Dear Readers,

I now consider this blog to be my Juvenelia. Have fun perusing the archives, and find me at my new haunt, here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lord of the Rings: The Great Re-Read

So here it is, at last. My thoughts on my Tolkien-reimmersion...

I thought I'd start by giving you the Tolkien backstory with my family. Like Senator Obama, who read the whole Harry Potter series to his daughter, my dad read The Hobbit and LOTR out loud to my brother and me when we were kids--the Hobbit when we were 6 or 7, LOTR a year or so later, because we were initially skeptical of any related story that did not star Bilbo front and center. (cute, right?)

The LOTR read-aloud took us over a year. I remember listening to it in our old apartment, in the room we shared, and on the beach in Rhode Island during the summer. By the time we were done with the saga, the Ring was destroyed, the Shire scoured, and the Havens sought, my brother and I had offically outgrown being read aloud to. So a family tradition that began with Mike Mulligan and Dr. Seuss and went through Eleanor Estes and E. Nesbit, ended with Tolkein.

Since then I've re-read the series at least three times, possibly four. Once was as a moody 16 year old. Once was the fall of my freshman year, right before the first film came out, and once was right now. There may have been a middle-school re-read too... but I've blocked those years out:)

So why the seven-year wait for this fourth read? Because Peter Jackson did such an amazing job with the films that for a while I didn't feel like I needed the books. The films had all those new additions: silly one liners and iconic speeches and stunning visuals, and they 100% captured the heart of the books. Occasionally I've flipped through favorite scenes to remind myself. But this last time watching the films, I started getting curious about some more of the arcane details of the books, and also eager to see if my childhood images of the characters had been erased by their onscreen incarnations. So I plunged in.

I'm happy to say the childhood images were still there. The hobbits were much older, wiser, hardier and less childlike in the text, and my earliest imagined images of them came back. So did my somewhat sunnier and less severe images of Galadriel and Elrond. While Fellowship, with its adventures in Tom Bombadil's house, the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs, read like a pleasant nostalgia-trip and took me two weeks, by the time the Company got to Lorien I was having a hard time putting it down, and I zipped through TTT in a few days and ROTK in a single day. The atmosphere really builds up to this all-encompassing crescendo. I started seeing all these Middle-Earthy images in my mind before I went to sleep and I began thinking in sentences that, in their very structure, I fear, contained far too many excess words, and indeed, a Tolkienish rhythm most particular. I also realized again how crucial Tolkien's geekiness was, with the languages and massive history of every Middle Earth race and region, and how effective that makes his world within the fantasy genre: it's 100% believable as another world, more so than any other fictional realm ever created. (Take that, Narnia!)

The funny thing is, what first impressed me about the films was the storytelling. But what also astounded me about Jackson's accomplishments after re-reading the books was how perfectly he shot all the scenery. I mean nothing he shot was actually more frightening, dramatic, or stunning than Tolkien himself described it, from the almost-vertical road in Dunharrow to the creepy black stair, to the lonely mound of Edoras. Jackson really nailed it. The script, which often changes Tolkien's exact words from character to character or place to place, was also ingenious.

The characters, on the other hand, are a bit different, and that's for a reason. In the books, everyone is more brave and good and generally kickass, while in the movies Jackson has each character struggle deeply with him/herself. Tolkien never had Aragorn doubt his calling as king. Legolas was never afraid of battle. Frodo never ever ever abandons Sam, and Merry and Pippin know full well what they are getting into from the beginning: in fact, they have guessed the entire story of the Ring before they set out from the Shire. Obviously, it was extremely effective filmmaking to have each character go through a crisis and/or a conflict and come out of it, but it's also fun to read the books and just enjoy the courageous badassery of men, hobbits, dwarves elves and wizards who just want to get their defeating-of-evil on.

It was a fabulous re-read, and the saga remains so much in my heart. It's so impressive that the films and books each stand alone and also complement each other. The only other adaptations I can think of that do that are the 1995 trio of golden-age Austen adaptations. So here's to you, Peter J and JRR T, for giving Egalitarian Bookworms reason to be entertained, enlightened, and impressed.


  1. Anonymous5:22 AM

    Interesting observations. Just a shame you cant spell "Tolkien". It helps your credibility ....

  2. Jackson did do a great job. I think the thing for me about the original books, and all of Tolkien's works on Middle-earth, is that it's so much BIGGER. Obviously not in the way that the cinematography is big, or the way that the filming makes everything seem so vast, but big in a different way. Every moment in the movie has so many layers of symbolism and nuances that make those who have read the books jump for joy and cheer and experience those moments so much more strongly. Whenever I watch, I just want to crack open some Tolkien and bury myself in the gorgeous poetry and history and significance of everything he puts to paper. I got my Peoples of Middle Earth copy today and I'm thrilled! I can't wait to afford the other 11 in the series, haha.

  3. Jackson, I hates him, hates him forever!

    Sorry, but I really did loathe how he took the heart of the book and tossed it out -- the whole of the journey/quest was coming home to the Shire and scouring it. By turning Pippin and Merry into idiots and by leaving aside the idea that even the smallest and humblest of beings can rise up in dark days and become heroes, Jackson lost what Tolkien was trying to say. It's too bad, too, because visually, they're wonderful, beautiful movies. Thematically, though, they're all wrong.