The Problem With PJLOTR

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably already frustrated at me. You probably really liked Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings movies, and can’t understand how curmudgeons like myself don’t. Instead of talking to you at length about it, I probably pointed you here. I’m pretty tired of having this argument, so I’m sorry if I came off like a pompous jerk. But if you actually want to understand why us curmudgeons feel the way we do, I offer you my own answer though I can’t pretend to speak for us all.

If I were to give you a bucket full of all of the verbs in the English language, and you were to sort them into two piles: things that a person can do, and things an army can do, I think you might discover a thing or two about the nature of humanity.

It’s sort of an obvious distinction that we rarely think about, but there is a radical and absolute difference between these two classes of action. They don’t overlap. As Mitchell says: “A person cannot invade Normandy any more than an army can play the violin”. It’s obvious when we think about it, but we don’t, and that gets us in trouble.

That last sentence is a perfect example. In point of fact, “we” can’t think at all – thinking is something that only an individual person can do. Thought, reason, wonder and love are verbs you’ll find in the person pile. It’s (tellingly) a much larger pile. And yet the actions of groups seem to, in many peoples minds, outweigh those of individuals. It is a pervasive and dangerous fallacy.

There is a popular interpretation of LOTR as being symbolic of the struggle by free republics against turn-of-the century authoritarianism of the sort most people associate with Nazism. But the zeitgeist of that era was not particular to that nation. Nor was it a blind hostility toward the populace as much as it was the adoption of central planning at the cost of individual liberty. The men of that time were hell-bent on shaping the world into a “better” place, a place that involved ‘citizens’ working toward a common ‘good’ (good as defined by them of course) instead of individuals working to improve their own immediate surroundings, and that vision was important enough that anyone who disagreed with it had to be… well ‘purged’, or at least re-educated. The result was mostly barbed-wire fences and dead people.

It’s arguable whether the experiments of those men were successful or not. Their undertakings have certainly shaped the minds of our generation to an extent that is difficult to describe, and we remain infected with their dystopian vision. So the central struggle in LOTR, the essence of the story and primary message of the work – that of the triumph of the individual over the collective – is a real one. And it’s, going on right now (and in real life, we’re losing).

So, the biggest practical difference between Tolkien and Peter Jackson, is that the former was a wise and learned man, who understood and deemed important the choices and actions of normal every-day people. This is why he designed main characters (hobbits) in such a way as to accentuate their physical weakness. This is why he doesn’t involve the elves in the conflict directly. This is why Gandolf spends hundreds of years in study and diplomatic endeavors instead of assassinating bad guys and shooting lightening bolts from his fingertips. This is why the super-hero fellowship of the ring failed, and its weakest members carried on alone. Tolkien writes stories about the actions of little people who choose to do right in the face of really big reasons not to (and also powerful people like Saruman, who choose to go along to get along). I’ll say that again because it’s important: Tolkiens narrative is made up of little people who choose to defy impossibly powerful authoritarians simply because it’s the right thing to do. “Choose”, there’s another verb for the person pile.

Jackson by comparison is wholly a product of the collective. He lives in a world where the actions of hordes are important. This is just POUNDED into us throughout his films where again and again he undermines the actions of Tolkiens individual characters while taking the utmost care to recreate in detail every last pitched battle and skirmish, and even adding several to wit. Jackson’s view of history is a laundry list of wars, his view of philosophy would undoubtedly be described in so many -ists and -isms, and his understanding of literature has probably come from textbooks written by committee. He understands the ring bearer no more than he understands the cross bearer. He has no grasp of the power of an individual human intellect to shape world events by simply doing the right thing, and balks as a result, when he encounters it in LOTR.

Strong words, I know, and I could, at this point launch into a litany of examples, but this is already running long, so instead, lets consider a single example: that of what Jackson did to Faramir. You remember him, the brother of Baromir. Tolkien, in the appendix, describes him thus:

“He read the hearts of men as shrewdly as his father, but what he read moved him sooner to pity than to scorn. He was gentle in bearing, and a lover of lore and of music, and therefore by many in those days his courage was judged less than his brother’s. But it was not so, except that he did not seek glory in danger without a purpose.”

The most important account of his character we have through his own actions, when, in Return of the King, he is presented with an opportunity to take the one ring, and doesn’t even consider it, saying instead:

“But fear no more! I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo”

Aristotle defined virtue as the ability to act in accordance to what one knows to be right. This is a pivotal moment in the series, one of the many times, but for the actions of virtuous, and well-reasoned individuals, it all would have gone to shit. Faramir has before him the ultimate temptation, a weapon of limitless power, but because he is a person, and has the cognitive ability to reason, he knows right – knows it like some mathematical axiom – and would no more let temptation override his mind than he would equate 5 to 2 and 2. Again, this is the meat of Tolkien’s narrative; it is here, in the actions of individuals that the world is saved. The battles and sieges are just dice rolls between moments like this one, for as long as the power of the individual intellect survives, there will always be hope, always another chance.

Hordes cannot reason, and they cannot know right. Hordes, by extension, cannot be virtuous, and so, in Peter Jackson’s world, actions like Faramir’s just don’t compute. Faramir, as a result is translated by Jackson into a jack-booted thug, and an imbecile, who, after torturing Smegul, snatches the Hobbits and proceeds to drag them back to home-base (why such a man wouldn’t just slit all of their throats and take the ring for himself is beyond me). Faramir then encounters a Jackson-invented skirmish at the river and is twice defiled when he allows an insipid (and winy) appeal to emotion from Samwise to override his course of action. Jackson’s Faramir is now not only an imbecile, but a sentimental weakling, and Jackson has little sympathy it seems for weaklings. In his defense, Jackson claims that he needed “an extra climax”, and that Faramir’s actions as written in the book “wouldn’t translate to movie audiences”.

I don’t doubt that Jackson got a climax from unceremoniously lobotomizing the virtuous Faramir; no doubt Voldemort, Darth Vadar, and Sauron himself would have experienced something akin to sexual arousal in that act, but it’s hardly a defense to prosecution in my court. As for the second justification, the elitist absurdity that people who watch movies can’t understand virtue. To that I can only wave my middle finger in the general direction of Hollywood…. … …. ….. OK, done. No, wait …. …… ……. Ok, done.

The truth is Peter Jackson undermines the contribution of individuals because he doesn’t understand the contribution of individuals. His mind has been broken by that turn of the century zeitgeist toward collectivization that I referred to earlier. If a person manages to take an action that changes the course of human history, then that person is an exception; some sort of old-world superhuman badass whom we weaklings should immediatly appoint dictator for life. Otherwise it must have been the result of a happy accident (and usually an accident contrary to the intention of the individual in question).

One almost feels bad for the guy. It must have been rough for such a man to adapt such a series to film. Badasses in abundance stand around in tree houses playing with pretty fountains and singing, while the actual narrative is constantly focused on the comings and goings of these insignificant weakling hobbits. Heros like Faramir who could grab the nukes and use them to end the war don’t and poor Jackson just can’t extract any meaning from it all.

Without fail every character who isn’t a super-hero, and sometimes even groups of characters who are (like the Ents) are undermined, marginalized, nerfed, or otherwise made into twisted, collectivist shadows of their Tolkien counterparts. Sometimes, as in the case of Gimli, whom Tolkien obviously intended to be a superhuman badass, Jackson gets confused, (Gimli is probably too short for Jackson to consider badass) and seems to react as if he’s encountered yet another of Tolkiens weaklings. In Gimli’s case, Jackson relegates him to the position of comic relief. But now I’m digressing into other examples.

What can I say of a man who reads a story (one hopes he did actually read it) that figuratively grabs us by the collar and screams in our faces that the magic is going away, that the mindless hordes are gathering, that our only hope for survival is the application of well-trained individual cognitive abilities – to reason and to seek virtue – and hands us back a movie wherein the meek of the world passively cower in wait for a team of superhero badasses to deliver them their fate? A movie where world peace is handed to us by benevolent emperors and happy accidents? Of the man I’m uncertain what to say; he is certainly a man of our times. I’ve done him a great service in assuming his shortcomings are the result ignorance and not malice. Can I objectively say that the work is worse or better? I think I can objectively say, at least, that it’s not the same story. For myself I’ll take the original, and keep a close eye on those who prefer the films.