Well, okay, I’m actually a major purist. That’s today’s literary confession out of the way. You know, that which the Master hath penned, let no one put asunder, and all that.
Last entry, I briefly made reference to “Tolkien’s or Jackson’s versions of Middle Earth,” and a friend queried that statement. Two versions? Whatever was I talking about? To which I began my response by giving him The Look. (Generations of my students are very familiar with The Look. In fact, once, after I had just given one miscreant The Look, I let it sit there for one endlessly silent moment, and in that moment, one of my more astute scholars whispered clearly, for all to hear, “Incoming!”) What had my friend done to deserve The Look? Well, plainly, he Had Not Read The Master’s Words, only seen the films. Which, dear reader, I’m informing you right now, is a heinous sin. When there’s a book in existence before the film version, Thou Shalt Always Read The Book Before Seeing The Film so that, at the least, you can see what the author intended before Hollywood gets its claws into the material. I’m constantly telling my scholars that just because they’ve seen the film version, it does not mean they’ve as good as read the book. Not even close. In fact, sometimes, what winds up on the screen bears only a passing, tortured resemblance to what the author originally penned. (Doesn’t anyone wonder why the opening credits will say, ‘based on the book by’ so-and-so?) And sometimes that passing resemblance is truly horrendous. Let me give you an example that has nothing to do with Jackson or Tolkien.
When I first began teaching George Orwell’s Animal Farm to the masses way back in the Dark Ages, I cast around for a film version (because --- sigh --- my imaginatively challenged little charges hungered for something visual; more on that later). At that time, there was only an animated version out there, so I obtained it and we watched it. I hated it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. Why?
Because they changed Orwell’s brilliant ending. No, that’s incorrect: they mangled it, destroyed it, killed the entire point the great man was trying to make.
If you’ve read the book --- and if you haven’t, you should, because it’s neither a long nor a difficult read, but is elegant and brilliant in its storytelling --- you’ll know that it ends (spoiler alert) on a truly hopeless note: the pigs who were to guide the rest of the animals into a new, golden era have become so intoxicated and corrupted by the exercise of absolute power (thank you, Lord Acton) that they have become indistinguishable from the awful humans they replaced. The book accurately and masterfully reflects the massive political and social betrayal of the people by Stalin’s USSR in the early 1940s, as Orwell intended.
But the cartoon version, made in 1954 in Britain with American funding (Wikipedia asserts that it was CIA funding, which would certainly explain a great deal), changes the ending so that the animals rise up against their new oppressors, thereby triumphantly proving that tyranny cannot stand against truth, justice and the American way. Which, as I said, completely destroys the point Orwell was making.
Now, fortunately, Jackson didn’t eviscerate Tolkien quite to that degree. At least, not with LOTR. We can talk about The Hobbit some other time. A time when I’m feeling emotionally much stronger. But when I discuss Tolkien with my students, I’m very clear with them that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth are not the same place at all. At all. The late, great movie critic Roger Ebert summed up my thoughts on this issue very eloquently in his review when the first LOTR film came out in December of 2001. (Go to http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/lord-of-the-rings-the-fellowship-of-the-ring-2001 to read the full review.)
Jackson changed all sorts of things. To be fair, some of those changes I could understand. For example, along with many others, I deeply mourned the omission of Tom Bombadil from the film version, but I could understand it, because, enormously entertaining and wonderful as that particular episode is, it really doesn’t do a lot to advance the plot --- not directly, that is, although it does perform other functions which we can talk about another time --- and even in an extended movie edition of three and a half hours and counting, we’re on a bit of a tight timeline here.
Other changes I had a lot more difficulty with. Not all. Some changes were, actually, pretty good (proving the old adage that there’s always an exception to every rule). But some changes really altered the tone and intention of what Professor Tolkien had intended, similar to changing the end of Animal Farm, and it took me a long time to be able to appreciate the Jackson films on their own merits, and to be able to make that distinction in my mind between the celluloid and cellulose versions. (Some of those changes I still struggle with.)
Now, all of this may leave you wondering aloud, so what? (To which I give you Arthur C. Clarke’s famous rebuttal: ‘Shut up, he explained.’) But in this increasingly visually oriented society which seems hopelessly addicted to, as Ebert said, tales that “instinctively ramp up to the genre of the overwrought special-effects action picture,” I do make an appeal for you to at least look at, and hopefully appreciate, the written words of an author. Is the written word dead, or dying? Gosh, I sure hope not. Because coupled with a vibrant and fertile imagination, it has the power to transform worlds.
By way of concluding, and speaking of the power of the printed word, the same friend I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, having evidently not learned from receiving The Look, made reference to the “literary house” metaphor I made in my very first blog entry. “Where’s the complaints department?” he demanded jokingly. At least, I think he was joking.
“Why, in the basement, of course,” I replied sweetly, without missing a beat. “Just look for the door with the inscription that says, ‘abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’ Knock and walk straight in. At your own peril, of course.”
He looked at me narrowly, but I think he understood that, no, I wasn’t joking.