Obsessed with Lord of the Rings

I first read JRR Tolkien’s trilogy around 1970. Like most people of a certain age and outlook I was blown away by it. It would be hard to name any book, or series of books, that I have enjoyed more or read as many times. I’ve gone through the trilogy perhaps 6 or 7 times, no small accomplishment given the size of the book. But for the last 15 years or so I’ve put it on the shelf and moved on with life.

My wife Terri happens to be a much bigger Tolkien fan than I, having practically memorized every word, not just of this series, but of the Hobbit, Silmarillion and Tolkien’s obscure works. I sometimes refer to her as Virginia’s resident Tolkien scholar and it would perhaps not be an overstatement to award her the title. If she was to attend a Tolkien convention and participated in a Tolkien trivia contest I am confident she would take away the gold medal.

We were both excited when Peter Jackson back in 1998 announced he was going to produce movies from the books. We were one of the first people to find lordoftherings.net site and voraciously kept up on all things related to the movie. When the first movie was released in December 2001 we were at the first Friday night showing, having purchased our tickets weeks in advance. When the second movie came out I was so obsessed I actually had to go see it on my day off, alone, the very day it came out: a 10 AM showing.

I’ve read various surveys that suggest it is the best book of the 20th century, as voted by the people. If you haven’t read Tolkien you can’t appreciate how detailed the work is. It is like viewing the Sistine Chapel. It is just overwhelming with richness and consequently for a pure fantasy it is very believable.

And yet as I reread portions of the book at age 46 I am finding myself more and more critical of the books. It is not that the richness, detail and density of the books are any less appealing. No, what I notice now having put the books aside for so long is that, while the books are seamless and interlocking like a vast puzzle, Tolkien is not much of a writer.

Let’s be plain. Except for the hobbits and Gandalf, which he seems to know innately, the dialog leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, it’s a fantasy but even in a fantasy novel no one would talk the way some of his characters do in such a stilted and awkward language. Moreover a lot of his characters are very one dimensional. Aragorn, the man who is to reclaim the throne of Gondor, seems superficial at best. We learn little about Legolas or Gimli or what makes them tick. Eowyn, one of the few women to appear in the book is hopelessly love struck when she meets Aragorn; as my wife put it she’s the first “Mary Sue”. Eowyn is the person that Tolkien invented so he can fall in love with his own character. As a good Catholic, I guess JRR had to ruthlessly suppress any homophobic feelings.

JRR also leaves a lot to be desired as a poet. Much of his poetry is poor and stilted.

But all this is just to point out that the books, while magnificent, could have been so much better had Tolkien been a more gifted writer. If, say, Sinclair Lewis could have written these books, the result might well have been the best book of all times.

Which leads back to the movies: I’ve found two types and only two types: those who hate the movie and those who love them. There is no in between that I can find. My brother Tom and sister Doris are in the “hate” camp. I have to respect their feelings, although I don’t agree with them. The movies certainly are a bit of a departure from the books.

The movies though excel in a lot of ways. As you recall my critique of the books were that Tolkien wasn’t able to imbue much character into his characters. This is where a gifted director can step in and lend Tolkien a much needed hand. In the process Jackson has had to change a few things to make the books fit the medium of cinema. This has infuriated much of the “hate” crowd for whom Tolkien must be pure and unadulterated. How could Glorfindel be replaced at the Ford with Arwen? Well, it’s a pretty easy choice, really, if you are making a movie. (It also really, really works: it means much more that a woman, Arwen, is saving Frodo that some elf lord, Glorfindel, who will quickly disappear from the story.) Movies have to connect on an emotional level. So far Peter Jackson has made the right choices in deviating from the sacred script and has actually improved the product. But in reality these changes have been quite minor to those of us in the “love” crowd, whereas they appear as huge, gaping tears in the essential nature of the plot to the “hate” crowd.

But what I like most is that Jackson brought the characters alive. Aragorn is now someone who is no longer a wooden character, but someone I deeply care about because I can see his human frailties. Boromir actually comes across as a complex person with a decent and honorable side. Gandalf, as portrayed by Sir Ian McKellan, is just wonderfully deep. Even the evil creatures such as Saruman are imbibed with personality and depth. All this and great special effects, first class directing, and wonderful production values; what is there not to love?

So I haunt almost daily theonering.net to catch the latest details of what is going on with the movies, which isn’t much. I’ve reread the Return of the King to anticipate the movie. I am anxiously waiting for the Extended Edition DVD of The Two Towers to be released in November so I can see all the stuff they had to leave out to squeeze the story into only three hours.

We Tolkien fans will owe a big debt of gratitude to Peter Jackson and his whole talented crew when this is all over for turning flawed books into a spectacular movie. All my life I have been waiting for the Rings books to be properly turned into cinema. I am delighted at how well Peter Jackson has done the job. He is obsessed with turning out a first class product. I can appreciate the books but now I have something equally as valuable: the movies that fill in the details that are missing in the books simply because Tolkien did not have the talent to put them in.

If you haven’t read the books, they are a must read, in spite of the minor flaws. The movies should also be enjoyed and savored. I will die a happy man. I don’t ask much from life other than to see Lord of the Rings done right on the screen. This wish has come true.

One response to “Obsessed with Lord of the Rings”

  1. You know, now that you mention it, Tolkien does kind of sacrifice character development for plot advancement. I hadn’t noticed it before [and I’ve been re-reading the books for the past week], probably because I’m usually more interested in what the characters are doing than why, as long as it seems plausible in the context of the story; and unless the writing is really crappy, I can infer just about all I really care to know about the characters from what they do and say. As for dialogue, it sounds like the characters are speaking the way characters in a medieval story would speak, which can be either charming or annoying depending on the reader. [I have to say, though, his rendition of Saruman’s lying-a-hole monologues is priceless.] And since the story is set in a time and place analagous to pre-Christian/feudal Europe, then for all we know it might be perfectly appropriate for them to talk all formal. It’s possible that he was trying to imitate Shakespeare or Chaucer in order to give it more of that medieval flavour. He swiped practically everything else from earlier cultures; even the runes in the Angerthas are shoplifted and altered from the Futhark and Anglo-Saxon and Frisian runes, and the Elvish Tengwar looks suspiciously like Sanskrit. It’s also possible that Tolkien was more interested in writing the history of Middle-Earth than he was in character development, and perhaps he felt that getting too deep into the characters on top of everything else would have made the books insufferably long [which they just about are anyway]. Either that or he just didn’t like [or wasn’t good at] coming up with detailed personalities for people, and decided not to worry about it and focus on the plot instead. You could probably say that about Stephen King and some of his cookie-cutter people, although he probably prefers to think of them as archetypal. Fine line. Tolkien gets away with it better because his characters are so weird anyway [i.e. talking trees] that their racial identity seems like personality enough, at least on the surface. And since it’s already a totally fictional time and place, and because he makes it so exquisitely detailed, suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader is much more easily sustained than in your average novel. I gotta agree about the poetry, and I was immensely relieved that nobody burst into song in the movies like they do in the book, and that Tom Bombadil’s aggravating self was axed entirely. JRRT gets points for picking a meter and more or less sticking with it, which is tough in and of itself, but that’s about as far as it goes. Again, he might have been too obsessed with painstakingly fleshing out the universe he was creating to give much of a crap about anything else. [Who else makes up alphabets and chronologies and genealogies for a fantasy novel, for Thoth’s sake?] I’m guilty of the same things in the stories and D&D modules I’ve written, so I’m kinda letting him off the hook. 😉 Oops, this got kinda long…darnit, I’m turning into Tolkien already!


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