Christopher Tolkien, Not a Fan

Christopher Tolkien has spoken about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and they are unsurprisingly negative.  The Examiner reported on his interview with Le Mond and he had this to say :

They gutted the book, making an action movie for 15-25 year olds. And it seems that The Hobbit will be of the same ilk. Tolkien became…devoured by his popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of the time. The gap widened between the beauty, the seriousness of the work, and what it has become is beyond me. This level of marketing reduces to nothing the aesthetic and philosophical significance of this work.

Yet, I don’t really buy his argument.  The marketing may be over the top and even “absurd” at times.  But I don’t see how that impacts the “aesthetic and philosophical significance of this work.” Do the myriad interpretations of Dickens at all impact the actual texts and peoples interpretations of those texts?  Perhaps a better parallel would be whether the campy movie versions of Frankenstein affect Mary Shelley’s novel? Do those who are interested in aesthetics and philosophical significance alter their interpretation of Shelley’s novel because of the movies?  I don’t think they do.  They are able to separate adaptations (which in Shelley’s case often deviated from her story dramatically) from the original text.  And I would argue that Peter Jackson’s movies are of a higher quality and take the source material more seriously than some of the Frankensteins. 

Further, Tolkien seems to ignore the most important benefit of the movies, more readers of the novels. David Brawn, the Tolkien editor at HarperCollings says,

In three years, from 2001 to 2003, [the films] sold 25 million copies of Lord of the Rings – English 15 million and 10 million in other languages. And UK sales grew by 1000% after the release of the first film of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Regardless of any residual effect on a readers interpretation of the novels, I think they are outweighed by an additional 25 million readers of the actual texts. Certainly the movies have their faults, but they surely have a bit more depth than Tolkien is willing to give them. (h/t Aidan Moher)


8 Responses to Christopher Tolkien, Not a Fan

  1. This brings to mind an interesting question: when someone creates something, when does it cease to belong to them? At what point does it belong to the collective imagination? And, when it does, does the original creator have a right to complain because it does not ‘fit in’ with what they originally created? Frankenstein and Dracula, as concepts, are no longer owned by Shelly or Stoker respectively so can their heirs complain that subsequent interpretations are ‘not correct’?

    • Ronny says:

      I think anyone can complain, authors or heirs. Once any work is given to another for some type of interpretation it is no longer the original text. It is a new artifact, with its own story. Even the original printings can be argued as contrary to the authors vision ,such as cover art. Authors can complain about how books are advertised and presented to the public. They and their heirs, when they either give the rights for an interpretation (or they enter the public domain), can always give their opinion.

      But in each case, that opinion is an opinion about a new work. Its doesn’t necessarily alter the original text. In fact, the authors own interpretation does not need to impact the text. A scholarly reading of any text can be about how the reader interprets the work, regardless of what the author originally expected. The author’s vision is itself an interpretation and once a text is out into the ether its vision is whatever the reader interprets it to be. When it is moved to a different medium such as a movie the change is similar, simply to another vision, another adaptation, one that is a new and unique piece of work.

  2. And, side note here, if Christopher Tolkien was so aghast at the LotR movies and merchandising and what have you, does that mean that they turned down money because of it?

  3. Tishpeed says:

    Does the mass marketing of a classic tale cheapen the overall experience of the literature? Is that just elitism snobbery or a valid complaint? How does it make you feel when you talk to someone who knows the story only from the movies, and has no interest or desire to go back to the original literature?


    The Devils Advocate.

    • Ronny says:

      I don’t personally believe it cheapens the literature. Those who only see an adaptation and then have no desire to read the original would most likely never read the book in the first place.

      There is something to be said for an adapted vision of a story being planted in someones mind and the reader not being able to shake off the natural slant of the adaptor. But I think if the novel is strong enough it can overcome this.

      Also, consider plays. From Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, we are always seeing an interpretation. An afternoon showing is different than an evening showing in the theater. Each version of the play is different, from production company to production company and from generation to generation. A novel is different only in scale. We each create our own interpretation when we read, and it can never be the exact interpretation the original author intended.

      When they mass market a story, they create a new interpretation. It is not the original, and at its best can bring a new and bold interpretation of the tale. It can bring new readers in to experience the original in its original form. They can build their own vision of the story, albeit with an adaptation as an influence. But hopefully, the novel is strong enough to handle that influence and allows the reader to create a new, unique take on the story.

      If the story isn’t strong enough to handle that influence, then perhaps new adaptations are all the more valuable.

  4. One of the things that has always amazed me is when you see a novelization of a movie that is based on a book! It’s mindboggling!

  5. dbpyritohedron says:

    I read the LotR books through twice, once as a young man and again as part of my Fantasy Literature course in college. The one thing that struck me both times through is that I never connected with the characters. I never felt their pain, their desperation. The most extreme of these was Aragorn; in college I was flabbergasted at how little emotion I felt toward him.
    On the other hand I thought the acting in the movie was brilliant. I felt everything, Aragorn’s reluctance to become King, Frodo’s deep depression from the Ring, Sam’s desperation at keeping Frodo safe of mind and body, Faramir’s surrender to fate and others. These are supposed to be there in the books but they never resonated with me as printed. I think I really needed to see body posture and facial expressions to feel these things. These are subtle emotions after all.
    So in this way I think the movie did the books a great service aesthetically.

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