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Posts for Tag: Christopher Tolkien

The books on the shelf

    Andrew Peterson     Christopher Tolkien     Timothy Boyd     film     Tolkien

Over the last few days, Andy Peterson and Timothy Boyd have pointed me to two very different on-line articles about Tolkien films.

One was Ethan Gilsdorf’s interview over at Wired magazine with Philippa Boyens, one of the screenwriters for Peter Jackson’s three-part movie of The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings before that. (Boyens is of course not to be confused with Pauline Baynes, Tolkien’s friend and illustrator.)

The other article was “Concerning Christopher — An Essay on Tolkien’s Son’s Decision To Not Allow Further Cinematic Licensing of His Work”, an essay posted by “JPB” at TheOneRing.net.

JPB doesn’t break much new ground, but he does thoughtfully take us step-by-step to the conclusions that Christopher Tolkien “has the legal right to make the call, is a good choice to be the one making the call,” and “knows his father’s wishes better than anyone,” — before finally concluding:

JPB, “Concerning Christopher — An Essay on Tolkien’s Son’s Decision To Not Allow Further Cinematic Licensing of His Work”. At TheOneRing.net: 2013–01–07.

When people get their Tolkien only from the films, or plays, or role-playing games, or other adaptations, they are missing the true value of his father’s work. Christopher has devoted much of his life to combating this problem…. That’s what I think Christopher is doing — fighting what he sees as “the long defeat” — wherever he can, not only publishing as much of his father’s work as he can, but preventing further erosion of his father’s written word by simply not allowing further adaptations to take place.

It looks now as if our family will be going to see The Hobbit this weekend. This decision is not made lightly: in addition to the question of giving New Line Cinema $US 40, our nearest movie theaters are 35 minutes’ drive. And what will we see when we get there? Indeed, not The Hobbit that I’ve been reading since 1973. Boynes says that the book

Ethan Gilsdorf, “Hobbit Week: A Conversation with Hobbit Screenwriter Philippa Boyens”. Wired: 2012–12–11.

has got a lot of issues as a story in terms of a film adaptation. Something that’s not film friendly, so to speak.

She’s right: The Hobbit is not well suited to a film adaptation. Even of The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to Molly Waldron in 1955, “I think the book quite unsuitable for ‘dramatization’” — and it’s widely thought that the episodic nature of The Hobbit would work even less well as a modern film. In Boynes’s own words, though, the movie is a story that they wrote:

Ethan Gilsdorf, “A Conversation with Philippa Boyens”, as above; emphasis added.

I think we managed to write a story where we have too few dwarves, not too many.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:

J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Forrest J. Ackerman (probably in the spring of 1958), in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #210.

I would ask [adaptors] to make an effort of imagination sufficient to undersand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds … his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about…. The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.

Though I would not go so far as to call The Lord of the Rings a “poor” film, Jackson and Boynes clearly do not perceive “where the core of the original lies”, and they deliberately alter “the story, in fact and significance” — which Tolkien objects to in the same letter. It seems, though, that Boynes thinks they know better:

Ethan Gilsdorf, “A Conversation with Philippa Boyens”, as above.

There’s always going to be people who have imagined they understand how these things work and how storytelling works. But in the end, you have to accept that they don’t. You have to trust yourself and that’s what we did.

Near the end of that same 1958 letter, Tolkien wrote:

J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Forrest J. Ackerman (probably in the spring of 1958), as above.

I do earnestly hope that in the assignment of actual speeches to the characters they will be represented as I have presented them: in style and sentiment. I should resent perversion of the characters … even more than the spoiling of the plot and scenery.

Tolkien evidently felt strongly about this, for in 1955 he had written to Terence Tiller at the BBC — who was adapting The Lord of the Rings for radio broadcast — that he placed importance

J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Terrence Tiller 1955–09–10, in Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, vol. 2, p. 12.

on the point of not making Meriadoc or Pippin rustic (nor indeed any of the 144 gentry at the party)….

That, of course, is exactly what Boynes did do, of course — and though even David Bratman observed that

David Bratman, “Summa Jacksonica: A Reply to Defenses of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Films, after St. Thomas Aquinas”, in Janet Brennan Croft, Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. The Mythopoeic Press, 2005.

it didn’t even bother me that much that Jackson turned the Hobbits into Irish peasants, though it would have infuriated Tolkien…. It’s departures from the spirit that I’m worried about….

it still rankles, given Tolkien’s thoughts on the subject. It remains to be seen (well, at least by those few of us who have not yet viewed it) how faithfully Jackson and Boynes put forth Tolkien’s characters in The Hobbit, but I see little reason for optimism. (Just how Tolkien would have reacted to the addition of new characters, of course, can only be imagined.)

Upon hearing that Jackson was splitting The Hobbit into two — and then into three — separate films, I had had some hope that he and Boynes would have done their homework used material such as Tolkien’s “Quest for Erebor” (presented in a shortened form in Unfinished Tales and in a different, fuller form in Douglas Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit). According to The History of The Hobbit author John Rateliff, however, Jackson

John Rateliff, quoted in Rachel Nuwer, “The Tolkien Nerd’s Guide to The Hobbit”. The Smithsonian: 2013–01–03.

had a very difficult task in that the movie rights extend only to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings…. He’s well aware that there’s a great deal more material set in that world, but contractually not allowed to use that material in the movies.

That Jackson is to some extent hindered from telling the “full” canonical Hobbit story by the Tolkien Estate’s insistence that the filmmakers be strictly limited to material found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is ironic indeed. But it scarcely matters, for even when not limited contractually, Jackson and Boynes have hardly hewn closely to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And this brings us right back around again to JPB’s essay on Christopher Tolkien. He writes:

JPB, “Concerning Christopher”, as above.

It’s clear … that Christopher thinks his father’s work conveys something vital. He wants us to see what’s so inspiring about those words. I believe, that to his viewpoint, based on his experience over the decades, the more that work is filtered through the imperfect lens of adaptation, and becomes fodder for the grist-mill of popular culture, the further it gets from the purity of its source material.

Christopher Tolkien lamented:

Christopher Tolkien, quoted in Raphaëlle Rérolle, “Tolkien, l’anneau de la discorde”. Le Monde, 2012–07–05.

Le fossé qui s’est creusé entre la beauté, le sérieux de l’œuvre, et ce qu’elle est devenue, tout cela me dépasse. Un tel degré de commercialisation réduit à rien la portée esthétique et philosophique de cette création.

Or, as translated in the Worldcrunch version:

Christopher Tolkien, quoted in Raphaëlle Rérolle, “My Father’s ‘Eviscerated’ Work: Son of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out”. Worldcrunch, 2012–12–05.

The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.

Indeed, perhaps the “impact” has been reduced, thanks to the Jackson juggernaut’s effect on the mass consciousness. But the books (as Bratman quotes James M. Cain) are “right there, sitting on the shelf”. Bratman seems to disagree, but as long as we keep picking those books up and reading them — to our selves, our sweeties, our children, — the books will not be forgotten; nor will be their beauty, their seriousness, their aesthetics, or their philosophy. That’s my plan, whether the new movies are close to or far from Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Rateliff (& Christopher Tolkien) at Marquette

    John Rateliff     Christopher Tolkien     Marquette

A month ago today, John Rateliff (author of The History of The Hobbit) posted an interesting entry. He begins:

John Rateliff, “Me, at Marquette”. Sacnoth’s Scriptorium, 2012–12–03.

So, two months ago today I was at Marquette, talking to Dr. Machan’s Tolkien class there in the morning (“how to become a Tolkien Scholar”) and giving a talk at the Library in the afternoon about how The Hobbit manuscript wound up in Milwaukee, of all places, including an anecdotal account of what little is known about JRRT’s planned trip there. We had a good turn-out for the latter talk, which they recorded on video. And now they’ve gone through and put together a ten-minute representative excerpt from the Q-and-A session at the end.

Here is that ten-minute video. Particularly interesting are his references to Christopher Tolkien’s visit to Marquette in 1987.

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