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Cats That Look At Kings

The Lord of the Rings movies have been criticised because they don't stick closely enough to the books. (And the Harry Potter movies have been criticised because they stick far too closely to the books. Sometimes you just can't win!).

I think the criticisms levelled at Peter Jackson’s movies are unjustified. They are certainly factually true, but I don’t believe that they detract from the movie at all in any significant way – indeed, I regard these criticisms as strengths rather than weaknesses, and it is my contention that Peter Jackson has done a particularly magnificent job of interpreting Lord of the Rings for the screen. Let me tell you why…

I've been heard to remark, on many occasions, that I didn't enjoy some film or other because it was nothing like the book. Most people assume that what I mean by this is that I feel the film and the book should have a one to one correspondence; that the film should reflect the book in all its particulars, with no deviations permitted. But nothing could be further from the truth; that isn't what I mean at all. I don’t think such a correspondence does any particular harm (the first Harry Potter movie proved that), but neither do I feel that it is necessary, or even sufficient. Other criteria have a much greater weight.

Quite obviously films and books are two different media and therefore different rules apply. The most obvious difference is that the author of a book can take you inside the characters heads. You know what they are feeling, what they are thinking, how their emotions are involved in the situations in which they find themselves. The author tells you all these things explicitly. However that's not possible in a film (except very artificially, perhaps by some kind of voice over) because with a film you can only see the outside of the characters, you can only see the characters reacting to circumstance - you can't feel the things that they feel, or get inside their heads in any meaningful manner. And therefore this very vital information is either lost or else it has to be transmitted in different ways. So the rules of artistic expression in both media are obviously utterly different. By that rubric a film and a book can never be identical. Therefore because the film maker brings a different perspective to the material, things from the book will often reach the screen in a distorted way (or perhaps be omitted completely). Does this matter? It might, but it doesn't have to.

All books (but particularly science fiction and fantasy books) build entire worlds from words. A writer is very godlike in many ways for the writer creates a world from scratch, populates it with people and describes their interactions. In some cases those interactions take place against a backdrop of external incidents that illustrate or complement whatever dramatic or philosophical point the writer is trying to make. In other words, all books other than the most trivial are about something and that something is far more than just a catalogue of events or a list of characters and character types. (My favourite definition of this is a joke I've used before in an earlier essay: Woody Allen took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in a day. "It's about Russia," he said).

A film maker faced with the prospect of filming a book has a difficult set of problems to contend with. What is the book about? How do the characters react to the situations and what meaning do the events have for both the character and the reader? How can we transpose this to a different medium without losing anything? Almost invariably film makers have failed to answer these questions in a satisfying way, leading to the recurring complaint that "it was nothing like the book!". Generally the failure comes about because the film maker didn’t capture the essence or flavour of the book and turned the character or the setting or the theme into something so utterly different from the original that it completely ruins the integrity of the film and alienates those who know and love the book. That’s when the complaints become legitimate.

For example, there have been many, many films based upon Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels, but only one of those many films has ever succeeded in translating the books appropriately to film. That film is Greystoke. It remains true to Burroughs' original character and setting, theme and philosophy. In other words Greystoke completely captures what Tarzan was really about, as opposed to the myriad other films which failed to understand Tarzan at all and which presented us with something so hugely different from the books as to be barely recognisable.

In the books, Tarzan is an English Lord, he is well educated, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. He speaks many languages fluently. He is married to Jane Porter (an American lady) and they have a son called John.

In the films, Tarzan is of indeterminate nationality, has no life outside the jungle, and barely speaks English at all, let alone any other language ("Me Tarzan! You Jane!"). He is most definitely NOT married to Jane and therefore cannot possibly have a son (Hollywood would never allow such an immorality). The child who often accompanies Tarzan in the films is usually one that has been rescued from a plane crash or something similar.

Furthermore, many of the Tarzan books are surprisingly sophisticated. They aren't just about swinging from tree to tree, having battles with animals (and men) and screaming the victory cry of the bull ape. All these things most certainly take place but they are secondary to the real concerns of the novels. They are simply the mechanisms through which many of the books raise (and attempt to answer) quite profound questions about the nature of society and the legitimacy of the concept of the "noble savage" both within and without that society. There are some interesting political satires and philosophical conundrums in the stories as well. In other words the books have a depth and a significance that extends far beyond the superficialities of the surface trappings. And as a bonus, they tell a rattling good yarn as well!

And yet the films (with the exception of Greystoke, and the partial exception of Disney's cartoon interpretation of Tarzan of the Apes) completely ignore all these things. By concentrating only on the superficialities of tree swinging and fighting fierce animals, and by completely ignoring the real strengths of the books in terms of the characterisation and the wider concerns that the books demonstrate, the films fail utterly in their attempt to translate the Tarzan mythology to the screen.

In many ways you could say that by ignoring all these aspects the films are treating their subject with a degree of contempt, and it is this contempt which ruffles the fur of the book reader who goes to watch the films.

If the films had exhibited the same depths as the books I could have forgiven (to a certain extent) the gross change in the character of Tarzan. Had the films given me a recognisable Tarzan I could have put up with the superficiality and triviality of the stories that the films relate. But since the films distort and/or ignore every single solitary thing that Burroughs ever said about Tarzan, the criticism that the films are nothing like the books is a perfectly valid one, and we are justified in dismissing the films out of hand.

The important things about a book are theme and setting; the bringing alive of the backdrop against which the characters play out their tale. Set against these are a selection of (often largely arbitrary) incidents designed to move the plot forward and illuminate the theme. The incidents, the action if you like, add sugar to the medicine and give us a degree of recognition of that elusive thing we refer to as "story" when we discuss the work. However since in themselves they are not what the book is about, and since they do not define anything except perhaps a time progression that takes the plot from beginning to end (and sometimes not even that, for the events may take place in parallel rather than serially), they don’t actually matter all that much in themselves. A few more, a few less, new ones, old ones – changes here don’t really affect the structure or alter the integrity of the vision. The theme can be preserved over many additions and deletions and character changes (and who is to say that the author didn’t perform such an exercise anyway?). What we see on the printed page is the final result of many drafts, the final choices that the author made, just one set among arbitrarily many.

This is demonstrably true when we examine Lord of the Rings for here we have actual examples of the essential arbitrariness of the choices that Tolkien himself made in terms of both incident and character.

I have heard many people complain that the movies are not true to the books because the characters in the film are different from those in the book (or sometimes don’t exist at all in the film!); because favourite scenes have been omitted, and because new scenes have been added. I know one person who went so far as to say that he hated and loathed the movies so much because of the changes that had been made that he could barely bring himself to watch it.

There is no doubt that the characters of Gimli and Faramir are portrayed utterly differently in the film and the book. Tom Bombadil never appears at all in the film. We already know (for Jackson has told us) that the Scouring of the Shire will not take place in the third movie and the only reference to it was a brief foreshadowing in Lothlorien when Frodo looked into Galadriel’s mirror. The elf army that arrived at the last minute to aid in the defence of Helm’s Deep did not exist in the book. All this is undeniably true, and many other examples could be given along the same lines. But none of it matters; none of it makes any difference whatsoever to the integrity of Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s world. All of these criticisms can be dismissed as unimportant fluff.

Lord of the Rings is a book that excites enormous passions. It is one of the seminal works of the twentieth century and there are many people who regard the book as approximating to Holy Writ and the text itself as inerrant. However I feel that this is a stupid approach to take for there is a lot of evidence that Tolkien himself had no such feelings about the book. We know for a fact that he regarded the whole thing as very much a work in progress. He tinkered with it for thirty years before it was published and he continued to tinker with it afterwards.

In the years that followed Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher published a vast amount of material from his father’s archives which contained many variant texts of almost every aspect of the book. Characters and events appeared and disappeared. Their significance waxed and waned. We also know, from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, that he was extremely prone to rewrite at the merest hint of criticism. Tolkien and his friends would meet at regular intervals to read to each other from their manuscripts. Many of these readings inspired Tolkien to scrap enormous swathes of material, to recast it again and again and again in a never ending effort to get it right. Dig deeply enough into this material and perhaps you will find an elvish army marching to the aid of the defenders of Helm’s Deep; perhaps you will find a dwarf called Gimli who at times appears quite foolish and is the butt of too many jokes. Or perhaps you won’t.

One thing, however, never changes. In all the mountain of material that Tolkien wrote he always demonstrated a consistency of vision and consistency of purpose. The Third Age of Middle Earth comes late into history. There are thousands of years of growth and decay behind it. The landscape is covered in ruins, the remnants of battles, the tail end of disasters and triumphs. The land is in decline. The elves are leaving, the dwarfs are withdrawing into themselves. It is the Age of Men (though they are weak and sometimes unprepared for their tasks). This land is old, very old. This land is lived in – the very bones of Middle Earth groan with the weight of years. All of this never changes, though many of the details that define it change.

There is only one way to be true to Tolkien, and that way is to match Tolkien’s own vision of Middle Earth. And in that, Peter Jackson has succeeded magnificently. He really has brought Tolkien’s vision to the screen and given us the sense of Middle Earth, the feeling of Middle Earth, the philosophy, religion, geography and politics of Middle Earth. And because Jackson has remained true to what the book is really about, he is allowed to take liberties with the trivialities of plot and incident. He is even allowed to take liberties with the characterisation if he wants to.

Peter Jackson knows how to manipulate his own medium; he knows the strengths and weaknesses of film; he knows what works and what doesn’t. And so he has, quite rightly, made changes to all these aspects of the book, where he deemed it necessary. But the one thing he has not changed, the one thing he cannot change if he wants to remain true to the book, is the sense of Middle Earth itself. How does it look, how does it feel, can we take from the screen that same sense of being that we take from the book? Is the distilled essence of Middle Earth the same in both the film and the book? And the answer, of course, is an unequivocal and resounding "YES!".

Peter Jackson has done to the material just what Tolkien himself did. There’s absolutely no doubt about it, the film of Lord of the Rings is exactly like the book in every way that matters.

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