil and revision of Faramir are just two examples of how the film detours from the novel. There are many more, both small and large. Ponder, if you will, the Council of Elrond scene in the Fellowship of the Ring novel - it is interminable, replete with individual stories, bits of random news from various characters, and lengthy debate regarding what the Council will do with the One Ring. Putting that to screen verbatim would have reduced a tale of adventure to a round table of epic boredom. In Tolkien's novel, the Council's ruminations and decisions plod along for an astounding 45 pages, over 11% of Fellowship of the Ring's length. A rote adaptation of such a scene would not have led to greater plot insight among casual fans; it would have led to them falling asleep in their chairs.
"Above all else, Peter Jackson's ability to effectively weave multiple narratives together so that everyone could understand Tolkien's tale was what led to the films' success."
Here's another - in the Return of the King novel, the four hobbits return home from helping save Middle-Earth to find that Hobbiton has been taken over by a band of ruffians led by the banished Saruman. Consequently, they must fight one last time for their homes and way of life, in a skirmish known as the Battle of Bywater. In print, the battle cleverly shows that, even though the war has been won, evil will forever search for a foothold, even in realms thought untouchable. In other words, Sauron is defeated but the world is still a dangerous place. In novel form, that works. On screen and for casual fans, there is no way to portray that without it being a hollow anticlimax, especially in a movie infamously and widely derided by many viewers as having 'too many endings'.
Characters' lines are spoken by other characters, scenes are rearranged or cut entirely, the crux of characters' motivations are sometimes wholly changed. But there is a single-minded purpose behind all of Peter Jackson's changes - the greater good of the story. Deviations from the novel are concocted to sharpen the narrative and lead the audience to an easily-recognizable end - the destruction of the One Ring and the banishment of evil. Gray areas are made either black or white. Mysterious characters are made to choose a side or are erased for the benefit of simplicity. All so that the general audience can easily recognize the major conflicts involved without the encumbrance of minor plot threads and distracting moral questions.
Because let's face it. Not everybody can be a 'superfan' and a lot of people don't care to be. Most people don't care to unravel Aragorn's lineage seven generations back. Most people don't care about the names of the mountain ranges surrounding Mordor. Most people just don't care. They want to see a story that makes sense without the advantage of prior knowledge. They want to see a rip-roaring tale of good vs. evil, without the entanglements of characters with dubious motives, a complicated and philosophical nature vs. industry argument, or an equally-complicated nature vs. nurture debate. Simplicity leads to digestibility, which leads to profits large enough to have made the endeavor worthwhile for all involved. And like it or not, profits are what it's all about.
Above all else, Peter Jackson's ability to effectively weave multiple narratives together so that everyone could understand Tolkien's tale was what led to the films' success. And that's what many purists just can't bring themselves to admit. A cinematic version of Lord of the Rings that properly mirrors the novel could never have been made. By default, Jackson's adaptation was the next best thing; the best thing we'll ever get. So that's got to count for something... right?
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