Tolkien in the language of film

Eyeing Sauron: Tolkien in the language of film

By Gwydion M. Williams

I’m not here to complain about how Peter Jackson produced his own particular Tolkien-related artwork.  We are very lucky to have seen a blockbuster film that combines genuine beauty and occasional subtlety with vast commercial success.  That’s fine and I’m here to talk about what was done and how else it might be done.

Cinema is a language, a suitable medium for many sorts of tale.  I’ve seen Peter Jackson described as a ‘horror film maker’, but I can’t agree.  Even before Lord Of The Rings, he had a wider range than that—notably Heavenly Creatures, which is about psychology rather than gore.  The subject matter—two teenage girls who brutally murder the mother of one of them—can’t be handled too nicely.  But you could easily imagine it being done much more crudely.

Speaking personally, I get bored and offended by most horror films.  I’ve watched some with an SF connection, and I’d see the Alien series as mostly silly; the Matrix series even sillier, Matrix: Dumb and Matrix: Dumber.  In neither series is there an explanation as to why humans are used rather than pigs or sheep—no reason except that it wouldn’t grab the public’s attention.  I’ve not seen Jackson’s horror films, though I do have The Frighteners on my rental list at Amazon.  But from having seen Heavenly Creatures when it was on TV, I felt hopeful from the start that Peter Jackson would do a good job.  That he had a feel for the ordinary and comfortable as well as the high and bright or the dark and horrific.  That he was skilled enough to tell Tolkien’s tale in the language of the cinema, a tricky area where art meets industrial-scale manufacturing, and both meet advanced data-processing.  A place also where art cannot exist without funding on a gigantic scale.

A Hollywood blockbuster has to pull in tens of millions of people in just a few weeks, or it’s judged a flop.  Financial success must have needed the any-old-war section of the cinema audience.  Those who’ll turn up to watch a good fight, never mind the reason.  A previous speaker at this gathering reminded us that the book works so well because it can be read at many levels.  That’s even more true of a good film

The problem of funding for Lord Of The Rings is described quite nicely in an article published at the time of Two Towers:  “‘The pressure on the first film was basically, would the studio survive? —this folly of making three films at once,’ Jackson says.

“New Line Cinema poured $270 million-plus into simultaneously making three films when it wasn’t assured that the first would succeed. Jackson’s most successful film had been 1996’s “The Frighteners,” which grossed $16.5 million.”

We’d all be agreed that the money spent on that particular Tolkien-inspired artwork was money well spent.  It also made back a lot more money than was put in—which is not the same thing, but is how modern life gets measured.  There’s been a growing habit of seeing life as a burden on money.  Tolkien’s imagined cultures have very little commerce; where it exists, it is secondary to a comfortable life.

Art in the long run gets measured very differently from its immediate financial return.  200 years ago, Jane Austen had completed versions the books known nowadays as Sense & Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Pride & Prejudice.  The one judged to be worth publishing was Northanger Abbey, but it got delayed for unknown reasons and did not appear until much later.

Many of the best poems of Coleridge and Wordsworth had appeared in a collection called Lyrical Ballads, and the publisher went bankrupt. William Blake had already written a lot of his best works and uses his artisan skills to publish them himself, without arousing very much interest anywhere.  At the dawn of the 20th century, Henry James was complaining to his friend H. G. Wells that his latest book had only sold four copies.

That’s the world we live in, at this point in time.  If your concept of time extends beyond your own immediate circumstances, your own lifetime or the many-layered historical processes that formed the world you find yourself living in.  Tolkien regarded Latin-Christian culture as an optimum that was somewhat in decay.  He had an excellent knowledge of the very diverse elements that had gone into the making of that culture, Germanic and Celtic as well as Latin, Greek and Christianity in its original Hebrew-Aramaic existence.  It lasts better than writers who can’t believe that anyone would really think and feel outside of familiar Anglo values of their own generation.

Tolkien’s vision doesn’t exactly have a place within the map of current politics, but I agree with those who say it approximates to the ‘Deep Green’ version of eco-protest.  Peter Jackson’s interpretation is more green-and-gold; he values beauty but has cut out everything that might seem critical of modernism or commerce.  You weren’t likely to get better from a current commercial film-maker; you could easily have got far worse.

My idea of an ideal adaptation would be seven films, first The Hobbit and then the six books of Lord Of The Rings.  Maybe we’ll live to see a post-Jackson remake that does it so—but only thanks to Jackson’s demonstration that Tolkien could be brought to the screen in a way that was both artistic and profitable.  All major cultural projects nowadays start from the ‘marketing culture’, the constant war for public attention.  A culture of ‘mind-tugging’; you can resist it, but it is always there.  Then again, there has been a big public response to works that don’t just look at the lower end of human behaviour.  It’s intellectually fashionable, but not a wise fashion, and fashions also have a way of always refashioning themselves.

One of the major networks—preferably the BBC—might try doing both The Hobbit and the Lord Of The Rings as a set of television mini-series that made no attempt to compete with cinematic spectacle.  Outdoing Jackson won’t be feasible until special effects have had another generation of development, perhaps with computer-generated characters merging easily with live-action, even in close-up.  What could be done right now would be a television telling of Tolkien’s tale in a different style, slower and more artistic, with a view also to long-lasting DVD sales.

The Hobbit and the six books of Lord Of The Ring could each generate six one-hour episodes for television, 42 hours for the complete epic.  A dramatised Hobbit could include items from the Quest of Eriador, Gandalf’s much broader vision of Bilbo’s adventure, included in Unfinished Tales.  Beginning with a crazed dwarf speaking of “the last of the seven” would create a context, as would mention of Sauron’s failed ‘Northern Strategy’, regarded by Gandalf as worse for the West than the actual War Of The Ring had been.  You could bind the two tales that way.  42 hours might still not be room for everything, though most of the major episodes are there in the BBC radio production, a mere 13 hours and containing some great music that could be re-used.  The BBC could feasibly do it—they have revitalised Dr Who very nicely.

However it is told, the journey through Middle Earth is a journey into the past, and also through parts of your own mind.  That’s true of both The Hobbit and Lord Of the Ring, with the closeness of Shire-hobbits to present-day human making their adventures much more real and intriguing.  The travellers encounter moral qualities made flesh, though never without plausible individual features.  The past is made flesh, and ethical qualities given a monstrous embodiment, or a sublime one.  Sometimes you find the one hidden in the other; Galadriel tempted by the ring, one of my favourite film moments.  But though it was well done, it also made her too much like a wraith, something that was apparently intended.  With or without the ring, she is an elf and inherently immortal.  The elven fault is to try to keep everything unchanged.  Galadriel with the One Ring would still be beautiful, but it would increasingly be a selfish and destructive beauty, “the light on her alone”.

The peril of the ring is that it would give her too much power, remove the normal checks and balances that stop even well-intentioned people from turning into monsters.  Tolkien’s tale depends on people confronting the danger of turning into monsters, and also confronting monsters and also creatures of a strange but positive development.  To attempt it in live-action rather than cartoon was bold and has been successful.  There are however dozens of ways to actualise any particular scene, as you can see from the art-room at any Tolkienian gathering.

Animation had made great strides, but fur is still a problem.  The BBC’s Walking With Beasts was impressive in the way it brought giant extinct mammals to life, but the creatures always looked a shade unreal.  So, indeed, did the giant wolves in Two Towers.  Imagine a film which cuts quickly between real cats and ‘virtual cats’ created with the best modern technology.  Would you be fooled?  Not if you saw close enough to see the cat’s whiskers, I’d expect.  But in ten years time, I’d expect we could be fooled, at least by animated cats.  Human faces would take longer, a generation or two.

Regarding the films, I’ll not try to say anything new about Gollum, since there is an entire book that says it all.  But as a general point, it needs a good actor to make an animated character work.  Consider Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars, who achieved enough plausibility to make some bitter enemies: I do believe he’s the first animated characters to acquire real-world foes.  Plots to assassinate Deputy Dawg [attempt Southern-US accent] belong strictly to the deadpan satire of The Onion.  Jar-Jar managed to inspire real loathing and offence despite not actually existing.

I’ll now consider plot and ethics, two elements that naturally flow together.  Peter Jackson’s evident sympathy with hobbits and their quiet lives probably comes naturally to a New Zealander.  In the context of a huge uncertain film project, he was definitely brave to be as unorthodox as he has been, as the entire crew of film-makers have been.  Still, the ethical self-denial of elves and of Aragorn has been glossed over.  Denethor becomes cruder than he should be; not recognised as a good man broken by an impossible task.  The interesting image of Denethor in his tower unwisely using his palantir to wrestling with the Dark Power remains for someone else to show.

On a wider front, I’ve heard the complaint from film critics that the most popular films of 2002 have been set in the past.  Pretty much true of 2003, 2004 and 2005 as well; the past or the future or an imagined existence within the familiar present-day world.  But what since the 1960s has been worth celebrating? No heroic deeds, certainly.  A lot more personal freedom, but always with overtones of sleaze and failure.  Yet we have a splendid example an imagined existence within the familiar present-day world in the Harry Potter series.

You may have noticed some bad-tempered remarks made recently by Terry Pratchett, condemning Rowling and all her works, mocking her comment that she didn’t initially realise she was a writer within the ‘fantasy’ genre.  Maybe that’s just what made her works so successful: she derived her own ideas from the older Cauldron of Story, showing little concern with what other writers made of it.  Using the name ‘house-elf’ for a Brownie-like house helper shows her independence of mind.  If there were an alternate history in which Tolkien had perished in the Battle of the Somme, Rowling might have written exactly the same tales—and possibly Peter Jackson would have made the Harry Potter films.  As for Pratchett, he can amusingly mock and imitate works within an existing genre, but he cannot create.  Increasingly he is imitating his own earlier work.  Thankfully he hasn’t yet touched on anything Tolkienian, as distinct from common elements taken by many writers from the ‘Cauldron of Story’.

To get back to the films: Peter Jackson was following in the footsteps of a gigantic turkey.  Briefly considering what Bakshi did to Lord Of The Rings—I promise to be very brief about Bakshi—the overall chances of a good film after the 1978  debacle were not great. But life is a negotiation with the world you find yourself in.  You’re not independent of it, but not utterly dependent either.  Some people can always tack against the wind, sail against the tide, show a love of life and a belief in decency in what is mostly an age of ‘coolhearts’.

Unlike Jackson, Bakshi’s own visions did not flow naturally into the world of Tolkien.  If he hadn’t attempted it, we might have had a 1980s Lord Of The Rings using the production methods of The Dark Crystal, worth seeing if you missed it, or maybe weren’t born at the time.  (How time flies!)

I’ll try not to repeat things I’ve already covered in my previous talk, The Word, The Voice & The Light.  Just that Bakshi’s opening was promising, and Jackson showed good taste in lifting it wholesale.  Also from Bakshi he borrowed the idea of Aragorn and Boromir giving sword-lessons to the hobbits, but then combined it cleverly with another scene, the flight of monstrous crows that make it clear how vast are the powers that the Fellowship have to face.  And when it came to the Shire and then the Elven realms, he had the spirit and the skills to make the good and beautiful seem also strong and serious.

Fellowship Of The Ring

Fellowship goes from the Bakshi-inspired opening to a nice depiction of the comfort and decency of Hobbit lives.  Their lack of interest in the power-games that the other peoples of Middle-Earth get caught up in.  But into this quiet, small and comfortable world comes the intruding power of the ring, giving this part of the film the atmosphere of the better sort of horror story, a brooding menace.  But that’s just the first movement, of course.  A horror-story where the hero gets obliged to follow the horror back to its own dreadful lair.

As I’m sure you all know, The Lord Of The Rings splits the traditional Heroic Role between Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf.  Peter Jackson gave both Frodo and Aragorn his own distinctive hair-style; the actual actors look quite different.  No doubt you have to assimilate a story and self-identify in order to successfully tell it in a new language.  A simple book-into-film of the sort done for Harry Potter would have been worth watching but probably nothing like as good.

Gandalf looked much like the standard picture of Gandalf, but to have him speaking with Tolkien’s own distinctive accent was a clever move.  Gandalf and Aragorn both have an edge of danger: we see the flaws that would have become fatal had they taken the ring.  Expanding Sarauman’s role was a good move and showing directly his betrayal of Gandalf was also smart.  Sarauman’s destructiveness is then shown in a very concentrated form.  His building of a vast war-machine happens much more suddenly that the book suggests, but that’s all part of dramatisation.

Rivendell is a trickier matter.  Back in 2001, I did a review for my workplace’s intranet of the first film, which appeared at the same time as the first Harry Potter.  I’m still quite pleased with what I said back then:

“Not Harry Potter, but a tale far older.  Grimmer, darker and also with gleams of numinous light.  I quite liked Harry Potter, but this is a tale for adults.  And it uses the medium of fantasy to say far more about the human condition than you’d get from the ‘realistic’ thriller full of sleaze and improbably tough heroes.

“Elves were traditionally seen as beautiful but dangerous creatures.  This got lost in the 19th century,  and Tolkien helped restore it.  In Lothlorien, you think that talk of a ‘dangerous elf-witch’ is just prejudice, it all seems sweetness and light. And then in one chilling instant you see that Elves are dangerous, and not necessarily virtuous.

“You’d have seen the tough and dangerous side of elves earlier on, with Arwen the elf-maid mixing it with the hooded ring-wraiths.  (For fans, she takes over Glorfindel’s role, plus the only active deed we see from Elrond.  And her own Tolkien-specified relationship with Aragorn is moved from end-notes to the main actions).”

But should the Elves in their various realms be treated as variants of a single culture?  In Tolkien’s vision, only High Elves can go to Valinor, and within Middle-Earth they are split between the Deep-Elf and Sea-Elf traditions, each with its own subdivisions.  The point is not to complain about Jackson, as to suggest how a very different ‘film of the book’ could be made by the next person who tackles the material.  Rivendell could be given a much more closed and defensive style.  It belongs to Noldor, the secretive and warlike Deep-Elves.  Elrond and Galadriel both have a ring: Elrond never hints at this and also never thinks of taking Sauron’s ring for his own use.  Elrond’s home and stronghold could be something much more enclosed, a camouflaged dwelling that you’d not recognise at all till you were much closer.  Rivendell is a place of twilights, whereas Lorien is still bright under the sun, even though faded from its full glory.  Lorien is mostly a dwelling-place of Wood-Elves, while Galadriel is half Sea-Elf

A plurality of elven cultures is a future dream, conceivable because the films were so successful.  Successful in part because they were films based on Tolkien rather than a literal re-telling in cinematic language of the printed page.

Then there’s the Council of Elrond  Any film-maker would wish to show the bulk of the assembled dignitaries in a single shot, without anything seeming too unnatural.  Also without doing a rip-off Leonardo’s Last Supper, which could get you laughed at.  The actual setting was well-done, and allowed for some extra events to move the plot along.  Gimli belting the ring with his father’s axe was original and was brilliant, getting across several points at once.  Dwarves are tough and direct, the ring is powerful, the ring is also linked mentally to Frodo, who winces at the blow.  Soon afterwards you see the assembled dignitaries arguing about the ring, also not in the book but maybe needed in context.  It’s a hobbit’s tale, so there must be a believable reason for a hobbit to be given a task that is much too big for him.  Frodo has no wish for power over anyone else, no ambition even to rule them for their own good.  This is a point that another sort of dramatisation could bring out rather more definitely.

Elrond should look neither young nor old; a bit like Aragorn is made to look in the film, though also not weather-beaten, because he has been one of the ruling dynasties of elves for all of his long life.  They’ve made him look old enough in human terms to be Arwen’s father, but that’s wrong.  She’s far older than any human, nearly 3000 years old.  And the Council of Elrond a bit open for a secret meeting.  Elrond does not share all he knows even with the other elves of Rivendell; just those he chooses to summon. Along with men, dwarves, Bilbo, Frodo and Gandalf.  Sam slips in unnoticed among the crowd, while Merry and Pippin are selected much later.

Incidentally, you could be a bit suspicious of Gandalf’s motives there.  The presence of four hobbits does confuse both Sauron and Sarauman, but I don’t think Tolkien intended us to think that this was the intention.  It would be a pretty ruthless tactic, though perhaps justified by the extreme peril to everyone, hobbits included.

As for the rest of the party, Aragorn is brilliantly done, and the others also, except that Boromir should look much smoother and sleeker. He’s from the most advanced human kingdom and would look it.  You’d also expect him to have got a decent haircut while at Rivendell.  He might live rough on journeys or campaign, but his norm would be tidy and sophisticated.  Still, I liked the moment when Frodo dropped the ring and Boromir picks it up.  Wholly new but wholly justified: Boromir’s betrayal must not come out of the blue.

Then there’s the breaking of the Fellowship.  Tolkien, of course, hadn’t wanted his six-part work to be published as three separate books.  The Fellowship Of The Ring end with Frodo and Sam setting off alone, while the rest of the Fellowship rush about looking for Frodo, and I’m wondering what readers at the time would have made of it.  The Orc attack and Boromir’s death occur in the first chapter of The Two TowersAragorn doesn’t fight at all: despite his best efforts, he misses the enemy and does nothing except rush round making bad decisions.  He’d look incompetent and indeed judges himself so—but it is perhaps this modesty that enables him to play the much larger part he must later manage.  I suppose we should also see it as hand of fate, the rest of the Fellowship will be needed elsewhere.  But in the world of cinema, the hand of millions of dollars was bound to make it more of an action-adventure saga, with a somewhat arrogant Aragorn troubled only by his own conscience, effortlessly overcoming any number of hostile orcs.  We were also given a suitable named villain to kill Boromir single-handed and then be defeated at the last.

Three cheers to Jackson for taking the trouble to produce an Extended Edition with all of the extras put it their proper place.  Lots of films on DVDs now have ‘deleted scenes’ included among the ‘extras’.  Fellowship was the first film I know of to properly integrate the left-out portions.  It must be a lot of work, but thankfully has been justified in cash terms.  We now see lots of films put out in multiple versions, short and long.

We do get a very good ending, Frodo and Sam setting off stoically across a stony wilderness, Frodo despairing and Sam still hopeful.  The film correctly sees Frodo as a tragic figure, convincingly tough but un-ambitious, unwarlike and un-aggressive, appalled by the magnitude of the task that has fallen upon him.  Like his uncle Bilbo, he is dragged into adventures he only vaguely yearned for.  But Bilbo emerges triumphant, while Frodo loses much by the end of Fellowship, and will lose more before the end.

The Two Towers

We see the beginning of that end in The Two TowersIt was very clever to begin with Gandalf’s fall, and make it clear he is still active and fighting.  After which we see Frodo and Sam, at a loss how to find their way in a wilderness.  We see the limits of both of them; Sam doesn’t lose hope but also doesn’t see that trusting Gollum is the least risky option.

Then there is Frodo’s other close companion, the ring itself, which Jackson brilliantly develops as a character in its own right.  Having watched through all of the extras on all the Extended Editions, one conclusion I reached was that most of the performances are much more impressive than the same people giving interviews.  The fashionable approach is ‘never mind the pearl, let’s ask after the oyster’.  That’s seldom wise.

One exception is  Sam, sounding solidly English, played very nicely by Sean Austin.  He did sound just the same as actor and as himself.  Then there’s the ‘voice of the ring’ heard in isolation, produced by an impressive but slightly scary lady—at least that’s how she came across in the DVD extras.  But sadly, Jackson left out most of the complex power dilemmas of the Ruling Ring.  It gets seen just an addiction, which is the lower end of the point Tolkien was making.

The ‘Two Towers’ are described by Sarauman as his tower and Sauron’s.  Tolkien’s final decision at the end of Fellowship are Orthanc and Minas Morgul, which we don’t see in the Two Towers film and which is inexplicably missing from Faramir’s map.  So it goes.

Changing Faramir’s character was justified for a ‘film of the book’.  This is discussed in the ‘extras’, and I found myself sympathising with the argument that Faramir in the book starts off perfect and does not do anything interesting.  You sympathise more when you see his difficulties—especially with the Extended Edition scenes where you see a flashback of him with Boromir and then an unsympathetic Denethor.

The film neatly handles the three-way separation of the characters. Jackson’s vision does get a bit mucked down, especially at Helms Deep, where it might be ‘The Gangs Of Middle Earth’.  He largely ignores the tribal/racial divisions between orcs.  Also orcs don’t eat other orcs, though they do eat humans.  Still, he’s not gone overboard with the horror elements.  And he manages to create a real uncertainty about the fate of Merry & Pippin, and then neatly alternate between Aragorn’s deductions and the actual events of the previous night. Brilliant.

Not so brilliant is what’s been called the Perry-and-Mippin effect; the failure to distinguish between the serious well-behaved Merry and the unreliable but ingenious Pippin. Jackson, unfortunately, chose to make them almost identical.  For Tolkien, Pippin takes over the trickster role that was split between Gandalf and Bilbo in The Hobbit.  Having finally learned to distinguish them, mostly by Merry’s yellow jacket, I note that at least it is Pippin who manages the newly-invented trick for letting Treebeard discover what Sarauman has done to the trees of Fangorn.

I also regret the way in which Gimli gets reduced to comic relief.  The pursuit of the orcs has some brilliant shots, but surely the slowest runner in a party should be setting the pace, not bringing up the rear.

Much cleverer is the way in which the sad side of Arwen’s tale is brought forward as an anticipation in Two Towers.  Some other less clever ideas were considered and then dropped, like having her as an active fighter at Helms Deep.  A more remote and magical role works much better, in my view.

I found the ents acceptable but not great.  They were convincing in their sack of Orthanc, but close up they seemed more treeish that I’d wish them to be.  I’d prefer something I came across on the net, someone’s 40ft high vision of the Green Man in Birmingham city centre.  I’ve [currently] only seen it as a picture, [http://www.bareau.tv/artdesign.asp], but that’s my vision of what an ent should be, a vegetable troll.

The destruction of Orthanc was brilliant, but it does come across as sheer destruction.  The film leaves out the mercy shown to Sarauman’s human followers, who are not shown after the early excursion by the Dunlendings.

Return Of The King

Beginning Return Of The King with the young Sméagol was ingenious.  But then the Frodo-Sam-Gollum tale goes downhill.  Having shown Sméagol sympathetically in The Two Towers, he is now redefined as committed to evil, his two halves each as bad as each other.  Tolkien’s scene in which he nearly repents at Cirith Ungol is reworked to make him a committed schemer.

I was one of those who signed the petition against the exclusion of Sarauman’s death-scene—which of course occurs in Two Towers in the book.  Having seen the scene in the Extended Edition, I now understand why they did it.  It does slow the action in what was anyway a very long film, and a film in which any other omissions would also have been a great loss.

Sarauman’s loss of power occurs in four stages.  First the defeat of his forces at Helms Deep.  Then the ents sacking his stronghold.  Then Gandalf breaking his staff.  Finally his murder in the Shire. Jackson merges 3 and 4, understandably since he dropped the whole ‘scouring of the Shire’.  And then found that it unbalanced the final film, where Sarauman has become irrelevant.  What another film-maker could do is merge 2 and 3, Gandalf arrives immediately after the ent army, so it becomes a single action.  Though in a longer dramatisation with more separately viewable parts, it could all be done just as Tolkien wrote it.

With or without the fall of Sarauman, you get a good feel for the build-up to war.  But Denethor becomes ‘Dirty Den’, much less sympathetic than Tolkien intended.  I’d see him as a good man corrupted by the impossible burden of facing a much stronger foe.  His rejection of Aragorn as heir is in line with the views of his ancestors.  His ambition is to pass on Gondor much as he found it.  But this looks increasingly impossible. Jackson opts for a caricature of Denethor, perhaps because he’s in Aragorn’s way.

You can say that Denethor hangs on to power at the expense of the cause he’s supposed to be serving.  He will not accept that anyone else might be able to do it better, or at all.  A more extended film-telling of Tolkien’s tale ought to look into such issues and allow Denethor to have a reasonable point of view.  He is 100% accurate in his accusation against Gandalf, using Gondor while covertly bringing in Aragorn as a replacement.  Given that Aragorn’s ancestors had lost Arnor whereas Denethor’s ancestors preserved Gondor, the rights and wrongs of the matter are ambiguous.  The film simplifies it in Aragorn’s favour: he has become a descendant of the Kings of Gondor, displaced for unknown reasons.

The Extended Edition has brief shots of Aragorn healing Eowyn; removing the evil of the ‘black breath’.  There is no hint of Tolkien’s interesting notion that healing rather than success in war would be the sign of the true king.  Aragorn also seems to take over at once, rather than holding back for the ‘consent of the governed’, as Tolkien had it.  Again, more material available for a different sort of dramatisation.  The scene as Tolkien wrote it includes a lore-master who has forgotten that the interesting names originally stood for something.  It is the old woman Ioreth who remembers that kings can be healers, a point that Gandalf has apparently overlooked.

On the positive, Pippin’s song combined with Faramir’s hopeless charge on entrenched orcs is one of the best moments in any of the films, and Tolkien is clear that Denethor was wrong to order the attack.  The White Tree blooming even as Denethor despairs makes a good point—yes, I know that the tree should be utterly dead and a sapling unexpectedly found, but dramatisation is an art in itself.

The Extended Edition scene in which the Witch-King breaks Gandalf’s staff is illogical.  He could not have had that much of an advantage.  Nor would he have been diverted from killing Gandalf if he had got so close.  He doesn’t have to turn to deal with Rohan, since Gothmog is there as a competent deputy.  He does turn in the book, but that is postponing a fight which was not begun and in which he had no clear advantage.

At Amon Sul, Aragorn sees off five Nazgul.  At the Siege of Gondor, the Witch-King is apparently much stronger but Gandalf has earlier seen off a number of Nazgul during the retreat from Osgiliath.  Tolkien says somewhere that the Nazgul had had more power put into them when they were closer to Sauron’s lair.  Maybe also magic drawing from particular places.  Amon Sul had a residual power from fallen Arnor, perhaps.  At Gondor, you should perhaps assume that Sauron’s magic is advancing with his armies.  But in that case, the Witch-King would have been hugely disadvantaged in fighting Gandalf ‘behind the lines’, which is how the film shows it happening.  More sensible for him to be confronting Gandalf on the borders of Sauron’s advancing power, which is how Tolkien wrote it.

The whole scenario is something that a future film-maker can definitely improve upon.  You could do a visual trick: Pippin gets brief glimpses of the ‘other side’ where the magic is operating.  There are moments in the book, and he has touched a palantir.  Pippin could surely wonder why the Nazgul are a major threat, since Aragorn drove off several.  And Gandalf could say that Sauron has put much more power into him, closer to his own land and with armies of evil followers.  One could develop this a little.  Sauron and his followers devastate thing and make them ugly, because this increases their own power.  Where there is beauty, there is also an opposite and positive power.

Within the film we have, the siege of Gondor and the lifting of that siege by the Rohirrim and by Aragorn’s forces are splendidly well done.  The one discordant note, for me, was Legolas killing a Mumakil after he has killed its riders and rendered it harmless.  Another case where the quality of mercy gets left out.

The Oathbreakers were off-the-shelf ghosts, though there is a nicely Tolkienian moment when Aragorn must keep faith and release them.  In the book they are dismissed after defeating the Corsairs, they do not appear at Minas Tirith.  In the film, they have done their job, but he still has need of them against the vast forces Sauron still commands.  It’s a good scene, but Gimli should not have been the one proposing keeping them.  All dwarves believed strongly in keeping their word, that is what makes them serious characters, and that’s what Gimli is not allowed to be

Like the ents, Shelob was adequate rather than striking.  But I did like the idea of Frodo having a brief vision of Lorien at Cirith Ungol.  Sam fighting the spider was made into another bit of action-adventure, and his temptation by the ring was minimised.  So it goes.

Mordor and the searching Eye of Sauron were very cinematic.  But, if Sauron senses the ring to the south while Aragorn and his army were to the north-west, wouldn’t he have figured out what was going on?  Again, that’s cinema.

In the Extended Edition, the Mouth of Sauron was excellent.  But the ethics get skewed again: Aragorn should not kill someone they are negotiating with.  On the other hand the battle is done splendidly, especially Aragorn’s speech, wholly a creation for the film.

Getting back to the ring-quest, the film does not have Sam finally showing pity for Gollum, when he could easily have killed him.  In the film, the fight ends inconclusively, with both of them chasing after Frodo.  Another ethical point not made.

The ring’s destruction is made a bit too action-adventure: Tolkien has Gollum fall accidentally while dancing in triumph.  It’s not easy to go wrong with the massive ingenuity of Tolkien’s plot, of course.  The end is in danger of being anti-climax.  It could have been something like “Exhausted but triumphant, Frodo throws the ring into the fire.  And Sauron’s realm promptly falls down.”  Tolkien says in Letter 246 that he made several sketches, none of them used, but decided that Frodo would be incapable of voluntarily destroying the ring.  This letter also says that Sam “did reach the point of pity at last… but for the good of Gollum too late.”

The same letter gives an alternative ending that Tolkien speculates about, though he doesn’t say it occurred to him before 1963, when the letter was written.  If Gollum really had repented, he might have “voluntarily cast himself into the fiery abyss…  He would have perceived the evil of Sauron, and suddenly realised that he could not use the Ring and had not the strength or stature to keep it in Sauron’s despite.”  The idea is there as another option for a future film-maker to make use of.  Causing great surprise among fans, of course, but it is there in Tolkien’s own words.  You’d not want to miss Shelob, but you could maybe have Gollum come with Galadriel’s phial and save Sam, after which they both rescue Frodo.  At the end, Frodo will still fail but Gollum saves the day.

Having brought down Bara-Dur most splendidly—despite missing the chance to show Sauron departing as an immense humanoid shadow—we get a fine last 20 minutes.  It annoyed the critics, naturally, but I think most of the audience liked it, not just dedicated fans.  There was another song, a renewed emphasis that there are other things besides power.  What wasn’t right was the assembled dignitaries bowing to all four hobbits.  Frodo and Sam are unique; they fought the main action while everyone else was there to mislead Sauron.  Merry and Pippin have done creditably, but no more than Eowyn, Faramir and many others.

Then we have the ending, the departure, the reminder that true heroics are not cheap: Frodo will never truly recover.  Of course there was no need to say that Bilbo and Frodo depart on the last ship, which anyway leaves many elves unaccounted for, including Legolas—not to mention Shadowfax, who gets forgotten about.  Still, there was a great deal of beauty and good feeling.

Beyond the films

What got left out?  A great deal, obviously. Jackson and his fellow film-makers did have an interesting notion for Sauron appearing briefly at the Black Gates as Annatar, his charmingly handsome Second-Age form.  You get shown the sketches in the appendices to the extended Return Of The King and it is a striking image, ‘looking fair and feeling foul’, indeed.  Something that could be built on—and of course Sauron was an habitual shape-shifter, capable of appearing in several form that might not seem to be the same person.  There is a lot of scope from dramatizing the Silmarillion, which could make a dozen or more films just on the basis of the stories that are sketched.  Someone should pick up other elements of Tolkien’s vision—which, incidentally, wasn’t always self-consistent.  Has anyone noticed the error in his splendid painting of the ‘Cosmic Mountain’?  The moon’s dark side faces the sun!

You could handle this several ways.  Maybe Beleriand and Valinor are a kind of hyperspatial extension hived off from the round Earth and the normal universe.  In this model they could have their own model sun and moon that really could have sprung from the Two Trees.  In this system, the moon has its own independent light and could have its dark side facing the sun.  There are several ways a dramatist might play it.

The Silmarillion has many other images.  Sean Bean, who played Boromir, had wanted to play Aragorn.  This was an excellent qualification for playing Boromir, as I’ve said before.  But having seen him as Odysseus in Troy, I decided he’s a more versatile actor than I’d realised and might have made a decent Aragorn.  Or he could be Olorin, the young Gandalf in Beleriand, if anyone ventures to make a film from one of the Silmarillion tales.

When Peter Jackson has finished with giant apes and ‘lovely bones’, he might take a look at the tale of Beren and Luthien, a love-story which also includes horror-elements such as Sauron’s Isle of Werewolves, as well as the sinister and quarrelsome sons of Feanor.  Also the vampire-lady Thuringwethil, who is left undefined apart from being a messenger between Sauron and Morgoth—not a pleasant job-description.  It could be a very interesting film, even a pair of films.  For the young Sauron, you’d need someone who didn’t look like a villain, who could charm in the way that Sauron is supposed to be able to manage in First Age and Second Age.  Maybe Tom Cruise, or maybe Orlando Bloom, someone of that sort.

Other possibilities include high-grade cartoons to tell some of the individual tales in the Silmarillion, stuff that would not easily make action-adventure and needs cheaper methods that could be financed by a smaller but more dedicated audience.  There are cheap ways to get good effects.  I remember what I think was a BBC television dramatisation of the Icelandic tale of Ergil Skalla-Grimson.  The main trick was to have some sort of moving object behind the characters’ faces to show their magic power, and I found it hugely impressive.

Or what about ‘Lieutenant Tolkien’, showing  Tolkien in the Great War imagining chunks of the tales he will later write.  Dramatise things that Tolkien would not actually conceive of until much later.  Do Feanor and his oath in the style of a Nuremberg rally.  Show the Great War in washed-out colours, or maybe black-and-white.  The visions could be done in bright colours, maybe turning from art-house cartoon to live action and back again.  Dramatise things that Tolkien would not actually write until much later; dramatic licence is always allowable.

Farmer Giles Of Ham and Smith Of Wooton Major could also be made into feature films. Maybe also Leaf By Niggle; one can always hope.

There’s other follow-on films taking other mythologies.  I’ve seen a brief glimpse of Narnia, with a suitably vicious-looking White Witch, in a sleigh drawn by three bad-news bears.  Someone might venture a straightforward production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, getting away from the ludicrous sword-and-frock-coat number they’ve been doing for as long as I’ve been following it.  For ethical balance, the director could borrow Jackson’s method of showing innocents suffering in the midst of all the wars.  This aspect was very much in tune with Tolkien, though mostly not based on actual descriptions.  It would not be in tune with Wagner, but would make a necessary comment on what he did believe and what was wrong with it.

Conclusion

However it goes, Tolkien is here to stay, in the cinema as well as on the printed page, and despite all of the enemies.  People who don’t like Tolkien, because he makes them feel as small as they actually are. People who don’t like Tolkien, because Sauron is a sharp portrait of a sort of Modernism that they themselves lack the guts to speak against.  Myself, as a believer in science, I like Tolkien because he gets you away from an obsession with the immediate present, which is just one small point in a very long span of time, far vaster than even the ages of Tolkien’s full mythology.  But let’s hope that in 10 years time, we will be here to discuss some further screen visualisation.

 [This is a talk I gave at Oxonmoot, the Tolkien Society’s annual gathering.  Which is also open to outsiders.

[It seems unlikely that the Tolkien Estate will make any more of his writings available to film makers.  They didn’t like the Jackson films.]

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