Reviews, Movies, & Letters

So far I haven’t done a very good job following my own suggestions for The Desolation of Smaug. Reviews have been popping up left and right the last couple of days, and it has been very difficult resisting the urge to read them (mainly the theonering.net reviews). I have read a few, but at least have made a point to stop before the spoiler bits. Given that, I find the relatively united front of praise for the film’s quality, pacing and story enticing; as well as the affirmations of Smaug’s grandeur and the apparent repeat of ‘Riddle’s’ perfection in “Inside Information.” All in all, there are many things to ratchet up the anticipation level.

The other common theme, however, is a bit more troubling for a Canon leaning fan. Most reviews describe the nature of the film as being grossly divergent from the book; so much so as to cause TTT to pale in comparison. As discussed before, this may be a help to the purist, as the relative faithfulness of AUJ only highlighted the divergences in glaring detail. Viewing the movie as an interpretation or, to put it more vulgarly, as a fan fiction (granted on a great deal of steroids), allows the changes and liberties taken to suddenly become more bearable; especially where the tale fits the world, but is wholly outside of canon. I don’t really want this for The Hobbit, but, following this logic, it may make the whole easier to enjoy and feel more cohesive if it is moved a bit further from the book. The added advantage here is that this shift allows the reader’s vision to remain almost completely intact, rather than being subsumed by the film-maker’s vision.

Given the apparent magnitude of change being implied, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at Tolkien’s reactions to proposed changes to be made to The Lord of the Rings in the Zimmerman story-line for an animated film. Reading Tolkien’s letters, which both criticize and advise, is an illuminating experience, which is definitely eye opening when considering Peter Jackson’s original trilogy, but may also give a sense for Tolkien’s hypothetical reaction to the Hobbit films.

Letter 201

Tolkien definitely understood the need for adaptation and interpretation; that there is no simple alchemy to create a filmic experience from textual sources. He is generally in favor of abridgement but opposed to pure compression and its tendency to “[blur] climaxes” and return to the stuff of “more conventional ‘fairy-stories.’ At least we do not yet have to fear “people [galloping] about on Eagles at the least provocation.” (Letters 261) His primary concern, which features in many of the film letters, is to maintain the integrity and coherence of the story and the nature and heart of the characters. He was aware of the “vulgarization” necessitated by adaptation, but wished to prevent “sillification” (Letter 198, p257).

Letter 207

When presented with Morton Grady Zimmerman’s story-line for an animated Lord of the Rings, Tolkien felt “great anxiety about the actual dialogue” and the sense that Zimmerman had only skimmed the text, creating a story of “confused memories” with “the minimum of references back to the original”. Today’s fans can be sure that the current films are being created by great fans of Tolkien’s work, both among the actors and the production staff. This is a comfort. And unlike this early scheme, we can expect much more than “extreme silliness and incompetence” and at least passing “respect for the original.” Some reviews have been troubling; however, in their statements regarding the new-found freedom Peter Jackson and Co. seem to have found in taking liberties with the source material.

Letter 210, p270-7

This is probably the most illuminating letter as it shows Tolkien’s actual responses to the film treatment of The Lord of the Rings in minute detail (allowing us to get a sense of what the film may have been). He appears reluctantly optimistic, willing to work with the film-makers and open to their suggestions; though he does appear to plead “that someone will take the trouble to read” the letter.  In a sense, Tolkien appears the concerned father, alarmed to see “his work treated…carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about” (L 270). His primary concern appears to be about tone and maintaining the heart of the story.

In An Unexpected Journey, we have already seen the entrance of what could be termed “unwarranted matter” in the use of Azog, “incantations…and…irrelevant magic” by Radagast and the Witchking’s tomb, which, while functional from a purely cinematic standpoint, does run a bit roughshod of the original material.

One of Tolkien’s primary concerns with The Lord of the Rings was “the general tendency…to reduce and lower the tone towards that of a more childish fairy-tale” (L 272). It is curious, therefore, how Tolkien might react to the opposite: the elevation of The Hobbit to epic fantasy? Though he attempted such with the aborted full revision recrafting The Hobbit to match the epic tone of the LotR, he soon gave up on the project, and moved instead to the short “Quest for Erebor” tale. Some willingness may be there, though, given Tolkien’s insistence in “On Fairie Stories” that the fairy-story is not the sole provenance of the child, but the patrimony of all.

Knowing Tolkien’s desire to create a mythology of and for England, which he hoped would lead to a renaissance in all the creative arts, he probably anticipated many layers of sub-creation (myth-making of the myth). On the other hand, the common thread in all the letters is a concern for maintaining the cohesion of the story and nature of the characters (in many ways setting being described like characters). The core, heart and central Truths must remain, even if slightly vulgarized and twisted, so long as they are not trivialized. In many ways, this battle is the same as the argument given in ‘On Fairie-Stories,’ to legitimize Myth and Legend.

Tolkien’s response to The Lord of the Rings film trilogy may be guessed at based on his letters. A vague sense of his goals and prescribed methods of adaptation may be built from them, yielding some insights, though tenuous at best, into his possible analysis of the Hobbit trilogy. It’s a purely speculative endeavor, but certainly intriguing to contemplate…yet another thing to ponder during the long wait for The Desolation of Smaug.

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