by Simon Jaronski | staff columnist
Jan. 20, 2022
The titanic imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien looms large over the contemporary landscape of culture and entertainment. With the 20th anniversary theatre debut of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring” recently having passed in December, and the upcoming “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” Amazon Prime series in 2022 being highly anticipated, a recent debate has once again emerged from the shadows: How can one transform a highly venerated work of literature into film or TV tastefully? Alternatively, should it be attempted at all, or is it simply apostasy?
There will always be those who question Peter Jackson’s directorial interpretation of Tolkien’s legendarium. And, quite frankly, I refuse to dismiss them as ivory tower barons, if not solely for the debt owed them by all who love the works of Tolkein: their advocacy for the relevance of LoTR cannot be understated in its importance, and has helped to reinvigorate the timeless epic.
Some of his more unfortunate elisions appear particularly irksome to those scholars who demand an undeviating interpretation of the Professor’s works, with regard to theological, ecological or philological considerations that seem unimportant to the action packed world of cinema. The role of Tom Bombadil, the Scouring of the Shire and epic songs and poetry all come to mind.
But perhaps the democratization of Middle-earth and it’s lessons make the natural dilution of Tolkien’s prose quality — insofar as translation to the big screen naturally exacts that toll — well worth it. And far from merely detracting, these films decisively augment in many ways.
Howard Shore’s masterful score, which has consistently been ranked among the greatest and most recognizable of all time by BBC, adds considerable weight and gravitas to the Third Age. The rustic beauty of the Shire, the soul crushing Evil of Mordor and the soaring triumph of free civilization in the War of the Ring: Does not the ineffable quality of music lend itself to cinema and story in ways that can elevate beyond the page, and color experience of even familiar characters in wholly new ways?
This is but one example of how new life can be breathed into a world staunchly defended by those who would wish to see it unchanged. Regardless I sympathize and agree with them.
The promotion of gratuitous violence, the wanton exploitation of our less refined proclivities and increasingly desensitized capacities for wholesome entertainment — all of these are met too eagerly by commercial interests who stand ready to provide us with utterly non-stimulating and banal content.
Tolkien and Jackson, both possessors of keen minds, and both uncompromisingly principled (perhaps I shall address the shortcomings of The Hobbit trilogy elsewhere), have something to offer to a deprived and depraved public through their respective skillsets.
Although George R. R. Martin has grappled with Tolkien problematically in the past (perhaps he can properly spar with his idol if and when he sees fit to complete his fantasy opus), his work — ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ — deserves plaudits for conveying a vision of moral complexity, one made even more impressive through its scope and realism. However, there is an object lesson in his joint venture with HBO, and the converse of its result is visible in Jackson’s product.
His iconic penchant for grisly violence aside, Martin’s techniques are not undue: they further a genuine artistic goal, one that was at times derailed through a personal struggle to finish his own work, and the necessities of business that came from being inextricably bound to an HBO series that halted for no man. Therein lies the danger, which was obviously no issue for Tolkien, since he died nearly 30 years before Fellowship debuted. The issue is evergreen nonetheless.
Tolkien’s work, however, serves as the ideal bulwark against the dark forces of moral and cultural turpitude that have seemed to overwhelm modern society. His vision is fundamentally one of hope. Although Mankind is corruptible (as we know well from the story of the Ring), there is Good, Truth and Beauty yet among us.
While there may be a way to do so, a discussion of Tolkien’s political views is unwarranted here. Perhaps they can be discerned through context (if at all), or with knowledge of the author’s unshakeable Roman Catholic faith. No matter. Whether liberal or conservative, religious or secular, American, British or otherwise, we all like to believe in the ability of the small and simplistic to persevere in the face of great opposition; in the natural equilibrium of the universe — that Justice might ultimately be done, and Evil be the source of its own undoing; that different cultures and peoples might attain harmony, balance and friendship.
In 2022, we find ourselves in an execrable desert and a veritable wasteland of culture. Our most popular music glorifies violence and the routine degradation of women; the assembly lines of Hollywood manufacture items of prosaic and unintelligent nature; we revere models and makers of TikToks instead of authors, doctors and creators. How might we liberate ourselves from mental drudgery and self-imposed exile in the Dead Marshes of Digital Age ennui? There are yet stories of uplift and hope among us, that recall the kinder side of humankind.
PJ’s films are a reminder of Tolkien’s legacy, and a compromise with it and those folk who keep it alive through their unceasing interest in its finer details, and through their work in cultivating a sense of community among lovers of lore. And for many, those films will be a bridge into the written world of Middle-earth, where so much more lies to be discovered for the curious and imaginative reader on their own journey. Both men have done essential work, and their contributions to literature, cinema and the human spirit cannot be passed over in the course of this debate.
To invoke Tolkien himself in regard to this desolation: ‘To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.’