The Hobbit movies will be made, and why I care a little less with each viewing of Lord of the Rings (but not really)
- 20 September 2009
- By Gerard Wood
It's been a week or so since a settlement was reached over the disputed share of profits earned by New Line's Lord of the Rings movies. The lawsuit was filed in February last year by the Tolkien Trust and HarperCollins Publishers who claimed not to have received "even one penny" from the movies. The case was due to go to trial on 19 October and it had the potential, we're told, to bring production of New Line's adaptation of The Hobbit to a grinding halt before Bilbo Baggins had even had a chance to set off on his journey "there and back again".
Actually, there was never much likelihood that the dispute would have gone so far. The Tolkien Trust was certainly in a position to disrupt production of The Hobbit movie, but I suspect few really believed that New Line (or Warner Bros., its parent company since March 2008) would allow a dispute over a relatively small fraction of profits for three of the most successful films ever made to get in the way of making a truck load more money on a return to Middle Earth. From the moment this claim was made, a settlement was inevitable.
The great man's son and literary heir, Christopher Tolkien, articulated the Tolkien Trust's regret that legal action had been necessary, but was satisfied that an agreement had been reached that would allow the Trust to pursue its charitable objectives, clearing the way for New Line to "proceed with its proposed films of The Hobbit."
I can guess what you're thinking: this is old news and anyway, given that a settlement was inevitable, it's only slightly more newsworthy than an announcement that the sun has shown its face in the morning! The reason I bring this up at all is my reaction to a statement made by Warner Bros.' President, Alan Horn, in the wake of the settlement: "We deeply value the contributions of the Tolkien novels to the success of our films and are pleased to have put this litigation behind us."
My initial reaction on reading this was, frankly, bemusement. Just when you might have expected a magnanimous acknowledgement to the effect that "Our films would not exist without Tolkien's novel" we learn that Tolkien's novel merely contributed to the success of the films. At a first glance, Horn's statement seems to have the topsy-turvy logic you'd expect from Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps if I think back I'll recall Kenneth Branagh thanking Shakespeare for contributing to the success of his movie adaptation of Hamlet?
But the more I consider Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of the Rings, the more I find myself agreeing with Alan Horn's sentiment. I'm sure some of you will hate me for what I'm about to say. Hell, a few years ago I probably would have hated me for what I'm about to say! I have been, and remain, a huge admirer of Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies from the moment a tear came to my eyes during the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring, overwhelmed by the experience of Tolkien's novel coming to life on the big screen. But if I'm objective, if I put to one side the magnificent spectacle that Jackson achieved with his movies and consider the merits of his adaptation, I'm forced to conclude that the movies are at best a very rough approximation of Tolkien's novel.
Even while I've admired the movies for their emotional power and value as sheer entertainment, I've always had reservations about the adaptation due to some outstandingly poor decisions made by the screenwriters. There are numerous examples from which I could choose, but for now I'll limit myself to two that I think demonstrate the screenwriters' failure to do justice to the novel in their eagerness to create dramatic moments for the screen where they simply do not exist.
Consider Faramir's decision in The Two Towers to drag Frodo and Sam off to Osgiliath, whereupon Frodo very dramatically reveals himself and the One Ring to the enemy. It's a great moment in the movie - and it allows Sam (Sean Astin) to give one of the most poignant speeches in the movie. But by all rights Frodo's revelation of the Ring to the Nazgul should be an unmitigated disaster. The success of Frodo's mission to destroy the Ring is utterly dependent on its secrecy and on Sauron's uncertainty about the location of the Ring and his fear that one of the powerful - Aragorn or Gandalf perhaps - would claim the Ring for himself. Jackson's adaptation creates a dramatic moment - a beat - in the movie where one doesn't exist in the novel (Faramir simply doesn't take the Hobbits to Osgiliath), but like so many of the decisions which seek to create a dramatic moment the adaptation is simply illogical in terms of the plot and inconsistent with Tolkien's intention. At this point of the movie Sauron not only learns that Frodo has the Ring, but that the Hobbit is practically on his doorstep - all he needs to do is send in his most powerful servants, the nine Nazgul, to pick Frodo up and the war is over. But all is not lost because the screenwriters simply do not follow through with the logical consequences of this encounter. In fact Sauron behaves as if it never occurred.
I plan to write something a little more detailed about Jackson's adaptation sometime soon, but for now another example from The Two Towers may suffice to make my point. Having escaped from a band of Orcs, the two young Hobbits, Merry and Pippin, flee into Fangorn Forest where they encounter the Ent, Treebeard, a sentient tree. To cut a long story short all the Ents gather together to discuss what part they should play in the war against Saruman and Sauron. In Jackson's movie they deliberate and decide not to go to war.
Devastated by the decision, Merry and Pippin convince Treebeard to take them on a round about journey through Fangorn Forest to the very borders of Saruman's realm. There Treebeard witnesses firsthand the destruction of his forest caused by Saruman and only then is he motivated to go to war. It's a powerful, dramatic moment in the film. Treebeard calls on his fellow Ents and together they charge off to do battle with the forces of evil.
Forget for a moment that the other Ents miraculously appear at Treebeard's side as soon as he calls them - despite the fact that it had taken Treebeard some hours at least to travel across the breadth of Fangorn. Ignore the fact that an entire forest of trees then heads off in another direction to help out at Helm's Deep - despite having consulted no one. Illogical as these things are, they are trivial in the scheme of things. No, the fundamental difference with Tolkien's novel is that when Tolkien's Ents deliberate over whether or not to go to war, they decide in the affirmative.
I'm sure that for some this will not seem like an important point at all as the screenwriters get us to the same place Tolkien intended: the Ents go to war. But I disagree. We may have arrived at the same place, but how we got there is profoundly different. Alan Horn's vague recognition of the contribution made by Tolkien's novels to the success of the films is not vague at all, it's spot on: in this one example alone we find a world of difference - ethically and philosophically - between Tolkien's novel and Jackson's adaptation. The Ents in Tolkien's novel are fully engaged with the world and at no point do they make the craven decision to turn their back on it and leave others to fight the good fight for them. Jackson's Ents, on the other hand, are self-serving, only taking the fight to Saruman in the end out of self-interest and a desire for revenge.
Does this matter? I think it does, because the fundamental nature of the Ents in the two media could not be any different. In the final assessment, the Ents we see on screen have little in common with the Ents we encounter in the novel. For those who haven't read the novel, none of this probably matters at all. For many who treasure the novel however, it probably matters a lot.
Such is the nature of adaptation however. Bringing a novel to the screen invariably involves decisions that alter the original intent. Occasionally an adaptation captures the essence of a novel without necessarily replicating it (Blade Runner); often it is an act of vandalism (SyFy's Earthsea or Walden Media's The Dark is Rising). Sometimes, as with Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, the adaptation is approximate at best but the end result is a hugely entertaining experience in its own right.
When all is said and done I still admire Jackson's movies. But my reservations remain, and they're growing with every viewing.
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