Speeches of this kind

This piece by my good friend Timothy Boyd is the first in what I hope will be a continuing series of posts by guest authors. Dr. Boyd teaches Greek, Latin, and World Civilizations at the University of Buffalo.

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I have now seen Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (I) twice. Owning and having viewed the extended version of his The Lord of the Rings a number of times, and having read and heard various things about this new film, I went with some hesitation. From the previous films, I knew something of what to expect: the story would focus more upon movement than upon discourse — most of the original dialogue would disappear — or reappear, sometimes in the mouths of others, or at other moments — and there would be scenes missing, at least some of which I, for one, would trust that the author had considered important enough to have included in his telling. It is possible, of course, to explain small changes here and there by the nature of adaptation: after all, novels and films are different media and the length of focus demanded by a 1000-page-plus series of books would be impossible in the compressed — and action-focused — world of film. If the previous films were anything to go by, it might also mean that there would be larger changes, deviations from the printed text as Professor Tolkien had written it. While I might accept some things as being part of the adaptation, others might be difficult to accept, mostly because they would seem to me unnecessary, such as, in The Lord of the Rings, a clownish drinking contest at Edoras, Sam being dismissed by Frodo at Cirith Ungol, the over-the-top presentation of the Paths of the Dead, with its cascading skulls, among others.

And so I went, as I’ve said, with some hesitation. Because I wanted to be as fair as I could be, however, I went to a showing with all of the technology: 3D, 48fps and did so for both viewings. I’m not sure how I felt about what I saw in terms of that technology: at times, I had the odd sensation that I was watching one of those BBC TV series from the 1970s, in which indoor scenes were filmed on a set and outdoor filmed on location. Some moments jumped out, but others seemed oddly flat.

It was not by those effects, however, that I found myself disturbed: rather, it was by what seemed to me to be radical changes to the text. We see a character named “Azog”, for example, who appears to have some sort of family feud with Thorin and who pursues the dwarves and hobbit throughout the entire movie. Who is Azog, I wondered, and how, in several recent readings of The Hobbit, had I missed him and this relentless pursuit? In fact, he was rather easy to miss, occurring only in a single sentence, spoken by Gandalf to Thorin in the 1966 revision: “‘Your grandfather Thror was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin.’”1 In Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, we are given more information, being told how Azog dealt with Thror and almost did the same to Thrain, before he was killed, then beheaded, by Dain Ironfoot.2 A difficulty here is that of chronology. Dain had killed Azog at the battle of Nanduhirion, in Third Age, 2799, and The Hobbit begins in Third Age, 2941 (see Appendix B 1088–89). Thus, we are seeing in the film a major plot element which involves what is, in fact, a minor figure engaging in an activity not only not in The Hobbit, but seemingly impossible, seeing that that figure has been dead for nearly one-hundred-and-fifty years. What are we to make of this?

1 See Douglas A. Anderson, The Annotated Hobbit, revised and expanded edition, NY: Houghton/Mifflin, 2002, 56–57. In the 1937 edition, he is even more anonymous, being simply called “a goblin”.

2 See J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings A.3.09–A.3.38 (50th anniversary one-volume edition, 1073–1076). All subsequent citations are to this edition.

I believe that an explanation lies in an interview by Ethan Gilsdorf with one of the adapters, Philippa Boyens, on wired.com. Gilsdorf begins his interview with the words,

If you have quibbles or major beefs about how The Hobbit was adapted for Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, Philippa Boyens has answers.3

Boyens, in her initial response, says,

It is episodic. That was a big challenge. You do tumble from one adventure to the next, not necessarily building on each other and not necessarily interconnected, either … a little bit disastrous in terms of the film grinding to a halt. But having to take that chance as a screenwriter when you’re adapting a novel, and figure it out and to make it work, it does mean that you take liberties.

The question is, of course, what is a “liberty”? Is a slight abridgement, for the sake of giving the story a faster pace, a liberty? Is the introduction of a character who is no longer alive at the time of the story? Is having that character turn into a major adversary of one of the protagonists? Is, as we know from studio and fan gossip, the invention of a character out of whole cloth, the elf-warrior “Tauriel”? And how far can one take liberties before one is no longer simply an adapter, but someone who is coming dangerously close to becoming a usurper, who begins to ignore the original text and substitute for it one’s own creations? When is what we are viewing no longer an adaptation of “The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien”, but rather something more like “An Impression, with Many Improvements, of The Hobbit by Philippa Boyens and her Collaborators”?

And here I am reminded of Tolkien’s description of Isengard:

But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived — for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dûr.4

4 The Lord of the Rings LRC §3.08.108 (555).

These adapters of The Hobbit aren’t evil, as Saruman becomes, but they may be misled, just as Saruman was. In his arrogance, he had been tricked into believing that he had become the rival, rather than the main Istari opponent, of Sauron, which is why Isengard had become so different from “A strong place and wonderful … and long it had been beautiful…”. 5 Are the adapters turning Tolkien’s work into their own “child’s model”, blinded to the worth and skill of the original work by their pride in the fact that they have been so commercially successful with their earlier films? I would hope not, although the movie I saw certainly seemed to me at times to have become more the work of the adapters than the author. And then there was this remark, later in the Boyens interview:

5 The Lord of the Rings LRC §3.08.108 (555).

So, in the end, there’s always going to be naysayers. 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. 6

Surely the person to trust is Professor Tolkien? But perhaps this is Saruman speaking (less grammatically than the original) to us. Certainly that claim of ultimate wisdom and the rejection of other opinions sounds like him when he says to Gandalf:

You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for friends, … I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice…. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order.7

7 The Lord of the Rings LRC §2.02.1612.02.163 (259).

It is clear that Saruman trusts himself. But then, these adapters are the same people who changed the story of the latter part of Saruman’s life, rejecting Tolkien’s cautionary tale of how, just like Sauron, Saruman had attempted a comeback in Middle Earth, ruling — and ruining — the Shire and dying for it. Perhaps, then, we should reply to Ms Boyens’ claim of superior authority with Gandalf’s reply to Saruman:

I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.8

8 The Lord of the Rings LRC §2.02.164 (259).

To which we might add, “and eyes”.

The books on the shelf

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:

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.1

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

has got a lot of issues as a story in terms of a film adaptation. Something that’s not film friendly, so to speak.2

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:

I think we managed to write a story where we have too few dwarves, not too many.3

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

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:

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.4

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

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:

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.5

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

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

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.6

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

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

on the point of not making Meriadoc or Pippin rustic (nor indeed any of the 144 gentry at the party)….7

7 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.

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

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….8

8 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 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

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.9

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

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:

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.10

10 JPB, “Concerning Christopher”, as above.

Christopher Tolkien lamented:

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.11

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

Or, as translated in the Worldcrunch version:

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.12

12 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.

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.