Middle Earth in the Content Economy

Christopher Tolkien’s Lament: Why J.R.R. Tolkien’s son didn’t like the Peter Jackson trilogy

“Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time… The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”
— Christopher Tolkien, Le Monde

When J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher said this in 2012, it was a genuinely shocking thing to say. Among people who were interested in Tolkien’s work, it was broadly ignored as something nobody knew quite how to deal with. After all, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films debuted ten years prior to great acclaim and have since aged into a cinematic touchstone as critical and popular successes. Performances and lines from the films had entered the broader popular consciousness in a meaningful way. Not only that, but Christopher’s comments came just as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit was being released to much excitement. Those films have also entered popular consciousness, if less pervasively.

Of course, not everyone was pleased with the Jackson films when they debuted in 2001. I recall a comic strip from that time lampooning certain nerds who were unhappy with changes the films made to the story. I recall a minor outcry at the time regarding the replacement of Glorfindel with Arwen at the Ford of Bruinen and a small furor surrounding the appearance of an Elven battalion at the Siege of Helm’s Deep. Nothing on the scale of today’s bitter fan outcries, but it was there nevertheless. But do changes like these really merit comments like Christopher’s?

A serious critic must ask whether canonicity has intrinsic value or serves merely as a form of Chesterton’s Fence. I contend canonicity is the latter. Don’t change it until you know what it’s there for. But a good critic cannot simply point out that changes were made and canon was broken, he must explain why that matters. Most of the criticism I’ve seen of Amazon’s The Rings of Power so far has not been the good sort. The unbiased man on the street has no dog in the fight. He doesn’t care if Galadriel is married or not, or whether Dwarf women have beards. The loreheads flying into apoplexy over the questions looks silly because nobody bothers to explain why it matters in terms of generating entertaining television. They often don’t understand themselves, and many have decided it’s simply enough to hate it for shallow reasons, assuming the connection between Amazon’s political preference and a lack of quality. And who can blame them?

But Christopher Tolkien wasn’t this kind of lazy, petty nerd. He was the celebrated editor of his father’s unfinished papers, responsible for the posthumous publication of most of the interstitial Legendarium texts — The Silmarillion, The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Sons of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, and The Fall of Gondolin. And while true that rights issues are complex and the Tolkien Estate lost the film rights to The Lord of the Rings long ago, the Estate is flush by any measure. It was notoriously conservative with Tolkien’s work and regularly refused opportunities to cash out. By all accounts, Christopher Tolkien was a faithful son who truly understood and cared for the integrity of his father’s work.

So what to make of Christopher Tolkien’s lament?

As I continue to read the books and watch the films every few years, I find myself identifying more and more with Christopher’s position. Christopher said, “the commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.” This is clearly hyperbolic. The value isn’t zero. But I can’t deny that the process of adaptation flattens and dilutes great swathes of the delicate conceptual structure Tolkien achieved. This slippage follows a consistent pattern. Let’s consider a few of the many examples.

First, much has been made of Amazon’s decision to present Galadriel as a committed warrior, a leader of men in battle. Defenders of the decision invariably proffer Éowyn as a sort of precedent. But too often they conflate Jackson’s Éowyn with Tolkien’s. Jackson’s Éowyn is a noblewoman who takes up arms in reaction to her lack of agency amid the war threatening to topple the House of Eorl. Tolkien’s Éowyn does the same, but Tolkien makes it very clear that she was wrong to do so. In Jackson’s version, Éowyn disproves the doubters by heroically slaying the Witch King of Angmar. In Tolkien’s version, Éowyn’s spirit, while noble, leads her to act wrongly in response to her despair. By divine grace the day is redeemed nonetheless, but Eowyn herself sees the folly in her actions and repudiates them. Consider Éowyn before speaking with Faramir in the Houses of Healing:

“Alas, not me, lord!” she said. “Shadow lies on me still. Look not to me for healing! I am a shieldmaiden and my hand is ungentle.”

Now compare it to Éowyn afterward:

“I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun; and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.”

Éowyn’s story in the book is a facet of a larger question of the moral duty of leaders that Tolkien examines from many angles. Theoden faces despair too, as does Denethor. The reader is called to attend to their actions when faced with such despair, and the consequences thereof. Moreover, Tolkien uses Éowyn’s story to underscore the concept of Eucatastrophe so important to his work. Her role in the films is an arc that’s simpler and less rewarding for stripping most of the depth from her character. The films largely don’t preclude the books’ more complex narrative, but they don’t include much of it either.

Second, Gandalf’s role (and Denethor’s, and Faramir’s) is similarly flattened. The films omit much of Gandalf’s role as a chess player and puller-of-strings, set in opposition to first Saruman and then Sauron. Gandalf is simultaneously implementing two interlocked schemes by orchestrating both the Fellowship’s effort to destroy the Ring and Aragorn’s accession to the throne of Gondor. These schemes are presented at a high level of detail, creating an intricate framework for developing meaning. For example, one thread omitted from the film is that Aragorn gained combat leadership experience leading Gondorians against Umbar, in disguise as ‘Thorongil’, at Gandalf’s direction. This shows Gandalf planning one of the key pieces for a justifiable claim to the throne of Gondor. He makes Aragorn a proven battle leader who earned respect by leading Gondorians successfully. But at the same time, Denethor, as a younger man, likely knew that Thorongir was Aragorn, rumored to be the rightful claimant. 

That’s why Denethor doesn’t trust Gandalf when Gandalf shows up during Lord of the Rings. That’s why Denethor hates Faramir for studying with Gandalf, calling him the ‘wizard’s pupil’. Denethor knows Gandalf is plotting to put Aragorn on the throne. So when Boromir turns up dead and Faramir is ‘weak’ because of Gandalf, Denethor feels cornered by that, in addition to feeling cornered by Sauron on the other side of Osgiliath. The films still work without this element of the story. They present the relationships fairly faithfully and not contradictorily. But knowing this level of detail makes the whole thing more aesthetically and philosophically rich, especially by underscoring Tolkien’s presentation of wizards as an angelic role: a messenger, an organizer, a counselor, a guardian.

The third and my favorite example is smaller in scope, but no less illustrative. In the movie, we see Gandalf haul Samwise in through the window and say, “Confound it all Samwise Gamgee, have you been eavesdropping?” Samwise famously protests. It’s played as endearing, and it works. But in the book, several chapters later, Merry, Pippin, and Fatty Bolger are in Crickhollow with Frodo, who thinks he’s hidden his true reasons for leaving the shire. They reveal they were all part of a conspiracy to spy on Frodo, that they knew about the Ring, and they knew about Frodo’s quest, in large thanks to Samwise. He had been eavesdropping! 

All this is cut from the film. The film handles this by forcing Merry and Pippin out of the Shire with Frodo and Samwise by means of the Ringwraith attack, revealing the Ring in the under-the-roots scene, then filling in the ringlore by having Merry and Pippin spy on the Council of Elrond. It’s an elegant way to cauterize the removal of an integral scene, but not only do you miss a wonderful payoff, you miss a very important character scene establishing the friendship of the hobbits. Again, not ruined, but certainly flattened.

Happily, Jackson’s films were made in an era when such cuts could be made for professional reasons only. Histories of the film project all agree that Jackson had a true passion for Tolkien’s work and simply wanted to make the best and most faithful adaptation he could sell. With few minor exceptions, such as Éowyn doing what she did for arguably different reasons, or having Faramir initially seek to claim the Ring from Frodo, Jackson did very little that contradicted what Tolkien did. Indeed, the films mostly benefit when viewed with a complete understanding of the books. So Christopher’s comments that the Jackson films reduced the value of his father’s work to “nothing” is wrong.

But Christopher Tolkien’s lament was prophetic. In the same comments from 2012, he added that “it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.” The scope of these comments was not limited to Jackson’s films, but rather to the broader commercialization of his father’s corpus in his entirety. He saw Jackson’s trilogy and knew what was coming. Endless films in the Tolkien Cinematic Universe, big-budget action videogames, Denny’s menu, Made in China toys; all at the expense of what he loved about his father’s work. 

And he was right. The Hobbit indeed contains elements that do directly contradict the structure of Tolkien’s work, most obviously in the saccharine, cringe-inducing love triangle set up between elves Legolas and Tauriel, and dwarf Kíli. This change undercuts the tremendous focus that Tolkien gave to the symbolic significance of his genealogical structure. It also pierces the veil too deeply and thereby compromises the character of Legolas into a more pathetic cast. And, of course, all omens point to an acceleration of this commercialized disregard for Tolkien’s work in Amazon’s The Rings of Power.

This process happens to more or less anything wildly successful. Godzilla (1954) is a beautiful and melancholy cinematographic masterpiece. But by the ’70s, Godzilla had become a pastiche of itself, an intentionally cheap and campy product for children. Godzilla’s creator Tomoyuki Tanaka later told People Magazine that turning Godzilla into a loveable hero had been a mistake and caused the decline of the franchise. (And they are still making Halloween movies.) For this reason, I am more cynical than Christopher. I’m amazed when anything big is decent twice. Yet if you rolled the dice 10,000 times you would not get another trilogy like Jackson’s.

The Lord of the Rings – the book, not the films – is a work of remarkable depth and complexity. Tolkien’s work is one of those rare accomplishments so overshadowed by its own commercial success that academia has not yet fully appreciated its artistic merit. But as much as I hate to admit it, its success is exactly why you should expect to see Middle Earth turned into a wide variety of endless trash. I didn’t understand this ten years ago. But Christopher Tolkien did; he saw the writing on the wall and it broke his heart.

Alexander Palacio is a writer of adventurous science fiction and fantasy.

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