On the night, years ago, when my fiancée and I watched Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers I picked a fight with her after the film. As it turns out, I was frustrated, not with her, but with the movie, and it’s taken me more than seven years to really figure out what it was bothered me about the experience.
At several critical junctures of Tolkien’s book, each of the main characters—Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, Frodo and Sam—from within their separate stories finds what I call ‘unexpected help’. King Theoden of Rohan provides unexpected help without delay to Aragorn and company after he is freed from Wormtongue’s spell. He puts his full trust in Gandalf’s counsel, and when a Gondorian messenger arrives to plead for Theoden’s help, the good king acts immediately. Treebeard provides unexpected help to Merry and Pippin, not requiring rhetoric or complaint to make him fight Saruman, but making his ‘hasty’ decision and working steadily to convince the other ents to fight as well. Most amazing of them all, Faramir, unlike his brother, when confronted with the One Ring refuses it outright and provides a loyal and much needed ally to Sam and Frodo on their journey.
The movie’s interpretation of these events is in stark contrast to the book. Theoden refuses to help, turning inward and ‘defending his people’, until, after nearly three hours of argument, he is finally convinced to come to Gondor. Treebeard resists the hobbits’ pleas, turning back and refusing outright to assist the free peoples. It is only when he sees some burnt trees that he becomes ‘angry’ and (completely out of entish character) does something truly hasty in rushing off to war. Faramir is not a heroic helper—instead, he threatens and kidnaps the heroes, then assists them only reluctantly at the end.
What do these episodes point to? The fact that, and in addition to these three clear examples, at every major junction of Peter Jackson’s films tension is increased and drama enhanced.
This may not seem like a big deal to you. You may have enjoyed the epic-battle rush of Jackson’s interpretation of Lord of the Rings. Perhaps you’ve never even read the books and think that I’m just one of those pedantic complainers who think the book is always better than the movie (which, in principle, and excepting these two cases, is almost always true). And yet Jackson’s changes typify a real problem, because in their own subtle way they distort and obscure the very essence that makes Lord of the Rings such a compelling piece of literature.
That central change is the shift from zest to excitement, and while the books are full of zest; the films are replete with excitement. (Note: I’ve written about this distinction elsewhere.) The Lord of the Rings is a compelling piece of literature because it creates zest in its readers. There is a warm, rich, undercurrent to the books. People, when they read them, describe feeling wholesome, refreshed, and ‘palate cleansed.’ This zest that one gets from the books makes the reader hungry for life. And as a result, many people (myself included) read and reread the books because of this zest that is included in it. This is the property of Lord of the Rings that refreshes Christians and appeals to ‘pagans’.
The problem, then, is that the films appeal to excitement, rather than zest. And while zest enriches, excitement titillates. Zest’s pleasure is in a slow and steady plod, but excitement always searches for the novel and different. This not-so-subtle change epitomizes the difference between the fantastic good and the real good.
To get at this I am reminded of something Simone Weil once said, and I paraphrase her here: there is nothing more boring than fantastic good, and nothing more exciting than fantastic evil; and yet, nothing is more satisfying than real good, and nothing more destructive than real evil. And the wisdom of her remark is easily verifiable—especially in the realm of cinema, real good is always boring, stupid, and inept, while evil is made to be compelling, charming, and exciting. In transposing The Lord of the Rings to film, the filmmakers found the real good to be cinematically boring and exchanged it for the cinematically exciting. But the effect of the newly ‘spiced’ version is that it renders the true good boring, old, and ineffective. A reader who picked up the book after watching the movies is liable to find it slow and dull, since it lacks all the excitement of the epic battles and rousing music (you mean those twenty minutes of film were only one sentence?). Since the books lack the tensions on which the movies focus, such a reader will miss the subtle beauty of what Tolkien accomplished. Searching for excitement, he will never find the zest.
At the end of Return of the King a chap sitting near me in the theatre lamented loudly, “Why didn’t they just end the movie after Aragorn was crowned?” The reason why a person in the theater would fail to understand why the film followed the hobbits back to Hobbiton was because of this shift from zest to excitement. To the lover of the book, Sam’s “Well, I’m back” is the only way it could have ended (perhaps the best, most wholesome ending ever). To the moviegoer who has viewed a distorted vision of this world, the true good ending, the true happy ending, is a letdown. Give them the climax and the action of the battle, but a hobbit with a baby girl sitting by his fire is boring. The book is not nearly so much about the great battle as it is about coming home afterwards. I’ll take the hobbit and the fire.
The Lord of the Rings is not the only case of this cinematic distortion, and the Narnia movies operate equally under the same principle. In exchange for the true and subtle good of Lewis’ books (their zest), a false, action-packed, and exciting version is made—one that likewise will render the books ‘boring’.
I remember hearing once that Tolkien himself predicted that his books, if ever filmed, would become one large battle. In this he foresaw that cinema’s natural proclivity toward excitement was at odds with the purposes of his books. And this brings us to the subtlest and most treacherous danger of all: that the distortion of good and evil, between zest and excitement, in cinema, has the effect of poisoning rather than enlivening our real lives. In the fantasy world, good is boring and evil is compelling; and by translation we turn from the cinematic fiction to find that our real lives have paled in comparison. We come away hungry for an evil which is treacherous (but exciting) and spurning the good which we so desperately need (zest).
Fiction, and our entertainment choices in general, has great power in our lives. But we must ask ourselves as we take media in whether our entertainment is zest filled, or merely exciting. Does this feature that I’m watching reflect the true good, or the fictional good? Is there any hint of the fantastic evil in it, which distorts reality for me? Do I want to live my own life more after this, or do I wish I was living someone else’s life? Is the real world more real, or more boring? St. Augustine, long ago, wondered how it was that he could feel sorrow for the actor on the stage yet ignore the real need to feel sorrow for the real suffering around him. He saw entertainment’s ability to distort, rather than enrich, reality, which is the height of fiction’s danger. His question still challenges us today.
And so, I find that the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings distort the essential heart of Tolkien’s work. In exchanging zest for excitement—in their inability to communicate zest on film (which is not impossible, merely difficult)—they have exchanged the truth of Tolkien for a lie. That’s what bothered me about the movies. And it only took me seven years to say it.
(NB: This piece has been adapted from an article I wrote several years ago for my seminary paper, The Et Cetera)