Treebeard Moves!

Soon after its publication, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings outgrew its popular fiction status. Lord of the Rings is a cultural event. With the motion picture, similar in genius, the meaning is further extricated from its origin. This phenomenon is hardly novel, but in respect to the profound cultural and philosophical significance of Lord of the Rings it is terribly useful to compare the movie with the book.

Of course from book to screen there is a revision. Deletions are especially obvious, but what is done to the overall meaning is less obvious. Also, in the change from literary to motion picture there are stylistic imprints.

The most significance difference is that not only did Tolkien take more time to construct the story, he also took more time within the story.

JRR Tolkien originated the work over decades, drawing it within a written tradition while favoring Anglo-Saxon and including invented languages. Peter Jackson’s movie involves a huge amount of things. Innumerable items, such as buttons, were made to two different scales to accommodate the shift in scale from human to hobbits. Converse to the quotidian is the use of satellites to coordinate all the elements working in different parts of the globe. As film is a kind of language, the innovations in special effects can be likened to Tolkien’s invention of language.

But apart from those differences in form, we think most of “Why did that get put aside?” “Why was that added?” and then “Why keep that?”. Those questions conceal the most important revision of all: Jackson’s portrayal on a smaller landscape, in a smaller scale in time.

Watching the DVD’s, there are many contractions in space from the point of view of the characters. Frodo’s view from Emyn Muil and Gandalfs view from Minas Tirith are not correct in proportion and proximity to Tolkien’s map, but perhaps spatially accurate in respect to Jackson’s requisite contraction of time and space. Overall, the space of middle earth seems contracted when it is compared to the landscapes and distances in Tolkien. These contractions in space automatically contract the story in time.

Tolkien scope of time is abnormally wide. Saving the world and global transformations are all cosmic events, but there is also a more humble, human scale in comparison with the motion picture as well.

Perhaps the first clue to this occurs at the beginning, in the discovery of the ring of power is in the hands of a Shire folk. Gandalf arrives, confirms that this hobbit does indeed possess the ring of power, and then this is put aside for weeks. In the movie they hustle out of the Shire. Is it just armchair, professorial pace here?

Tolkien goes on with interruptions not seeming essential to the plot. Or are they? The story’s time is near half a year. In the movies the transitions in time seem unremarkable.

Chase scenes and fights and romantic chases: movie time is popular, and it is by it own nature set, for the most part, in real time. It seems merely customary to delete scenes that delay the action in order to streamline or tighten the story dramatically.

Maggot, Bombadil, The Scouring of the Shire: deleted. But not just for the streamlining, but for the nature of the storytelling, do we lose the starting and stopping and starting again, of a story within a story. These deletions eventually weaken in sequence the progression of the movies. In that starting and stopping is a kind of charm, induced by a more comfortable use of time. At first glance, we develop care about the characters before the main event. It makes us identify strongly with the hobbits. But more important is the idea that is not so obvious, creating heterogeneous time.

Heterogenous time means a variety of different times, past, present, future, beginnings, middles and ends, stories within stories, back-story, fate, destiny, foreshadowing. This puts emphasis on character, or the character driven story.

This kind of time is very different in the movies. Not just that the movie must be shorter and in removing elements meanings change. Though there are a number of storytelling techniques within film narrative; flashbacks and ‘flashforwards’, dreams, parallel storylines, exposition with voice-over, repetitions, even fade outs and dissolves…the underlying aesthetic power of motion pictures is that the ‘now’ is overpowering.

The heterogenous time of disconnected or circumstantially connected events has been simulated in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise by the inclusion of black frames, simulating a kind of ambiguity to where in time and space each successive scene is, but such a technique would not be applicable to the Fellowship of the Ring.

Heterogenous time, in this case a kind of stumbling from event to event, is necessary to create an overall feeling of the time of innocence. Such is the world of the Shire, despite Sackville-Baggins’s, and rings of power stashed in wooden chests. Such a world is necessary to contrast with the burden of contemplating one’s destiny and the cosmos. Thus we feel a hobbit as something in our own experience, going from carelessness of Arcadia to the release of the Grey Havens.

Motion picture techniques with time: introductions, flashbacks, narratives within narratives, are too useful to not use frequently and liberally. This could be confused with heterogenous time, but it is not. Such techniques, being used here and there for purposes of expediency, do not emphasize a contrast, or create larger scales of transitions from one kind of time to another, as occurs in the trilogy. In Tolkien’s narrative, heterogenous time changes into a quest that unravels into multiple storylines, whose threads then converge at the Crack of Doom. There is a compression of tense.

The Grey Havens is not equal in poignancy between book and DVD. Jackson sought to include the world weary tone that ends Tokien’s Lord of the Rings, but somehow, as the grinding pace of the Return of the King is ending there is more relief than a reluctance to let go.

Apart from the “necessary” deletions, weakening of the grip of the story can be attributed to Peter Jackson’s film style: his camera work is kinetic. It jumps, hovers, jiggles, leans, kants. It follows arrow-flights. It makes the impression of being hasty. It undermines the overall tone of seriousness, but it does add a value of greater intimacy.

The camera moves more than most other directors. It is essential to have a distinctive style as a director. Directing a film is a negotiated form of authority: others contribute much and a director is pressured to show vision. It is part of the economics, for a signature style, if successful, will encourage audiences to buy tickets again!

Jackson’s signature tendency is more controlled in Lord of the Rings, yet harkens to his hasty pace in a plethora of camera angles and in such gags as following the paths of arrows.

Perhaps the weakest shots are the sweeping aerial landscapes: they occur too fast and are felt as secondary. The sense of Middle Earth as a place is impossible to duplicate, not just because Tolkien put stories within stories, but because Tolkien describes nature and landscape with a particular genius.

Jackson’s style can feel artificial, sometimes self- conscious. Moving the camera about excessively brings attention to the effort. Though…there is masterly sensitivity to the story and character as the cameras is used. It moves more than average, but just right for the scenes.

Even though this kind of camera style detracts from the grandeur and seriousness of an epic spectacle, the mastery creates greater intimacy: our own view through our eyes is similar in dynamism. So it adds a personal touch that is lacking in the gap between film and fiction. Fiction talks to you, whispers in your ear, while film is presented to you on a screen somewhat distant. Jackson’s style goes one step in closing this gap.

Jackson has other idiosyncrasies. He will go for a gag; the dwarf tossing and excessive hobbit antics, for instance. Of course, Hobbits as not-spectacular-people enables comic charm. These are cheap shots, akin to the vaudeville sequence at Kong’s perch, with Ann Darrow attempting to amuse the great beast (Kong disapproves), but it also provides the audience with a sense that this is only a movie. There is a director who is to provide entertainment, not slavish imitation of a great author.

JRR Tolkien makes self-conscious references as well. However, his are really incidental, too subtle to really add to the structure of the narrative. The Lord of the Rings is ‘written’ by the characters. This is related after the adventures are over. Jackson dramatizes this, but its even more irrelevant in that the movie one sees is not made by the characters in the movie!

Such frames within frames is a self conscious device, actually bringing the author closer by putting a person between themselves and the audience.

This is not an important element of Tolkien’s work, but it in is Jackson’s, as a cumulative effect of a distinctive, hasty camera style and a nod to the audience.

Tolkien makes uses his idiosyncrasies as well. For example there is the delay in the narrative with Farmer Maggot. These starts and stops tactically encapsulate the sense of a boy’s adventure in tone, a tone which is to be destroyed, but strategically they contribute to the effect of heterogenous time.

Like Farmer Maggot, Tom Bombadil serves the reader as reminder that this is just another story. Yet his peculiarities go beyond the boys adventure story to something more cosmic. This is the peak, or strongest event in the development of the heterogenous time.

Why does Tolkien have Bombadil in the story? Bombadil is immune to the ring, and this would seem to undermine the risk. But Bombadil serves as subtle foreshadowing, as well as a sense of a local haven just around the corner. It is amusing to think that Doctor Tolkien is whispering ‘this is not going to hurt very much at all’, meaning, this is going to hurt, be prepared, but don’t be frightened, it is just a fairy story.

Jackson hastiness, naturally in the transition from book to screen and by Art in his camera style, undermines the final movie. The Return of the King, has a clunky, rushing feeling.

The material suffers because each of these sequences; Pelannor Fields and Black Gate, Shelob, the Orc tower and the Crack of Doom, feel like a regular thirty minutes apiece, again and again.

There is feeling that it is not an organic shape, but a mechanism. What is lacking?

That we do not have the same time stretching as in Tolkien’s undermines this sequence of events in the movie. Wherein, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the battle after battle does not seem interminable, but to be picking up the unraveled threads of the story’s multiple plots and spinning them into a final thread. This is the narrative payoff of having heterogeneous time earlier in the story.

Fran, Peter and Phillipa’s revision takes us away from the serious tone of the literary Epic (although Jackson’s dominant style takes us away from Epic to intimacy in a large way) while connecting the story to a wider tradition of fairy tales.

In fitting the earlier audience into a tradition, Tolkien takes us away from fairy tale, with Goblins and Elves and Dwarves, into Epic.

Clearly, one important thread is the story of rival people’s, with a siege of a great city, all over a most precious thing, like the Illiad. And both stories charts a vast territory filled with monstrous beings, all in hope of returning home, like the Odyssey.

The comparisons go deeper, but the idea is in picking out where in our collective imagination the two works rest, for the film and the book make us experience a incredible and similar story through different medias.

This comparison is forced, but when considering the movie, the force goes too far. Why?

The epic is literary, poetic in fact. While Tolkien synthesized fairy and epic, his concern went more to geopolitics, war and to devastated personalities. Included are dynastic successions and a simulation of history…something we enjoy about Epic for history is an epic.

But, to some degree he marginalized an important Fairy theme. This theme is terribly personal for Tolkien, inspired as he was by the story of the love between elf and man. Lord of the Rings does not develop that story at all. It is a brief appendix.

But this theme is the greatest revision of the story by Jackson, Fran and Phillipa. It changes the tone and characterization of Aragorn and Arwen.

And it is the great success of the film. It is more effective as story between the love of Elf and Man, which is a more pleasingly intimate enchantment. It redeems the movie in that it is not just a narrowing of the material for the convenience of the format, but enlarges the story into, and in a way, closer to its origins.

The story harkens back to earlier times, seeking to bolster the difficulty film will have in doing so; again, it is motion picture’s nature to be immediate.

Gollum debating himself could not be as dramatic as a literary moment, and also punctuates the originality of the filmmakers. But it is an incident to the overall plot.

While the love story between Elf and Man is a great liberty taken by the filmmakers, Tolkien’s greatest theme, the collusion of psychological and environmental devastation, is dropped. This is one reason why the aireal scenery falls so flat. We expect an epic landscape, but this kind of landscape is perhaps Tolkien’s greatest effect. Tolkien’s epic landscape excels in comparison to all of literature. It is perhaps unequalled, but that is another essay.

Most of all, this detracts from the characterization of Treebeard. That Treebeard moves is great drama in the books. In the film, it is expected, and not nearly so significant. It is not because our imaginations create a better Treebeard that can be simulated. It is because the long descriptive passages about Nature converge on the meaning of Treebeard’s existence. Ents move only in regard to global events.

The meaning of Treebeard is further degraded in showing the destruction of Isengard as a spectacle of rampaging Ents. Jackson knew that the audience would demand to see such a spectacle.

But Tolkien did not dramatize the event. Tolkien is not inclined to dramatize mayhem,

but more important to the overall structure of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, dramatizing, or making a spectacle of the destruction of Isengard would celebrate the destruction of Saruman, ruining the delicate tone of a fallen, yet possibly redeemable hero.

The storyline of Saruman is directly connected as anti-thesis to the long intimate passages describing Nature. This is the most important cultural effect, lacking in the movie. One could say it is impossible to film, but it can be voiced.

If one were quick to dispute, the origination of an entire industry of epic fantasy is certainly a phenomenon. But this is not as far reaching as the global turning of industry to greater environmentally responsible. JRR Tolkien’s story of the devastation of human personality is inextricably linked with environmental degradation. Tolkien’s voice is at the forefront of this global issue.

Monuments? It is too neat to say that Jackson’s innovations in special effects, enabling and excelling in the visualizing of Lord of the Rings in three dimensions, balances with Tolkien’s own invention and care to tradition. But in way, it does.

These two works, Jackson’s being the sub-sub creation, are works to which Art History will refer. For in both cases the mighty scale of conception and the excellence in execution are rarely equaled.

Lord of the Rings will be produced again. In departing from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, there should be a more faithful use of tense. Perhaps six movies, for whatever length of time needed (the standard two to three hours in length is diminishing as a convention) following the value of preservation and the tone sadness in the books with greater fidelity.

It may not be so entertaining as Jackson’s. However, what is Entertainment changes quite profoundly from generation to generation.

by Odilon Ross