Why the ‘film purists’ and the ‘book purists’ will never understand each other – on how (not) to appreciate Peter Jackson’s work

A window into a fantastical world
A window into a fantastical world

J.R.R. Tolkien’s books belong to the most popular writings ever to be published and for decades they have had a loyal following all other the world. These numbers understandably swelled with Peter Jackson’s film trilogy The Lord of the Rings and I, for one, am deeply grateful for the many opportunities their success has offered to many of us whose main interest is in the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien, CBE. It is wonderful to see so many new readers finding their way into Middle-earth appreciating the depth, complexity and essential ideas of stories that deeply touch the heart of all of us.

However, not all that glitters is gold and the same could be easily said about the (first) film trilogy and the upcoming (second) one. This is not a review about the quality of the film trilogy but a more general post about the misunderstanding which has been happening for years and is happening right now between many people appreciative of either Tolkien’s or Jackson’s works (and many appreciate both) – a very simple and basic one and that is all about communication and expectations.

How to appreciate a great film.

If you are willing to talk about these films there are three major kinds of approaches (others could be thought of but these are the general ones.) And people do misunderstand each other on such a basic level it is really frustrating.

1. The General Public.

 Aim: Interest in watching fun film. Interest in Tolkien: Zilch.

Underword Awakening. Ice Age 4. Matrix 3. Episodes 1-3. Whatever. The quality really isn’t an issue here, it’s a mass movement (often happening because of peer pressure and a global marketing campaign) and that’s what makes blockbusters. Yes, I have seen The Lord of the Rings many times, both in cinemas and on DVD, looking for easter eggs and saw all the specials. And watched Underworld because I wanted to see Kate Beckinsale and enjoy an action movie. And man, it’s a crap movie (if you have any expectations film art-wise.)

Peter Jackson’s take on my favourite book (you might have guessed it: The Lord of the Rings) led to action-packed films with an outstanding scenery, great pictures, perfect score and details almost no other films has matched in recent years. It certainly is the best fantasy film and fun to watch. I belong to this group. Most of the people “defending” the films belong to it as well (there is no need to defend the films – that’s just another cliché lovingly used by the public.) My official stance: Love the films – but they have nothing to do with the books (but that’s for another, about 14-page-long post.) So – watching films for sheer entertainment is great but don’t expect a Tolkien fan to see it this way.

2. A film critic’s version.

Aim: Interest in judging the aesthetic and technological feats of the film. Interest in Tolkien: Only if interested or as part of plot/ story – character development etc.

The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, first and foremost, a technological and organisational feat, pushing the limits of modern film making. Remember Massive, the first software invented to do mass scenes (Battle of Helm’s Deep)? Remember the extra work gone into the Extended editions? No other film seems to have been able to come even close to this. PJ and his team turned WETA and many other companies dealing with this into top contenders for the best in the world – and have put New Zealand on a map that didn’t even exist before (that’s tourism, but anyway.) Those well over $300 million weren’t only a good investment for New Line but also for PJ and everyone who worked for/with him (and New Zealand.) Back-to-back shooting, pushing digital effects (with hundreds of Linux workstations) – the list is almost endless but one thing is for certain: The success of this film trilogy ushered in a new era of film-making.

An aesthetical judgment of the films is notoriously difficult to do but let me just say that a lot of people enjoyed (or disliked) the battle and hunt scenes; it opened up new vistas, cleverly employed the technique of flashbacks and generally speaking used recent technology to present overwhelming imagery. On a scale from 1 to10 (10 being the best) well-meaning critics (and appreciative of the handiwork) would give it a 8-9, those with a hunch for “fantasy is crap” would lower it to a 5-6, I would assume. It still is a pretty decent film. I belong to this group. A lot of film fans think they belong to this group, but are horribly wrong.

3. The Tolkien fans’ version (who love the books first and maybe then the films.)

 Aim: Interest in seeing their favourite literary world come to life. Interest in Tolkien: The only thing that counts.

As a literary adaptation all the elements of groups 1) and 2) are close to irrelevant. Why? If 1) you want to be entertained then the origins are irrelevant. Loads of US series right now used to be British or Australian – sometimes they are shown there and then a copy is made. You can still enjoy both but the original usually is much better. Some weird writer with a much too long book with boring appendices – why should I read that? It’s old anyway 😉 If you are with 2) then the material behind the film might add to your understanding when critisising it but in most cases it is much more important to see the film with a director’s/ artist’s/ film audience’s view. It’s just the script – and that has nothing to do with the book _because it is a different medium_! I can’t stress this enough.

With most of us here in 3) there is only one thing interesting: Will it be true to Middle-earth? Will it be true to the essential messages (if there are any) of The Lord of the Rings – or in the upcoming case – with The Hobbit? And man, there have been whole books written about this (I am close to writing one if people don’t stop complaining about this and I am talking both sides here ;)) PJ does get close to the atmosphere in some places but especially those ones where he did not make a special point of doing so. It really is wonderful to see Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith or even Gollum in all of his misery. Sure. But most of it is not even close the literary mark. In fact, it is so far away from Tolkien that I cannot possibly explain to 1) and 2) how wrong they are. I belong to group 3), by the way, and a lot of film fans think they belong to this group, too, but are horribly wrong.

So because of the simple fact that 1, 2 and 3 don’t understand what their aim is most discussions are perfectly useless. I love the films, I love the books and I find it very hard sometimes to agree with all these positions brought forward – I am just a Tolkien fan who thinks that his favourite writer and his books are the best there are and if someone like PJ does films then they are amazing, too (even if they have nothing to do with the books.)

However, things are different today than there were then. We are all ten years older. We have seen The Lord of the Rings. We can now better judge, even in advance, what or who PJ really is for this business – and these films. I could write another 10-15 pages on the utmost importance of everyone involved – it is a major turning point in film history, if only for technology reasons. New frame rates (aka new projectors for cinemas), extra money for the biz (aka extra money to be paid + 3d + overlength), 3d printing and no more models (aka it is _all_ digital now) etc. etc. That’s the interesting part…

One way to possibly better understand my own approach to the films would be to talk about the recent Sherlock Holmes interpretations – the films being what PJ has made out of the Tolkien stories (crash, boom, bang action films) and the BBC series (even though transporting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle into the 21st century) being much, much closer to the mark of what was originally written more than a hundred years ago. However, that may be for another post.

These stories are (obviously) very dear to me and there is a huge difference between having a great discussion about interesting films coming up soon or talking to people repeating press snippets withtout thinking and who don’t really care for the books screaming: GIMME 9 HOBBITS!

My thanks go out to Jack Machiela and many others on the Facebook group of the Tolkien Society for a very interesting discussion.

What Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond, eminent Tolkien scholars, said about the film adapations

“There have been serious studies of the media adaptations already, and more are in process. Which is all well and good, even if not something in which we take a personal interest (for the sake of completeness, we included a related article in the Reader’s Guide). Students of film may study Peter Jackson’s work for its strengths and weaknesses (as film), and there’s a definite sociological angle in the study of fans of the film. It’s imperative, though, that an absolute distinction be made in scholarship between what Tolkien himself produced and what others have made from it, if the adaptations are not to have a corrupting influence on how one reads, or comments on, the original creation. Unfortunately, this has already occurred: posts to Internet forums show that some people do confuse Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with Jackson’s, and some teachers have said that they have caught out students commenting on something depicted in the films but not in the book they were supposed to be reading. Even more unfortunately, anyone who sees the films before reading The Lord of the Rings may not then be able to experience the book without Jackson-imagery and Jackson-story interfering.” [An Interview with Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull]

Marcel R. Bülles

Marcel R. Bülles is the author of thetolkienist.com, a specialist blog centering on worldwide Tolkien fandom, geekdom and research. He works as a freelance translator, journalist and writer and is the founder of the German Tolkien Society as well as a co-founder to RingCon, Europe's formerly biggest fantasy film convention. You can find him in cafés all over the world sipping an espresso blogging, writing, reading. At one point he was married to an extremely lovely French lady by the nickname of Sauron. Yes, that Sauron. He is also active with the International Tolkien Fellowship on Facebook and the Tolkien Folk on Instagram.