Two years ago, after the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s three-part epic, The Lord of the Rings, I acted as defending attorney in the “mock trial of Peter Jackson for the Desecration of The Lord of the Rings.” Great fun was had by all as we argued the relative merits of Jackson’s endeavors to bring Tolkien’s myth to the silver screen. On that occasion the jury found Jackson ‘not guilty’, indicating that the first of the movies had received a thumbs-up from the twelve good men and true.
That was two years ago. Much water has passed under the Brandywine Bridge since then. Now, with the release of the third of the movies, we can finally judge Jackson’s efforts in their entirety. Does he still merit a thumbs-up?
For my part, I am still happy to act as defending attorney. I believe, on balance, that Jackson has done an admirable job. It is, however, not my judgment that is being sought. What would Tolkien himself have thought of the Jackson production of his myth? This is a much more interesting question and one which, in spite of the cautionary admonitions in my ear from the voice of my better judgment, I am foolhardy enough to try to answer.
The first thing we need to understand is that Tolkien was a perfectionist. He worked on the great landscape of myth, upon which The Lord of the Rings is little more than a mere blip in the foreground, for more than half a century. At his death it was still uncompleted. Such was his meticulous precision, such was his perfectionism, that a single lifetime was not enough to bring his creative vision to fruition. Something of the frustration that he felt at his inability to complete his magnum opus surfaced in his purgatorial allegory, “Leaf by Niggle.” The story’s chief protagonist, Niggle, had spent his life trying to paint a landscape but, at the time of death, had not even finished a solitary tree to his satisfaction. The only thing brought to perfection was a lone leaf. Perhaps, in Tolkien’s judgment, The Lord of the Rings was the lone leaf. To illustrate the same point by switching metaphors, The Lord of the Rings was a sublime movement, of which the composer was justly proud, but the great music to which he aspired was elusive. The movement confirms the maestro’s immortality, but the symphony remained unfinished.
All of this serves as a preamble to illustrate that Tolkien is not merely a hard act to follow but is also a hard judge to please. As such, Jackson was always going to be treading on perilous ground when he chose to follow in the master’s footprints. Whether his decision was the result of fearlessness or folly, or both, his bold ambition stumbles, inevitably, on the footfalls of the very footprints he follows. Quite simply, Tolkien would probably have judged Jackson in accordance with his own insurmountable perfectionism and, this being so, would have found the New Zealander wanting.
A few examples will serve to conjure up Tolkien’s ghost, enabling him to point a phantom finger of scorn at Jackson’s presumption.
Galadriel was modeled, says Tolkien, on his Catholic devotional reverence for the Blessed Virgin; Jackson transforms her into a disturbed and disturbing witch, or an electrifying and electrocuted wench. Faramir serves as an antidote to Boromir’s folly, a veritable saint and model of heroic virtue; Jackson turns him into an ignorant rogue and kidnapper. Treebeard embodies the power and wisdom of living tradition, both etymologically and ecclesiologically; Jackson makes him a buffoon who is hoodwinked by the hobbits. Tolkien despised the emerging omnipotence of technology; Jackson allows his besotted attachment to special effects to take over, leaving the technological tail wagging the dog-eared remnants of the tale. Tolkien stated emphatically that The Lord of the Rings was “of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work;” Jackson barely scratches the surface of the deeper spiritual dimension of the book.
I could go on but will desist. I will also insist, again, that this is how Tolkien the perfectionist would probably judge the imperfections of Jackson’s work. It is not how I judge it, though I acknowledge all the above as flaws. I am more inclined to accentuate the positive and turn a beneficent blind eye to the negative. After all, a Hollywood adaptation of The Lord of the Rings could have been much, much worse. Dungeons and Dragons meets Conan the Barbarian! Perish the thought!
In asking the question which serves as the title to this article I knew that I would have to play devil’s advocate. Perhaps I have played it badly. Perhaps Tolkien’s shade will point its accusing finger at me, muttering in reproach at my own presumption: Get thee behind me Sauron. Perhaps. I am, however, sticking to my guns. Would Tolkien have given Peter Jackson’s movies the thumbs-up? No, I believe that he wouldn’t. Should he? Yes, I believe that he should. But then who am I to question the great man?
–Joseph Pearce is author of Tolkien: Man and Myth and editor of Tolkien: A Celebration, both published by Ignatius Press. He is currently writer in residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and is editor of The Saint Austin Review.