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Sunday, December 12, 2004

JRRT and Dialogue

Back in late August, when Little Quinn's birth was an event on the near horizon, I occupied some of my mental distraction by taking up early the re-reading of The Lord of the Rings that I had already planned to do this winter. Little did I realize, of course, just how much solace I'd find in Middle Earth over the next couple of weeks: I finished The Hobbit (which I always include when re-reading LOTR) in the afternoon of Quinn's day-of-birth, and took refuge from the uncertainty of the days that followed by going to spend some time in a world I think I know better than the real one in which I live.

This was my first re-read of the book since the great films began to appear - - in fact, it was my first time re-reading the book since 1999, I think. That's probably too long to wait, but I find that key details of the story remain surprising when I don't allow it to become too familiar. And this time, of course, I couldn't help but read the book in the light of the films, each of which I have seen multiple times. I kept making mental comparisons to the movies, which I have seen claimed as comprising both better storytelling than Tolkien's, and worse storyteling than Tolkien's. I personally adore the films, but to me the books are significantly better on the storytelling front. Character motivations are more plain, and events that don't receive adequate explanation in the films make perfect sense in the books.

Take, for instance, the breaking of the Fellowship at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. The film has Frodo and Aragorn agreeing that the Fellowship is ended, and Aragorn basically allowing Frodo to go off into Mordor on his own. In the book, this plays out very differently: Frodo strikes out on his own without telling anyone, at least until Sam happens to catch up to him; Aragorn has no idea where Frodo has gone. As The Two Towers opens, Aragorn is famously speeding up a hill, trying to make sense of what has happened, and he finds Boromir in time to watch the man from Minas Tirith die. When he finds hobbit tracks along with orc tracks, he doesn't know if they are Frodo and Sam's, or Merry and Pippin's – and thus his journey turns west, toward Rohan, and he doesn't know why.

Tolkien juxtaposes Aragorn's dilemma with Frodo's departure in the two chapters set at the same exact time, "The Departure of Boromir" and "The Taming of Smeagol". In his chapter, Aragorn says: "An ill fate is upon me this day, and all that I do goes amiss." And in his chapter, Frodo says: "All my choices have proved ill." Both believe that they have committed serious errors in judgment, and yet, both errors actually set each on their way to the completion of their journeys.

Something also struck me about reading the books after becoming so intimately familiar with the movies, and it involves the dialogue in the films compared with that of the books. Consider the following lines or exchanges from the movies, and see if you can guess (those of you who have read the books, at any rate) what these lines have in common:

1. SAM: That's an eye-opener, and no mistake.

2. ARWEN: You are Isildur's heir, not Isildur himself.

3. FRODO: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
GANDALF: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.

4. LEGOLAS: That is one of the mearas, unless my eyes are cheated by some spell.

5. THEODEN: Fell deeds awake. Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn. Forth Eorlingas!

6. BOROMIR: It is such a strange fate that we should suffer such fear and doubt over so small a thing.

7. EOMER: How long is it since Saruman bought you? What was the promised price?

That's only a few, but there are many more such examples, and they serve to illustrate my point: all of these lines are verbatim, or nearly so, from the books; but all of them are either spoken in a different setting or context from the books, or given to different speakers entirely. That first line of Sam's is uttered by Sam in the book, but after the Fellowship is attacked by wolves in the wild before they attempt the passage of Caradhras. In the film, these are Sam's words of wonderment when Gandalf raises his staff to illuminate the Dwarven city of Dwarrowdelf.

That line of Arwen's is especially different. In the film, Arwen says this in an attempt to assuage Aragorn's self-doubt; in the book, it is Aragorn who says that he is not Isildur himself. Aragorn's self-doubt is largely an addition for the films. (I wasn't bothered by it; this isn't really a complaint. Just an observation.)

The exchange between Frodo and Gandalf, spoken in the film at a resting point in the Mines of Moria, actually comes very early on in the book, in the second chapter, "The Shadow of the Past".

Legolas's line from The Two Towers, spoken as Shadowfax approaches for the first time, in the book belongs to a guard outside Edoras when Gandalf and the others arrive to seek Theoden's aid.

Theoden's brief speech before the final charge at Helms Deep seems to be cobbled together from several places within the book. It's a thrilling moment in the film, though.

Boromir's line is almost identical, but in the book it is spoken when Boromir attempts to wrest the Ring from Frodo at Amon Heth, whereas in the film it takes place when the Fellowship is approaching Caradhras. And Eomer's line, spat at Wormtongue early in the film of The Two Towers, actually belongs to Gandalf in the book – spoken after Gandalf has "revived" King Theoden.

These aren't complaints; not at all. What struck me was that clearly the writers of the films' scripts wanted to make sure that the dialogue in the films sounded as much like Tolkien as possible, and they did this by mining the books themselves for lines that could be mutated, reworked, and moved around. It was quite impressive: far more of the dialogue in the films seems to spring directly from the books than I had originally thought. In re-reading the books, I gained a new appreciation for the work that has to be done to compress a book to something filmable, and also a new appreciation for the degree of success the filmmakers attained.

I also gained new appreciation for Tolkien as a writer. At first glance, his dialogue seems terribly unrealistic, and in a way it is -- the story's an epic fantasy, after all -- but when so mined by the screenwriters for the films, it turns out that there is a pleasing rhythm to Tolkien's dialogue that I had never recognized before. Harrison Ford's famous declaration about the quality of George Lucas's dialogue ("You can type this shit, but you sure can't say it") doesn't hold with Tolkien at all.

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