I just read an article from last Monday’s Chronicle about a course being taught at San Francisco State University on The Lord of the Rings. I don’t find this particularly newsworthy (universities have been teaching classes on Tolkien for decades), but the article did quote one of the instructors on the recent movie versions: “The truth of the matter is — I don’t think Tolkien would be very happy with it.” Having just seen The Two Towers for the second time, I disagree.
Apparently the instructors of this course disapprove strongly of the changes the movie has made regarding plot details. My understanding, though, is that Tolkien’s goal was to write a modern myth, a legend for a society that was no longer interested in the old epic tales that Tolkien studed in his day job as a professor of Old English. Most legends do undergo change, though, as the story is passed from person to person, generation to generation and through different mediums. I think Tolkien would have approved of a good screen adaptation of his tale (which I think the recent movies are) that made his stories and its themes and morals more accessible to a large, modern audience, even if they did require some minor changes in the plot and characterization.
Tolkien scholars might point out that Tolkien wrote several letters in which he writes disapprovingly of the idea of movies based on his books. My take, though, is that he probably thought the result would be more “silly” than anything else; he probably never imagined that it would be possible to put a ‘realistic’ visualization of Middle Earth onto film. Also, I am given to understand that he was soured to the idea by some bad business deals involving the movie industry. I think, though, that he would have appreciated the movies, had he seen them.
P.S. This reminds me. If you’ve read the entire trilogy, you should definitely read this piece that Jim Cambias posted to Usenet a year ago. I read it every few months, and it gets better every time. Major spoilers for all three books (or movies, I suppose — check back again in a year).