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Salon: Why no Lord of the Rings in “Top 10 of the Decade” lists?

With a tip of my sunbeaten Panama hat to TheOneRing.net

Salon is running a four-part column on the question of why, after so much critical, box-office, and Academy love on their release, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films appear to be all but forgotten on the vast majority of “Best Movies of the Decade” list. I would submit that the resulting discussion in the comboxes is interesting, even as much as certain individual opinions make me want to rip my hair out in clumps. My chest hair. I’ll come back to this. (The combox discussions, not me ripping out my chest hair.)

Having re-read the book and re-watched the Extended Editions in the last year, as well as worked my way through much of the supplementary material on the DVDs, what I might say is this — the story has its seeds in World War I, is in its final form a product of World War II, and was conceived and produced as a film in the last days before 9/11. In a post-9/11, post-George W. Bush world where the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not yet over, Lord of the Rings perhaps reflects a view of the world that some are going to find hard to stomach — not because it’s wrong, necessarily, but because its central themes and ideas are exactly the things most disputed in our own day, and both the book and the movie dare to treat them with a level of sincerity and earnestness that, by virtue of being irony-free, can be rather off-putting for the modern postmodern. The limits of power (but also its necessary exercise), the honor in fighting for what is necessary (but also the dishonor in picking fights), the importance of having roots in the home of your forebears (but also knowing when you have to give it up for others), respect for (but also fear of) one’s surroundings, the importance of tolerance (but also its limits), the necessity of forgiveness (but also its consequences), and the importance of the common man, but also the reality that he will always pay the heaviest price. There’s also the issue of what tends to be painted as a racial metaphor, but which is really a religious issue the way I read it: follow a false god and it will twist you spiritually and physically. That’s the kind of thing We’d Rather Not Talk About These Days. In general, these themes are all just enough off from contemporary sensibilities to probably be at least distasteful if you start applying them to present-day matters. If there were some self-aware irony (like, say, in the recent Gaiman/Avary/Zemeckis film of Beowulf), well, okay, we’d at least know the storytellers knew better than to take these things seriously, but we know enough about Tolkien to know that he actually took these things quite seriously. They were convictions for him, not storytelling devices.

Specifically as regards the movie, however, I’ll say this: Elijah Wood’s performance, while it didn’t call any negative attention to itself in the theatres, neither does it hold up well after a decade of seeing Daniel Radcliffe improve with every Harry Potter installment, and when he’s the central figure of the plot, that’s a bit of a problem. In the case of both Wood and Sean Astin — who is otherwise note-perfect as Sam Gamgee as far as I’m concerned — there’s the simple reality that American actors have gotten better at accents in the last ten years.

Beyond that — I personally think the movies are marvelous. Outside of Wood, I think the casting is uniformly terrific, the cinematography is outstanding, and I think they tell a complete cinematic story that is true to the spirit of the book without a) becoming something that ultimately only uses the book as a jumping-off point for something totally different, like Blade Runner, or b) becoming a “greatest hits” of the book, which sometimes the Harry Potter movies can feel like.

I’ll say that none of Jackson et al.’s changes to the mechanics of the plot particularly bother me. The bottom line is that film and the novel are two different media, and different things work in one that won’t work in the other. Any person adapting a book into a movie has to make decisions about what they think the book is about, and then how to tell that story in a way that suits the cinematic medium while adhering to what they think the spirit of the book is. Because, then, an adaptation is ultimately an interpretation, there’s not really a way to please everybody, particularly purists. The relevant question winds up being, “Did this filmmaker make an effective film based on their own subjective interpretation of the source material?” and not “Did this filmmaker make an effective film based on my subjective interpretation of the source material?” I will note that for every book purist I’ve heard complain about this, that, or the other deviation from Tolkien’s text, I’ve also heard somebody unfamiliar with the books criticize the films for things that ultimately have the book as their source. “The first movie doesn’t have a real ending, it just sort of stops, and you have to see the next movie to find out what happens,” one person told me as to why they didn’t like Fellowship of the Ring. “This movie was long enough. Why do I have to see two more long movies over two years to get my money’s worth out of the first one?”

I’ll wrap up by touching on one of the comments over at Salon. I think what this person says demonstrates how the trouble is the clash between the worldview of the story and where contemporary sensibilities often fall at a time, after nine years of Afghanistan and Iraq, when there still seems to a cultural catching of one’s breath after George Dubya — or, to put it another way, why Avatar‘s shelf life as compared to LotR‘s will be interesting to compare:

[The books create] an aesthetic world that is reactionary by default rather than by choice, but reactionary all the same. They long for a world where no one asks pesky questions about race, where the pettiness and complexity of deliberative democracy don’t hamper great leaders, where brutal capitalism doesn’t exist, just happy markets, where the “land” isn’t a resource that people choose to value in a rational, moral way, but a force that gobbles you up if you violate it. Crunchy cons and easy-living libertarians, wall-to-wall.

On his own terms, he’s not wrong. It just demonstrates that everybody has a teleological view of history — the question is only whether the telos is an endpoint down the road, or modernity.

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3 Responses to “Salon: Why no <i>Lord of the Rings</i> in “Top 10 of the Decade” lists?”


  1. 1 David Dickens 13 January 2010 at 12:23 pm

    I think you’ve hit on why I never expected to get others to appreciate Tolkien, or ever to have a movie made in the first place. Tolkien is full of all sorts of things the modern man cannot digest without a hefty dose of beano (and Jackson supplies some of that).

    The main beano is in his reinterpretation of Aragorn. Elijah Wood’s Frodo is fine (though overly youthful and youthfully reacting to things youth can’t have sufficient depth to understand). But Aragorn is inexcusable. Aragorn is a hero of duty, and never a reluctant one. But in the movie he’s full of self-doubt and angst.

    But as I said, this is the beano the modern man needs to cut Aragorn down to tolerable size.

    JKR does similar things with “the wizarding world” in Harry Potter. She gives readers a bizarrely beautiful “Narnia around the corner” to sweeten an otherwise bitter pill for modern readers. I think she does this better (and more deliberately) than any one I’ve ever read.

    My wife and I have been watching Star Trek TNG series. One of the things my wife has pointed out, is how bizarrely “Crunchy Con” it is even when it’s trying to be utopian-progressive. Specifically in Captain Picard, Data and especially Worf. But also more generally in the matters of virtue. Most of the characters are after arete, even if they disagree on what it is (Klingon arete, for example.) And it strikes me as familiar that Worf is actually more Klingon than Klingon’s are (sound like any Orthodox converts you know?).

    Fantasy, Science Fiction (speculative fiction or whatever you want to call this stuff) even when it tries to dismember the past, or romanticize it, is trapped. It cannot escape its mythic roots and all the wonderful baggage that brings along.

    There have always been attempts at distorting this. Making villains as main characters, filling the plot with “adult” (actually puerile youth) content like sex and blood-lusting gore… but those fail quickly. They are not “classics” because they are not “classical”.

    It’s why I would rather watch and read most of the good stuff of this genre than even books on theology. Because even though Tolkien was just trying to “entertain” he was incapable of that act of titillating which lies about the nature of man and of the world.

  2. 2 josh 14 January 2010 at 4:34 pm

    I see a great opportunity in your post.

    There remains an opportunity for some genius to grasp in fiction the full gestalt of the post-9/11 world, with its doubt, angst, questioning,and fear, just as Tolkien was able to do with the modern 20th Century.

    Where is our post-modern Tolkien? Undiscovered, certainly, but somewhere toiling in the rich earth of fantastic worlds and true spirit.


  1. 1 Some thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 5 January 2013 at 12:01 pm

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