The Fellowship of the Ring (Jackson's, not Tolkien's)

The following review was originally posted go Edifice Rex Online no later than September 24th, 2002. Unfortunately (and quite against my usual habit) it seems to have gone undated at time of posting. Like my essay on the essay on Al Qaeda's attack on New York City, this was somehow lost during the site's evolution, but recovered thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, where facsimiles still live on. More details about the essay's origins and rescue are here.

The Shadow of the Future:
Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring

Some years ago, it was my great pleasure to share with my lover J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the book that is the closest I have to a spiritual text. In single-chapter instalments, I read to her the entire three-volume novel. After, we would make love or, sometimes, simply fall asleep in one another's arms, half-believing we had slipped into the magic of what Tolkien elsewhere described as a "Sub-creation".

I marveled at her tears when Gandalf fell into the abyss on the border of Khazad-Dum; kissed her when Sam found Frodo's body in the tunnels of Cirith Ungol; and read, through my own tears, the final 50 or so pages as Tolkien retold the ultimate human tragedy: "You can't go home again."

With the recent release of Peter Jackson's 3-hour film, The Fellowship of the Ring, I fear I will never again experience that special pleasure, of sharing a tale that begs for the human voice. I fear that Jackson has ruined a great novel by virtue of creating what is, really, only a good film.

This well-meant vandalism is a nail in the coffin of western civilization's culture heritage.

Jackson's movie is a sterile bastard - child of Art by Craft - a soul-less replica of the original; louder and brighter, but empty.

Make no mistake: Jackson's film is a very good one - and therein lies the trouble. It is a well-made film that nevertheless has real reason to be, other than that of its producers' belief it will produce a healthy financial return and, I suspect, Jackson's own belief he is paying Tolkien an homage to a book that he too loves.

But love is about more than the lover, just as art is about more than money. Art, if it does not say something new, says something old in a new way. Sadly, Jackson's film does neither.

The Fellowship of the Ring is more than a solid piece of film-making: it is the work of a master-craftsman, peopled by character actors wholly inhabiting their roles and never up-staging the story; the script is at once respectful of the original text and intelligently firm in its understanding that film is not prose and that, to be watchable, much of the depth of the original must be lost.

(The movie opens with a long voice-over providing necessary background to the action to follow, a surprisingly elegant solution to a complex problem, desite its Coles' Notes form.)

As it should be, Jackson's movie is neither "stunning" nor "dazzling" in the manner of the Hollywood blockbusters by which we have so often been brutalized. The direction is subtle, never flashy; the special effects, though present in nearly every frame, are almost invisible (after the initial impressed shock, one forgets that the actors playing the hobbits are not, in fact, really only 3 and a half fee tall).

The special effects merely underscore the story. The Shire is lovely indeed, but hobbits labour in the fields and we know we are not looking in on Eden, but instead merely another place, another time. Their faces are not beautiful, but lumpy and worn; their bodies are those of peasants; their manners often crude, their entertainments well-lubricated.

We have left the world we know, but we have not come so far we cannot imagine ourselves in the new one.

I have no intention of detailing the plot of either book or film, nor of comparing whether the latter diverges from the former; there are many differences, mostly wise and mostly subtle. Rather, I want to discuss why it is I left the theatre, after 3 hours and 10 minutes that felt more like 2, feeling neither exhiliration nor disappointment, but why in fact I felt almost nothing at all when the credits rolled.

In the end, Jackson's movie is a sterile bastard - child of Art, by Craft - a soul-less replica of the original; louder and brighter, but empty. For reasons I hope to someday properly articulate, I believe Tolkien's book is a Great Book. Though ostensibly set a long time, the Shire is not so very far away, lying as it does on the borders of our imagination. The people of Middle Earth live and love and work and die just as we do, its point-of-view characters - hobbits all - are "ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times" and rising (or, sometimes, not) to their potential.

This is not the place, however, to discuss the virtues of Tolkien's novel - accept for argument's sake that it is the real deal, consider Jackson's honest labour, and walk with me as I ponder the fact it left me unmoved.

Who among our children will experience the pleasure of discovering Middle Earth for themselves, who among them will make their own maps, rather than following those laid down in Jackson's atlas?

Nothing comes without cost. The price we pay for the immediacy of Jackson's film, for the sense that one is peering through a window onto the real Middle Earth, is the heart and soul of the novel, its complexity and depth, its humour and pacing, and - most of all - the love with which Tolkien invested his creation.

By its nature, film is less dense than text, more visceral; film requires more time to communicate an idea than does the written word.

And so Jackson's film remains a spectacle. Despite the beautiful landscape or the ringing clash of steel; despite the misty dawn in Rivendell or silvan quiet of Lorien; despite all this, Jackson's film is a sterile clone of the living original.

"So what?" you may ask. "It's just a movie." Or, "So what? It may not have the depth, but its surface is so much brighter; it was fun to actually see the halls of Khazad-Dum."

"I still love the book," both voices conclude. "Why can't we have both?"

But can we have both, or will the brighter, louder vessel push aside its quiet pregenitor? Who will take up the 1,100 pages of text when they have already seen the videos - parts 1, 2 and 3 - a dozen times between the ages of 6 and 12? Who among our children will experience the pleasure of discovering Middle Earth for themselves, who among them will make their own maps, rather than following those laid down in Jackson's atlas?

Very few of them, I fear. Jackson's counterfeit is close enough to the real thing it will be so very easy to believe it is the real thing. No matter that Tom Bombadil is gone entirely; that Merry and Pippin are now merely comic relief, not young men coming into their own; that the Gaffer Gamgee's innocent, rustic mirth and crusty love for his son have vanished; that all sense of Tolkien's understanding of time and myth have been collapsed into the singularity of Jackson's introductory voice-over?

Tolkien did write great action scenes, but they were not the point of his tale. Tolkien's story is about love, not adventure; it is about the strength of faith and loyalty, and the strengths (and weaknesses) of the human heart. For Tolkien, the spectacular was only part of the greater whole, bridges along the path for "a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them."

Like Adam, like Faust, like Saruman, Peter Jackson has supped from the Tree of Knowledge, but he has not swallowed, and so the understanding he sends on to his viewers is a gift misunderstood. Jackson's movie may excite and amuse, but it does not deeply move.

Nevertheless, like an escapee from Plato's cave, Jackson has loosed his chains and seen the bright light at tunnel's end - but instead of going past it, he has turned back - mistaking the light for the real world of colour and sound beyond - to preach light to those who know only shadow.

I fear that no lover will again share this tale with his beloved; that no adolescent will lose himself for days in its discovery; that no one will ever again have the chance to discover Middle Earth for the first time.

Jackson has razed the Prancing Pony and erected in its stead a Holiday Inn, where one can shoot nine holes in sanitized Shire, then buy over-priced drinks from scantily-clad elf-maidens after a stop at the gift-shop and before entering the gaming rooms to lose a little money while not listening to Tom Jones - at 9:00 and 11:00!

Through his skill and good intentions, Peter Jackson has stolen life from the future of the human story, leaving in its place only a mannequin, or a Nazghul, if you will, caught up forever by its false dreams of glory.

Even if I am right - that Jackson has shut Tolkien away, made of his book to one of those classics, much admired but seldom read - does it matter? By itself: of course not - there are many great books out there, many personal maps of the human soul.

Or, it wouldn't matter, if it was an isolated incident. But it is far from isolated. Rather, it is the latest, spectacular, example of the cheapening of our common cultural intelligence: Milne's Winnie the Pooh or Kipling's Jungle Book become saccarine Disney song and dance; the Bible, jokes about Charlton Heston's love of firearms; political debate, "fight-radio"; "adult entertainment", pornography.

Jackson's film, because it is so well done, is an artistic crime against civilization, a beautiful facade with nothing at its core. Jackson has locked away Tolkien's vision and future generations won't even know they are missing something.


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