Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tolkien III: The Lord of the Rings et al

I am finally near the end of "The Lord of the Rings," though I'm realizing that being "near the end" of this book is like being "near the end" of a cross-border flight; you still have to wait for the plane to taxi to the gate, and the people to get off, and you have to wait for your luggage, and Éowyn needs to fall in love with Faramir.

I MUST have read this book once before. I vividly remember most of "The Fellowship of the Ring," and I certainly enjoyed the dead marshes in "The Two Towers." But other than the deep creases in the spines of my twenty-year-old copies I have little other evidence of previous reading, and I REALLY doubt that I would have survived the pacing when I was sixteen years old. Just the fact that the fellowship split into different groups must have driven me crazy; Denethor's low-key insanity in Minas Tirith would have been the last straw.

So based on whatever skimpy, skimming exposure I'd had to the books when I was a teenager, I have for years parroted the conventional wisdom that Tolkien was a terrible writer and that he didn't know how to keep the action going. And though now -- having carefully read the novel with an adult viewpoint -- I am still frustrated by his use of the word "fell" and his obsessive inability to skip any segment of a four-day journey, I have to admit that I was wrong all that time and I was talking out of my butt; "The Lord of the Rings" is VERY well-written, given its difficult task of weaving together so many different plot steams, and that when Frodo and Sam woke up to a laughing Gandalf after having dragged themselves through Mordor...yes, I cried openly into my bacon and eggs. Sob!

Given that we now have an amazing film version courtesy of Peter Jackson Fanboy And Company, the book also serves as a perfect illustration of the differences between book and script. I don't just mean in the sense of needing to cut material to fit a tidy eleven hour running time, I mean the sorts of plotting and emotional revelation that work in one medium but not the other.

To take an obvious example, Tolkien is sometimes berated for a lack of "growth" in his characters, and that's certainly true; any character changes which occur throughout the book -- Mary and Pippin's bravery, Legolas and Gimli's friendship, Aragorn's kingliness -- are due to either third-party intervention or the activation of racial traits that are in no way individualistic.

But that sort of character development is DEATH on screen. A movie adventure must swell and thump and blare, it can't just PLOD. Which is what much of Tolkien's writing does, in a good way.

There's one element in which I think the movie overreached, however, and that's the relationship between Sam and Gollum. In an attempt to turn Gollum into a more tragic figure, the movie made Sam a slightly more cruel and intolerant character, and this turned their clashes into a bit of a farce. But in the book, Sam and Gollum tended more to SIMMER, and this suits the mood beautifully. And so when Gollum sarcastically whispers that he really HAS been "slinking," it's both funny AND reveals so much about their respective characters that has previously been unspoken. In the movie, this scene just makes Gollum look nasty and petulant.

In summary, the book is long and complicated and diverse, but it's totally readable to anybody willing to put in the effort. You have to be able to love ALL the quest elements, whether they be Tom Bombadil's otherworldly aloofness or the "me Tarzan, you Jane" English of a bunch of púkel-men.

Take my advice, though...find better maps than the tiny, ink-blotched ones in the back of the '80s editions. It took me forever to figure out that the Black Gates were, in fact, to the northwest.


Anonymous said...

16, 20 years ago, damn I too am getting there. :)

Adam Thornton said...

Time for a re-read!

Adrian said...

I am not much of a book critic, but I know there are no books that I have read as many times as the LOTR! Considering how much of a time commitment that is, it does speak volumes (pardon the pun).

I think the only other work of fiction I have read near as much are The Hobbit and Stefano Benni's Terra!

Adam Thornton said...

Have you ever delved into the posthumous Tolkien stuff?

Ahhh, Terra! DEFINITELY time for a re-read (if I can keep my copy from TOTALLY falling apart!)

Adrian said...

Yes, I believe the entire paperback printing run of 'Terra!' was plagued with crappy glue. Mine is losing pages like crazy as well!

"Have you ever delved into the posthumous Tolkien stuff?"

Yes, utter crap... there was a reason he didn't publish it. If I recall it was his son Chris that tried to complete some of the works. Apparently writing-genius must skip a generation.