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).
I think the key there is in that bit about making the stories and their themes and morals accessible. There can be a tradeoff between integrity and accessibility; every change affects the shape of the story and may nip away at something important. You refer to “minor changes in the plot and characterization,” but it’s hard to say what would be minor to someone else.
I found the changes to Merry and Pippin’s characters in the first movie to be quite major, because one of the most affecting themes I’d found in the corresponding book had to do with courage and friendship; Jackson’s version completely failed to convey that aspect of the story. Would Tolkien have considered that a minor excision, or would it have seriously bothered him? And while I’m not the one to do it, but I expect that someone could pose similar questions about, for instance, the way Faramir was written in the second movie. Was something that Tolkien wanted to say wiped out or seriously altered by that editorial decision?
I don’t think you can make the claim that the transformation would have been acceptable to him without a great deal of information about his own feelings on the aspects of the story that were altered. What is minor to you is clearly major to some of the fans out there who’re bothered by the movies; who’s to say it wouldn’t also have been to Tolkien?
You’re right, of course. The changes Jackson made might well have bothered Tolkien more than they bothered me. But I don’t think that he would have been against the concept of making changes to the story to produce a film adaptation, as the interviewees in the article (who had not actually seen the movies) seemed to be claiming.
Aha. I read your post as indicating that the quoted instructors disapproved of the particular changes in question, not of the making of changes in general. Mea culpa.
Addendum: I just read the article, and it struck me badly from the opening. In what lit class would you expect to understand textual references without being familiar with the text in question?
But then, I’ve never been much impressed by the Chronicle.