March 01, 2013

The Failure of Peter Jackson

When I was 12 and first read the Lord of the Rings I loved it. When I saw the films which came out later, I felt betrayed. Let me show you why and then explain why I think Jackson made the choices he made. The youtube clip below shows a key moment from the Two Towers. In the film, Saruman has possessed the King of Rohan, Theoden and Gandalf deals with the possession. In the book Gandalf persuades the King to be more vigourous and cast away the pretence of his old age. This key scene in the Two Towers has the same outcome in both versions of the tale- but in the film Gandalf is a wizard who does a magic trick, in the book Gandalf is a wizard who acts as a wise counsellor. The difference is pretty profound and disappointed me when I saw the scene.

However Jackson's choice I think, on rereading, reveals a weakness in the architecture of the book at this point. Tolkien quite clearly means that Gandalf should argue Theoden out of his dotage and onto his steed to fight evil- but he doesn't show us argument. Gandalf asserts that this is what Theoden should do. After many years of sitting depressed in his halls about old age, Theoden discards the counsellor- Wormtongue- who supported the latter course after a speech from Gandalf and then proceeds to mount his steed and ride away. He surprises Gandalf with his own dedication. Tolkien's choice is undoubtedly more interesting but he gives us nothing to explain Theoden's decision: he shows us none of the reasoning, none of the mechanism. His story is psychological but lacks psychological depth. Partly that's because Tolkien is writing a kind of myth- possibly one that Jackson does not understand- because what Tolkien was doing was not writing a fantasy novel but a myth about consciousness. In that sense both psychological motivation and magic do not fit his purposes: what he writes is assertion based because he writes in a mode which seeks to assert not to explain.


Metatone said...

As an aside, I'm much more disappointed with The Hobbit from Peter Jackson so far than I was with LOTR.

So, with the fact that I'm no longer a PJ fan overall in mind, let me come to his defence on this occasion a little and say that I think it would be very hard to transcribe the original into film.

In the book, Tolkien has the luxury of all authors of narration - and unfortunately it's an anonymous narrator so to use it in the films would have taken us further from the book. Anyway, this scene is a typical book writers "cheat" (I've made the odd film) in that not only are there no details of the reasoning, there are basically no details of how a character like Theoden was argued into this state of sloth in the first place. In the film, if you can't portray Theoden's fall (and the non-magical process there) I feel it's very hard in the context of myth to portray a counselled resolution.

Gracchi said...

I think you are right about Jackson and right about the difficulties of making a film which actually tells the same story as the books: but I suppose what makes the books more interesting is the flavour of psychology and particularly on rereading them the flavour of depression that Tolkien wrote about. Maybe that's a personal attachment to the story that I have- but it makes the mvoement from the book here particularly problematic for me.